Building Embouchure Stability In Low Range – Less Air, Not More!

A recent thread on the Trombone Pedagogy Facebook group has gotten me thinking about building embouchure stability in the low range. The specific topic there concerns a particular student who has a very unstable embouchure in general and on low Bb has an uncontrollable waver in her tone. I don’t have permission to share the video, but I do have some photos that illustrate the same situation.

25pedalbbfront-copyThe photo to the right is of a trombonist playing a pedal Bb. I chose this photo because the student trombonist had a similar looking embouchure formation on her low Bb. Note how the embouchure formation has collapsed and is very loose looking.

While it may be necessary at first for inexperienced players to get into the extreme low register like this, overplaying like this will very likely cause issues down the road if the player doesn’t make corrections (click here to read up and view some video footage I documented). Like all habits, it can be difficult to correct and the longer a player relies on collapsing the embouchure formation to play low the harder it will be. Unfortunately,  some of the default advice I was reading on Facebook also seemed to encourage practicing in the low register in a manner that makes it harder to make the necessary embouchure corrections.

Asking a student to “blow more air,” or even to simply “support” the note with the air is going to make it harder for the student to play in the low register with the same level of firmness in the embouchure formation as the rest of their range, but this is what some teachers recommend. Personally, I prefer to help a student with this issue by developing exercises or practicing musical passages that start in a higher range and descend to the problem area with a decrescendo. Playing softly in that low register makes it easier for the student to hold the mouth corners firm, maintain the overall embouchure formation, and use a bit more mouthpiece pressure for additional embouchure stability.

27highbbfront-copy27lowbbfront-copyFor comparison, here are a couple of photos of a different player. The photo to the left is a high Bb (Bb4/ledger lines above bass clef staff). The one to the right is the same player playing a low Bb (Bb2/in the bass clef staff). Note how similar they look from the outside (I happened to catch the vibrating lips on the low Bb when the embouchure aperture was close to closed, but at their peak opens you can see a bigger difference on the embouchure aperture between these pitches).

Playing softly and accepting a thinner tone will help a student to successfully experience what it feels like to play in the low register with a stable embouchure formation. As she gets more comfortable playing that way she can begin adding air and working to open up the sound, but if the embouchure formation collapses again she should stop, reset, and try again with just a little less air. Over time it will get better and easier to add more air. However, it’s important for her to stop encouraging this habit as quickly and completely as possible. Throwing more air at an embouchure formation that is too loose and unstable will not help her build the strength and control to stop collapsing.

That said, performances (and most rehearsals) are different. The above advice is for practice and private lessons. When you perform it’s more important to do whatever you have to in order to sound good. If that means collapsing to play low, that’s fine. Over time the student will be able to play correctly with enough comfort and volume that she won’t even think about making a change, it happens because it has replaced her old habit.

Paul T.

Great post, Dave. I agree in full, with one caveat:

If we’re dealing with a player who doesn’t have a chance to practice alone (some students and some professionals occasionally fall into this category), they may have to find some way to correct the problem in rehearsal or performance, as well. That’s a really tricky situation, and I don’t have an easy answer, but it’s worth keeping in mind. (Particularly since the player in question is a high school student.)

Those situations, hopefully, are rare, of course. In 99% of cases the advice is here is absolutely spot-on, and for the remaining 1% it still correct – just challenging to implement.

Excellent post.

Dave

Hey there, Paul.

That’s an interesting side topic. How do you help students who just don’t practice?

If she doesn’t practice because she legitimately can’t and she’s having fun with music, I think it becomes important to address playing technique in rehearsals – particularly warmup (personally and hopefully the whole band does a little together).

In my experience, few high school student really *can’t* practice. They do need to set priorities and sometimes music gets put after homework, job, family obligations, etc. Those that are really interested in music and serious about getting better find some time to practice each week. I don’t know the high school in question, but most of the ones I’ve been around are open before and after school for folks to practice and some even have practice rooms.

svenne

Hi Dave, I dont think there is any similarity other than the lose lips, the pic above has a firm chin, the FB pic doesnt. I can imagein how the above pic sound, not at all like the FB exampel. I do understand that forcing the air in the low range is a problem, in the same, lower tones do take more air, but not pusched.

Dave

Hey, Svenne!

Yes, there are differences. That said, pause the Facebook video in different spots and look at how the chin looks. You can find spots where the chin is firmed (but corners loose). The muscles of the chin and jaw should function as a unit and the chin shouldn’t bob around as in the video of the student.

Personally, I think the chin motion in the video is a symptom of the loose embouchure formation. I would guess that if she develops enough strength and control in the mouth corners to hold them firm the chin will fix itself without needing to address it. Either way, one issue at a time. I don’t feel that fixing both at once would be as useful as concentrating on the corners and going from there.

Yes, low register does require more air, which is why I think playing softly and allowing a thin tone at first is the best way for her to practice in the low register.

Good to hear from you, Svenne.

Dave