Embouchure 101

Introduction

Embouchure 101 is a free resource that takes an objective look at brass embouchure technique. If you’re ready to start looking at brass embouchure technique you can skip ahead to Part 1. If you need convincing that this is worth your time, or are just curious about this project then read on. Here is a table of contents.

Who are you to tell me about brass embouchures?

If you find my education and performing experience important, you can read my bio here.

But ultimately I don’t want you to listen to what I have to say about brass embouchures because of my background, but because I hope that what I write makes sense, even if it is unfamiliar to you (for now).

What makes this resource different from almost any other covering brass embouchure technique is that it tries to be as objective as possible. I’ll show examples of many different brass embouchures so that you can hear and see many different patterns. Rather than advocating for a particular type of brass embouchure instruction as an ideal, I’ll show different ways that brass embouchures can function successfully.

Along the way I’ll provide some of my thoughts on the pedagogical implications of these observable descriptions of brass embouchures, but I’ll try to be clear in my writing when I’m speculating and what the reasoning behind my suggestions are. That way you can put this information and my interpretations into a context that is relevant for your own teaching and performing situations. 

Why should I learn this? When am I ever going to really need to know it?

Many of you teachers have seen similar attitudes regarding other subjects. “Why should I learn algebra, I’m never going to use it when I graduate?” Or, “Why should I learn music theory, I don’t use it to perform?” If you simply don’t think it’s useful knowledge, then I think you should continue merely out of curiosity and then decide if it’s useful later. Just like algebra and music theory, you might find yourself thankful for having learned this later. Not to mention that if you’re already a teacher your attitude should model the curiosity and humility that we want to encourage in our students. 

But some of you might phrase those questions into something more like, “You’re putting the cart before the horse. The key to excellent brass technique is through…” 

It’s unfortunate that I should have to defend empirical knowledge. Personally, I feel that a brass teacher should learn about the embouchure because it’s an important part of a bigger picture. Sure, we want to see the whole “forest,” but understanding the forest ecosystem requires taking a close look at the individual “trees.”

I understand where you are coming from, even if I don’t agree with it. Mainstream brass pedagogy, at least in the U.S., focuses on teaching technique almost exclusively through good breathing and focus on musical expression. It’s produced some pretty good players and teachers. In fact, because it’s pretty much the norm it’s pretty much going to be the same approach taken by most not-so-good players and teachers too. Don’t let history always dictate what’s useful, figure that out for yourself. 

Studying the brass embouchure more closely doesn’t invalidate the importance of any other element of brass technique. Nor will it interfere with the process of expressive musical communication. It’s only another tool to add to your pedagogical toolbox. I want to explicitly emphasize this, not just for the skeptical but also for the overly-enthusiastic.

Isn’t this going to lead to paralysis by analysis?

Not if you do it right. 

First, understand that “analysis” essentially means that you’re just taking a closer look at a topic and trying to put it into context. This is a teacher’s job. It’s up to you to break down your instructions to your students in a way that they can both conceptually understand what you’re instructing and not let it get in the way of what you want them to focus on while playing.

If you personally can’t think of more than one thing at a time when you play, welcome to the club. Great music performances generally happen when the musician is focused on playing expressively, and so when you and your students perform that’s where attention should be. It’s not really good to multitask when you perform. In fact, I feel practice time is best spent when you’re focusing on one thing at a time too, but you can swap around the topics you’re practicing as you go. Just remember to return to putting your attention back on the music before you finish practicing.

Now if you or your students can’t make an embouchure correction that works on one or two things at a time, then maybe reconsider your analysis in the first place. One of the main reasons why I see students struggle with analyzing their embouchures is because they are doing it wrong. 

Take the time to read through this resource and look carefully at the examples I provide. You’ll probably learn something you didn’t already know. Afterwards you might have a better idea how to analyze embouchure technique and work out the best approach for your students and their particular needs.

Who are these musicians in the examples you provide?

