Embouchure Motion Pedagogy – Part 2, Common Issues and Corrections

In part 1 last week I discussed a basic procedure for working out how a give student’s embouchure motion functions best. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to at least skim through that before reading this one. In this article I’m going to cover some of my thoughts on what to do with this information and why it’s important.

But before I do just my quick standard disclaimer. Please don’t assume that everything I present here is 100% correct. I try to be clear when I’m confident about a piece of information and when I’m speculating and some of what I’ve come to rely on may be outdated or just plain wrong. This is also a pretty complex topic and it’s a fine line to dance between brevity and clarity on one side with completeness and attention to details on the other.

As I mentioned in part 1, most players seem to be completely unaware of their embouchure motion. They unconsciously make it work and many brass musicians play great without ever needing to consider it (click here to see one example I recorded on video). However, many players can develop a reversal in their embouchure motion form and function that hinders their playing. Sometimes this issue isn’t apparent for a long time afterwards and by the point where it begins causing trouble, the issue is harder to correct. Even for players who are doing things pretty correctly in an unconscious way might find minor tweaks to offer good long term results.

There are many out there who are no doubt already thinking that all this will lead to “paralysis by analysis.” Before I go any further I think I should address some valid concerns some people bring up. I would agree with some that it’s much easier (and faster, at least in the short term) to teach brass students by teaching good breathing and to play by sound, not by analyzing their embouchure. I’m not suggesting that we forget this approach, just take advantage of information that helps put everything into the situational context. Also, you don’t need to explain every minute detail to your student unless you find the student is interested or might be able to benefit from understanding. Knowledge is not a bad thing, but if you’re worried about the student thinking about the wrong thing while playing then the issue is one of focus, not the fault of the information or evidence that it’s wrong. The time and place to analyze the embouchure and work on corrections is in the teaching studio and practice room. There’s also other things that need to be taught and practiced too, so just spend whatever amount of time you find is helpful, explain in as much detail as you feel is best, and move on to other materials when it’s time.

Developing a practice routine to work on a student’s embouchure motion is, like the student’s embouchure motion itself, going to be unique to the student. There’s a balance I try to strike between giving someone specific enough instructions to fully understand how to practice this and being vague enough to allow them to find what works for them. I generally try to give them instructions that they should “ascend by pulling down and slightly to the left/descend by pushing up and slightly to the right” or some similar sounding language specific to how I think their embouchure motion should function.

Two general types of exercises that most brass players are familiar with are good for practicing the embouchure motion – slip slurs and lip flexibility exercises based on the overtone series. Donald Reinhardt had a specific set he called the “Pivot Stabilizer” and “Track Routine” that are good starting points to describe the basic idea.

Again, Reinhardt used the term “pivot” to refer to this phenomenon of brass players pushing their mouthpiece and lips together along the teeth to change registers, not to refer to tilting the horn around. Most brass players use the term “pivot” differently, so I prefer to use Doug Elliott’s term, “embouchure motion,” instead. Reinhardt’s “[Embouchure Motion] Stabilizer” exercise was essentially a series of lip slurs where the player would start on a middle register note, slur down to a low register note, and then slur up to increasingly higher notes. I prefer to use octave slurs instead for a number of reasons. I first learned about this approach when interviewing Doug for my dissertation. He said:

What specific exercises do you suggest for various embouchure types to speed along corrections?

I suggest octave slurs, because it’s enough distance that you can see and feel the motion, if you watch in a mirror.  It’s also a reference point, every octave should be the same amount of motion regardless of what octave it is.  For example, almost all trombone players move way too far between middle B flat and low B flat.  If you try playing middle B flat to low B flat and look in the mirror you see this huge motion.  And every other octave in the horn you don’t move that far.   Well, it will all work a lot better if you made it the same distance.   Close that up and open it up somewhere else.

So it’s not an incremental thing where the higher you ascend the amount of the motion gets smaller?

I would say that’s the way most people actually play but I don’t think that’s desirable.  I think it needs to be the same amount of motion for each octave.  Or close to it.

