Kind Words From Rusty McKinney

Rusty McKinney, bass trombone
Rusty McKinney, bass trombone

A short while ago I got an email from Rusty McKinney, formerly the bass trombonist with the Utah Symphony. Rusty is one of the examples of an upstream orchestral player I mentioned in my article about five common embouchure misconceptions, specifically referring to the myth that all players need to place the mouthpiece centered or with more top lip inside the mouthpiece. Rusty has a low placement and plays quite well with it! He gave me permission to quote our email exchange and so here are some of the things he mentioned to me, with a few of my thoughts scattered between.

HI Dave,

I ran across your site and saw that you mentioned me in your upstream are in “Myths ” section. I often make the upstream list and am intrigued and slightly amused that it is usually me and jazz artists!

Like Rusty, I too find it interesting that most of the upstream players that we know about are jazz players. It’s definitely true that downstream players are more common, not because of any inherent advantage but because more players don’t have the anatomical features that make upstream players work best. I also feel that because teachers have a tendency to teach what worked for them personally that many upstream players are taught to move their mouthpiece higher on the lips and are forced into a downstream embouchure inadvertently. These players will typically struggle and either never reach their full potential or give up brass playing altogether. Because jazz players are more likely to be self taught and classical players tend to go through formal music education (particularly in conservatories, where tradition is strong) this tends to weed out upstream players in favor of downstream players.

Anyway, I wanted to let you know that I am more in your neighborhood than I used to be. I left the Utah Symphony about two years ago to switch my emphasis to being a church music director and as such I am now fulltime at White Plains United Methodist Church in Cary, NC.

I am still playing regularly, often subbing in the NC symphony, and playing for NC Opera and various orchestras that are put together for Duke Chapel. And I have given master classes this past Spring at UNC Chapel Hill for Mike Chris’ Studio and at UNCSA for John Ilika’s studio.

Hope we can connect sometime. My upstream embouchure still works just fine!

One of the common arguments I hear from downstream teachers who discourage the low mouthpiece placement that is what makes an upstream embouchure is that it will eventually break down. Rusty is a perfect example of how an upstream embouchure can function very well long term, when the player learns to work with his or her natural tendencies.

Too many folks dismiss the embouchure and that is a bad thing. I would have been ruined by well meaning teachers had I not been so bull headed. And been lucky to find folks along the way like Doug [Elliot] who either understood how the upstreamer functions or as with others who didn’t care how I did it, as long as I got good results and had endurance.

One of the funniest moments was when I was in Jr. High and my teacher, a respected ( and rightfully so ) college professor had me play for a visiting artist from Las Vegas. He had a few suggestions about improving my legato but said nothing about my embouchure. When my teacher started pointing out all the things that were “wrong” with my set-up the clinician said, “Hey man, if  you can get a sound like that you could stick the mouthpiece in your ear for all I care!”  It was pretty funny. My teacher wasn’t especially amused.

Great story. Thanks to Rusty for stopping by and allowing me to post his emails. I’m excited that he’s now so close to where I am (Asheville, NC) and the next time I make it out east towards him I hope that we’ll be able to hook up and share some upstream embouchure stories.

My own upstream embouchure is still working fine too!

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