Tooth Structure and Brass Embouchure

While conducting research for my dissertation some of the anatomical characteristics I looked at involved my test subjets’ tooth structure.  Specifically, I documented how straight the upper and lower teeth were in each player and whether the player had missing teeth or gaps between the front teeth.  I then looked at whether these specific features would make accurate predictors for a player’s embouchure type.  It turned out they don’t, at least not the particular players I looked at.

While reviewing the literature for my paper I did come across a few references to tooth structure and brass embouchures.  Maurice Porter’s 1967 book, The Embouchure hypothesizes that a player’s “embouchure potential” is, in part, determined by the player’s dental structure, but his text is light on the details of his methodology and exactly how this is supposed to work.  Lacey Powell wrote that a brass player should have “four good, long, and even teeth” in his 1982 article in The Instrumentalist titled The Embouchure Speaks.  There are many sources that also mention how a player’s teeth affects the embouchure, but mostly references to finding a comfortable spot on the lips to place the mouthpiece so that a sharp edge or protruding tooth doesn’t dig into the lips.

There are also all the stories and brass playing urban legends that talk about a particular player who fell down a flight of stairs and chipped a tooth only to discover an extra octave or two in range.  A variation is that a famous high note player had a gap between his teeth fix and lost some of his range.  I even personally know a trumpet player who admitted to filing his front teeth in order to make them shorter so they wouldn’t “get in the way.”  I’ve heard from some credible sources that there is a grain of truth to some of these stories, but there are also many weaker players with the same dental structure and things like this aren’t a cure-all.

Recently I’ve learned a bit about another pedagogue who speculated that there was an “ideal” tooth structure for brass players, trombonist Matty Shiner.  Shiner doesn’t appear to have published his research in any scholarly or medical journals (at least I couldn’t find anything), but I have been learning a bit more about Shiner’s ideas in a Trombone Forum topic and also in an interview he gave.  Shiner stated:

If you notice your better players, nobody seems to have teeth like this (demonstrating, he shows an inverted point with his hands) or laterals sticking out like this. The teeth are like a bridge on a violin. There’s a certain curvature and the height has to be right. When a violinist takes an instrument for a new bridge, they measure it down to the thousandths of an inch. It has to be just right. And you have a notch for each string. Now suppose I took a knife and made the bridge a little shorter, that would be like somebody with a closed bite. If I made that bridge a half or quarter of an inch too high, it would be like somebody who has an overbite. There would be a lot of distance between the teeth, then all of the pressure is on the upper lip. It has to be pretty close.

While I do like to use the embouchure is the “string” and the air is the “bow” analogy for getting certain playing sensations across to students at times, I don’t really think the lips are really perfectly analogous in this situation and I’m not sure I agree with Shiner here.  Also, I wondered in the Trombone Forum topic how he actually conducted his research and if he applied some proper controls.  I’ve mentioned a number of times here how I fooled myself into thinking I was accurately guessing my dissertation subjects’ embouchure types before even watching them play, so I know how easy it is to fall victim to confirmation bias.

Another thing that occurs to me is how many individuals in general have an inverted V in their front teeth to start with.  It could very well be that the reason there aren’t many great brass players with this tooth structure Shiner felt was less than ideal is simply because this tooth structure is simply rare to begin with.  Particularly these days, where orthodontic care is very common.

Glancing through the photographs I took to document my test subjects’ upper teeth show a lot of variation, but only one that might be said to have an inverted point described in Shiner’s above quote.  This individual is a professional trombonist who at the time listed an Eb an octave and a 3rd above middle C as his highest consistent note and an Ab 3 octaves below middle C as his lowest consistent note.  He self reported his lower register as a strength and other playing characteristics, such as upper register, flexibility, loud and soft playing, tone quality, and endurance as being average for his level of experience.  I have photographs of him playing pitches ranging from pedal Bb to F above “high” Bb, so his range does encompass what is considered necessary for most professional playing.

One subject doesn’t disprove Shiner’s entire hypothesis, but I am skeptical.  Poking around I’ve found a few dentists and orthodontists who advertise that they will help patients find an optimal jaw position or tooth structure, but none cite any research that show what that is.  Nor have I been able to find anything in the academic literature that I would consider soundly conducted.  I think in this case it’s best to take these opinions with a grain of salt and learn to work with your natural anatomy, rather than search for expensive dental reconstruction that may or may not be helpful in the longer term.

