More Thoughts on Horn and the Upstream Embouchure

This post has been inspired by an ongoing discussion over at James Boldin’s Horn World Blog.  If you’re joining the conversation now, you can catch up by reading James’s post here, my response, and then his followup.  Briefly, we’ve been musing about why there are fewer horn player’s who place the mouthpiece with more lower lip inside compared to other brass.  Because the lower lip predominates with this embouchure, the air stream is blown upward into the cup and is sometimes called an “upstream” embouchure.

It’s also important for brass teachers and players to understand that a player’s embouchure type isn’t a choice to be made by emulating another player, they are related to each player’s unique anatomy.  When a brass player works against their physical characteristics by adopting an embouchure type that doesn’t suit their face, embouchure difficulties result.

Of the three basic embouchure types, the two downstream embouchure types (placing the mouthpiece with more upper lip inside) are more common. Players who have the anatomy suited to play best with an upstream embouchure (more lower lip inside the mouthpiece) are more rare.  It’s not clear how much less common upstream players are, but my best guess is maybe around 15%.

That said, if you compare horn players’ embouchures with other brass instrument players you’ll probably find even fewer upstream players.  Many horn players speculate that there is something about the instruments itself that makes this so, however there really doesn’t appear to be any difference in basic brass embouchure form and function between any of the instruments.  Assuming this is the case, there must be something else going on.

Dr. Boldin’s post, Why More Upper Lip in the Mouthpiece, may provide some clues.  In his essay he quotes a few method books for horn players and teachers that all recommend more upper lip inside the mouthpiece, and in a couple of cases, the author’s speculation on why this is important for horn players.  In spite of the apparent Low Placement Embouchure type of players like Phil Myers and Dennis Brain, I have not found any horn texts that even mention that this embouchure type is valid for horn.  In fact, most seem to rigidly discourage it.

This attitude is not unique to horn pedagogy.  Glancing through some books I happen to have on hand, I can find some similar quotes to the ones Dr. Boldin found.

A performer whose mouthpiece inner edge is habitually placed on the red (vermillion) of the upper lip is using an embouchure that is not capable of producing the flexibility, strength, and endurance necessary for normal performance.  It should be avoided at all costs.

Frank Gabriel Campos, Trumpet Technique, page 73

Watch especially for too low a placement that causes the upper rim to rest on the red part of the upper lip. . . ; it is essential to use the conventional two-thirds upper, on-third lower placement.

– Scott Whitener, A Complete Guide to Brass, page 185

Low Placement (Upstream) Embouchure

My own embouchure, pictured on the left, is absolutely wrong according to those experts.  This tendency for brass teachers to discourage a low mouthpiece placement is not just specific to horn, but common for all the brass.  However, and this is my main point here, horn texts tend to be much more rigid than that of other brass texts.  Suggestions by teachers on the other brass are more likely to mention the less common, but equally correct, upstream embouchure as being valid for a certain number of players.

Most trombone players, place the mouthpiece more on the top lip than on the bottom lip – say two-thirds top, one-third bottom. This usually produces the best results. There are, however, some excellent players who reverse these proportions, and who play too well for their mouthpiece placement to be considered wrong.

– Dennis Wick, Trombone Technique, page 21

As one can see, we are not all looking for uniformity in mouthpiece placement in relation to the embouchure, except that in most cases, there is more upper lip in the mouthpiece than lower lip.

– Edward Kleinhamer, Mastering the Trombone, page 21

Let me offer an analogy now that, while admittedly not perfect, would explain why you will find fewer upstream horn players than on the other brass instruments.  If you teach art students that it’s acceptable to draw with your left hand, lefties will get to use the hand that works best for them, but most students will naturally draw with their right hand because there are more right handed people.   However, if you teach all art students that it’s “essential” to paint with the right hand and that you should “avoid at all costs” painting with the left, you’re going to end up with a lot of right handed painters and left handed artists who either quit out of frustration or manage to muddle their way through, but never realize their full potential.

