I just came across this video of the Four Freshmen performing with a backup group of five trombones (Bernie Robier, Doug Elliott, John Jensen, Jay Gibble and Milton Aldana) plus rhythm section. The first soloist, John Jensen, starts playing about 1:49. While his placement looks pretty close to center, the other two trombone soloists, Jay Gibble (starts about 2:26) and Doug Elliott (starts about 3:02) both clearly have mouthpiece placements that are off-center. Take a look.
There are many reasons why a brass musician might place the mouthpiece best off center, and you can see Doug Elliott is quite far off center. Doug has been one of my teachers (the embouchure descriptions I prefer to use are the ones he taught to me) and he sometimes shows that he can play quite well with a centered mouthpiece placement or even a placement off to the other side. However, it obviously works best for him well off on the left side of his lips when he does this demonstration. If you check out Doug’s solo on the above video there’s no question he can get around a very wide range with that precise mouthpiece placement.
What I find interesting about Doug’s placement is that there is really no noticeable anatomical feature I can spot that would indicate why an off center placement would work so much better with him. The story of how he discovered this placement is interesting too. Continue reading Off Center Mouthpiece Placement Examples
Here’s another question I got from my virtual pile of email. This one is from Veronika.
I am a French horn/trumpet player in high school and I play with an embouchure that is off to my right of my lips and I have had teachers tell me I need to fix it or I will hit a point where it will get in the way of my playing and I have had others say that if it works for me then I should be fine I would like to know if this is a bad thing and if I need to fix it if you could get back to me ASAP it would be great
As I usually have to say with questions like this, I can’t really answer your question without watching you play, preferably in person. Every player is different and so for me to say without seeing you that you need to change your embouchure (or keep it the same) would not be good advice. Your teachers, on the other hand, have presumably watched you play and notice something not working correctly and have offered a suggestion. My first instinct would be to follow their advice and give it an honest effort.
However, even some very fine musicians and experienced teachers often make some erroneous recommendations simply because they don’t have an interest in embouchures and assume that what works for them (and even a majority of their students) must be correct. Everyone has a different face, so everyone will have a different embouchure. If you do a search for “off center” here on my blog you’ll see many examples of embouchures that are placed to one side, and some of these are world class brass musicians. Most players will find that their embouchures are a little to one side, but generally centered along the horizontal. Some players play much better with a very off-center mouthpiece placement.
It’s difficult to generalize why some players do better with an off-center placement. Sometimes brass musicians will talk about a protruding or sharp tooth that requires them to place the mouthpiece so the rim can’t contact the tooth. I’ve heard other players describe how they intentionally place the rim over a protruding tooth or gap in order to “lock in” their placement. Again, it’s a very personal feature.
Getting back to Veronika’s question, I would just close by pointing out that it’s not how your embouchure looks that is important, it’s how it functions and how good it sounds. If you sound best with an off-center mouthpiece placement then I think that this is where you should leave it. Whenever I recommend an placing the mouthpiece in a different spot than where it is I do so because there is an immediate improvement in something that needs to be fixed and because I can’t fix that issue with any other method. If your teacher is telling you that in time the “muscles will develop” with a more centered placement I would try to find a different teacher and grab a second opinion when you can. I’ve even heard of some cases where excellent brass players have done everything their teacher told them to do in their lessons, but practiced how they knew they should play on their own in order to get by. That’s not ideal, but always an option if you think you’re being steered wrong in this area.
Do you have a question about brass embouchures or any other music related topic you’d like to see me discuss here? Drop me a line with your questions.
Every once in a while I come across a book or internet resource that talks about an off-center aperture, usually in the context of explaining why some players have a mouthpiece placement to one side or another. The general idea of many is that if a player’s free buzzing embouchure has an aperture that is to one side then this player should place the mouthpiece in such a way that the aperture gets centered inside the mouthpiece. On the surface this seems logical, but like many seemingly convincing descriptions of brass embouchures, it is too simplistic an explanation and doesn’t conform to what you will see if you take a closer look. Continue reading The Non-Relationship Of Off-Center Embouchure Aperture, Free Buzzing, and Mouthpiece Placement
This is part of a series of articles meant to be read in order. In order to understand this topic you’ll want to start at the beginning.