The majority of the brass musicians I show in this resource come from one of two academic projects I worked on. The earliest was my dissertation, completed in 2000. In this research project I took brass embouchure descriptions taught to me by Doug Elliott, catalogued a number of trombonists’ embouchures and anatomy through photographs, and then looked to see if I could find any anatomical features that correlated with their natural embouchure types (If you’re curious, the results were largely inconclusive, but the interview transcription with Doug in the appendix is worth reading).

Then from 2008-2010 I video recorded a bunch of different brass musicians’ embouchures, again catalogued them according to embouchure characteristics, and put together an embouchure pedagogy presentation for the 2010 North Carolina Music Educators Association Conference. Most of the video footage I use as examples come from this study.

For both of these embouchure studies I went through formal academic research processes, including obtaining Institutional Review Board approval. This required me to not only mitigate any health risk from participation (e.g., the transparent mouthpieces I used were cleaned and sterilized prior to each subject using them) as well as agreeing to keep their identities anonymous. Some of the musicians are fine with anyone knowing who they are, but some might not be. Regardless, if you want to know the exact identity of a particular player you won’t get it from me. Some of them I really don’t remember exactly who was who and I don’t feel like digging around through old notes and papers to work that out anyway.

The musicians I photographed and video recorded for these two studies were mostly college students. There are a handful of high school students who got parental permission to participate. There are also a fair number of music educators and professional musicians that were willing to participate. Some of the players were long term students of mine, some just came to me for one or two lessons. Others were folks that I spent only 10 or 15 minutes collecting enough documentation to be useful for my research. 

Where did you get those transparent mouthpieces? How did you keep them from fogging up? If I want to better understand brass embouchure technique do I need to get one?

For my dissertation research I got Terry Warburton to make me a custom clear plexiglass mouthpiece that could screw into separate metal trombone mouthpiece shanks (one large bore, one small bore). I also have a transparent mouthpiece made by Donald Reinhardt that shows up in some of the videos. These days I use Kelly Mouthpiece’s “crystal clear” lexan mouthpieces. They are cast out of a mold and not really intended for embouchure study, but they get the job done well enough and are cheap and easy to replace. Over time, transparent mouthpieces begin to develop tiny cracks in them and when you use bleach solution to disinfect them (required for IRB approval) they begin to get cloudy. They’re also more fragile than a metal mouthpiece and prone to crack if you drop or bang one around. This means that you have to replace them frequently.

If you wipe a little bit of defogger used by SCUBA divers for their diving masks you can get them to stay pretty clear. A little shaving cream applied to the inside of the mask helps, but not as much as the defogger.

But no, you don’t need a transparent mouthpiece or a rim visualizer to become better at teaching embouchure technique, although they do help at times. After you’ve looked through enough examples here you’ll be able to make educated guesses well enough to inform you without requiring a transparent mouthpiece.

But aren’t all embouchure problems really a symptom of something else?

That’s a common idea in mainstream brass pedagogy. The gist of this argument that embouchure problems are really the embouchure reacting to a “bad situation.” If you adjust something else, the embouchure will stabilize.

Of course, this sometimes works. Fixing a student’s breathing, for example, will provide benefits in other areas as well. But if there is indeed a problem in a student’s embouchure, then making corrections in one area may also cover up the embouchure issue. But what happens if the student advances to the point of where this issue actually prevents progress? What happens when the brass musician has a demanding performing schedule that takes its toll on his or her embouchure?

Let’s take a moment and look at an example. The following video clip shows a tubist who has an inconsistency in his embouchure technique that is causing at least two symptoms. One is related to his high range, which isn’t demonstrated in this clip, but the other one happens right in the middle of his register and is evident here. If you know what to look for you can easily spot it. If you listen closely you’ll also hear it and can correlate the problems in sound with what you can see. Take a look and see if you can pinpoint what I’m talking about.

Did you spot it? Continue on to Part 1 to learn more.

Questions, comments, and corrections to this resource can be posted here.