Embouchure Motion Pedagogy – Part 1, Finding a Student’s Embouchure Motion

Many players, maybe most, are completely unaware of their embouchure motion, in spite of it being a very important part of embouchure form. Of course there are some players who do what works for their anatomy without ever needing to worry about it, but other players can unconsciously develop a way of playing that is contrary to their embouchure motion in the rest of their range. Some players may have an embouchure motion that jumps all over the place and it’s not obvious where it should be from watching them play. Some players have an embouchure motion that is very small and hard to observe. Since everyone is different, this topic quickly becomes so complex many teachers feel it’s best to ignore this and let the body figure itself out. This two part series will discuss my current thoughts on this topic, starting with talking about some strategies teachers can use to find a student’s correct embouchure motion. On Monday I’ll go over some common issues that students have with their embouchure motion and some ideas on how to approach practicing and teaching an efficient embouchure motion.

Before I go any further let me offer a “caviet emptor.” This is a difficult concept to discuss and it’s easy to be misinterpreted. Going into the level of detail I feel that does this topic justice and is complete enough to avoid misunderstandings assumes that the reader is patient enough to read the whole article and focused enough to not skim important points. Not to mention that in the process of writing sometimes things get mixed up or maybe I’m just plain wrong about something. As always, I encourage you to be skeptical of this information until you’ve confirmed it for yourself.

If you want a more detailed refresher about what I mean by “embouchure motion” follow that link, but the quick refresher is that I’m referring mainly to the way that brass players will slide the mouthpiece and lips together so that they are pushed up towards the nose and pulled down towards their chin along the teeth and gums. This aids the player in increasing or decreasing the lip vibrations. Some players push up to ascend while others pull down. In conjunction with this, there are also subtle changes in jaw position and horn angle that will go on as well. While everyone has differences in how this will work best, this is an important part of a brass player’s embouchure form.

Because all players will have a different embouchure motion determining a student’s embouchure motion can be tricky. I personally prefer to approach it in two stages where in addition to experimenting with what seems to be working, I also eliminate other possibilities to see what doesn’t work. “Trial and error” is one way to describe this, but I prefer to think of it as the scientific method – you don’t prove something by looking for evidence that supports your thought, you test what you believe by trying to prove it wrong.

The first stage I go through is trying to work out the player’s general embouchure motion direction (pushing up to the nose or pulling down towards the chin to ascend). Donald Reinhardt wrote about one method of determining the direction of a player’s embouchure motion. I’ll quote him here, but keep in mind that the definition of how he uses the word “pivot” is exactly the same thing as I’m using “embouchure motion” for. Do not confuse Reinhardt’s use of “pivot” for tilting the horn, that is not what he meant by it.

A fairly reliable, although not completely infallible, PIVOT TEST or method of selecting the correct PIVOT for a particular physical type is as follows:

1. Play a sustained half note, moderately loud, on the trumpet. . . middle C . . . and slur up to the G or to the high C. . . Practice this ascending slur at least six times and push up. . . Strive to locate the core or center of each sound with the PIVOT mentioned and be concerned by the amount of effort utilized and the particular type of tonal timbre.

2. Repeat the entire procedure in an identical manner but this time pull down while ascending (not referring to the instrument angular motion). . . Again strive to produce the centers of all pitches involved and pay particular attention to the effort and sound factors.

Generally speaking, one of the two PIVOT CLASSIFICATIONS (interjecting here, Reinhardt is talking about the embouchure motion, not tilting the horn) will offer much greater freedom of embouchure response than the other; this is the correct ascending PIVOT to select.

Donald S. Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, pp. 200-201

I’ve cut out some info from the above quote for the sake of describing the method first, but I do want to mention the recommended pitches to start on with the other brass instruments. Reinhardt recommended trumpets on middle C (written C5), trombones/baritones/euphoniums on middle Bb (Bb3), horns on C below the treble clef staff (written C4), and BBb tuba low Bb (3rd ledger below bass cleff staff, Bb1).