Consistency of mouthpiece placement and lip position is a topic not as often discussed as embouchure firmness or mouthpiece pressure. While it is possible to find players who change mouthpiece placements to switch registers, most successful brass musicians seem to keep their placement pretty consistent. It is clearly best for a brass player to be able to play their entire range on a single placement or lip position inside the mouthpiece and not have to set the mouthpiece to a different position every time they need to play in a different range.
Very High Placement and Low Placement embouchure types seem to be more prone to change the mouthpiece placements to descend. Here’s an example of a low placement/upstream embouchure trombonist who sets his mouthpiece very low for his highest notes, and as he plays into his middle and lower register needs to reset his mouthpiece closer to the nose.
His high D and high Bb look pretty typical for a Low Placement embouchure type, but on the middle Bb and low Bb he sets his mouthpiece closer to half and half. In order to play the pedal Bb he moves his mouthpiece placement up to just under his nose.
Let’s also take another look at a Very High Placement trombonist who I used as an example earlier. Watch his mouthpiece placement and note how he brings his placement up higher (closer to his nose) as he ascends and brings his placement lower to descend. You will also be able to see him struggle as he is asked to slur the large intervals on one mouthpiece setting. He is used to a lower mouthpiece setting in the lower part of his range and he compensates by pulling his upper lip up out from under the mouthpiece while slurring down. A couple of times he will take his mouthpiece off his lips and reset to a slightly different position.
In cases similar to the two trombonists above, I would usually recommend that they learn to play their entire range with the setting they use for the upper register. Players who place the mouthpiece extremely high or low for their upper range usually find that it this high register placement works best in the long term over their entire range. Tone can be difficult for them at first, particularly in their low register, but it’s definitely possible to develop a good sound with their more high register setting. Getting into their upper register with a closer to centered placement, however, isn’t usually possible for players like this.
While the above two examples above are obvious cases of inconsistent mouthpiece placement, there are some other ways that players can develop some instability in their mouthpiece formation. Take a look at the below trombonist and look for embouchure consistency. Can you see any changes in her overall embouchure firmness or mouthpiece pressure?
Her embouchure is a good example of a Very High Placement embouchure type. Almost everything looks good on the legato music she’s playing above. On the staccato excerpts, however, you can see that she has a tendency to move her jaw with every articulation. It’s probably better to keep the jaw from moving around so much. Often when brass students do this you can hear a characteristic “twa” sound in their attacks. It’s probably best to keep the jaw as still as possible while attacking pitches.
There is something else I’d like to point out in her embouchure form that perhaps isn’t so obvious to you. Watch what happens every time she takes a breath. She both pulls her lower jaw back to open her mouth and lightens up a great deal on the mouthpiece pressure. On the attack that follows her lips have to get back into position and firm up while at the same time she brings the mouthpiece back into its playing pressure against the lips.
One brass author, Donald Reinhardt, wrote about this phenomenon. He reasoned that the sudden and frequent “crashing” of the mouthpiece back up against the lips would cause playing difficulties and make the brass musician more prone to lip injuries. At the same time, pulling the jaw back and opening the mouth while breathing not only makes it harder to get the lips back into buzzing firmness, but also can create small inconsistencies in exactly how the mouthpiece is set on the lips. Here’s an example of a trumpet player who is doing this.
The trumpet player in the video above is attacking pitches after breathing in a very similar way to the trombonist above. She firms her lips and brings the mouthpiece into playing position and pressure simultaneously. It’s easy to pin the lips into their wrong playing position or otherwise twist or wind up the lips with the mouthpiece this way, particularly if the brass musician plays with dry lips. If the mouthpiece rim and lips are wet enough then it’s easy for the mouthpiece to slip on the lips to a slightly different position on the lips. Brass musicians can get quite used to playing this way.
