With regards to the best mouthpiece placement there is some controversy among different authors and teachers. In his text, Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet (Cornet), J.B. Arban stated, “The mouthpiece should be placed in the middle of the lips, two-thirds on the lower lip, and one-third on the upper lip.” (Arban, 1982, p. 7). This contrasts with Dennis Wick, who recommended 2/3 upper lip and 1/3 lower lip (Wick, Trombone Technique, 1971, p. 21). Philip Farkas felt that such differences were related to the particular type of instrument, with 2/3 lower lip being an embouchure for trumpet and 2/3 upper lip better suited for instruments like horn and trombone (Farkas, The Art of Brass Playing, 1962, p. 32).
Although the recommendations of these and other noted brass pedagogues comes with some caveats and is considered somewhat flexible by many, one recommendation about mouthpiece placement is frequently advised by almost all of them – avoid placing the mouthpiece so that the rim sets on the red (vermilion) of the upper lip. Frank Gabriel Campos wrote in his text, Trumpet Technique:
To function properly, the inner edge of the mouthpiece must be placed on tissue that is supported by muscle, but the lips are composed of fatty tissue that by itself cannot support a normal embouchure. A performer whose mouthpiece inner edge is habitually placed on the red (vermillion) of the upper lip is using an embouchure that is not capable of producing the flexibility, strength, and endurance necessary for normal performance. It should be avoided at all costs.
– Campos, 2005, p. 73
With such a large consensus on this issue it would seem that this advice is sound and should be trusted. Unfortunately for the field of brass pedagogy, this recommendation is not only based on misinformation, but there are many examples of brass players, particularly high brass, who break this rule and perform at very high levels. While placing the mouthpiece so the rim rests on the red of the upper lip is rare and not ideal for most players, suggestions to always avoid this placement are incorrect for a sizable minority of players who not only are capable of playing well with such a low mouthpiece placement, but actually play most efficiently this way.
This essay will cover some of the most common arguments for not playing with the mouthpiece placed on the rim and show how these points are based on misinformation, inaccurate assumptions, or simply confusion and misunderstanding on the part of the author. While good intentioned, making such strong statements that a particular mouthpiece placement “should be avoided at all costs” is simply wrong for many players. With a more accurate understanding of the anatomy of the lips and embouchure form and function brass teachers will gain a tool that can help them make more targeted recommendations when a mouthpiece placement is actually hindering a student’s progress, or whether other issues in embouchure technique should be dealt with instead.
The first issue that should be addressed is that there is always some rim placed on the vermilion, there is simply no placement that avoids it. If there was something inherently painful or damaging about rim contact on the player’s vermilion then it would surely be noticeable by all brass musicians, regardless of how high or low the placement is. Proponents of keeping the placement off the red sometimes counter that with less rim contact on the vermilion the damaging effects are minimized or eliminated. However, by ensuring the rim contact on a smaller area of the vermilion it might actually be that the player is actually concentrating the rim pressure even more than by spreading it out over a wider area (similar to how a single nail can easily penetrate someone’s foot when stepping on it, but lying on an entire bed of nails spreads the weight over a greater surface area). Regardless, what hasn’t been shown is that the vermilion is sensitive enough to pressure to warrant this caution in the first place.
Campos claims that under the vermilion is merely a layer of fatty tissue and that this is what makes them unable to support the rim pressure of normal brass playing. Diagrams of the physiology of the lips, such as the one shown here to the right are partially responsible for this misconception. Such drawings show an overlay of the vermilion to help visualize how the muscles intersect around the mouth. It incorrectly implies that there are no muscles under the red of the lips.
Here are a couple of more accurate diagrams of the lip anatomy. Note that with the vermilion removed you can see that the main muscle group encircling the mouth, the orbicularis oris, can be seen to include not just the area surrounding the red of the lips, but also runs underneath the vermilion as well.
It would appear that Campos’s information that the vermilion cannot accept the rim pressure because it is composed primarily of fatty tissue is false.
