I have sent an email to everyone who is registered for the upcoming brass embouchure pedagogy workshop I’m hosting. It contains the Zoom link and some info about what we’ll be covering. If you have registered for this workshop and didn’t get the email please check your spam folder first and if you don’t see it, contact me.
On Saturday, April 17, 2021 at 1:30 PM Eastern I will be hosting a free Zoom workshop covering basic brass embouchure patterns and some pedagogical implications of understanding these embouchure types, followed by a Q&A session. Have your instrument and set up your camera to get close up to your embouchure and we’ll conclude with “guess the embouchure type.”
Space is limited, so to reserve a spot please fill out the contact form below.
Edit: I’ve heard from one person who tried to use the contact form and got an error. It seems to be working for me, but if you have any trouble please leave a comment (I will get notified that there’s a comment in the queue if you haven’t had a comment approved here before) and I’ll back in touch with you.
Edit #2: The workshop is now full. If I hear back that someone isn’t going to be able to attend after all I will post an announcement here and on the Trombone Chat forum topic. Since there seems to be plenty of interest I am considering running another workshop later. If you’d like to see another one feel free to email me, post on the TC topic, or by leaving a comment here on this post.
This post is a followup to Friday’s post. If you want to try to solve this embouchure puzzle on your own you should look at the video here first, then come back and read this one. In order to follow this post completely you’ll need to understand what the three basic brass embouchure types are. If you don’t, please read this post and watch the video embedded there. If you want a more complete discussion of this, start here at this page.
I’ve been taking some time lately to catch some video lessons with my one of my mentors, Doug Elliott. For those of you who might not already be familiar with Doug, he is a trombonist, mouthpiece maker, and an expert in brass embouchure technique. He was also the primary source in my dissertation, “The correlation between Doug Elliott’s embouchure types and selective physical and playing characteristics among trombonists.” Doug has been guiding me through an experiment we tried to fix the problems I’ve been dealing with.
Once more, here is a video that shows the issues that I’ve been covering up for a while now manifest. You can hear the choked upper register, but can you spot the mechanical issue that is causing it? The answer, and the path that Doug helped guide me though to make corrections, are below the break.Continue reading Embouchure Experiment – 10 Days With the Opposite Type
Many brass musicians have had embouchure breakdowns, including some very exceptional players. So it should come to no surprise that a mediocre player, like myself, can run into some issues with embouchure technique. This in spite of my interest in brass embouchure technique and almost 25 years of study in embouchure form and function.
For years I’ve had some nagging difficulties that have caused some problems in my playing. I’m usually able to muscle my way through them, especially after warming up for a while, but I haven’t been fixing the mechanical problems, only getting good at covering them up. This is actually quite common. What’s strange is that I know exactly what I’m doing wrong and what I should be doing, it’s just been a bear to make the corrections happen consistently.
Recently I’ve decided to make it a priority to fix these problems. Since at the current time we’re still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I don’t have any serious performing obligations so this is a good time to get this done. I’ve been catching some video lessons from my mentor, Doug Elliott, who has been guiding me through an interesting embouchure experiment that has helped solidify things for me. But before I post about that I want to give the masses a chance to see my problems manifest and make your best guess as to what you think is going wrong. Then, offer your hypothetical advice.
Can you spot the mechanical issues? How would you fix them with a student? Post your thoughts in the comments here. On Monday I’ll post what Doug and I figured out was happening and the experiment we tried that eventually made for good improvements.
I’ve been meaning to blog about this topic for a few months now, ever since I got an email from someone asking about whether I was aware of any acoustical research projects in brass instruments using artificial lips that take into account air stream direction. As far as I know, there haven’t been any. My recollection is that the emailer was a grad student conducting research, but I’ve lost the email and my reply. If that was you (or you are similarly conducting research using artificial lips to play brass instruments), please email me again or post a comment here and tell us what you found out.
Recently I came across a couple of videos from Youtube user iSax Laboratories. This first one is a description of how they built a robot to play trombone.
And in this one we get to see and hear it in action.
He agrees with some of the commenters that it’s not a very good sound. I have to give him a lot of credit for trying this out and even if it’s not going to replace human musicians just yet, it’s a neat proof-of-concept.
