Surveys of European Horn Styles

The International Horn Society has digitized and made available the raw data from a couple of surveys done on European horn players.

In 1964 and 1965, Wendell (Pete) Exline took a sabbatical leave from his position at what is now Eastern Washington University. He flew to Frankfurt, Germany, bought a VW bus and drove all over Europe, interviewing, recording and photographing principal horn players of several European orchestras. Pete’s account of his trip can be found here. In 2009, Pete gave all of the the audio tapes, photographic negatives and interview notes he collected to the IHS. Data from that sabbatical project, now digitzed, is the basis for the first “Survey of European Horn Playing Styles” presented here. Each player was photographed four times, playing the horn from both front and back and buzzing on an embouchure visualizer ring.

Being an embouchure nut, I was most interested in looking at each player’s mouthpiece placement.  Rim visualizers can be a little deceptive compared to a transparent mouthpiece, but you can frequently get a good enough look to know the player’s embouchure type.  Since you can’t see a musician’s embouchure motion in still photographs, it’s not possible to say for certain which of the two downstream types the player belongs to, but you can usually tell if the player has an upstream or downstream embouchure.

Since downstream embouchures are more common, particularly among horn players (I believe for reasons based more on tradition than anything related to the instrument itself), you would expect those embouchure types to be more prevalent in these surveys.  There are 23 subjects.  My best guess is that maybe around 10%-15% of brass players (regardless of instrument) are (or should be) upstream players, so I would expect 1-4 of these players to have a low placement type embouchure and the rest to be very high or medium high placement types.

As it turns out, only one player looked like he had an upstream embouchure, Domenico Ceccarossi.  If you follow the link and look at his mouthpiece placement it’s obvious that he plays with much more lower lip inside the mouthpiece, meaning that his air stream will strike above the shank while playing.  Ceccarossi would be a good example of a horn player with the low placement embouchure type.  While this embouchure type isn’t as common, he is in good company.  As I’ve noted before, Dennis Brain was another example of a horn player with the low placement type.  All of the other players surveyed appear to be downstream players.

It’s worth pointing out that there is a lot of variation in mouthpiece placement among these professional horn players.  There are a couple of players who have placements that are pretty far off-center, Jean-Pierre Dassonville and Matthieu Romand.  Most players don’t place the mouthpiece perfectly in the center of their lips and for anatomical reasons many will play better with placements that are noticeably to one side.  I sometimes get emailed questions from students who are struggling to move their mouthpiece placement closer to center, which isn’t always a good thing.  These players, and some others, offer good examples of fine brass musicians who apparently play better with off-center mouthpiece placements.  It’s not always best to try to center your placement, particularly if it doesn’t work as well.

Lastly, these subjects offer a few examples of players who place their mouthpieces either high enough or low enough on the lips that the rim is set on the red of one of their lips.  As I’ve recently blogged about here, there is nothing inherently wrong with placing the mouthpiece like this, as long as this fits the musician’s anatomical features.  Roland BergerGiuseppe BianchiniHeinrich KellerValeriy PolekhAdriaan van WoudenbergDavid PyattDanilo Stagni, and Eric Terwilliger all place the mouthpiece so that there is some red above or below the rim, 8 players out of 23.  With many of the other players you can see that the inner diameter of the rim is inside the red as well.  In spite of contrary opinions, it’s really not all that hard to find excellent brass players who place their mouthpiece rim on the vermillion of their lips.  I think it’s fair to take instruction to avoid this sort of placement with a grain of salt.

Tip of the horn to Bruce Hembd from Horn Matters for emailing me the link to the survey, knowing that I’d be interested in looking at it further.  If you want to read a bit more about off-center placements, check out Bruce’s post on Symmetry and Balance: 3 Reasons to Not Worry about an Off-Center Embouchure.

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