Developing embouchure control requires a certain degree of embouchure strength. Having strong embouchure muscles allows the brass musician to focus the muscular effort in the correct place, develop a more effortless feeling while playing, and tolerate mouthpiece pressure better without risking injury.
The orbicularis oris is one muscle group used in playing a brass instrument. It is used to pucker the lips and close the mouth. It encompasses the entire lips, including the vermillion and runs from just under the nose to down just above the chin.
Here is a video I recently came across where “Bahb” Civiletti (I’ve discussed Cviiletti before in my discussion about the tongue controlled embouchure, a technique I generally discourage) discusses a Facial-Flex device that is designed to strengthen the orbicular oris.
Best as I can tell, this device can be used as an “away from the horn” exercise to strengthen the orbicular oris, but I think a good question to consider here is whether or not this particular exercise is a good thing for brass players to practice.
For the record, I am an advocate of using exercises to build strength in the embouchure muscles. Things like free buzzing, the pencil trick exercise, the jaw retention drill, and the P.E.T.E. can all be used effectively. When done correctly (and doing them correctly is the key) they can be analogous to weight lifting for your chops. They allow you to build muscular strength in a particular set of muscles without risking injury that can result from lots of heavy playing. When done incorrectly, however, they can end up developing the wrong muscles or train the player to use the muscles incorrectly that might potentially work against the player. In the case of the device that Civilitti is promoting above, I suspect that it may do more harm than good to a brass player’s embouchure.
It is definitely true that the orbicularis oris is a muscle group used for playing a brass instrument. Dr. Matthias Bertsch and Dr. Thomas Maca studied the muscles used by trumpet players using infared thermography and compared the muscles used by experienced players to inexperienced players.
The analysis demonstrates that the main facial muscle activity during warm up is restricted to only a few muscle groups (M.orbicularis oris, M.depresor anguli oris). The “trumpeter’s muscle” (M.buccinator) proved to be of minor importance.
However, I take issue with Civilitti’s presentation of photographs of a handful of trumpet player’s as “evidence” for how important this muscle is for a brass embouchure. Here are photographs of two trumpet players, one students and one professional player. Compare how their muscles look to the photos Civilitti presents. The bottom player is the professional trumpet player playing a high C while the top is the student playing the same pitch (and struggling). Can you tell by the photographs alone how much the orbicularis oris is engaged and whether or not one player is using more or less effort than the other? I’m not certain looking at photographs of great players (out of context, no less) will be an accurate measurement of what muscles are used and to what extent. In contrast, take a look at this photograph of a professional player from Bertsch and Maca’s paper. Note the areas where more muscular activity has occurred (redder).
With this particular player the orbicular oris is shown to be engaged, but largely focused in the lower lip with this particular player, not so much the top lip (as Civiletti points out in his video). Now I would caution everyone from drawing any conclusions from these small number of examples, but it does suggest that perhaps the orbicular oris isn’t engaged quite in the same manner that Civiletti feels, at least not with all players.
Note also in the above thermographic photo that the muscles at and just under the mouth corners are shown to be an area of much muscular effort with this player. This is the area where I believe the bulk of your embouchure effort should come from, not the orbicularis oris. When brass players are able to develop the strength to lock their mouth corners in place and use that area instead of relying on a pucker or smile to ascend the playing is generally stronger. The Facial-Flex device Civiletti demonstrates strengthens the orbicular oris in such a way as to move the mouth corners inward as with a pucker formation, rather than locking them in place.
This is the exact same reservation I have with some of the other “away from the horn” exercises I often recommend. Some players will practice the pencil trick or P.E.T.E. in such a way that they are using the orbicularis oris in the way Civiletti’s device is used. By bringing the mouth corners in to pucker around the pencil or P.E.T.E., rather than locking them in place and using the muscles indicated in the thermographic photo above, you are training your embouchure formation to work in this way. It’s important when practicing the pencil trick or P.E.T.E. to form your lips as if playing, rather than allowing the mouth corners to come inward into a pucker. This is tricky, because this works to a certain extent, but generally causes more long term problems than it solves. (For full disclosure, my personal experience here is a tendency to pucker my right corner too much in particular, which results in some difficulties with attacks and sound in my upper register up to a certain point and some difficulties getting into my low register after playing high without resetting the mouthpiece. When I’m able to keep the corners in place and more relaxed it is easier and sounds more focused. Take that for what it’s worth, a single anecdote.)
All that said, I suppose there may be certain situations where the device Civiletti is demonstrating might be useful. Many players will bring their mouth corners back as if smiling to ascend and for these players it might actually be helpful to train their mouth corners to come inward instead. I suspect, however, that this might be best done in moderation and once the player gets a more proper embouchure formation happening it would likely be better to avoid using the Facial-Flex device altogether. My preference is to use free buzzing as an exercise to help players with the smile embouchure as it not only strengthens to correct muscles but also trains the player to keep the mouth corners in their most efficient place.
In summary, I personally feel that the use of the Facial-Flex device is probably not very helpful for brass players, and possibly even counterproductive. There are other exercises that target the embouchure muscles in a better way with less risk of allowing the mouth corners to slip into a position that tends to work against good brass playing.
Do you have a different opinion? Have you experimented with the Facial-Flex device yourself and found it useful or did it work against your playing? Leave your comments below and let us know what you think.