Here’s an interesting video where mouthpiece manufacturer K.O. Skinsnes of Stormvi describes his understanding of how the lips buzz inside the mouthpiece. Take a look and see if you agree with everything he says.
Getting into the acoustics of brass instruments can be tricky and there is a certain degree of controversy that goes on. A lot of the disagreements can be chalked up to how often brass players rely on what we think we’re doing as opposed to objective observation. But in general, I found Skinsnes basic description to match my current understanding. There are a handful of things I’d like to comment on, however.
Early in the video he mentions some players’ opinion that the lips start open. Personally, I think it’s best to start the blowing with the lips in a closed position (breathing through the mouth corners with the lips inside the mouthpiece just touching), but some players do prefer to begin with the lips open. Where some confusion arises comes from the claims by some players that the lips remain open the whole time. This simply isn’t true, the lips open and close very rapidly during their buzz cycle, although Skinsnes isn’t commenting on this misunderstanding in his discussion, it’s common enough and frequently gets confused in the discussion of how the lips buzz on a brass instrument.
One area where I have some disagreement with Skinsnes is how to describe the muscular contraction that keep the lips more closed. First, notice that he labels this as “clamping” the lips together and “tension in the throat.” I prefer to describe this as “muscular contraction,” as we have a tendency to equate “clamping” and “tension” as bad things that we must avoid. Skinsnes claims that all we need to do is get the lips to buzz, but glosses over how the muscular contraction of the embouchure and breathing combine to change pitch and dynamics. In order to play louder there must be more air blown past the lips and in order to play higher the lips must be drawn back more firmly against the teeth and gums so the cycle of the buzz is faster, in spite of how Skinsnes explaining this.
Skinsnes’s description of the standing wave is spot on, but where I feel he goes wrong is he over-simplifies the role that embouchure strength and control has in playing in the upper register. According to Skinsnes, all that needs to happen is the lip buzz needs to be timed in with the cycle of the standing wave to make playing in the upper register easy. This dismisses the importance of focusing your muscular effort in the correct way in order to time your buzz efficiently. When a player has good embouchure strength and control it feels easy, just as a weight lifter who has built up upper body strength will find bench pressing 150 pounds to feel easy compared to someone who is out of shape. I don’t mean to completely dismiss the role that timing in the buzz has, but I feel Skinsnes misses the importance of good embouchure strength and form in coordinating the timing.
Just to offer another contrasting description, check out what Lloyd Leno has to say in his film, Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures on the topic of controlling the lip buzz for the upper register. Skip to about 4:37 into the video for the relevant quote.
Notice that as the pitch ascends the horizontal width of the aperture narrows. But also notice that at the same time the lips are turned in and brought closer to the teeth so that the amount of lip vertically decreases. We all know that a small mass can be made to vibrate rapidly more easily than a large mass. When players realize how to control this mass they can develop their upper range more easily.
Skinsnes and Leno describe the function of the lip buzz a bit differently here. Where Skinsnes feels that the upper register is played best through simple timing the opening and closing aperture with the reflection of the standing wave, Leno notes that this timing is made by the playing positioning the lips in such a way that the amount of mass and shape of the lip that vibrates.
There’s more I can write on the perceived dichotomy between muscular effort and relaxed coordination to play loudly or in the upper register, but that will have to wait for later. Until then, let me know what you think. Do you feel that playing in the upper register is primarily a matter of strength building, coordination, or some combination of both? If the later, how much do you feel is strength and how much is coordination?