Buzzing exercises and phrases on the mouthpiece alone is a very common tool and most brass teachers advocate it. I’ve used it myself for a long time both in my teaching and my own practice, but I’ve been relying on it less and less over the years. Influenced in a large part by the ideas of Donald Reinhardt, as taught to me mainly through Doug Elliott, I’ve pretty much eliminated its use in my own practice and tend to avoid recommending it to students in most cases now. That said, this viewpoint is in the minority and there are some situations where I sometimes find myself having a student buzz on the mouthpiece for a quick correction or boost in confidence.
While different teachers will instruct mouthpiece buzzing differently, I think it’s useful to think a bit about what it seems to be doing for a brass musician’s playing, what are the benefits and what are the potential drawbacks to its practice. In working out some of these pros and cons it may be possible to avoid some of the issues that it may cause or find alternative exercises, depending on whether you choose to mouthpiece buzz or not.
One of my teachers, John Seidel, taught me to use mouthpiece buzzing in a way where he would have me play a legato phrase or three, such as on a Rochut etude, buzz the passage on the mouthpiece (using no tongue except for initial attacks right after a breath), and then immediately pop the mouthpiece back on the instrument and play the same phrases again. Almost always I would get a feeling of relaxed playing and the tone would sound more focused and resonant. After playing a bit the improvement tended to disappear and I’d want to mouthpiece buzz again to recapture the sensation. I’ve used this same exercise with many students over the years and found that most players get similar results to this. Some of the key points in this exercise seem to be that you must buzz without using the tongue except for initial attacks after the breaths and you must play on the instrument immediately after buzzing on the mouthpiece.
What causes this noticeable difference and why does it seem to disappear for many players after playing a bit? I recall John saying that over the years he found little difference after mouthpiece buzzing because he felt that the habits that mouthpiece buzzing encouraged were already established in his regular playing. What are those habits?
I believe that mouthpiece buzzing encourages a player’s ear, embouchure, and breathing to all work together in order to buzz accurately on pitch. Mouthpiece buzzing is simply different from playing the instrument. If it were very similar then there would really be no point in practicing it as you might as well be playing your instrument. One of the differences is that you must focus your embouchure at the specific pitch you’re buzzing, while playing your instrument you can be a little off with the lip compression and let the overtone series slot the pitch for you. There’s also less air resistance and so you end up having to use your air more efficiently and take a larger inhalation in order to make longer phrases that would be easier on the instrument. It also requires you to really know the sound of the intervals and “hear” the pitches in your head so you can buzz the correct notes.
On the other hand, what sort of drawbacks are there from buzzing on the mouthpiece? Oddly enough, I think the reason why people find benefits from buzzing (because it’s different from playing the instrument) is also what causes the drawbacks. Getting good at buzzing in the mouthpiece is simply different from playing on the instrument and what works well for buzzing is not necessarily great for consistent playing. Buzzing on the mouthpiece a lot seems to end up with an embouchure formation that is too loose and open in general compared to playing on the instrument. You’re also not training yourself to adjust to the overtone series correctly (keep in mind that a mouthpiece also has an overtone series, it’s just very high and different from the instrument). In particular, there are areas of “turbulence” in buzzing the mouthpiece alone that sometimes players have difficulties getting around and they sometimes resort to contorting their embouchure formation or otherwise doing something they should be doing when playing their instrument.
So over the years I’ve been moving away from practicing and teaching mouthpiece buzzing and instead using other exercises to work the same thing. For practicing good breath control I like to use breathing exercises from the Breathing Gym instead. For working on focusing the embouchure correctly I practice and teaching things using the instrument instead (this can be different for each individual player and is hard to generalize here). Ear training is easily practiced by singing instead of mouthpiece buzzing.
I will say, however, that one area where I still think mouthpiece buzzing has some value over other exercises is when working with beginners. Players who haven’t been playing for very long can benefit from learning how to buzz on the mouthpiece because it helps them work towards a good embouchure and eliminates things like fingerings or slide positions and tonguing so they can concentrate on keeping their mouth corners firm, etc. That said, I think that mouthpiece buzzing can be easily overdone and care should be taken with beginners to not rely on it too much.
What do you think? Do you practice buzzing on the mouthpiece and/or teach students buzzing? Why do you think it’s beneficial or not? What do you do to maximize the results or avoid drawbacks?