Regular readers of this blog will probably already know that human musicians don’t place the mouthpiece dead center on the lips. Some of that is certainly due to the “foundation” of the teeth and gums behind the lips. However, one lip or another must predominate inside the mouthpiece and we know that the embouchure will either function as a downstream or upstream embouchure. I asked iSax Laboratories about this on his YouTube comments section and he replied that he had tried some different positions and settled on the one in the above video, where it seemed to work best.
There have been some other similar attempts. Back around 2010 Toyota built robots that apparently really played brass instruments. It supposedly blows air into the instrument and has artificial lips to produce the sound. However, I’m skeptical that the artificial lips are similar to the above robot. There has been acoustic research that uses oscillators as “artificial lips,” but I’m not certain how these Toyota robots recreate the brass embouchure. Check out the following video and look to see if you can see any artificial lips on this robot.
If the artificial lips attempt to recreate a human musician’s lips I can’t spot them on this robot. It is somewhere inside the robot, since the robot’s “mouth” seems to be simply a round hole. At least that’s what it looks like to me in this video. The resolution isn’t high enough to see any better.
Back in 2018 Uri Shaked tried to build a robot to play trumpet. You can read more about his attempt, titled “We tried to build a Robot that plays the Trumpet and Happily Failed (Sometimes Failure is The Best Option).”
On our way to Geekcon, we stopped at a local grocery store and got a plastic jar for pasta storage. As soon as we arrived the hackathon, Avi hooked it up to some lips he improvised from water-filled latex gloves, drilled a small hole in the jar, and hooked the air pump output to it, and pressed the trumpet against the lips. After a few minutes of tinkering with the position of the lips and the pressure applied by his fingers — there it was: a pure trumpet sound!
Go to the link I posted above to see more videos of their experiments, including some with robotic fingers as well.
There have been several studies done that use artificial lips to study acoustics and instrument design. As best as I can tell, the first design of using tubes filled with water was done in 1997 by J. Gilbert and J.F. Pettiot for a paper published in Proc. Institute of Acoustics, titled “Brass instruments, some theoretical and experimental results.” I haven’t read this paper, just seen references to it, so I can’t comment on it. A number of papers I have refer to their design of artificial lips as the one used to conduct additional research.
J. Wolfe, A.Z. Tarnopolsky, N.H. Fletcher, L.C.L. Hollenberg, and J. Smith published a paper titled “Some Effects of the Player’s Vocal Track and Tongue On Wind Instrument Sound” in 2003. They used two different artificial players. One used fluid filled latex “lips” that appears to be similar in design to Gilbert’s and Pettiot’s one. The other they described as, “a simple cantilever spring. We call this version of the player Phyl, for ‘PHYsicist’s Lips’.” (Wolfe, et al)
In 2007 Seona Bromage’s thesis used artificial lips made of latex rubber tubes filled with water. Bromage’s paper includes this image, which suggests that the mouthpiece was centered on the artificial lips.
Here’s a photograph of the actual “mouth.”
Bromage also compared the artificial lips playing a trombone to actual musicians playing, using a transparent mouthpiece. I have to admit that the discussion of the physics involved went over my head, so I’m not sure what to think of the results of this paper.
In fact, I’m not sure what to make of any of these acoustics papers. I *think* that I’m following the general discussion, but an awful lot of the physics are beyond my understanding. Combine that with the use of terms that mean something different to me (for example, upstream and downstream are terms that I would use to describe the general direction the air is directed as it passes the lips into the mouthpiece, but in physics they mean something completely different).
Just as musicians like me are not usually well trained in physics, I doubt that the physicists studying the acoustics of brass instrument have a well informed understanding of brass embouchure mechanics. To be honest, I don’t find many brass musicians have an accurate understanding of embouchure mechanics either. For the purposes of their physics research I guess it doesn’t make that much difference, but I am curious if modeling the lips in a more realistic way would maybe provide some insights that we could use to advance our understanding of instrument construction or brass pedagogy.
Again, if you’re engaged in research like the above, please leave a comment or drop me a line. I’d like to hear more about this and see if I can wrap my head a little better around this topic.
