Embouchure FAQ

Over the years I’ve posted quite a bit of information about brass embouchures on various places online.  It’s fairly common for brass players having troubles to come across something I’ve posted and email me for advice.  While I do hope to be able to help these players, I also try to caution them that it’s very hard to help someone when you can’t be there in person.  In the spirit of that caveat emptor, here are some frequently asked questions I get about embouchures.  As I get more questions and find more time, I’ll update this page and add new questions and my responses.

What is a downstream embouchure?  What is an upstream embouchure?

An embouchure’s air stream direction is determined by the ratio of upper to lower lip inside the mouthpiece.  The correct air stream direction for an individual is based on the player’s unique anatomy, and isn’t something that you can change through practice.  When the player places the mouthpiece closer to the nose, the upper lip predominates inside the mouthpiece and the embouchure is downstream.  Less common, but still correct for many players, is to place the mouthpiece closer to the chin.  Because the lower lip predominates inside the mouthpiece, the air steam is blown up.  Read this article for more information about embouchure air stream direction.

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What is an embouchure motion?

This is the term I prefer to use to describe the phenomena where all brass players will slide the lips and mouthpiece together along the teeth in an upward or downward direction while changing registers.  Some players will push the lips and mouthpiece as a unit up towards the nose to ascend, while others will pull down towards the chin.  Sometimes there is some side to side motion as well.  For more information about the embouchure motion read this article.

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What is a pivot?

I prefer not to use this term because many players use this term in different ways.  Some players will properly alter the angle of their instrument as they make the embouchure motion to adjust for the shape of their teeth, gums, and jaw.  Many people refer to this changing of the instrument angle as a “pivot.”  Donald Reinhardt, author of The Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, used this term to describe what I call the embouchure motion.  He ended up regretting using this term because it caused confusion, but most of his former students still use the term “pivot.”  I avoid using it and recommend you do as well, if you want to be properly understood.  For more information about Reinhardt read this article.

I’m having trouble with my embouchure.  Can you help?

Not without having more information.  Ideally, we’d have to meet in person for a private lesson.  My fee varies according to who I’m teaching and for how long we’re meeting in one sitting.  Sometimes troubleshooting embouchures takes some time, so in those cases I tend to charge a flat fee and go as long as we can.

However, if your OK with me video taping your embouchure for my ongoing brass embouchure research, and are willing to sign a subject consent form giving me permission to use and publish that data, then I don’t charge at all.

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But I live too far away from you, can you help me online?

Honestly, I don’t really think this is a viable way to effectively troubleshoot embouchure troubles.  Still, I’m usually willing to take a shot at it if you have access to a decent video camera and a way to post or send me video footage to look at.  I won’t make any promises, but I’ll tell you what I can see and take my best guess.

Since I won’t charge for trying to guess embouchure issues online and because I sometimes get busy teaching and playing music, it might be a while before I can get around to giving your videos the attention I’d need to comment.  Please be patient with me if I haven’t responded quickly, but feel free to drop me an email reminder if I don’t get back to you sooner or later.

Before you contact me, however, it will help save us some time and effort if you carefully read this blog post here.

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What should I video tape?

First of all, please use a decent camera with good resolution.  Most web cams just don’t really allow you to get close enough while keeping the video in focus.  If you take a look at the embouchure footage on my YouTube channel, that’s the sort of close up footage I need to see.  It should also be a decent frame rate, I can’t spot certain things I look for with choppy footage.

As far as what I’d like to see, it depends on the specific issues you’re having.  If you need advice for something in particular (high range, embouchure break, etc.), I’d need to see some of that.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but I’ve gotten a number of people who emailed or posted videos for me to help them with their high register that never bothered to play in their upper register so I could see and hear what it looks like.  I also would need to see something in all ranges.  Octave slurs, particularly two or more octaves, are particularly useful for looking for certain embouchure characteristics.  Other than that, it can depend on the particular issues that you’re having and what sort of playing you normally do.  If you want to save time, it would be best to contact me with your specific questions and I’ll tell you what I think I need to see.

