Embouchure Questions: Mouth Corner Snap and the Lip Pucker

I’m trying to get through some questions I have piling up. Here’s one I got from Chris a while back.

Hi Dave,

I have another Reinhardt related question. Somethings about my playing are getting better, especially my range and endurance, but my tone is not big and full in all registers.

I think at least part of the problem is that I don’t naturally experience any puckering. I get an okay tone by just putting the mouthpiece on my lips in their natural place and blowing – the embouchure firms but the corners don’t ‘snap forward’ – and from here I have a low G to a 3rd ledger F (trumpet), or sometimes G’s and A’s above that. I can do that through pinching or compression. But I don’t have a big, rich sound.

I also recall reading on Trumpet Herald that lip pucker was considered to be something added after everything else was working.

Do you think it is possible that you can develop like I mentioned without the pucker element developing? If so, how would someone go about adding that element to their playing?

Thanks!

As always, it’s really hard to be specific without watching you play, so all I can do is speak generally. It’s difficult to fully grasp many of Donald Reinhardt’s descriptions through text, you often need to have someone show you what things look like.

The mouth corner inhalations is a difficult process to get used to and is one that I find myself always striving to improve on too. This involves keeping your lips just touching inside the mouthpiece and breathing through the mouth corners. When you attack the initial note after inhaling you want the tongue, breathing, and embouchure to all coordinate together. This is where the mouth corner “snap” comes in place. At the peak of your inhalation, and without hesitation, you begin to blow. At the exact same time your tongue will move to its position behind the upper teeth and start the backstroke that creates the articulation (“tah,” “tee,” “dah,” doh,” etc., depending on how pointed an attack you want and what register you’re playing). While these both are going on your mouth corners should snap quickly into their position, firmed roughly where they are when your mouth is closed at rest.

If the corner snap isn’t happening for you there are a couple of things you can try to get them working better. Often times the reason we have trouble coordinating mechanics is because there’s so much going on at once we can’t think about everything well enough to time it in. Try removing something from the equation and work only on one or two things at a time.

Let’s not assume that the mouth corner snap is the only issue. It could be that the reason you’re not able to time getting your corners into position is because something else in the process is happening at the wrong time too. Take some simple exercises and try some nose inhalations with breath attacks first while watching your embouchure in a mirror. Keep everything looking as identical as possible while breathing in through the nose as it looks when you’re playing. You want to make your chops work as if all you need to do play is to go from inhaling to blowing, nothing else visibly changes except the air. When you think you’ve got the idea, switch do doing this with your eyes closed and concentrate on what the feel is like.

Next, continue nose inhalations but add a tongued attack. Again, spend some time watching yourself in a mirror and also with your eyes closed to concentrate on the feel. Reinhardt often had short sets in a give exercise that repeated (his “Spiderweb Routine,” for example).  You can watch yourself in a mirror for the first time through and then close your eyes for the second.

Spiderweb

As you begin getting your exhalation and tonguing coordinating comfortably gradually switch to a mouth corner inhalation. Again, watch yourself in a mirror to see if you are getting your mouth corners to move as quickly as possible from their open position to “snapping” into playing position. Even if it’s not working quite like it should, make note of what it looks like in the mirror and what it feels like when it works wrong. Don’t let your mouth corners open too much or pull back out into an excessive smile position while inhaling, think of them opening just enough to take a slow and relaxed breath. Remember to draw your tongue out of the way of the intake of air.

If you’re still having difficulties with the corner snap, remove the tonguing again and practice breath attacks with the mouth corner inhalations. You may be bottling the air up with the tongue and because of this your mouth corners hesitate a moment to get into position. Again, do some mirror observations and also close your eyes to concentrate on the feel.

As far as the “lip pucker” goes, my thoughts here may be different from what some of Reinhardt’s students might tell you. It’s also possible that Reinhardt felt that what a high brass player would do is slightly different from low brass. That said, I think that perhaps some of the differences you might hear from different players that studied from Reinhardt might also be influenced by when they happened to take lessons from him. Here’s what Reinhardt wrote in 1942 in the Pivot System for Trumpet, A Complete Manual With Studies.

The eventual goal of the PIVOT SYSTEM is a natural LIP-PUCKER. Your lips go forward to meet the mouthpiece-rim; you should not bring the mouthpiece to meet the lips. This mode of playing reduces all lip-pressure to a minimum and the extreme top-register can be played with apparent ease. Replace the old-fashioned “smile system” with the PIVOT and the LIP-PUCKER, and many unnatural lip complications will vanish.

Note that in the context of discussing the lip pucker Reinhardt refers to the “smile embouchure.” Around 1900 it was actually fairly common for brass teachers to encourage players to pull their mouth corners back as if smiling to ascend, something that we know today limits a brass musician’s high range and endurance. We also know that Reinhardt frequently taught players to go from point A to point B by teaching them to go to point C, only to bring them back to point B later. This can be an effective pedagogical trick, but if you’re not in a situation where you’re getting a teacher to watch what you’re doing you can end up doing too much of a good thing and take it too far. I suspect that in this situation Reinhardt may have been encouraging a lip pucker in order to discourage a smile embouchure.

Compare the above quote from Reinhardt to what he published in 1973 in his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System.

In the PIVOT SYSTEM, the term lip pucker is to imply a tightening down of the mouthcorners against the teeth. Because of the circular formation of the teeth, the mouthcorners must “snap forward” into this puckered position simultaneously with the initial attack. This snapping forward of the mouthcorners occurs a split-second after the mouthcorner inhalation has been enacted. The lip pucker increases its forward push (cushion formation) while the performer is ascending the register of the instrument, and decreases it while he descends. Thus the lip pucker is utilized from the very moment that the initial attack is executed and throughout the blowing; however, it must never be used as a means of forming the embouchure to make the lips receptive to mouthpiece placement.