Please bear with me while I try to troubleshoot ongoing 502 Bad Gateway errors that keep popping up. It’s been suggested that they might be related to plugins that I have installed on this site. I’ve tried checking them one at a time and that doesn’t appear to have any difference in the issues, but in order to get to the heart of what’s causing the problems some of the features on this site may be offline for a while. Hopefully I can get to the bottom of this soon and have it fixed for good.
This is probably not new news to most of you, but I found this article called “The Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect‘” interesting. Author Annie Murphy Paul discusses the research on how improvement requires not a lot of practice, but deliberate and focused practice.
“Hundreds of thousands of people took music lessons when they were young and remember little or nothing,” he points out, giving lie to the notion that learning an instrument is easiest when you’re a kid. The important thing is not just practice but deliberate practice, “a constant sense of self-evaluation, of focusing on one’s weaknesses, rather than simply fooling around and playing to one’s strengths. Studies show that practice aimed at remedying weaknesses is a better predictor of expertise than raw number of hours; playing for fun and repeating what you already know is not necessarily the same as efficiently reaching a new level. Most of the practice that most people do, most of the time, be it in the pursuit of learning the guitar or improving their golf game, yields almost no effect.”The Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect’ – Annie Murphy Paul
While this is really not new information, most of us still don’t practice deliberately most of the time. It’s not fun poking at your flaws and forcing yourself to address them. If you’re into an activity it’s probably because you find it fun and constantly finding things that you don’t do already well make it less so. It takes discipline to spend your practice time not sounding good, but it’s absolutely the best way to spend your time if you want to maximize your results.
There’s a lot of scholarly evidence to support this approach. Paul cites a couple of papers that are also interesting reads. I couldn’t find the original paper online, but here is a 2008 paper by Anders Ericsson, “Deliberate Practice and Acquisition of Expert Performance: A General Overview.”
Traditionally, professional expertise has been judged by length of experience, reputation, and perceived mastery of knowledge and skill. Unfortunately, recent research demonstrates only a weak relationship between these indicators of expertise and actual, observed performance. In fact, observed performance does not necessarily correlate with greater professional experience. Expert performance can, however, be traced to active engagement in deliberate practice (DP), where training (often designed and arranged by their teachers and coaches) is focused on improving particular tasks. DP also involves the provision of immediate feedback, time for problem‐solving and evaluation, and opportunities for repeated performance to refine behavior. In this article, we draw upon the principles of DP established in other domains, such as chess, music, typing, and sports to provide insight into developing expert performance in medicine.Anders Ericsson
Paul also references research done specifically with musicians, “It’s Not How Much; It’s How: Characteristics of Practice Behavior and Retention of Performance Skills.” The researchers looked at how different pianists practiced a challenging passage and then rated their performances the next day to see what strategies worked best. You won’t be surprised to learn that the musicians weren’t the pianists who practiced the longest, but those who focused their practice in a way that they practiced the passage correctly, rather than reinforcing mistakes.
The lesson to learn here is to always practice with an ear towards what your mistakes are and make sure to fix them. It takes great effort and isn’t the most enjoyable way to practice, but it’s absolutely the best way to improve.
Speaking of which, it’s time for me to go practice.
Back almost 20 years ago I wrote an arrangement of the Hallelujah Chorus, from G.F. Handel’s Messiah. I happened across it a couple of weeks ago and as I had just gotten a new microphone I decided to record myself playing all four parts, figuring I could post it as a holiday greeting. Here’s the recording.
And here’s the sheet music for it.
You might want to listen to it before you bother downloading it. I’m not sure why I wrote the 1st trombone part so high, maybe I was hoping to show off? I got it to sound passable in the recording by isolating that phrase and playing it a few times until I got it to sound OK, but I wouldn’t want to try that in a live performance. You can probably fix that by just playing trombone 1 down an octave there, but that puts it in unison with another part and I guess I wanted it to be in octaves like Handel’s original. Try it out and let me know how it goes.
The bass trombone part is a little rough in the recording, partly because I’m playing it on a tenor trombone and partly because I hadn’t played that horn for months (I’d mostly been playing my King 2B and staying out of the trigger range, but this was a positive kick in the seat to brush the dust off that horn and start working on my low register again).
Every December the Asheville Jazz Orchestra performs an annual Stan Kenton Christmas Concert, where we perform music from the Stan Kenton Merry Christmas album, as well as other big band arrangements of holiday music. With the 2020 pandemic still raging, we were unable to perform the concert this weekend.