Her mouthpiece placement is fine where it is, off center and with the rim right on the red of her upper lip. Her vermillion is large enough that I think regardless of how high or low it gets placed there’s going to be significant rim contact on her lip vermillion. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as where the mouthpiece is placed is the most efficient one for the player. In her case, I think it looks too close to half and half (which I think makes it harder for her in her upper register). It might work better slightly higher to make her embouchure work as a Medium High Placement embouchure type, but it could work better even lower as a Low Placement type.
Compare the embouchure consistency of the above players with a different look at this musician playing both trumpet and bass trumpet.
He sets his lips into a firmed up position before the mouthpiece gets placed on the lips. In most of this video (all the octave slurs) he even breathes through his nose while keeping his lips firm and the mouthpiece pressure already set for playing. When he is noodling around on the bass trumpet you can see him breath through the mouth corners, but the mouthpiece remains pressed against the lips and doesn’t slam back against the lips on the attacks. When he went back to the octave slurs on bass trumpet he went back to breathing through his nose.
Many brass pedagogues have come up with exercises where the student is instructed to breathe through the nose. In the case of the musician above, you can see how it makes it easier to maintain embouchure consistency compared with the other brass players above. When he needed to take more air in quickly, he kept his mouthpiece set on the lips and took air in from outside the mouthpiece.
In the above video I try to demonstrate mouth corner inhalations, first on a trumpet rim visualizer, then on a trombone rim visualizer, and lastly on a trombone with a transparent mouthpiece (sorry it’s so cloudy, they get that way after a while and need replacing). Let me break down how I’m taking the inhalations in such a way as to keep my embouchure formation as consistent as possible every time I breathe.
Before even placing the mouthpiece I get my lips firmed up to where I feel they are when playing, then I place the mouthpiece on my lips (as opposed to placing the mouthpiece on the lips and then firming). When I inhale, I work on keeping the lips inside the mouthpiece just touching while breathing through the mouth corners only. I try to maintain the mouthpiece pressure while inhaling so that when I snap the mouth corners into place and begin blowing that there is little or no sudden banging of the mouthpiece against the lips. By the way, there’s a little more hesitation on some of the attacks than I think is good. It’s better when the blowing commences immediately after the inhalation.
Breathing in this way to maintain embouchure consistency is obviously a trade off. Take a look again at this Low Placement embouchure type trombonist. He barely has any room outside the mouthpiece to inhale through the mouth corners. If he played tuba the mouthpiece would probably cover his entire mouth. And frankly, if a brass musician needs to take a full breath in quickly it is easier by opening the mouth. Maintaining as much rim contact with the lips and as possible, however, can help mitigate any inconsistencies from opening the lip formation. Whenever possible (e.g., when warming up or practicing technical studies) it can be useful for students to use a mouth corner inhalation or even nose inhalation to become familiar with how to maintain embouchure consistency.
Maintaining consistent mouthpiece placement and pressure against the lips is, I suspect, a good long term goal to work towards. It is easy to find great brass musicians who don’t firm the lips before setting the mouthpiece or who open their mouthes wide to breath and simultaneously firm the lips and apply mouthpiece pressure. However, I believe that years or even decades of repeatedly smashing the rim against the lips risks injury. Simply having those slight inconsistencies in mouthpiece placement or lip position also makes things just a bit harder to play as there’s always a slightly different feel. It might not be causing problems with a student’s embouchure technique immediately, but if a particularly demanding performing situation comes up there is potential for it to cause playing problems. The more consistent the embouchure form, the less risk. Personally, I think the additional embouchure consistency that results also is beneficial for overall technique.
In case you skipped the introduction, here is a video clip of a tubist with an embouchure issue. If you know what to look for, and maybe even if this is new to you, you will be able to both see and hear his embouchure problem. Take a look and see if you can spot it.