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I don’t have a video camera, can I just send you photographs?

Unfortunately this doesn’t work so well.  It would be better than nothing, and maybe with some verbal or written description I might be able to make an educated guess, but one of the things I need to see is how you transition between pitches.  Still photographs just don’t let me see certain things that can cause problems.

Again, it’s less than ideal, but if this is the only way you can go I’d want to see photographs from the front and side of you playing over your entire range, something very low, medium low, medium, medium high, high, and the highest pitch you can manage.

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What are you looking for when you are helping students with their embouchure?

If you know what to look for, all brass embouchures can be classified into different embouchure types that can all be successful, but function in different ways.  These embouchure types are different from how many other teachers discuss embouchure in that they aren’t practice methods, but rather descriptions of how brass embouchures function properly according to the individual player’s anatomy.

When I’m trying to help a brass player with embouchure issues I first want to figure out what embouchure type the player has and whether that is the correct embouchure type for the player’s anatomy.  Embouchure problems can be caused by playing on an embouchure type that isn’t correct for the player’s face, or because the player is making deviations from his or her proper embouchure form.

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What are the basic embouchure types?

Depending on how detailed you want to get, there are many different embouchure types.  My preference is to break embouchures down into three basic types.  The Very High Placement type typically places the mouthpiece with 75% or more upper lip inside the mouthpiece and is one of the downstream types.  This embouchure type always will have an ascending embouchure motion of pushing the mouthpiece and lips together up towards the nose.  The Medium High Placement type also places more upper lip inside and is downstream.  They tend to place the mouthpiece with just over 50% to about 75% upper lip inside.  The embouchure motion for this type is always to pull down to ascend.  The Low Placement type places the mouthpiece with just over 50% or more lower lip inside and is upstream.  These players almost always will have an embouchure motion to pull down to ascend.  For more information about the three basic embouchure types read this article.

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I’m embouchure type X, what should I be doing to fix my problems?

Catch a lesson with someone (in person) who knows how to accurately type your embouchure, because it’s really very difficult to type yourself, particularly if you haven’t had some experience looking at other players to learn what the signs are.  It’s also very helpful, and in some cases necessary, to have a transparent mouthpiece on hand to know for certain.  Cut-a-way mouthpieces and rim-only visualizers can give an approximate view, but they can be a little misleading.

I know of a number of teachers around the U.S. who are more than qualified to accurately type your embouchure and help you learn how it functions best.  Most are a handful of former students of Donald Reinhardt’s who happened to be interested enough in his pedagogy to learn more than their own embouchure type from him. If you can’t get in person with someone like that and have access to video recording equipment, you can video tape yourself and get in touch with me.  I might be able to help you, but it’s very hard to do it this way.

A good alternative would be to get with an experienced teacher who also has an open mind and is curious to learn more about brass embouchures.  Although there’s a lot of misinformation about brass embouchures out there, with a little background, your current brass teacher may be able to help point you in the right direction.  A good start for teachers to learn more about brass embouchures and how to separate the wheat from the chaff might be my 50 minute video called Brass Embouchures: A Guide for Teachers and Players.  This is a free resource.

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My teachers says I need to change my embouchure, but I’m not comfortable with it.  What should I do?

This is a tough call, but I would generally recommend you go with what your teacher suggests.  He or she hopefully knows more about your embouchure than you do and has a good reason for recommending the change.  If your teacher doesn’t explain to your satisfaction why it’s necessary to make the change you should ask (politely) why.  What your teacher suggests may just be for the best.

That said, many teachers are well-meaning, but misinformed about how brass embouchures function differently for different players.  Many brass musicians mistakenly assume that the embouchure type that works best for them personally must be correct for all players.  If you suspect that your teacher hasn’t heard about the basic embouchure types yet, you might ask him or her to watch my 6 part video on YouTube called Brass Embouchures: A Guide for Teachers and Players.  If your teacher isn’t the YouTube watching type but is open minded enough to watch it, you might try getting in touch with me and I’ll drop try to drop a DVD of it in the mail to your teacher.

