The Non-Relationship Between Gapped Teeth and High Range

One of the more common brass urban legends is that players with a gap or chip in their front teeth have an easier time with the high register.  Indeed, it is possible to find players who have this feature and have incredible high range (Jon Faddis and Dave Steinmeyer come to mind) .  While conducting research for my dissertation this was one anatomical characteristic I looked at.  I didn’t have a large enough sample size of players with gaps between their front teeth to have a statistically honest result, but I was able to note that there are also players who have these features who don’t have an easy time with high range.

Recently I came across an interview given by the great high note trumpet player Maynard Ferguson in 1960 where he recounted an experience he had.

One night six years ago, trumpeter Maynard Ferguson was playing an industrial dance. Suddenly a drunk with a warped sense of humor-probably the kind who pushed other kid’s heads down on drinking fountains in school-smacked the bell of his horn, driving the mouthpiece back into the trumpeter’s mouth.

The blow cracked one of Ferguson’s front teeth and the gap between his two front teeth began growing wider.  Rather than help his playing, it began to cause scar tissue to build up on his lip.  So Ferguson eventually found time to go to the dentist and have this cracked tooth and close the gap back up.  While this required some recovery time for him, Ferguson was unconcerned.

“That’s an old wives’ tale that you’re ruined if anything happens to your teeth. Most of it’s in the lip. I know three trumpet players who are having the same work done on their teeth that I did.”

“The only thing is that it feels strange for a while. I have to build a whole new embouchure. I wish I could get four or five days off, but the band’s booked so much this summer that I can’t.”

I’ve discussed the relationship of a player’s tooth structure and embouchure here before.  I do feel that the underlying support of the teeth and gums under the lips and mouthpiece rim is a very important part of a brass musician’s embouchure, but it’s more important to learn to work with the anatomy, rather than try to change the anatomy to fit some sort of “ideal” that may not work so well.  Unlike trying out a new mouthpiece for a while, dental or orthodontic care is a lot harder to change back.  I’ve heard a story that Faddis had his gap filled in and had to change it back, but I don’t know if this is true or not.

Regardless, take care of your teeth and gums and get regular checkups by your dentist.  If you have a sharp tooth edge or protruding tooth that causes you pain to play you can sometimes try placing the mouthpiece differently and find that the results work better than before.  Getting dental care to change this feature may be good too.  One of my teachers, Doug Elliott, once designed a custom mouthpiece rim for one of his other students that scooped out some of the rim so that it would slot over the student’s protruding tooth, so that’s even an option.

Most importantly, every situation is personal and requires an individual approach.  If someone tells you that your tooth structure needs work to make your embouchure work better, take their advice with a healthy bit of skepticism.

Kezia Brooks

Thank you for your articles — I find them very helpful. I am the mother of a 16 year-old trumpeter, who loves to play. She plays every day in every band class that is offered at her school, she practices at home, she plays in the evening with every group she can find, and plays for every function she is asked (such as “Taps” for local schools, Lions club, etc). Her band teacher is also a trumpeter, and has said she is the most technically proficient in the entire band– however, her tone does not seem to improve, no matter what we do, whether changing mouthpieces, or trying a different trumpet (she is currently playing a Bach Bb). Here is what I am wondering now: She was born without a couple permanent upper incisors, and this created large gaps between her teeth. She can have braces to move the teeth aside, but still cannot have dental implants until she is done growing, still leaving gaps where the implants will eventually go. These large gaps also interfere somewhat with her speech, but just slightly. Can these gaps (almost tooth-wide between teeth) wreak havoc with her tone? I am considering having the dentist make her some kind of “retainer” in the meantime that might block excess air from escaping the embouchure. Thanks again for your research, and thank you in advance for any words of advice you might have. 🙂

Dave

Hi, Kezia. Thanks for stopping by. Your daughter’s issues may or may not be directly affected by her teeth. The good news is that it should be possible for her to work with her current anatomy and make improvements, although the bad news is that without being able to watch her play (preferably in person) it’s hard to offer any specific advice on how to improve her tone. It might be that if she moves her mouthpiece placement up or down or to one side she might find a position on her lips that not only provides a good foundation under the embouchure formation but may also allow her to direct the air in a way that opens up her sound and provides a wide range. Again, it’s hard to say without being able to be there to listen to the results of experimenting whether or not this would be ultimately helpful. Keep in mind also that as she gets orthodontic work that this can change and she’ll probably need to relearn some things again (but this is something that all of us who played a brass instruments with braces has to go through). Again, it’s possible to learn to work with the anatomy, even after a change that braces can cause.

Good luck!

Dave

Paul T.

I can add my personal experience to this article, for what it’s worth. I broke my front tooth, creating a huge gap, about a year ago. It took me a while to get to a dentist to have it fixed, so I ended up playing several gigs with the new “front gap”. Initially, I felt that it made my upper register significantly easier to play. It was an exciting feeling.

However, when I had the tooth rebuilt to its former shape (which now felt large and unwieldy in my mouth) I did not lose any range or facility. I decided that my feeling of increased range and facility was a sort of placebo effect, since, clearly, returning to my reconstructed front teeth did not have any negative effect. (I tested my range quite extensively on both “sets of teeth”.)

Having said that, I had the dentist file off some rough edges on my tooth, to line it up better with its neighbour. (Since the material was now “fake”, not real tooth, this was easy and painless.) I’d say that has improved my general playing comfort (and, therefore, perhaps, my endurance).

But, in conclusion, I can say confidently that I did not feel any difference at all in my range or power with or without the “gap”. (The sensation of playing was quite different, however.)

Purpole

One situation where a gap in the front teeth may help in trumpet playing, is when the bottom lip gets compressed into the top teeth and creates a tight air seal. In this case air cannot get through and the player is essentially backed up and cannot produce high notes without risk of passing out! This is precisely what happens to me sometimes and I am trying to work around it. It happens if you have a slight overbite and a lower lip that at rest touches the top teeth.

Joey Jay

I started playing valve trombone in order to strengthen my trumpet embouchure.It has worked quite well. During the learning process, I discovered that while attempting notes in the extreme upper register on the trombone, the tongue is pressed so hard against the roof of your mouth that most of the airflow goes between the upper central incisors. A trumpet mouthpiece will cover up that Gap, which is wide open with a trombone mouthpiece. So I’m not sure if it helps Jon Faddis or not.

jdjay

Judy Boutz

My daughter is close to getting her braces off. Should she have a slight gap left between her front teeth as her horn instructor recommends for high notes? The orthodontist says he has done this about 4 times in his lengthy career. I am reticent to do this. Is this a great opportunity to give her a slight space with big horn advantage or will it ultimately be a missed opportunity for a perfect smile? Your post makes it appear that it does not make a difference.

Dave

Judy, I don’t believe that a gap is necessaily going to help. It might, but it could just as easily make things harder or not make any difference at all. If your daughter already has braces on I would advise you to complete it and she can learn to play with straight teeth. Either way, there is always an adjustment after removing braces, so there will probably be a rebuilding period.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.