Charlie Porter is a very fine trumpet player. If you’re not familiar with his playing, you can hear some excellent playing on his YouTube channel or on his web site. Go ahead and check him out, he’s worth hearing.
Porter has created some instructional videos on YouTube and has made some comments on some of my own embouchure vods, specifically regarding our differing ideas on whether it’s incorrect to place the mouthpiece so that the rim contacts the red of the upper lip. My point of view is, provided this suits the individual player’s anatomy, this may be the best possible placement for a particular musician. Porter’s thought is that there are no exceptions to this rule and it is always bad to place the mouthpiece this way. We’ve had some back and forth about this in the YouTube comments, but with the restrictions placed on how many characters you’re allowed to use in a comment it’s a very poor medium to have an honest intellectual conversation. In an effort to both explain myself more clearly and also to make this conversation more open and accessible, here then is an open letter to Charlie Porter.
Dear Mr. Porter,
It’s so difficult to explain our ideas in the 490 character limit YouTube restricts us for comments. Also, I think we both agree that having a public discussion about a controversial topic is beneficial, not only because it can potentially enlighten others who may also be interested in this topic, but also because it will help keep us both honest. Furthermore, other people with expertise in this topic can then add their own ideas and perhaps show us where we may both be off in our assessments.
I’d like to first start off an address your concerns about my video entitled Embouchure Misconceptions: Five Myths About Brass Embouchures.
You recently wrote:
Furthermore, almost every player you showed photos of (two of who I studied privately with – Wynton Marsalis and Jon Faddis) play outside the red. They might appear to be a low setting from the outside, but that does NOT mean the rim is placed in the red. This is an awful assumption on your part, Dave. Shame on you. I’ve seen these players play live and up close and have talked embouchure with them. Know the facts before you start telling everyone something that is not true.
Here is a partial transcription of my narration in the above video. The bold emphasis should help address your concerns.
Take a closer look at the following players and you’ll notice that all seem to place the mouthpiece lower on the lips, some right on the red of the upper lip.
I do not claim that all of the upstream players I used as examples place on the red of the upper lip, just that they have a low placement and that this embouchure type shouldn’t be discouraged (the low placement itself was the main point I was making in the particular video). However, as I recently blogged about here, when considering the rim placement you must consider the entire rim, not just the outer diameter. Consider again the following hypothetical mouthpiece placement.
When looking from the outside it might appear that this particular trombonist places the mouthpiece above the vermillion of the upper lip, but when considering the entire rim diameter, we can see that it’s placed directly on the red.
One of the questions we need to consider here is whether or not there is any anatomical or technical reason why placing the mouthpiece rim on the red of the upper lip is always wrong or whether it’s fine for some players. Regarding the anatomical issue, you wrote:
The inner part of the lips are more fragile and more prone to damage. This holds true for EVERYONE. I’m sure there is an abundance of scientific data to back this up.
While it’s certainly possible that there is scientific data that backs up your assertion, I have been unable to find any. After some fairly extensive searching through both published literature in both medical and musical resources I have been unable to find any science that demonstrates what you state is accurate. First, the vermillion is only a “skin deep” feature, and the orbicularis oris muscle is present under the red of the upper lip.
Second, I have found some resources that actively state the vermillion is quite capable of taking pressure. Heston L. Wilson, M.D., wrote, “…the vermilion portion of the lips tolerates pressure well and the inner membrane does not.” (Wilson, Lips, The Clarinet, Sep. 2000, Vol. 27 Issue 4, p. 38).
If you have found some scientific literature that backs up your claim that the red of the lip is unable to accept the pressure from brass playing I am interested in reading it. Please forward it to me at your earliest convenience.
Regarding brass techniqe, you wrote:
The middle of the lips need to be free to allow the air column to do its work efficiently.
…having the very top and bottom of the rim off the red makes it unnecessary to use brute force, because the lip is not paralyzed.
There is some truth to your statements, but like many complex topics, the reality of how brass embouchures actually function go much further than the simplifications you offer. Lloyd Leno’s film, Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures, is an excellent resource for studying how the lips vibrate inside the mouthpiece. Another good source is the IWK Brass Research videos, which also show brass musicians playing into a transparent mouthpiece using a stroboscope to simulate the high speed filming Leno used. In both of these resources we can see that both lips don’t vibrate with equal intensity, but that one lip will serve as a more stable surface for the other lip to vibrate against. This is in some ways more similar to a clarinet or saxophone mouthpiece and reed, rather than an oboe or bassoon reed. In all these cases, the lip with more rim contact (upper lip for upstream players and lower lip for downstream players) will vibrate with less intensity than the other.
