I just came across an online article by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principle trombonist, Jay Friedman, called The Early Bird Gets the Note. Much of what he writes in it mirrors things I’ve learned from Doug Elliott and from Donald Reinhardt’s texts on embouchures. In discussing having your embouchure firmed and in place before you play a note, Friedman uses some effective analogies, including an elevator.
You wouldn’t jump off an elevator as it was coming up to a floor and you wouldn’t try to play a note before the embouchure was level with the partial that note was on. Good players get the embouchure to every note early so it can stabilize and hold the required firmness needed to let the air do it’s job. Again, I want to stress the basic principal of producing sound: a critical balance between the 3 components of tone; enough firmness in the corners of the embouchure, enough air flow to vibrate the lips, and enough seal or stability of the mouthpiece against the embouchure, OK, pressure. When these 3 things are in the correct balance no other muscle activity is needed or desired.
A lot of players want their playing to feel effortless and so minimize the above three mechanical principles to an extreme, limiting their playing. Building the muscular strength to hold the corners firm, for example, will make holding the corners in the proper position feel easier. An effortless feel results from being stronger, not looser. Reinhardt described it as, “Relax doesn’t mean collapse.”
One thing I’m not entirely certain about is Friedman’s analogy of “blowing across a straight surface.” He seems to be using this term as an image for getting your embouchure formation correct, not as a description of the direction of the air stream.
Even though people have different anatomical features, thinking about blowing across a level surface will help put the embouchure in a position of sufficient strength to produce a lively, clear, focused sound. I cannot stress enough how important this is when playing in the upper register. Under setting and then squeezing out high notes by pushing against the upper rim of the mouthpiece is a haphazard way to approach the upper register.
I’ll have to experiment with this idea a bit, but mental images and analogies often don’t work for different players. And as David Vining points out, when they get in the way of what we are actually physically doing they can cause issues down the road.
Friedman also mentions a problem that is particularly common with the “medium high placement” embouchure type, setting the embouchure formation too loose in the middle and low register.
As important as this is for playing in the upper register it is equally important for middle register playing as well. There is a common practice of not setting the embouchure firmly enough for the notes in the middle register. Since this register is physically easier to produce, there is a temptation to under set because of this ease of production.
Tip of the hat to Doug for posting this link in the TubeNet Forum. Doug, by the way, has typed Friedman as a “medium high placement” embouchure type. I can’t find any YouTube videos showing Friedman playing close enough to look at his embouchure, but here is one of him conducting.
He’s a very clear and easy to follow conductor, I bet playing for him would be easy. But that brass section would probably sound great with anyone.