But just because there is muscular support underneath the vermilion doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t more sensitive to pressure, just that it’s not so likely. It is true that there are more nerve endings in the vermilion and the lips are one part of the body that is very sensitive to tactile feedback (the homunculus image of what our bodies would look like if they related to the amount of brain space is an interesting demonstration how sensitive our lips are). Note from that same above link also how much brain area is also devoted to the hands, yet there is no reason to think that your hands are more sensitive to pressure than any other part of our body.
There is a school of thought that feels that too low a placement will inhibit the vibrations of the upper lip, leading to embouchure problems. Posting under the user name “NikV,” one Trumpet Herald Forum member writes:
I soon realized I was not progressing and then went to a real professional classical musician for lessons. He immediately identified my embouchure placement as a main source of my issues (in addition to not being trained in breathing, air, etc.). He explained to me that by pinching off that top lip so much you are limiting the use of the musculature of your face, and the amount of vibrating mass you are putting into the mouthpiece is not sufficient to develop a good tone.
This is partially true, but a more complete understanding of basic embouchure patterns will show that for some players reducing the vibrating surface of the upper lip is helpful, where with others it can hinder good playing. Both lips don’t vibrate with equal intensity, like an oboe or bassoon reed does. While both lips do vibrate with the same frequency (or at least they should), one lip will predominate inside the cup and more surface area will vibrate. The other lip will vibrate with less intensity and serve in some ways to be more like a clarinet mouthpiece, as a hard surface for the reed/other lip to vibrate against.
This is not “arm chair” speculation, it has been studied and demonstrated by a handful of independent researchers. A very clear example that is handily available to view online is Lloyd Leno’s film, Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures. This video shows several different players playing into transparent mouthpieces and filmed with a high speed camera so that we can view the pattern of vibrations of both lips. Follow the above link and note the difference between the downstream players’ lip vibrations, who all place with more upper lip inside, and the upstream players’ lip vibration, who place with more lower lip inside. For some upstream players, it is actually beneficial for more rim contact to help reduce the intensity of vibrations in the upper lip. Downstream players, however, will definitely find a low placement to not work as well. Whether a student is upstream or downstream is not a choice that is made and then practiced into success, it is based on which embouchure type the player’s anatomy is best suited for.
In spite of the lack of evidence supporting the idea that placing the mouthpiece on the red of the lips is to be avoided, many teachers counter that students who have this embouchure characteristic often have trouble. Posting under the user name “peteb” on the Trumpet Herald Forum, Pete B. offers a fallacious argument as to why placing the mouthpiece rim on the vermilion is supposedly incorrect. He writes:
I have had a student that played so low that I could see most of his upper lip above the mouthpiece. He demonstrated all of the characteristics I mentioned, plus the complaints of the OP. [brittle and difficult to control sound, poor articulation, and limited flexibility and endurance, range difficulties]
Pete is confusing a correlation (low placement) with a causation (low placement causing embouchure issues). While mouthpiece placement is important, there are many other mechanical issues that can cause embouchure problems and you can find student players with a higher mouthpiece placement having those exact same issues. It may be that with many players the placement is actually too low and in those cases it’s important to move them up, but before moving a student’s placement it’s important to address those other related issues and ensure that you’re not going to inadvertently offer advice that does more harm than good.
The inner part of the lips are more fragile and more prone to damage. This holds true for EVERYONE. I’m sure there is an abundance of scientific data to back this up.
There may be scientific data to back up Porter’s assertion, however I cannot find it. Searching through the literature, both medical and musical, does show a lot of scholarly articles dealing with lip damage, but to my knowledge there are none that show the vermilion is more sensitive to pressure and prone to damage from normal brass playing. Just because I can’t find any doesn’t mean it isn’t there, but such a confident statement as Porter’s doesn’t appear to be backed up.
On the other hand, I have found a handful of articles that would appear to support my thoughts that the vermilion is quite capable of taking rim contact during brass playing without much trouble. Heston L. Wilson, M.D., writes in the scholarly journal The Clarinet, “…the vermilion portion of the lips tolerates pressure well and the inner membrane does not.” (Wilson, Lips, The Clarinet, Sep. 2000, Vol. 27 Issue 4, p. 38).
