Embouchure Question: “True Buzz” and Equipment Size Fitting Your Size

I’m trying to get through some of the questions I’ve been emailed that have piled up. This one is from Mark.

Hi Dave,  your suggestions to me as a fellow upstreamer to do shorter practice chunks (5 min.) was very helpful to me a few yrs. back…thanks!  (On a side note, you might be interested to know that in high school I knew my emb. was different from everyone else I knew, & Kai was the only person who looked to have a similar one, from a photo, and that he had a brighter sound than JJ.)  
Anyway, since we free buzz downstream, how can we tell about the accuracy of our true buzz, as downstreamers do? Also, as I am on the somewhat smaller side, is smaller equip. more in resonance with me as as a player, or is that irrelevant?
Thanks for your time,  Mark

In case you surfed over here and haven’t seen how I personally will use the terms “upstream” and “downstream” in relationship to embouchure, you will want to take a bit on look through this resource here. Both Mark and I are not talking about whether you have a high or low horn angle, we’re talking about how the air stream actually passes the lips into the mouthpiece.

Mark mentions that upstream players will (should) free buzz downstream when practicing free buzzing exercises. This is because it is the best way for brass players to target the specific muscles you want to focus on with your brass embouchure (the intersection of muscles at and just under the mouth corners). Trying to make your free buzz work upstream, even if you’re naturally an upstream player, typically forces your lips into a position where you’re not really targeting the correct muscles. Here is another resource I have put together on free buzzing.

To get to Mark’s question about the accuracy of the buzz I think it’s important to note that I don’t consider free buzzing to be a useful diagnostic tool, but rather a type of practice that one can use. While it may be true that many downstream players want to make their playing embouchure more like their free buzzing embouchure, that’s not always the case. For some players of any embouchure type you can see the aperture forming in one spot with free buzzing, but if you look inside a transparent mouthpiece or visualizer you’ll see the aperture forming in a a different spot on the lips (here’s a resource I’ve put together on this topic). Incidentally, I do not use a rim cut-a-away/visualizer as a diagnostic tool either, but prefer a transparent mouthpiece as it shows us the most accurate look at a player’s embouchure as it actually is functioning while performing. If you want to see what any player’s embouchure is actually doing when playing you shouldn’t rely on free buzzing or rim only buzzing. It might be similar, but it might be completely different. Brass teachers and players who rely exclusively on those methods for embouchure diagnosis are getting an incomplete picture.

Regarding Mark’s equipment question, I have to start off by warning everyone that I really haven’t looked very closely at this. Most of my mouthpiece recommendations are based on what I learned from Doug Elliott in some of my lessons with him. We’ve mostly discussed how different embouchure types can respond to different general mouthpiece features. It seems logical that for a very small person a smaller mouthpiece might be typical and larger folks might want to play on a generally larger mouthpiece. That said, I don’t really know how accurate this idea is.

One thing that I really like about the equipment recommendations I got from Doug is that he started from a general recommendation and then methodically helps you find the right mouthpiece for you. In one of my lessons he brought out different sized rims and had me try them out one at a time, going to the next larger size each time. As I went bigger we both noticed slight improvements in my sound up to a point at which the next larger rim size made my sound less focused. Going back to one size smaller ended up being perfect for me.

If you’re looking to work out a good mouthpiece size for your personal embouchure I’d recommend a similar experiment. Try out mouthpieces that change one feature (cup size, cup shape, rim size, rim bite, etc.) and methodically try them out until you find the best fit for you. It may be more difficult to get a hold of all those different mouthpieces, but I think this may be the best way to really know for sure.

Mark Richardson

Hi Dave, it is about 5 yrs. since I posted this question, and I realize that my chops are about the same (or worse) as when I was in high school 45 yrs. ago. Unlike my mediocre running ability, which with training was able to run over 20 miles after 4-5 months, my mediocre embouchure is physically unable to practice more than 20 minutes a day on average without breaking down. This despite free buzzing 5 minutes per day, doing slow warm-ups religiously, doing pencil in mouth trick (the right way), jaw retention drill, 5′ practice chunks, not pulling lips off when I breathe, and other strengthening exercises away from bone.
I’m wondering if there are any successful upstream players who have a significant overbite. I’ve noticed that Kai Winding, supposedly IVa type, has almost no downward tilt that would indicate much overbite (see his “Lover Man” video at the 1:35 mark). Not like my overbite, anyway.
Because I was trained to play upright bass passably well, I know its not a perserverance issue, and I am invited to play a semi-pro jazz jam, so besides my atrocious stamina I am somewhat competent. Any chance that I am a case where the upstream naysayers happen to be right? Curiously, Mark

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