Looking around on the internet for information about brass embouchures will often lead to references or instructions in a playing method that is commonly referred to as a “tongue controlled embouchure,” or sometimes just TCE for short. While I generally don’t recommend this method, I wanted to put together a resource for players who want to learn a little more about it without having to purchase a book or video. At the same time, I’ll also explain my reluctance to endorse it.
There isn’t a widely agreed definition of what constitutes a “tongue controlled embouchure.” Generally speaking, however, a tongue controlled embouchure can be defined as a method where the player keeps the tongue on the lower lip while the pitch is being played. Most also will keep the tongue on the lip at all times, attacking pitches as if “spitting a seed.” Often the tone is stopped with the tongue closing off against the lips as well. Additional characteristics that are sometimes described with a tongue controlled embouchure include a more open jaw position, looser mouth corners than typical, and puffed cheeks. For my purposes here, any embouchure method where the player keeps the tongue anchored on the lower lip, including but not restricted to the “spitting seeds” attacks, will be what I’m referring to as a “tongue controlled embouchure.” To view a video posted by a trumpet player that demonstrates a tongue controlled embouchure click here.
Jerome Callet is probably the best known teacher of this technique. He has several resources about his pedagogy, including Trumpet Secrets Vol. 1, The Secrets of the Tongue-Controlled Embouchure and his Master Superchops DVD. The Trumpet Herald Forum has a section dedicated to Callet’s pedagogy. Another teacher is Robert “Bahb” Civiletti, who co-authored a book with Callet.
My impressions of the tongue controlled embouchure are admittedly related to the over-the-top way these two proponents present it. Of course introducing your methods as “secrets” that lead to “superchops” doesn’t necessarily invalidate it as merely a sales gimmick, so I have to take a look at the evidence proponents put forward and leave the hype behind. Where does it come from? Who uses it? Does it work and why?
According to Civeletti, natural trumpet players during the Baroque all played with a tongue controlled embouchure.
I honestly believe that those great players of the Baroque Era had to be using their tongues to control all the notes. We will never know for certain, but if I can play all the Trumpet parts that Bach wrote on the Baroque Trumpet with my tongue in this forward position as described by Jerome Callet – what logical conclusion can we come to? . . . If you look at photographs of the great Trumpeters of Modern times, you notice that they play with a puffed Embouchure caused by the Tongue.
The only conclusion we can come to is that Civeletti plays natural trumpet like this, not that this is how players during the Baroque did this. Most players can’t place their mouthpiece on their lips as low as I do, but I don’t recommend this for the vast majority of other players. Different players have different faces, so I don’t expect everyone’s embouchure to work best the way mine does.
I like art and art history, but I’m not certain that looking at some woodcarvings from the 1600s and noting that they depict a trumpet player puffing out his cheeks is evidence of a tongue controlled embouchure. Having puffed cheeks doesn’t mean that the tongue remains in contact with the lip, nor does artwork really indicate that’s how players of the period actually performed. Secondly, taking a look around at great trumpet players today does not show a large number of players with puffed cheeks. With some notable exceptions, the reverse is actually true.
The idea that the tongue controlled embouchure is a technique that is “rediscovered” from the past is for some reason quite prevalent among its proponents, but other than the above weak evidence, I’ve seen no historical sources to back this claim up.
Similarly, it’s also common for tongue controlled embouchure advocates to make the claim that a famous player played with a tongue controlled embouchure. For example, I’ve heard Miles Davis’s name tossed around here because in a couple of interviews he mentions the spitting the seed style of tonguing. Just as puffed cheeks on a player don’t mean the tongue is in contact with the lip, attacking the pitch with the tongue against the lips doesn’t mean the tongue is remaining in contact with the lips after the attack. While the spit attack is integral part of the way Callet teaches, it is not unique to a tongue controlled embouchure. What makes a tongue controlled embouchure unique (and challenging for most players) is the tongue tip remaining in contact with the lower lip while sustaining and slurring pitches. If a reliable source can be found that a player states he or she does this, I’ll accept it’s true, otherwise I think we can’t really use it as supporting evidence.
Players who have some success with a tongue controlled embouchure tend to rate their ease of the upper register as one of the most common advantages. I suspect the strong upper register is a combination of two mechanical factors. First, the tongue on the lower lip acts as a sort of support structure and can even be used to push against the lip for additional compression. Secondly, the forward position of the tongue forces the air being blown through a smaller opening resulting in higher air pressure with less physical effort, as we understand from Bernoulli’s Principle.
Assuming that these two factors are indeed what is assisting with the upper register on a tongue controlled embouchure, it may be helpful to eliminate the spit attack and its associated difficulties. Spit tongue advocates insist that practice eliminates the attack problems, but I suspect that it’s making it harder than it has to be. Every time your tongue strikes your embouchure aperture you’re forcing your lips open a touch and then suddenly bringing them back into position. To me, it makes more sense to try to keep your lips in playing position so that when the air strikes them they don’t have to go through a split second adjustment on every attack.
As far as keeping the tongue tip anchored on the lower lip while playing, I think this depends on the player, but is not very common to find players who can be successful with it for the long term. Donald Reinhardt noted the use of the tongue like this, listing it in his 8 tongue type patterns. He felt that it was best for players with short lower teeth and a fat lower lip to help with lower lip support, but not for most players.
Personally, I have success attacking the pitches normally (“tah” or “dah”) and then snapping the tongue tip to anchor just behind and beneath my lower teeth while holding out or slurring pitches. Sometimes to attack a high pitch out of the blue I find it helps to start with the tongue anchored there and attack with a spot on the tongue a short distance back from the tip. This is not very far away from the spit attack/wedge tongue on the lower lip technique I’m criticizing here, all it does is move the tongue completely off the lips while still maintaining a more forward tongue position. The effect I’ve personally got from it (less muscular effort to play in the upper register, a more brilliant and powerful sound up there, a feeling of using less air) is very similar to what is described by some who are successful with a tongue controlled embouchure.
I suspect that many players using a tongue controlled embouchure would benefit from doing something similar. By moving the tongue tip onto the lower teeth or below and then articulating on the upper teeth or above they may be able to maintain the effect the tongue has on the air pressure while eliminating the difficulties that are associated with the spit attack. It would probably require a more closed mouth position and firmer corners, which might take some time and practice to strengthen up. That said, players with different sized tongues, lips, jaws, oral cavities, teeth, etc. are going to have different anatomical factors affecting how they play. Just because this tonguing type works for me is not going to make it the best way for someone else.
Anyone out there who has had some success with a tongue controlled embouchure want to try my above suggestion and see what happens? Did it work for you or just make things harder? Are you happy with how your tongue controlled embouchure functions or do you have some issues that take a lot of practice to overcome? Are my descriptions and criticisms of this technique off base or spot on?