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I place the mouthpiece on the red of my upper lip.  My teachers says I need to move the placement higher on the lips.  What should I do?

This is probably the most common issue related to embouchure troubles that I’ve come across.  This low, on the red of the upper lip, mouthpiece placement is a characteristic of many upstream brass embouchures.  While this embouchure type is less common than the other basic types, it is correct for a sizable minority of brass players.  Teachers should very carefully consider whether to change students who have this embouchure type.  Click here to learn more about why it’s fine to place on the red of your upper lip, as long as it fits your anatomy.

Ultimately, my advice is the same as above, but I’d be a little more aggressive (politely, of course) about getting your teacher to let you stick with the lower mouthpiece placement for a while.  Upstream embouchures are a little more delicate than the downstream types and sometimes require a little more care and work to get them functioning consistently well.  When they do get working properly, though, they can be some of the strongest embouchures you can come across.  If your embouchure type is properly an upstream one you’ll do better in the long term by working with that embouchure type instead of trying to change it to something that doesn’t fit your anatomy.

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I’m going through an embouchure change.  How long will it take before I can play better than before?

Never, if the new embouchure isn’t correct for your face.  Many teachers make a big deal out of “fixing” a student’s embouchure by moving the mouthpiece placement to where the teacher plays and “letting the muscles develop.”  If  the embouchure type isn’t correct for the player, however, no amount of practice is going to make that student’s embouchure work better than playing consistently on the correct embouchure type.

Assuming that a new embouchure is correct for you, it really depends on the particular situation.  My personal experience changing my embouchure was that though my high range was immediately stronger, it took about 3 or 4 months before I felt more confident than with my previous embouchure.  Some players have an almost immediate boost in their playing, while others struggle for years.  Probably the 3 or 4 months adjustment period is typical for major embouchure corrections, but that’s just my best guess.  Everyone’s different.

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Where do you get those transparent mouthpiece you use in your videos and photographs?

I’ve used several different types of transparent mouthpieces for my research.  When I began researching brass embouchures I commissioned Terry Warburton to fashion a transparent trombone mouthpiece cup that could screw on to different sized shanks.  Later I found some of Donald Reinhardt’s transparent mouthpiece design for sale and used some of those.  Since the plexiglass develops small cracks in them eventually, begin to get cloudy when you use a bleach concentration to disinfect them, and are prone to breaking if you drop, I eventually had to replace them.  Today I use the transparent mouthpieces made by Kelly Mouthpieces, just look for their “crystal clear” color.

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How do you keep the transparent mouthpieces from fogging up while you photograph players’ embouchures?

Frequently the condensation that appears on the inside of the transparent mouthpiece while you play into it will go away after the mouthpiece warms up a bit, but if you still find it gets too cloudy you can apply some face mask defoggant on the inside.  You can buy that at any store or web site that sells SCUBA or snorkeling equipment.  I’ve also heard that a little shaving cream wiped on the inside will also do the trick.  Another thing you can look into is whatever dentists use on the little mirrors they use to inspect your teeth.

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My question isn’t answered here.  Will you help?

I plan on adding to this FAQ as I get new questions and create and discover new resources on brass embouchures.  Please feel free to contact me and I’ll try to help you, if I can.  In the mean time, try looking here and see if you can find the answer in one of these articles.

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Dan Gloster

No question…for now.

Just a note to express my appreciation that you have spent the time to catalog and share this information.