The other exercise Reinhardt commonly used was his “Track Routine.” Brass players are already familiar with the lip flexibility exercises that move along different partials with the same fingering or slide position and the basic notes of the “Track Routine” are similar. What was different was how he wanted students to practice them. First, he advised his students to tongue them first and then on the same breath slur them on the repeat. He felt that this would make for an inherently more stable embouchure formation from the get go, since slurring them first would allow students to have their embouchure a little too flabby. He also wanted his students to play these exercises while paying close attention to the line their embouchure motion takes while keeping any changes in horn angle to an extreme minimum. Much like with the octave slurs, by carefully watching yourself play these in a mirror (and also by concentrating on the playing sensation) you can use this exercise to make the most embouchure motion consistent and unconscious.

There are some common issues students run into with their embouchure motion form. The one Doug mentioned in the quote above, using too much motion at a particular point in your range, is one I am quite familiar with.  I spent years working on correcting this and still have a tendency to resort to it from time to time. Here’s some video footage from several years ago where the problem is quite noticeable.

In my particular case, I carefully worked octave slurs ascending from middle Bb to high Bb and watched myself in a mirror to see how much motion I was making and how the track of the ascending slur was off to one side. Then I practiced descending from middle Bb to low Bb and tried to make it work the same, just in the opposite direction. It was hard to do this without resorting to dropping my jaw too much, but over time I’ve developed more consistency down there overall. I’m also pleased that I was able to make corrections to this before it could cause problems down the road. It’s not good to allow such reversals to become too ingrained, the problems they can cause sometimes happens in other registers where the shift isn’t happening.

Here’s an example of a trumpet player I worked with who was having difficulties with his upper register. While testing his embouchure motion I noticed that at a particular spot in his upper range he unconsciously reversed the direction of his embouchure motion, instead of continuing to push up to ascend he began to pull down there. After a bit of experimenting both in that range and finding out what works everywhere else in his range I had enough information to suggest he try continuing to push up to ascend at that point and fight the urge to pull down.

That particular case ended up being a fairly easy one for me to spot and help. Quite often I work with students who it’s much more difficult to tell how their embouchure motion should be working. Their embouchure motion may bob around on their face and be so inconsistent that it’s hard to tell what they should be doing. In these cases I think it’s fine to say, “I don’t know yet, but let’s work on these other issues first and see what happens.” It’s better to stabilize their embouchure first and see what happens. Here’s an example of one of these situations where I wasn’t too sure by the end of the session. With this particular example I’m not willing to fully commit to which direction his embouchure motion should move, but you can see and hear my thought process at the time. I’ve lost touch with this player, so I’m not sure what happened or if he is even still playing. With similar players I’ve worked the student’s best embouchure motion usually becomes more apparent over time if there are other issues that should be corrected first (i.e, this player needed more overall embouchure firmness first, then perhaps his embouchure motion would become clearer).

Another issue you’ll come across when checking out student’s embouchure motions is that sometimes they will continue moving in the same general direction, but hook off at a slightly different angle at a particular point in their register. Unfortunately I didn’t catch this happening at the time from the front view on video, but here is one example of this and the results he got from making his embouchure motion move in a straight line.

Obviously this is just scratching the surface of a complex topic, yet it’s one that gets very little attention in most methods and texts. In my opinion, gaining a better understanding of how it works is not just helpful for teachers, but also players as well. Placed in context of the big picture an instructor sees it serves as a useful tool for helping a student realize his or her musical goals.

Before concluding this series, I do want to pose some questions. What exactly is it that the embouchure motion is doing to help a brass musician play in a particular register? “Very high placement” type players and “low placement” type players might be considered upside down versions of each other, so from a mechanical standpoint, might they be essentially doing the same thing, just in the opposite direction/lip/etc.? The “medium high placement” type player is downstream, like the “very high placement” player, yet uses the same embouchure motion as the “low placement” upstream player. Why? What is it about this particular embouchure type would make it function in this way?

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