So while it’s true that both lips need to be free to vibrate, it’s also true that some additional rim contact may be beneficial for players with certain anatomical characteristics in order to reduce the intensity of the vibrations on one particular lip. Again, it’s not that all players should use a specific mouthpiece placement, this is something that is personal and related to the individual player’s anatomy. I believe this depends mostly on the relationship of the length of the players entire lip (not just the vermillion) to the teeth and gums and not the size of the player’s vermillion. But if we consider just the vermillion alone, we can note that some players have very thin lips.
And others very thick lips.
The thicker the player’s lips are, the more rim contact will be on the vermillion. So yes, a player with thin lips can indeed place even lower and not place on the red of his upper lip. Thicker lipped players who have the anatomical features that makes them better suited for an upstream embouchure are going to need more rim contact on their upper lip. Some may even want to place the mouthpiece so that the rim is set directly on their upper lip.
I have offered here and in many of my embouchure vods several examples of players who clearly have a lot of rim contact on the upper lip. I will concede your point that Wynton Marsalis, Doc Severinsen, and Jon Faddis have their placements such that the outer rim is placed above their vermillion, but there is perhaps more rim contact then they themselves realize on their upper lip. Other professional players clearly place the mouthpiece right on their upper lip vermillion.
I will also concede that this placement is not common, but it is not something that I personally would recommend players avoid at all costs. My gripe with your comments and instructions to avoid placing the mouthpiece on the red of the upper lip isn’t because it doesn’t work for most players, but rather that you are too rigid in your recommendations here. Personally, I think it’s best to base our pedagogy on accurate information that takes the unique physical characteristics of the individual into account, rather than following dogma that may work for the majority but actually end up being the opposite for a significant minority of our students.
I welcome any clarification and criticisms you can find in my thoughts here as long as they are honest and specifically address the topic of placing on the red of the upper lip. Please also take a moment and read through my previous post, Playing On the Red Is Fine (as long as it fits your anatomy) that addresses this topic in more detail. Some of your questions and concerns about my ideas may already have been covered there.
Dr. David Wilken
P.S. I usually just sign off as “Dave” because I feel it’s more important for people to consider my logic on its own merit, rather than using my degree as evidence. In this particular case I’ve chosen to call attention to it, not because it is evidence that I’m a great trombonist (a doctorate in performance demonstrates competency, at best), but because I want to call your attention to my background in academia and my experiences conducting careful studies on brass embouchures. In and of itself, my degrees and research don’t make my ideas correct (that would be an argument from authority, a common logical fallacy), but I do want to give you a rough idea the direction I’m coming from.
Update: Charlie’s response to my open letter
Here is Charlie’s reply to my message asking him to read and respond to my points. He’s pretty clear that he doesn’t want to continue our discussion and it really doesn’t address any of my points or questions for him anyway.
I hope writing this has made you feel better, David. I deleted our little back and forth banter on my youtube video posting because it wasn’t going anywhere.
Lets assume we have 10 amazing, top-rate players who all play very well. No range or technique issues. They are all different (cause no one is exactly alike) and these differences are what create the illusion that they are somehow playing with different embouchures. One person’s lips appear to pull in while the others appear to pull out, etc. But the basic fundamentals of what governs brass playing are solid. It requires air. It requires a vibrating material (our lips, in this case). Per individual note, it requires a necessary speed and mass of air to activate the lips. Per individual notes, it requires that the muscles outside the mpc have enough tension as to prevent them from collapsing from the air pressure (people with different faces will look different when there muscles are activated).
My suggestions to the players in my video were that:
1. They need to have an open enough airway to allow the sound to be produced. This is based on the scientifically provable FACT that brass instruments require air. (Yeah, some players roll their lips in tightly as they ascend. They play on a system based on almost exclusively lateral compression- this sounds thin and produces bad articulation because of the trap door effect. Anyway, I’m not talking about this way or any other inferior way of playing). The only good embouchure is one that provides an open airway for a beautiful sound.
2. They need to avoid placing the ring in the upper and lower red of the lips. Common sense, as I’m sure a scientific study would show, that if you touch an object is vibrating that you diminish, dampen or stop the vibrations. When the entire top to bottom of the red of the lips are free to vibrate and have adequate oxygen (since they are not being pressed into and starved of blood, the players sound is more vibrant and their endurance is increased. Can someone still play high and sound good playing in the red…SURE. I did it for 10 years…but it is not efficient and that player, even with their abilities will still have limitations that will become increasingly more limited.
It is my opinion that you are so busy looking into the microscope that you don’t even see the big picture…whats happening in the room around you. I speak about these things as REAL things that have helped all of my students and continue to make me the player I am…not just “scientific” observations and data for the sake of calling it science.
Let’s just agree to disagree.
You have your views, unsubstantiated in my opinion as they are, and I have mine.
I’m sure you will take time to come up with some witty rebuttal, but this is all I wish to say on the subject.
Thanks and good luck.