K.O. Skinsnes Discusses the Buzzing Lips

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?

Paul T.

This is an interesting discussion. I agree with most of the mechanics described in the video (except for one detail: why do the lips have to open up when the pressure is *highest* in the mouthpiece – isn’t that the opposite of how it works, even according to K.O.’s own description?).

However, the implication that muscular tension is not a necessary factor is not something I agree with. It is pretty clear that muscular effort is involved in producing higher pitches on a brass instrument. Brass players who are out of shape but have excellent technique can play in the upper register, but have trouble sustaining that kind of effort for long periods of time or at extreme volume. Playing quietly in the mid/low register is never as taxing as playing loudly in the upper register — at least not for anyone I’ve ever met or heard of!

It seems that K.O. is suggesting that the brass player can consciously control the opening and closing action of the lips, so as to “time” it with the standing wave in the horn. However, this seems fairly unrealistic to me. I’m not an expert on muscle function and neural systems in the human body, but I very much doubt that a human being can learn to flex and relax a muscle system (in this case, the lips) at rates of over 1000 repetitions for second. (A trumpet “high G” is almost 1400 Hz, if I’m not mistaken, so the lips would have to be able to somehow control their opening and closing at a speed of nearly 1400 times per second.)

The explanation that it is the standing wave in the instrument which causes the lips to open and close at a particular rate (that is, in response to changing pressure within the mouthpiece/horn, and not the other way around) seems much more plausible to me.

I would imagine that the muscular contraction of the lips (and associated muscles of the face) do influence the speed at which the lips open and close. In the segment where K.O. is describing the “wrong” way to play, he says that when there is more “tension” in the lips, the lips close faster. This seems like a pretty plausible explanation for why muscular contraction allows us to create faster vibrations. (Every brass player, I’m sure, will attest that playing in the upper register requires more muscular contraction – just reach up with one hand and feel your mouth and face while buzzing or playing those notes – and more air pressure to begin the vibration. This aligns well with what he is describing in that segment.)

This is all but an educated guess on my part, of course. Still, it’s interesting to keep this discussion going. Maybe another reader knows how quickly the human neural system can activate and deactivate a muscle in the face? (But I’d be very surprised if it was anywhere near 1400 Hz!)

On the subject of relaxation, it’s always been my opinion that the sensation of relaxation is a result of two things:

1. The muscles involved are strong enough to create the necessary force without a sensation of strain. (As you point out, Dave, a huge, powerful weighlifter could quite conceivably feel “relaxed” when lifting the same weight a smaller, weaker person would have to strain a great deal to move.)

2. The player has learned how *not* to contract any *unnecessary* muscles in order to achieve the result with a minimum level of ease. If you’ve played any sport, or participated in any other similar physical activity which benefits from refined technique, you’re probably familiar with the sensation of “ease” which comes with improved technique: as you learn exactly *which* muscles need to work to complete a certain movement, you can also learn to relax other, unnecessary tension in your body, which allows you to feel more relaxed as you carry out those movements.

As your technique becomes more refined, and less tension elsewhere in your body is necessary, you start feeling much more relaxed, because you can use a fraction of the effort to achieve the same results.

(This last detail is backed up by Matthias Bertsch’s infra-red imaging sample of brass players, which was posted on this blog a while back, I believe.)


except for one detail: why do the lips have to open up when the pressure is *highest* in the mouthpiece – isn’t that the opposite of how it works, even according to K.O.’s own description?

Yeah, I assume that Skinsnes’s description just came out reversed, as sometimes happens when you’re talking off the cuff. It happens to me sometimes too.

It seems that K.O. is suggesting that the brass player can consciously control the opening and closing action of the lips, so as to “time” it with the standing wave in the horn. However, this seems fairly unrealistic to me.

Right. I’m guessing that he’s not claiming that a player can consciously flex and relax the embouchure muscles that quickly, but instead is referring to the control that a brass player needs to have the muscular contraction of the embouchure set at the exact firmness for a particular note at a particular dynamic range. Even here, this would contradict his idea that there’s little to no muscular effort involved, though.

This last detail is backed up by Matthias Bertsch’s infra-red imaging sample of brass players, which was posted on this blog a while back, I believe.

Yep. Here is is:



G, it’s been shown that the lips vibrate at the frequency of the pitch being played. Lloyd Leno’s original research filming embouchures with high speed video was to count the number of vibrations per second for different pitches and it matched pretty closely the frequency of the pitch (e.g., 440 for A3, etc.). So the lip speed needed for trumpet depends precisely on the pitch you’re playing.

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