Watch the tubist’s lips carefully as he plays. Notice that in the lower part of his range his lower lip predominates. He’s directing his air stream towards the top of the mouthpiece cup for this range. But in his upper range the upper lip predominates and the air stream begins to be blown down towards the bottom part of the cup. Listen closely to what happens right at that transition point in the middle. Do you notice the notes often cracking at that point or when he crosses it? There’s also a change in timbre between the upstream and downstream lip position.
What’s going on here? What does mouthpiece placement have to do with air stream direction? And what’s correct?
Sometimes brass players talk about air stream direction when referring to the horn angle. This (erroneous) idea is that if you tilt the instrument down while you’re playing you’re going to be blowing downstream or if you tilt the instrument up it’s upstream. Watching the tubist in the video above, you can see that his air stream is blown in both directions, but his horn angle doesn’t make any significant change to accomplish this.
You might be wondering what air stream direction has to do with mouthpiece placement. First, note that mouthpiece placement recommendations are all over the map. You’ll find some well-regarded resources suggest 2/3 top lip and 1/3 bottom. Others recommend 1/3 top lip and 2/3 bottom. Some musicians suggest perfectly centered placements. Others just leave that up to the individual and dismiss it as something that’s either too personal to judge or merely irrelevant.
In order to really understand what’s going on we need to take a moment and look at a number of different brass players and see what we can discern about mouthpiece placement and air stream direction. Which recommendations match what we can actually see?
Here is a photograph of a trombonist playing a “middle Bb,” that is a Bb on the top of the bass clef staff. Take a close look at both his mouthpiece placement and the position of the lips inside the mouthpiece.
This is a pretty obvious example. You can see the mouthpiece placement is quite high and close to the nose. His embouchure aperture (the opening between the lips, which opens and closes very rapidly) is below the shank of the mouthpiece. The air stream passes the lips and is directed towards the bottom of the mouthpiece cup.
Here’s the same player playing a “high Bb” an octave above.
Now with these photographs you’ll want to keep in mind that they provide a snapshot into a single instance of the vibrating lips, so the aperture in the embouchure isn’t just frozen in these positions. But looking at the lip position inside the mouthpiece and comparing it to the middle Bb it looks as if the air stream might be directed even more downward.
Let’s look at a “low Bb,” the Bb towards the bottom of the bass clef staff. In this photograph it looks like the air stream may being blown less downstream, closer towards the shank.
Now let’s compare that with a different trombonist playing the same three notes, middle Bb, high Bb, and then low Bb.
This player’s mouthpiece position is completely opposite the first trombonist’s. He places the mouthpiece low, close to the chin. The aperture is well above the shank of the mouthpiece and his lips are aligned to blow the air stream up towards the top part of the mouthpiece cup. Opposite the first trombonist, the higher the pitch the more upstream the air stream appears to be blown and the lower the pitch the closer towards blowing down the shank it goes.
Brass musicians who place the mouthpiece somewhere close to half and half will have one lip or the other that predominates. Sometimes the upper lip predominates and the air stream is blown downward.
And sometimes the lower lip predominates and the air stream is blown upward.
Let’s look at the tubist with the air stream direction flip again. Here is a clip of him where I asked him to play something that required him to play around and across that break.
Notice how his lips fight for predominance at that break point and his tone splits into a double buzz. This is one reason why half and half mouthpiece placement just won’t work so well for most brass players. One lip or another should predominate inside the mouthpiece and it should be the same for the entire register to avoid issues like this tubist has.
It might be useful to use a reed instrument as an analogy to better understand what’s going on inside the mouthpiece. While a double reed instrument will have both reeds vibrating at equal intensity, the lips for a brass embouchure function a little closer to a clarinet mouthpiece. The predominant lip inside the mouthpiece will serve more like the reed of a clarinet while the other lip is more like the hard surface of the mouthpiece against which the reed/predominant lip vibrates against. This is somewhat of an imperfect analogy because both lips do vibrate, so perhaps a better way to visualize this is to think of it as somewhere in between an oboe reed and a clarinet reed/mouthpiece.