Charles Brown

Thank you for your insights. I was the individual who started that thread you mentioned in The Trombone Forum. I have been away from my trombone for over 40 years. Back then in the Pittsburgh, PA area, it was very common for students to have their teeth “fixed” ala Shiner’s specs. I started that thread recently because I wanted to find out if this topic had been proven and settled in the 40 years of my absence. I appreciate your observations and insights on this topic. You have boosted my confidence that NOTHING is more important than quality training.
Regards,
Charles Brown

Ron LaVerde

In the late 70’s Eddie Shiner, Matty’s brother and The late great Patsy Oliver suggested I go to a dentist in McKeesport, Pa. Dr. Gordon.
Dr. Gordon arranged my teeth exactly how you explained in your article.
After my first practice I increased my range from an E above high C to a double high C. I also experienced more longevity for my chops.
2 months ago my front tooth chipped. After speaking with my current dentist he decided to grind down the front teeth and cap them and try to duplicate what was there.
Bad Move. I’ve been struggling to play above an A above the staff for a month.
Dr. Gordon, Eddie, Matty and Patsy are gone. So is my embachure.
I play with a local Pittsburgh Funk band and have lowered an octave on most parts above the C now.
Teeth Matter. Do not let anyone tell you different.
I’ve been playing for over 50 years and at high level since I studied at Duquesne U. with these brass greats.
Ron LoVerde

Dave

Thanks for your note, Ron. I’m sorry to hear about the difficulties you’ve had.

Of course teeth matter. When your teeth shift (common for adolescents at any time, but even adult teeth change over time) your embouchure needs to adjust. When your teeth are shifted suddenly adjustments need to happen faster and can be difficult to make. Sometimes there are immediate benefits to sudden teeth shifting (as seemed to be your case when you had your teeth arranged on purpose). Other times they can have the opposite effect.

Regardless, the research that has been done on the precise role that teeth contribute to a functioning embouchure is very preliminary and largely anecdotal and not reliable. The only honest way to look at this topic now is to acknowledge that we really don’t know how teeth structure affects brass embouchures and that everything needs to be taken on a case by case basis.

What we can say with some certainty is that there are highly successful brass players with a wide range of tooth formations and structures. It’s pretty clear that folks can make these different anatomical differences work for them when motivated or guided properly. At this time I don’t think there’s sufficient evidence to state there is an “ideal” tooth structure and I feel time and effort is better spent on learning how to work with an individual’s anatomy rather than getting non-essential dental work.

Dave

Marie

Hi! Thank you for this article, it’s intetesting!
I’m a horn player and I chipped a front tooth about 5 years ago. The chip is very tiny (like a grain of sand)and I didn’t think it was a big deal when it happened. The shape of that tooth isn’t so different than what it used to be, but it is much sharper.
Since then, I’ve gradually developed embouchure overuse syndrome. My lips become swollen the more I practice. Playing soft and high is a lot harder. My endurance is about 50% what it used to be. I’m only in my late 20s.
Looking under my upper lip, I noticed that I’m a lot more swollen on the left side (the side of the chipped tooth) than the right side, making my aperture very uneven, especially when playing soft.
I’m wondering if I should have a dentist polish that teeth. I’m a little scared about it because it seems like it made things worse for other people.
I’ve tried so many different things for overuse syndrome, I ask questions to so many players, and nothing so far has truly fixed it. I don’t know what to do anymore.
If you have any advice regarding my problem, I’d be happy to know what you think.

Thank you

Jack Niccolai

The question of the space between the front teeth helping with the upper register has been on my mind lately. I’m in a unique position and need some advise. I’m 67 and I still play everyday. Last May one of my front teeth fell out, the root under a 40 year old cap fractured and I needed an implant. I was given a “snap-on-smile” and have gotten most of my playing back, except for my high range (above high D). Now the temporary tooth is going in next week and I am looking at options. I’m intrigued by the theory that a space between the front teeth helps with high range. It would be easy for me to do this, just have the new tooth adjusted without affecting my other teeth. Any suggestions/stories?

Dave

Jack, especially without seeing you play I would recommend against doing any dental work in the hopes that it would help your brass playing. It might help, but it’s just as likely that it would not. I would try to get the dentist to get your tooth to go as close as possible to what your natural tooth structure was like.

Good luck!

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