Instead, I asked everyone in the band to record their part to a composition I wrote in 2009 for that year’s concert, A Visit From St. Nick. It’s all original music set to the poem, “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” by Clement Clark Moore. Everyone recorded their parts to a series of click tracks I put together and sent them back to me. I assembled them together and put together this recording.
Thanks to all the musicians who participated!
David Wilken – Composer, Director, Wendy Jones – Narrator, David Wortman – Alto Saxophone, Joel Helfand – Alto Saxophone, Walt Kross – Tenor Saxophone, Bruce Austin – Tenor Saxophone, Frank Southecorvo – Bari Saxophone, John Entzi – Trumpet, Woody Dotson, – Trumpet Tim Morgan – Trumpet, Steve Martinez – Trumpet, David Wilken – Trombone, Walton Davis – Trombone, Jamey Waren – Trombone, Jason Slaughter – Bass Trombone, Chris Morgan – Guitar, Richard Shulman, – Piano Harry Jacobson – Bass, Rick Dilling – Drums
Former Reinhardt student, Rick Gordon, recently found an old cassette tape of Reinhardt performing Blue Bells of Scotland, by Arthur Pryor, from June of 1926. Reinhardt would have been 18 years old at that time. Check it out.
It’s extremely impressive playing for anyone, let alone someone who is only a young adult! Consider also the recording technology of the time required musicians to get everything in a single take, you couldn’t go back and punch in to clean things up.
I was curious about where this recording lined up with the story Reinhardt wrote in his book, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System. In the preface he described how he became interested in studying a physical approach to brass technique, after years of studying with 18 “so-called brass instrument instructors.”
One day prior to the advent of the bell lock, I knocked the bell section off the slide section of the instrument while inserting a mute. The bell struck the sharp outer edge of the tympani rim and fell to the floor. The tuning slide was completely flattened, rendering the horn unplayable When I had it repaired, the repairman neglected to replace the balancing weight, making the horn extremely front-heavy. As soon as I tried to play the unbalanced instrument, I noticed that I could play a very weak high Bb. Since this was the first high Bb that I ever played, I was naturally quite elated. In trying to analyze this phenomenon, I realize that since the instrument was decidedly front-heavy, the membrane (red) of my lower lip had moved in a slightly over my lower teeth. This was because the horn angle was considerably lower than before. Thus, the fact that my jaw was slightly more receded than usual permitted the lower lip membrane to move slightly in and over my lower teeth, increasing my embouchure compression.Encyclopedia of the Pivot System – Donald S. Reinhardt, p. IX-X
Based on the above description of Reinhardt’s abilities before this event, it must have happened before he made this recording. But based on the information he put in the Encyclopedia, I would date this event happening around the same time, perhaps a year or two later, which is curious. My dating of this tuning slide accident is based on other things he wrote in his preface.
He states that he began studying music formally at the age of 8 (violin and music theory). After two years he decided he wanted to play a brass instrument (he preferred French horn), but his father kept him on violin for another year until he began taking brass lessons. This would have been at the age of around 11 (age of 8+2 years of violin+1 year of his father insisting he stay on violin). Then later he studied “thirteen and a half years of trombone lessons,” frustrated because of his range difficulties. That puts the date of the tuning slide accident somewhere around his young 20s.
Ralph Dudgeon, in his 2000 article for the International Trumpet Guild Journal, “Credit Where Credit is Due: The Life and Brass Teaching of Donald S. Reinhardt,” suggests this happened even later. Dudgeon states, “Apparently, it was in this period [in the early 1930s] that Reinhardt studied with the ’18 so-called teachers.”
Why worry about this timeline in the first place? Well, first and foremost I’m curious and my academic background has trained me to look for the details in order to put things into the context for a bigger picture. If this was recorded before his tuning slide accident, then something is off in Reinhardt’s preface to the Encyclopedia. Maybe his dates in the preface were off or maybe the recording was made when he was older. Perhaps Reinhardt exaggerated his playing difficulties for effect.
My teacher, and former student and friend of Reinhardt’s, assumes that the tuning slide accident must have happened in early high school. If so, that would make the most sense based on the quality of Reinhardt’s playing on this recording.