(Mis)Understanding the Pivot System

In some ways those of us who admire Donald Reinhardt’s pedagogy and use it in our teaching are responsible for some of the confusion about his “Pivot System.”  I’ve discussed before how Reinhardt’s own terminology is partly responsible for the criticism it gets.  On the other hand, a fair amount of dismissal of the Pivot System is due to people speaking as authorities on a subject they don’t understand.  Today’s rant is brought to you by one of the later.

Simon Foden is the author of eHow’s Understanding the Pivot System on Trumpet Playing.  Foden does have a BA in music but I strongly suspect he never studied any brass as he uses terms like “mouthpiece technique” and “mouth shape,” not terms widely used by brass players to describe embouchure.  His term “lip mobility” sounds like he read something about lip flexibility and ran it through a thesaurus.

If unusual terms were the only thing wrong with Foden’s article it would be understandable for a non-brass player.  Unfortunately, he also doesn’t demonstrate that he did enough research to understand what he was writing about.  His very first sentence is wrong.

The theory of the pivot system is based on rejecting the notion that the lips must lose contact with the mouthpiece when you change notes.

To start with, I don’t think there many approaches that actually endorse the lips loosing contact with the mouthpiece when changing notes.  Not to mention that while the Pivot System includes keeping the mouthpiece placement consistent for all registers, it’s not exactly a defining characteristic of how Reinhardt taught.  Reinhardt summarized his approach and if I had to condense his definition of the Pivot System into only one of his sentences I would choose this one:

This system, working on tried and tested principles, first of all analyzes and diagnoses the physical equipment of the player and then presents a specific, concrete set of rules and procedures which enable the individual to utilize, with the greatest possible efficiency, the lips, teeth, gums, jaws, and general anatomy with which he is naturally endowed.

– Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, Donald Reinhardt 1973

Foden’s confusion continues in his second sentence.

The pivot calls for your lips to remain pressed against the mouthpiece while you slide the mouthpiece to the side.

While there may be a side to side track in a player’s pivot, the general direction of this track is up and down.  Only couple of sentences later and Foden makes the most common error when describing the Pivot System.

The term “pivot” is used because the system calls for the player to tilt their instrument when changing notes to achieve higher range.

In my opinion, this further proof that Reinhardt’s term “pivot” should be avoided altogether.  The well has been poisoned for far too long for it to be rescued by any of Reinhardt’s former students or other advocates.  This is why when discussing this phenomenon I prefer to use the term coined by Doug Elliott, “embouchure motion.”  Foden’s misconception of the Pivot System is so common I can forgive this particular error.

However, Foden then offers some criticism that I had never come across before.

The pivot method has been heavily criticized because it encourages deviation of mouth shape. The system requires you to regularly change mouth shape to suit the specific sound you are seeking to achieve.

I don’t know where this particular criticism comes from, or where Foden got the idea that in the Pivot System you regularly change mouth shape in order to go after a specific sound.  I’m not certain if Foden is commenting on tongue position while slurring and sustaining or if he’s talking about something related to the embouchure.  As far as I know, Reinhardt never used this this term.

After getting a couple of things correct, more or less, Foden again mischaracterizes the Pivot System.

Reinhardt set out eight tongue-types in the pivot system, each suitable for a specific style of playing.

As with Reinhardt’s embouchure types, the different patterns used for tonguing technique are personalized because of the individual player’s anatomy, not the style you’re playing.

Foden’s section on the Pivot System’s approach with breathing is mostly accurate, but not really an accurate depiction of Reinhardt’s priorities in teaching breathing.  For example, Foden writes:

He [Reinhardt] claimed that breathing was just part of the problem and compared correcting a player’s breathing when they had other mechanical faults was ultimately pointless.

While I never studied personally with Reinhardt, from what I gleaned from reading Reinhardt’s work he would be more than happy to correct a player’s breathing when it was not working well.  Where the Pivot System differs from other traditional approaches is that it’s not expected that correcting breathing would cure an embouchure problem.

Foden does list three references, including my article attempting to summarize the Pivot System, and two resources put together by one of Reinhardt’s former students, Dave Sheetz.   It’s pretty clear that he never consulted any of Reinhardt’s actual writings.  As I alluded to above, I suspect that Foden is just a writer who was given an assignment to write an article on the Pivot System because he happens to have a BA in music, not because he has any insights into brass playing.

Of course eHow.com doesn’t really have a reputation for being a credible resource, but this sort of misinformation does filter out to the general public.


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