If you’re not familiar with the “Pencil Trick” exercise for brass players, it’s a type of embouchure exercise where the player holds a pencil between the lips and holds it straight out for as long as he or she can, just through pinching the lips together. There are a some different variations of it described in books and online, and lots of ways to interpret the basic instructions.
My first exposure to this exercise was second hand, a description of it from a trombonist who watched some trumpet players on a tour bus doing it. The first publication I’ve come across that discusses it is Donald Reinhardt’s Encyclopedia of the Pivot System. Here’s what Reinhardt recommended:
A standard, unsharpened wooden pencil is generally used for this routine. Form your saturated embouchure as if to buzz and place the tip of either end of the pencil between your compressed lips – NOT BETWEEN YOUR TEETH. While pointing the pencil in a forward, horizontal manner, strive to support it with only the “pinching power” of your lips. Do not become discouraged if the pencil falls to the floor. In practically all cases a great deal of perseverance is required. As soon as sufficient pinching power of the embouchure formation has been achieved, the prescribed drill will no longer present a problem. Initially, do not attempt the embouchure pencil support for more than a few seconds at a time – it is extremely strenuous. After each attempt has been completed, remove the pencil from between your lips, drop your jaw, open your mouth, exhale and relax. You will feel the results of your workout throughout the lower part of your facial area; this is correct. The amount of time consumed for each workout may be extended; however, it is vital that you accomplish this by degrees.
– Donald S. Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, Appendix 4-5.
When I do practice this myself, or teach it to a student, this is my preferred method of practicing the pencil trick exercise. But it’s not the only way. Here’s a 10 minute video discussion by George Rawlin, who also came up with the “Bull Dog” exercise that I’ve discussed here. In Rawlin’s version, the pencil is held in contact with the teeth and it’s purpose is to get the teeth aligned.
As with his “Bull Dog” exercise, I feel compelled to mention that the aligned jaw that Rawlin recommends is not necessarily best for all players. I don’t have any formal stats to site, but I feel pretty confident that a majority of brass players do play with their jaw set so that the teeth are aligned. That said, not all should, and it’s a pretty sizable minority.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Rawlin’s system for getting the teeth aligned using the pencil as a guide is going to be accurate. One way to get the pencil to point straight is to close the teeth, for example. I just don’t see it as useful as simply aligning your teeth and using mirror feedback, if you need some.
While many players don’t want to play while aligning their teeth, Rawlin covers a situation that isn’t uncommon, players who should be aligning their teeth, but have trouble thrusting their jaw forward for long periods of time. I prefer a different exercise for this situation.
About 3:00 into the video Rawlin describes exactly one of the reasons why I’m careful about recommending this exercise if I can’t watch the student do it a bit to make sure he or she is doing it correctly. In Reinhardt’s version, the lip compression used to hold the pencil out comes from the mouth corners and shouldn’t be top/bottom squeeze.
And at about 4:50 into his video Rawlin describes one of my personal pet peeves. If you’re tempted to do this pencil exercise (or mouthpiece buzz) in the car, please reconsider. Not only is a distraction from driving, but if the air bag goes off because you get rear ended you’re going to end up sorry you had a stick in your mouth. If you must do something musical in the car, sing to yourself or listen to good music.
At any rate, there is an awful lot of disagreements about his exercise. Many players (some very fine ones) think that it’s a silly waste of time at best and at worse you’re messing up your chops. This certainly can be true, depending on the circumstance. There’s some value that players can get from doing it, but I’m not entirely convinced these days that the cost/benefit ratio from doing it is worth the effort. In my own playing, I find that free buzzing is a better use of my time than the pencil trick. I also find that considering how easy it is do do the pencil trick exercise in an unproductive way, it’s better to focus my students toward free buzzing as well.