The PIVOT SYSTEM lip pucker is the “neutralizing or equalizing force” of the “forward and backward” embouchure pressures which are constantly utilized throughout the playing. Remember, the mouthpiece must always be placed upon an embouchure with “buzzing firmness,” and the lip pucker itself must be formed and synchronized with each and every initial attack. In short, do not pucker for placement, pucker to play!

Note that in the above passage Reinhardt discusses the lip pucker as the mouth corners snapping “forward” and that this forward lip pucker increases as you ascend and decreases as you descend. Many people interpret a lip pucker as bringing the mouth corners inward as you play (opposite of the smile embouchure), however by 1973 Reinhardt was describing the lip pucker a bit differently from his earlier description.

Reinhardt also had a “Lip Pucker Routine” that was similar to the Spiderweb Routine, but with some important differences.

Lip Pucker Routine

In this exercise you must not crescendo on the half note. Continue to expand the intervals chromatically to high C. Again, use a mirror to observe the “forward pushing of the mouthcorners with the eighth note.”

Lastly, a personal anecdote that may offer some additional insights. Keep in mind here that I’m going by memory of what I was told by two different teachers who studied extensively from Reinhardt. I’ve looked around for my lesson notes and couldn’t find the exact ones I’m thinking of, so I may have some of the details wrong. Take it with a grain of salt.

At one point a Reinhardt teacher (a trumpet player) offered a suggestion that I should think of bringing my mouth corners inward towards the mouthpiece rim as I ascend. This is something that many brass players sometimes recommend. It did seem to help the production of the extreme upper register.

However, later in a lesson with a different teacher (a trombonist), he pointed out that my inward mouth corner pucker was causing my sound to thin out and causing difficulties with descending back down without needing to pull the mouthpiece off my lips and reset. I was relying on squeezing too much “meat” into the mouthpiece cup to get the faster vibrations, rather than building strength and holding the mouth corners firmly in place. When I asked about the instructions to bring the mouth corners inward to ascend this teacher suggested that it could be something that Reinhardt felt was different for trumpet than for trombone.

That said, it’s possible that this might have been due to the time period when these two particular teachers studied with Reinhardt. We know that Reinhardt was constantly testing and evolving his pedagogy. Consider the many changes he made from publishing the Pivot System Manuals and the Encyclopedia of the Pivot System. According to some of Reinhardt’s students who took pedagogy lessons from him towards the end of his life he had made changes from what he wrote in the Encyclopedia as well. He was constantly evolving and making updates and corrections to what he taught. Often times I feel that some of the posts in the Trumpet Herald Reinhardt Forum reflect instructions that might have been particular to that student or were Reinhardt’s method to get a student to exaggerate a particular mechanical issue that would have been brought back at a later time. Take all recommendations (including mine here) with a grain of salt if you’re not at an in-person lesson.

In short, I wouldn’t worry too much about a “lip pucker,” per se, but instead spend time coordinating your mouth corner snap and keeping your mouth corners locked in place for the entire range (roughly where they might be when your mouth is closed and at rest). As you ascend, the mouth corners will gradually push forward to ascend and come back slightly to descend, but think of this as the forward pressure of the mouth corners “neutralizing” the backward pressure of the mouthpiece and don’t let this forward push become too extreme. Opening up your sound is something that I would need to watch you play to help with. Using your proper embouchure motion (not too much, not too little) can really help here. Also, don’t neglect how you’re breathing here. With all the attention on embouchure that we sometimes do it’s easy to forget that the breathing is a very important part of our playing. Breathing is also one of the most natural parts of brass playing and is comparatively easy to correct. It may be that you’re doing too much forward mouth corner pucker in the first place, thinning out your tone somewhat. Spend some time forgetting about your chops and strive towards the sensation that your breathing is doing the work for your embouchure. Then forget all about chops, breathing, and tonguing and be sure to practice expressive playing.

Good luck!

Anthony

Dave – Thanks for this very useful posts. I’ve never heard of this lip pucker routine before. Are there any more instructions on how to play it or any related exercises?

I don’t know if you’ve read the transcript of the 1963 lesson Reinhardt gave to Phillip Horch (it’s on Trumpet Herald), but at the end of that, Reinhardt talks about another lip pucker routine which involves descending from a high concert Bb by “reaching down” i.e. by forcing more meat into the cup while simultaneously maintaining mouthpiece pressure.

The instruction in the Horch interview confuses me as it sounds like it involves puckering to descend rather than to ascend. I’d be interested to get your thoughts.

Dave

Glad I found your comment, Anthony. I was trying to approve it on my phone and I ended up sending it to the spam folder by mistake.

I have seen the Horch transcript, but it’s been a while since I read it. I’ll try to dig it up and read through it again soon. I don’t remember the exercise you’re talking about. My gut instinct is that I wouldn’t recommend “forcing more meat” into the cup to descend, but I’d have to get the context. It might be something for practice to get a player working towards “point B” by going from point A to point C and then pulling back. As I recall, much of the Horch interview discussed this sort of pedagogical trick, but in relation to the jaw position and horn angle.

Dave

Someone (I think Chris) left a comment yesterday here. I was trying to approve it on my phone while at a gig and accidentally deleted it instead. Please repost so I can approve it and reply!

Bruce Bevans

Dave, during every Orientation, Doc would demonstrate the pucker and corners snapping forward on his Kiefer trombone. I recall his corners definitely snapping forward as he played a loud F above middle a flat. Man, he had power! His embouchures reminded me of photos of Tommy Doesy playing. They were both “type III’s”

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