Thoughts On Mouthpiece Buzzing

Mouthpiece 2Buzzing 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?

Hoyt

I used to buzz every day for about 5 minutes before my first practice session, just to “loosen things up”. In fact, if I didn’t buzz, I had a lot of trouble making a sound right away on the instrument.

I haven’t buzzed at all for the past 9 months due to a rather drastic embouchure change (I’m now using the correct embouchure for my face, rather than just randomly placing it). Not only do I not “miss” buzzing, but I sound and play better than I ever had before. There’s also a consistency in feeling from day to day as I play that, in my opinion, is harder to maintain with frequent buzzing. Like you said, being a good buzzer is different from being good on the instrument.

The one main benefit I got from buzzing is with hearing the pitches before playing. Of course, this is also achievable through singing, which is what I do now instead of buzzing. In fact, I often find in my teaching that students who frequently miss notes are doing so because they can’t hear them first. Once they work through being able to sing it, their accuracy improves.

Tim Brown

I neither free buzz nor mpc buzz. Since I am largely self-taught, I do not do either because I have never been taught the correct way to do them. Fearful that I may do more harm than good, I simply do not use either tool. That said, I am making fast progress anyway.

My go to remedial is simple flexibility exercises. On any given occasion, if I don’t like the way I sound, I retreat back to those simple flexibility exercises that focuses on core sound. They seem to do for me what other people say mpc buzzing does for them.

…Tim

Paul T.

Very interesting post, Dave.

I’ve met lots of players who start with a long mouthpiece buzzing warmup, and can’t sound good until they’ve done so. Since I’ve stopped using mouthpiece buzzing in my warmup, I find I’m much more consistent and confident on the horn, even without a warmup at all (which, really, shouldn’t we all be? It makes no sense to be more comfortable without the instrument, when that’s not what we do in performance).

I’ve gone through this, too: almost all my teachers encouraged a LOT of mouthpiece buzzing, but in practice I found that it caused me problems, and, as a result, I stopped doing it. I’ve recently reintroduced mouthpiece buzzing into my practice on occasion, but only when I can’t play the horn (for instance, if I want to practice but I don’t have enough room and/or can’t make much noise).

One major aspect of mouthpiece buzzing which people sometimes forget is that when you buzz on the mouthpiece, you tend to play much louder than you would on the horn. Try buzzing a note on your mouthpiece, and then inserting it into the horn and playing the same note. You’ll find that you’re playing somewhere in the f to ff range!

This means that people tend to a) work the chops harder, b) use a lot more air, and c) open up the aperture, to get a bigger, singing sound.

This can be *fantastic* for a player who plays very pinched, uses no air, and can’t get a big sound. This is *absolutely deadly* to a player who doesn’t use enough compression and has trouble getting into the upper register. (It also encourages related problems, like the jaw drop.)

I’ve used it with players who need to get a bigger sound, more relaxed/open chops, and to develop ears and strength. It’s great for that purpose, if you do it carefully and intelligently.

I would stay away from it with any other kind of player, who is better off just practicing the horn (and singing to develop the ears). This is totally anecdotal, but it seems to me that most people who do a lot of mouthpiece buzzing don’t have great high chops, whereas people with strong high range (like lead players) don’t seem to do much mouthpiece buzzing.

You also have to be careful with the embouchure motion/angle when you use a mouthpiece: you can start doing all sorts of different things on the mouthpiece, techniques you do not or cannot use on the horn. For instance, I can only play in the low register on the mouthpiece if I adopt a large “pivot”, dropping and pushing out the jaw: something which would be a horrible habit on the horn.

So, as with free buzzing, I recommend that anyone who practices mouthpiece buzzing keeps it in the middle and upper register: playing lower than the middle register usually requires all sorts of contortions and unnecessary movement when using just the mouthpiece — something you really really don’t want to start doing on the instrument.

Next time you buzz on the mouthpiece, play a gliss into the extreme lower register and see what your angle and your lips do. I think you’ll find it dramatically different from what you know works when you play the horn!

(I *have* found that I can extend into the lower register by adding a lot of resistance to the mouthpiece, like by putting a thick cloth over the end of the mouthpiece. But only to a certain extent; ultimately I can only “buzz” normally in the middle to upper register on the mouthpiece; anything else requires unwelcome distortions.)

So those are my thoughts!

I agree with all your other comments, as well, so I won’t discuss them here.

Sven Larsson

The habits we have when playing the trombone are inscrutable.
All of us do things we are not aware about.
However I think it is good that we do ask our self what do I do to make that and what do I do when things are nor working right.
We do come up with very different answers though.
Very often I did find that what is good for some student does not work for other.
I do not use mouthpiecebuzzing for my own warm up.
There is a danger with mpc buzzing, it can sound good, but when doing the same procedure in the horn it might not work.

I did use mouthpiece buzz when teaching (I am now retired from 30 years of teaching student from the age of 16- 25, most of the former students are professional players today).
For some students the mpc buzzing did not work from the start, sometimes it took a couple of years before we could use it as a tool, sometimes it never worked.

Why buzzing the mpc?
The reason just mentioned, when a passage did not sound good on the horn it sometimes was because the air/lips did not actually play the right notes.
(there is a problem with mpz buzzing though, the buzzed tone in the mpc does not equal the tone played in the horn, until the student becomes more advanced it have to do until the real things comes along)
The habit that is gained is mostly mental, connecting the music to the buzz and the buzz to the music.

There was/is a time problem in this kind of school in Sweden, the student does not very often have time to warm up, she/he may just finished another lesson (match, language, history whatever) 5 or 10 minutes ago, rushing to get the horn rushing to the lesson, panting. That is a situation I never liked but could not change. I wanted the student to relax a bit before taking up the horn, I think the mpc buzzing worked good for that in many cases. (Yes, not all) We played simple melodies in the mpc.
.

Playing low has always been a problem for most beginner students, both in mpc buzzing and in the horn.
Many good trombonists have a strange way of playing low tones, it is like that part of the range is felt like a different part of the instrument.

I believe the player feel like they should open up the space between the lips and blow lots of air and go way to far in that. To make a good sound I believe the lips must connect in a very short part of the vibrating cycle.

Many very good bass trombonists can buzz the low tones in the mpc. Very few tenor trombonists can do the same. I believe it is right to not teach low tone buzzing if you can not do it good your self.
Actually I can.
Regards to you!
Svenne

Dave

Thanks for your comments, Svenne. I always enjoy reading your thoughts on these things and kudos for coming over and doing it in a second language too! I wish my second language (Spanish) was conversational.

david welborn

i never mouthpiece buzzed in 40 years of playing and did just fine. Then I decided to start doing it because of travels and time limitations for regular practice. My embouchure went to hell. Bottom line is: what it takes to buzz a mouthpiece is nothing like what it takes to produce a sound on the trumpet. Once I finally realized this, I relaxed and started getting my regular embouchure back through light practice sessions. I can see mouthpiece buzzing being helpful if someone is starting from scratch to learn trumpet, but not for established players.

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