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.