If you’re having trouble visualizing this, here is a Lloyd Leno’s film, Lip Vibrations of Trombonists Using High Speed Photography. This video shows several different downstream and upstream trombone embouchures. Note that there is more upper lip inside the mouthpiece for downstream players. There is more rim contact on the lower lip, which helps to inhibit the vibrations on that lip. Both lips vibrate together, opening and closing at the same time, but you can see the wave patterns on the upper lip are larger than on the lower lip.
Now compare the downstream examples in that film to the upstream players from the same film. The upstream trombonists have more lower lip inside the mouthpiece and less upper lip. The additional rim contact on the upper lip helps, in part, to limit the wave pattern on the upper lip while the lower lip vibrates with more intensity. Again, both lips are vibrating together, but in this case the lower lip has a larger pattern of vibrations.
So what does this mean for the tubist flipping air stream directions? His placement is close enough to half and half that he can’t control which lip predominates and it flips around. He also struggles with his upper register and has a high range cap, no matter what he practices and how much. His mouthpiece placement needs adjustment, either to get more upper lip inside or more lower lip inside. Figuring out which is going to be correct took a little experimentation, but in the course of our video recording he gave me a pretty good clue which would work better for him.
Here is a clip where he was having trouble getting up to his highest notes. I asked him if there was something he could do to play higher. Notice his response.
When I spoke to him further about this upstream embouchure he expressed that a previous teacher advised against it. According to his teacher (a well regarded one at a very respectable arts magnet school), this student’s embouchure muscles would “develop strength” with practice and it would fix his range cap. In the mean time, he could always play an Eb tuba if he needed higher notes for a solo (if you’re particularly observant or have perfect pitch you might have already noticed that he is already playing on a C tuba, rather than the more traditional Bb tuba).
The advice he got is wrong, but quite common. It’s definitely true that upstream brass players are more rare than downstream players. But it’s important to understand that it isn’t a choice that a brass musician makes, it’s something that anatomy determines. A student’s mouthpiece placement should be where it works best, not where the teacher happens to place their mouthpiece. Forcing a student to play with a mouthpiece placement that doesn’t fit the student’s anatomy leads to less efficient embouchure technique at best, and often some pretty serious struggles.
Many brass teachers make a big deal out of making their students’ embouchure work like their own, without consideration to upstream or downstream embouchures (or other embouchure characteristics that I’ll cover later). But if we consider that every player has different anatomical features, it stands to reason that everyone is going to have a different embouchure. Most brass musicians have the anatomical features that make a downstream embouchure work best for them. It is much more common to find brass players who place the mouthpiece with more upper lip inside. Because of this, many brass teachers assume that this is the “correct” mouthpiece placement and teach their students to play this way. When encountered with an upstream student they often advise that student to change their mouthpiece placement to have more upper lip inside.
If a student has the anatomy to play best with an upstream embouchure the above advice will cause playing difficulties. Everything may look “correct” to the teacher, but an upstream brass musician playing with a downstream embouchure is not going to work as well. The student will almost always have a high range cap. His or her highest note may sound OK, but he or she will need to work very hard to play up there and getting above that note will be next to impossible. No matter how much practice time the student puts in, they won’t be able to extend their range any higher. Consider again the tubist example above trying to play in his upper register. Moving his placement lower on his lips to make his embouchure function entirely upstream allows him to play higher than before and with less effort. While there is initially a lack of control and accuracy playing his entire range with an upstream mouthpiece placement, it completely eliminates the break in the middle of his register as well.
Before I leave the subject of mouthpiece placement it’s also worth pointing out that off-center placements to one side are also not necessarily a bad thing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with placing the mouthpiece to one side, often very much off center. Sometimes obvious anatomical features, such as a protruding tooth, will make a placement to one side more comfortable. Other times the embouchure simply works better off center and there’s not obvious anatomical feature that one can see.