While not specifically related to the topic of placing the mouthpiece rim on the vermilion, Wilson’s quote is another reason why recommendations to actually roll the lower lip out while playing pedal tones on trumpet and horn may actually do more harm than good and perhaps are best avoided entirely.
Returning to the topic of mouthpiece placement, Porter commented:
“You shouldn’t place the rim on the red of the upper lip” is NOT a misconception. The videos you used to support this being a misconception show no players actually playing in the red on the upper lip, only low mouthpiece placement. As long as the rim of the mouthpiece is not on the red of the lips it doesn’t matter how low or how high. However, getting off the red is crucial.
This gets a little tricky to demonstrate, but the following diagrams may help to illustrate my point. I’ve already commented that there will always be rim contact on the vermilion, regardless of the player’s mouthpiece placement, but Porter and others sometimes forget that the mouthpiece rim in its entirety may be such that it looks as if the placement is above the vermilion, yet the inner rim diameter is still placed directly on the red. Here are some photographs using a hypothetical rim placement to demonstrate my point.
This first image shows a hypothetical mouthpiece placement by blacking out the area of the lips we really wouldn’t see at all when a brass musician is playing his or her instrument. Based on this example, a mouthpiece placement demonstrated here would appear to have most of the rim contact off the red of the lips.
This next image is the same individual with the same diameter circle over the lips, but I now simulate where the rim might actually be placed over the lips so that that we can see inside the mouthpiece cup. We can get a better idea how much rim contacts the vermilion, but depending on how rigid you might be about always avoiding placing on the red, you still might find a mouthpiece placement like this suitable.
In this final image I’ve removed the blacked out portion where the rim might sit. Notice now that with just the general outline of the rim left in place you can see how much this hypothetical mouthpiece placement is on the vermilion. Now obviously this isn’t the most realistic depiction of how a musician might place the mouthpiece, but it does demonstrate that when looking at photographs or video examples for mouthpiece placement on the red of the lips you must take the entire rim into consideration. Many players look from the outside or even on rim visualizers as if their placement is above the vermilion, but a more careful look might show much more rim contact than you think.
Returning to Porter’s comments about placing on the red, he felt that the examples I showed in my video entitled Embouchure Misconceptions: Five Myths About Brass Embouchures wasn’t honestly showing players who place the mouthpiece rim so that it contacts a great deal of the vermilion of the upper lip. He writes:
If you are going to make a ridiculous statement about not playing in the red being a misconception, then back it up! Where is the video of a phenomenal trumpet player playing in the upper red of the top lip?
You said it was a misconception and followed that bold statement up with videos that featured players with low placement but NOT playing in the top red. If you are going to make a statement like that, follow it directly with videos of players playing that way.
Here are several image clips of some of the players I used as examples in the video Porter is commenting on. Keeping in mind the entire rim diameter, I think it’s a fair assumption that the following players are indeed examples of brass musicians who place the mouthpiece low enough so that much of the rim contact is directly on the red of the upper lip. All of the following are professional players, some quite well known.
While these players, and some of the other examples I use in my videos, have varying amounts of rim contact on the vermilion of their upper lip, I think it’s fair to state that you can indeed fine examples of brass players who play quite successfully with their mouthpiece placed on the red of their upper lip.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all players should adopt similar mouthpiece placements. In fact, most brass musicians probably should not. But as I’ve pointed out recently, using our own mouthpiece placement or that of a handful of examples we happen to come across is not going to be a useful way of understanding how brass embouchures actually function best for all players. I know many players who state that they play much better after moving their placement off the red of their upper lip. On the other hand, I used to place above the red and now place the rim right on the vermilion of my upper lip because it just works better there. Mouthpiece placement is a very personal thing and related to the individual player’s anatomy, not something you can choose and then practice your way into success. Learn to work with, not against, your anatomy. Teachers should help their students accomplish the same, rather than forcing them to adopt a mouthpiece placement that may not be suitable.
At the very least, I think it’s helpful for all of us to qualify our statements in such a way that it is obvious whether we’re speculating, offering personal anecdotes, or actually do have evidence to back up our suggestions. Emphatically discouraging a mouthpiece placement on the vermilion may very well be best for the majority of players, but there are more individuals than most seem to think that not only can play this way, but actually perform best like this.