When looking closely at a large number of brass player’s embouchures certain patterns emerge, irrespective of the player’s instrument or practice approach. Using two universal features of all brass embouchures, the air stream direction as it pass the lips into the mouthpiece and the pushing and pulling of the lips and mouthpiece together up and down along the teeth, it’s possible to classify all brass embouchures into three basic types.
Since each of these three basic embouchure types function quite differently from each other it’s important for brass teachers to understand them, as different types respond to the same instruction in different ways. Understanding what proper embouchure form is for each type will help teachers guide their students more efficiently and also understand when a player is playing on an embouchure that isn’t appropriate for his or her anatomy. When confronted with a serious embouchure dysfunction it can help teachers discover the real cause of the troubles and how to best go about correcting them.
Before reading any further it is necessary for the reader to understand precisely what I mean when I use the terms air stream direction and embouchure motion. I recommend that if you haven’t already done so, visit my pages covering the air stream direction and embouchure motion and read through the descriptions and watch the videos.
Very High Placement Embouchure Type
This embouchure type is one of the most common ones. These players place the mouthpiece with somewhere around 75% to 90% upper lip inside the mouthpiece, sometimes quite close to the nose with low brass musicians. Usually these players more or less align their teeth and their horn angle is generally close to straight out. The embouchure motion for this type is to always push the mouthpiece and lips together up towards the nose to ascend and pull them down to descend.
Very High Placement type players tend to have an easier time developing their upper register, sometimes having to work harder to open up the sound in their low register. Their tone can usually be described as bright and clear.
Medium High Placement Embouchure Type
The Medium High Placement embouchure type is also a very common one. Like the Very High Placement type, these players place the mouthpiece so that there is more upper lip than lower lip inside the mouthpiece, but they tend to place a bit closer towards centered, just over 50% to about 75% upper lip inside the cup. These players also tend to have a slightly receded jaw position and have a horn angle that’s usually slightly tilted down, although there are some exceptions. The main distinguishing characteristic between this type and the Very High Placement type is that the Medium High Placement players always use the opposite embouchure motion, pulling the mouthpiece and lips together down along the teeth to ascend.
It’s typical for Medium High Placement embouchure type players to have an easy time developing a dark timbre, although they sometimes overdo this to the expense of their upper register. Flexibility is also often easy for these players.
Low Placement Embouchure Type
The Low Placement embouchure type is less common than the two downstream types. These players place the mouthpiece so that there is more lower lip inside the cup, anywhere from just over 50% to around 90% lower lip inside. There is more variation in horn angle with the Low Placement type than with the other types, but it’s more common to find these players aligning their teeth and playing with a horn angle close to straight out. The embouchure motion for these players is to almost always pull the mouthpiece and lips together downward along the teeth to ascend and push them up to descend.
Due in part to the general rarity of Low Placement embouchure types, most brass teachers inadvertently teach these players incorrectly for their embouchure type. Players belonging to this embouchure type also seem to be a little more sensitive to practicing incorrectly for their embouchure, leading many to simply dismiss this embouchure type as wrong for everyone. Low Placement type players will often have a bright tone and find high range to be one of their strengths. Everything can feel very easy when things are working properly for the Low Placement type player. When something is just a little bit off, however, these players can end up in a downward spiral.
It’s important to understand that the above embouchure types are not choices that the individual player or teacher should be making, but are rather based on what type works best for the individual player’s unique anatomical features. Many players play on an embouchure type that is not ideal for their physical characteristics, sometimes even playing pretty well this way, but it never works as well as playing on the embouchure type that is correct for the player’s face. Some players even will switch between two types for different parts of their range, which result in a noticeable embouchure “break” and playing flaws that require constant work to cover up. There are players who have experienced a complete breakdown in their embouchure resulting from playing incorrectly for their anatomy.
Using embouchure types as useful models is not a new development in brass pedagogy. Donald Reinhardt was the first person that I’ve discovered who made them an important part of his pedagogy. I learned about this from one of his former students, Doug Elliott, who also simplified Reinhardt’s embouchure types and terminology into the three basic types and terms I use here.
This essay is really only scratching the surface of a very complicated and little understood topic. If you’d like more information about brass embouchure types I recommend that you watch a video I’ve uploaded in 6 parts that covers these embouchure types in greater detail.