Often times players will naturally gravitate to their best mouthpiece placement, but sometimes they need some encouragement to experiment (particularly if they’ve been discouraged before). After you’ve spent enough time examining different brass embouchures you should be able to help guide students with their mouthpiece placement. You can try having students place their mouthpiece higher, lower, and off to both sides and see where their limits are. Frequently you’ll end up back where the student was already placing. Other times you will discover a different placement that sounds better and feels to them like less effort to play. Sometimes those placement might look odd, so instead listen for tone, intonation, and see what makes their high range feel easier.
Mouthpiece placement and air stream direction isn’t the sole embouchure characteristic that teachers will need to have a handle on. Here is a clip of a trumpet player who has some embouchure difficulties not directly related to his mouthpiece placement. Take a look and see if you can spot what’s causing his issues.
Nils Wogram is a jazz trombonist from Germany. He’s really a terrific player, he’s got that great combination of excellent technique paired with a lot of creativity. I was surfing YouTube and came across this fantastic solo using multiphonics.
There’s not really a good look at his chops in this video to really guess his embouchure type. It *seems* like his mouthpiece is fairly high and close to the nose, but the camera never focuses closely enough and at a good enough angle to say more than his embouchure is one of the downstream types. I did want to post that video, though, because it’s a really neat example of what someone can do with multiphonics.
It’s been a while since I’ve played “Guess the Embouchure Type.” To bring it back I’m going to take a look at Dutch trumpet player Melissa Venema. She’s a remarkable player at only 19 years old at the time I write this. She was 18 in when this concert video was recorded.
I’ve gotten several questions about the asymmetrical mouthpieces that John H. Lynch has developed. It’s an interesting design. Essentially the rim is much larger on one side. As I haven’t tried these mouthpieces out, I don’t have any personal experience that I can bring to review the asymmetrical mouthpiece design. But Lynch has written a fair amount about embouchures, which may offer insights into how his mouthpiece design can work for a particular player.
One article I came across is a reprint from Clint McLaughlin’s book, The Pros Talk Embouchure (which I haven’t read yet). Lynch’s article is called The Ideal Trumpet Embouchure. It’s an interesting read, although I noted several assumptions about embouchure’s that would only apply to certain embouchure types and a handful of things that are the brass player’s equivalent of urban legends. Going through some of Lynch’s statements and offering my thoughts may help some players considering his mouthpieces put it into a more complete context.
Lynch divides his discussion into two parts, one he calls the “static” part, including things like the mouthpiece placement on the lips, left hand grip, tongue position, lip pucker, etc. The other he calls the “dynamic” part of the embouchure and covers such things as air, pitch, and practice. I’m not certain that I would discuss elements of the embouchure quite in the same way, but it’s one way to at least organize an essay and makes it easy to follow.
Tip of the horn to John B. for spotting this video of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Brass Quintet. Back in high school I took a semester of Japanese and recognize the characters in the video as the kana. I gave up after a short while trying to work out which of the orchestra’s brass players are performing here, so if anyone knows and can supply us the names of the individual performers, please leave a comment. (Update – Dan F. worked out the trombonist, it’s Jorgen Van Rijen. Thanks, Dan!)
You can get a pretty close look at all five of their chops in this video, but it’s tough to spot all of their embouchure motions because most of the time there isn’t enough of a range change at that moment in the music to see one (this is why in my videos I demonstrate this with octave slurs, it’s a large enough interval to clearly see them). Still, we can make an educated guess based on mouthpiece placement and there are a couple of points in the video where you can spot a player’s embouchure motion. Take a look and make your best guess of their embouchure types. My speculations after the break.
John Ericson is one of the bloggers behind the excellent Horn Matters web site (along with Bruce Hembd). Recently he posted on what horn texts have to say about mouthpiece placement. Dr. Ericson quotes passages from Philip Farkas, Gunther Schuller, and several other horn pedagogy authors.
It’s an interesting read and most of the texts that Ericson quotes were unfamiliar to me. Since I take a different approach to brass embouchures than all the authors, I wanted to comment on some of his post and try to put the quotes into a broader context of how brass embouchures actually can be observed to function. Continue reading Horn Matters on Horn Mouthpiece Placement