As Reinhardt mentioned, this method isn’t always perfect. Sometimes players will change the direction of their embouchure motion at a particular point in their range. I will usually also do the same test, but have players slur from their starting pitch down large intervals. What I think should work to slur up an octave from their starting pitch should work exactly in the opposite direction to slur down. The incorrect embouchure motion direction should also similarly show you what doesn’t work.

embouchure_motionOnce I have worked out the general direction of a student’s embouchure motion I try to then work out how this particular student’s individual differences are going to change the details of how their embouchure motion will work best. Not everyone has an embouchure motion “track” that is straight up and down. Many players have a “track” that is angled to one side. Notice in my hypothetical example here that even though the imaginary track that the embouchure motion is going is generally up and down, it’s slightly angled so that the ascending motion is up and to the right of the diagram, and descending is down and to the left. The key point is that it’s functioning in a straight line, just angled to the side.

So at this stage I repeat Reinhardt’s “embouchure motion test” while asking the student to try angling their ascending embouchure motion to various degrees and on both sides. Listening for timbre and intonation I want to find the extreme ends on how this student can play with an embouchure motion to not just find what seems to be working, but again eliminating other possible ways before settling in. Then repeat for a descending slur. Again, what works to ascend should be the exact opposite to descend.

Recently Rich Hanks posted about this on the Reinhardt Forum at the Trumpet Herald. Again, please remember that he is using Reinhardt’s definition of “pivot,” which is defined as the pushing and pulling of the mouthpiece and lips up and down along the teeth, not horn angle.

In general, there will be a direction where the pitch goes sharp and a direction where the pitch goes flat. Often, you can even get that on one note. While trying to hold a pitch steady for a long tone, for example, you can experiment with moving the horn up/down and left/right. Hopefully, you will notice patterns on that one note. Then see if that works the same over intervals.

By moving the horn angle around while the player is sustaining a single note you might notice certain intonation or timbre changes. For example, if the student’s pitch goes sharp when you move the horn angle towards the right, then this player might want to incorporate this angle change when ascending and move towards the left to descend. With some students I may recommend they not worry about their horn angle for a while, depending on how they already play and what sort of things we decide should be priorities. However, while doing a little of this experimenting I will also sometimes make their embouchure motion for them while they’re trying to sustain a single pitch. If I push a student’s mouthpiece and lips together up towards the nose and the pitch drops, then this helps provide additional support that this student’s general embouchure motion should be down to ascend. Sometimes you can even make a student slur a partial up or down this way. Here’s a video that shows me experimenting with one student this way.

Gradually, through this combination of experimentation, a pattern will hopefully emerge that all points towards a specific embouchure motion that works best for a particular student. Sometimes it takes weeks to work out the kinks, but other times it will be obvious pretty quickly.

Many students will  frequently react to having their horn angle or embouchure motion moved for them by adjusting their head to follow. They are used to playing a certain way and want it to feel that way, whether or not it’s correct. Especially if you’re trying to find the extreme edges where certain things can work it’s hard for the student to fight that urge. This sort of experimentation requires the student be comfortable with things not working, since what you’re experimenting with gives you clues as to how to make it work. I should also mention that it can be very demanding on the chops to do this sort of experimentation, and I find it’s useful to allow for lots of short breaks. These are good times to discuss what you’re looking and listening for and what you notice, or to answer any questions the student might have.

In part 2 (to be posted Monday) I’ll go over some common issues students have with their embouchure motions and some thoughts on how to correct them as efficiently as possible so that more time can be spent on making music over developing chops.

If you’re a teacher who considers the embouchure motion as important to learn about, how do you determine your students’ most efficient ones? If you’re a student who had your embouchure motion typed by a teacher, what sort of things did he or she check for that are different from my thoughts above? Got questions on how to interpret something you notice while experimenting? Leave your comments below.

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