What I’m arguing against is a sweeping generalization with regards to brass embouchures.  Just because most artists are right handed does not make it vital to draw and paint with the right hand.  Similarly, just because most brass players have downstream embouchures does not make it essential to adopt a downstream embouchure.  Horn players and teachers, who rely on texts that actively discourage upstream embouchures, are going to have fewer “lefties” than the rest of the brass.

What do you think?  Is it possible that there is something different enough about the horn or is it a self-selection bias based on traditional horn pedagogy?  Are you aware of any horn texts that acknowledge or even encourage an upstream embouchure?

James Boldin

Hi Dave,

I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last few days, and one other idea that came to mind as far as influencing the horn embouchure is the unique design of the mouthpiece. Compared to the other brass instruments, the horn mouthpiece has a much narrower, sharper rim. This difference may necessitate the added “pucker” that Philip Farkas and John Ericson mention. The pucker in the upper lip creates the added cushion necessary to balance the sharper rim. Just a thought.

James

wilktone

Hey, James. That’s true – different shaped and sized cup on a horn mouthpiece,too. It’s certainly plausible.

What measurements are used to determine that a horn embouchure is more “relaxed and puckered” than other brass? Are these characteristics a little arbitrary and more based on playing sensations than observable features? Do we actually see what Farkas and Ericson hypothesize if we compare horn embouchures with that of other brass instruments?

Best as I can tell, there’s not really a difference in basic embouchure patterns because of the instrument. If you get an upstream trombonist, such as myself, and put him on horn he will probably play best with an upstream horn embouchure. So far, I’m inclined to believe that the construction of the mouthpiece has less to do with a player’s most efficient embouchure type than the player’s anatomy.

Good food for thought, though. Anyone else out there have anything to add we’re not thinking of?

John Deal (@DealJfg9372)

I have overbite.. I found it difficult to increase upper register above high G. I wonder if downstream would work for me. I appreciate any comments.

Dave

Hi, John. I would have to watch you play to see what’s going on. It’s tough to describe things in text and advice can often get misunderstood. Can you video tape yourself?

John Deal (@DealJfg9372)

I’ll try. Althoough I haven’t played in a year as I just gave up. But I’ll practice a week or 2 and send you a video if I can figure out how. My brother from SF will be here in March. He’s a computer expert. he’ll help me. Also, I am ashamed to admit it, but I can’t change a broken string. However, I can change a flat tire.
Won’t help during performance on horn though.

Rob Collinson

Evening

I have recently got back into horn playing after an eighteen year break.

As a student I was taught the 2/3 technique with my horn teacher trying to move me from a wet to a dry embouchure.

As I have been playing more it seems that my embouchure has been getting higher and higher with some mouthpiece completely puckering up on the bottom lip.

After watching the video on the different embouchures on hornmatters I have tried the lower placement upstream approach whilst mouthpiece buzzing and it feels so natural and powerful and comfortable

I will go into work on Sunday to try it out in our school hall

I will update on how it went

Rob

Rob Collinson

Well. I have tried it out this morning.

I have had to swap back to my Paxman 4c mouthpiece from the Denis a Wick 6n

Well. It feels so much more natural. I had much more longevity. I played for nearly 2 hours – experimenting.

I have probably switched to just below 50/50 probably 65/35 in favour of the lower half.

It was definitely much more comfortable. Slow sustained notes much better and seemed to ‘ping’ into existence.

Low notes and extreme higher notes more difficult at the mo but I am sure that will come with time and more practice.

So glad that I found that video. I felt that I had been in a downward spiral. I hope that this will reverse that slide and that I will continue to move forward.

Rob

Dave

Rob, without watching you play I would advise a little caution with your experimentation. Some of what you described with your results don’t sound typical for what I expect with a true “low placement” embouchure type making a correct change from trying to play like one of the downstream types. It’s possible you’re on the right track, but if you’re wrong with your self-diagnosis you can easily reinforce the exact opposite thing you should be doing. Keep that in mind.

Good luck!

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