I’ve recently had the chance to work with a couple of players with embouchure issues that are both in part related to a bunched chin. Both of these players have their chin disengaged and moving around separate from their jaw as they play. Both have trouble holding the pitch steady when this happens. This is a common issue with many younger players and sometimes, as in the case of the above mentioned two players, sometimes musicians will play this way for decades. For some reason this seems more common with the two basic downstream embouchure types and isn’t so frequent with the basic upstream type. When it happens to very high placement type players there is frequently some type switching going on, so they may look like very high placement types in one register and medium high placement types in another.
Like some other embouchure problems (such as the smile embouchure), bunching the chin usually develops unconsciously because it works, to a certain degree. What seems to be happening is that the player is compensating for a lack of lip compression while ascending by using the chin to push the lower lip up, rather than properly focusing the muscular effort at the mouth corners. Sometimes there are other issues that accompany a bunched chin, such as holding the jaw in too open a position, allowing the jaw to recede too far (which then is followed by a loosening of the mouth corners, more pressure on the top lip, etc.). You can see what a bunched chin looks like in the following video.
If you skip to about 17 seconds into the video you’ll get a good look at this. Notice how this trombonist pushes his chin up towards the mouthpiece just as he makes his initial attack. Philip Farkas comments on this feature in his book, The Art of Brass Player, and recommended that players avoid the “peach pit chin.” Since some players have different anatomical features (dimples, a thicker layer of fatty tissue at the chin, etc) many players who have the “peach pit” look to their chin may actually have firm chins and some players who bunch their chin up while playing may not appear to have this characteristic. The basic mechanical issue I’m referring to here is that the player’s chin is not functioning as a single unit with the jaw, pushing up towards the lower lip while playing, instead of remaining firm and flat.
It’s definitely possible to play with a bunched chin successful for a while, but it’s really rare to find brass musicians who are able to successfully play with this way long term. Sometimes the problems become obvious pretty quickly, but there are players who don’t develop the associated issues related to the bunched chin until they get into their 30s and 40s. Professional or student musicians will sometimes not notice any problems caused by a bunched chin until they have a particularly demanding playing schedule. Because they haven’t changed anything about how they play it’s often assumed that the cause of their symptoms is excessive fatigue (which is only a trigger, not the root cause of the problem) My favorite analogy with these situations is that bunching the chin is like lifting heavy objects with your back. You can get away with it for a while, but the longer you do it the more likely that you’ll run into problems.
This is one of the reasons why I strongly encourage players to avoid methods that actually require players to intentionally bunch the chin while playing. It may actually seem like it works for a while, but I believe that in the long term it can lead to issues similar to some of the players in my Embouchure Dysfunction video.
Eliminating a bunched chin in your own playing or helping a student with this issue can be tricky, particularly with musicians who have been playing this way for years or even decades. When you’re so used to playing with bunching your chin your embouchure is inclined to continue coordinating that way and the muscles that need to take up the effort are generally too weak to do so at first. Simply trying to hold the chin firm, flat, and pointed sometimes works. Concentrating on keeping the lower lip “gently hugging” the lower teeth while playing will help keep the chin flat as well. At other times these instructions aren’t sufficient enough to keep the chin firm and functioning as a single unit with the jaw.
One of the first things I like to recommend is to strengthen the muscles just under the mouth corners with free buzzing. Donald Reinhardt’s basic free buzzing exercise is an excellent one to start with. Reinhardt recommended that you roll (not curl) the lower lip slightly in towards the lower teeth and bring the top lip down as if saying, “em.” With the lips set in buzzing firmness like this, buzz the highest pitch you can for the fullest extent of your breath with a very light, soft, and even airy sound. Practice keeping your lips’ center just touching and inhaling only through the mouth corners (you can use your finger to simulate the mouthpiece rim by placing it on the center of your lips while inhaling) and repeat this two more times. You can learn a bit more about this exercise and see some video footage of different players practicing it here, or look in Donald Reinhardt’s Encyclopedia of the Pivot System. Once the mouth corners are strengthened through free buzzing it will become easier for players to keep the muscular effort focused there, rather than relying on the chin bunching up to provide lip compression.
For many players the chin bunch only starts to creep in when they get tired and play in the upper register. For these players it can be helpful to practice ascending scale or chord arpeggio exercises that gradually transpose higher on subsequent repetitions. While watching your chin in a mirror, play these ascending exercises only as far as you can go while keeping the chin and jaw functioning as a single unit. When the chin begins to become disengaged from the jaw and bunch up it’s time to stop and rest for a while. Move on to practicing something else and come back to this the next day, building the habit of keeping the chin flat gradually over time.
For some musicians, such as the two players I’ve recently been working with, the chin bunch becomes so ingrained in their playing that it is present in almost their whole range. This can be particularly challenging to correct, but I’ve found some additional exercises helpful in these situations. As long as these players belong to one of the downstream embouchure types, it’s very helpful to practice free buzzing into the instrument. Free buzz a middle or upper register pitch and bring the instrument to the lips while continuing to buzz. When the mouthpiece gets placed on the lips try to keep the embouchure formation exactly the same.
Sometimes you’ll notice that as soon as the mouthpiece contacts the lips the old habits reassert themselves and the chin begins to bunch up. Practicing on a different brass instrument can be helpful, so low brass players can try playing a little high brass and vice versa. Changing around the feel of the mouthpiece like this may help these players hold the chin in the proper position and then more easily transfer the correct embouchure formation onto their main instrument.
Along the same lines, I tried out an experiment with one of these students. He was still having some trouble keeping the chin in the proper position as soon as the mouthpiece contacted his lips. I had him try buzzing into a mouthpiece visualizer, which allowed him to keep his chin flat much more easily. After some practice with this we switched to buzzing into the instrument and it began to work more easily for him.
As an aside, I don’t recommend using mouthpiece visualizers to actually diagnose what’s going on inside the mouthpiece, as it is different from actual playing. A transparent mouthpiece is a much better diagnostic tool than buzzing on a rim visualizer.
In many ways I think the bunched chin is more a symptom of weak mouth corners and an embouchure formation that is held too loose and open. Rather that trying to fix the bunching chin it can be more helpful for the player to work on strengthening up the mouth corners and keeping their embouchure formation firm at all times, particularly in the lower register. For players who have been playing for years with a bunched chin this can be quite a challenge, but the overall outcome will be better over time and this almost certainly will provide better long term results.