Regards,
Dan

Brian Finigan

I’ve watched all your videos in the last 2 days and have been studying Reinhardt with the encyclopedia for quite awhile and I appreciate your use of “embouchure motion” rather than pivot. My embouchure is upstream, off to the L side, angle almost straight out. I had been using side movement: R and up for low reg. and L and down for higher reg. In the ency. Reinhardt says it is best no matter what type to put pressure on lower lip but in listening to your videos you say that with a low placement upstream emb. more vibration happens with the lower lip and I seemed to have confirmed this today. Putting more pressure on top for low notes and then more pressure on bottom lip for high notes. This seems to free up vibrations and the side mvt. is not so extreme. Is this correct for low placement upstreamer? thank you, Brian

Steve Lynch - Pittsburgh

I’m 70 years old and have returned to playing my Conn tenor trombone about 2 months ago after having the instrument brought to a playable condition by a music store nearby. I took lessons for about 6 years starting from age 8 and played through College until I was about 20. Initially I was surprised how quickly I progressed. Though I had no lip what so ever the note slide positions I had not forgotten. I finished the Rubanks basic and intermediate books in about 4 weeks and I’ve nearly completed the 1st Advanced Book. I go over each exercise until I think I have it down before I go to the next one. My range has improved: low F to a solid G and up to a tentative B flat. I’d like to get to C sharp if I can. At first I could barely manage an F. I have been practicing about 2 hrs a day in two sessions every day until my lip is exhausted. Double tonguing and triple tonguing seem beyond my capability. Even when I was young I was never very good at rapid tonguing. My tone seems decent in mid range but I don’t feel 100% confident especially in jumps from the low register. I’ve been attempting Rimsky Korsokaffs 1st movement of his trombone concerto and can’t seem to master the initial runs consistently. I’m constantly experimenting with embouchure types, high to low, to find something that yields consistent performance. I’d say a medium high seems to work best but I’m not sure. I replaced my mouthpiece when I started back to a Bach 11C which was much bigger than the old one I had but I think it’s ok. I’m performing Apres un Reve in a show on Saturday. What a beautiful song. I feel pretty confident with it.

I’m looking for any help you might offer or suggestions on how to practice to get better.
Am I doing anything wrong? Should I take a few lessons?

Thanks
Steve

Dave

Hi, Steve. Thanks for stopping by.

With the limited amount of time you’ve spent back on the trombone I wouldn’t worry right now about what embouchure type you’re playing on or what type you should be. Simply place the mouthpiece where it works best for now. Over time you’ll develop strength and control again and your embouchure type should become more apparent.

As far as multiple tonguing and fast single tonguing, many people find the key is to articulate much lighter. Be sure you’re not bottling up the air with the tongue. The tongue is a refining factor to the attack, not the defining factor.

I wouldn’t practice until your lip gives out. Quit just before it. In your practice sessions you probably will do better by resting as much time as you’re playing. You can use lots of short (1-5 minute) rest periods in your session effectively by doing mental practice, singing the music, recording yourself and listening back to how you sounded, etc.

The best advice I can give you online is to get with a good private teacher to take regular lessons with. An in-person lesson is always better than random advice from some crazy nut on the internet like me.

Good luck!

Dave

Mick

I am a cornet player who wants also to play trumpet. The mouthpiece i like for the cornet is more conical than my preferred trumpet mouthpiece and feels very different….should I have to play each horn when I practice in order to build up endurance and agility for both?

Dave

Hey, Mick.

Everyone is different and some folks have no trouble switching around mouthpieces. I personally regularly play two different horns with different mouthpieces and prefer to practice them both regularly to make it easy to transition between them. That said, I use mouthpieces with the same rim size, so it feels similar on my lips.

Ger Otten

How can a brass teacher investigate which type of embouchure setting will work best on the long term for a student? Is there a guideline tot follow?

Dave

It’s a hard process to describe because there are so many subtle clues that you pick up over time. I found a lot of trial and error at first. If I see a student type switching or having problems that seem to be related to playing on the incorrect embouchure type I will have them try different experiments that help us decide what’s going to work best in the long term. Often it’s best to simply work on good embouchure form and allow the embouchure type to develop on its own.

It will help you if you take the time to watch successful (and not so successful)brass players’ embouchure up close and see how things look when things are working and what you notice differently when it’s not.

Dave

Yes, the aperture will get smaller the higher you play. However, it will get bigger the louder you play. It is theoretically possible to keep the aperture about the same size as you ascend by playing louder and softer as you descend.

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