The Evidence On Mouthpiece Buzzing Efficacy

Back when I was a high school and college music student my brass teachers never really emphasized nor discouraged mouthpiece buzzing. It didn’t seem to be a point of controversy. I knew that a lot teachers recommended it, but I didn’t really consider it more than doing it occasionally. As a doctoral trombone student, my mentor, John Seidel, did have certain exercises that he used that involved buzzing on the mouthpiece. These days there are many high profile brass performers and teachers who actively discourage it while others argue that it’s extremely valuable.

I’ve written about this topic before (here and here), but until recently I haven’t gone out of my way to get a decent look and see what empirical evidence is out there for and against mouthpiece buzzing. I did a quick search in a college library catalogue for “mouthpiece buzzing,” limiting it to sources published since 2000, to see what would come up in the academic and professional literature. I ended up finding 35 articles/papers that had something to say about mouthpiece buzzing, of which only 29 actually addressed whether mouthpiece buzzing was useful for teaching and practice. By no means is this a comprehensive literature review, but rather gives us a snapshot into what sort of information is available and what the state of current research is on the topic.

Rather than summarizing each reference, I instead just looked at the following five criteria:

  1. Does the article/paper empirically research the efficacy of mouthpiece buzzing?
  2. Does the article/paper speculate on the efficacy of mouthpiece buzzing with relevant and/or accurate information?
  3. Does the article/paper avoid speculation on the efficacy of mouthpiece buzzing using anecdotal, irrelevant and/or inaccurate information?
  4. Does the article/paper properly cite sources or otherwise logically reason out its arguments for the efficacy of mouthpiece buzzing?
  5. Is the article/paper pro-mouthpiece buzzing, con-mouthpiece buzzing, or neutral?

Note that I’ve phrased the questions in the above criteria in order to make “yes” answers show that a resource would be a helpful reference for objectively looking at the effectiveness of mouthpiece buzzing. Likewise, any “no” answers mean that this paper or article would not make a very good objective reference. That’s not to say that the paper isn’t good, it just won’t be able to objectively answer the question on whether or not mouthpiece buzzing is a positive or negative practice approach.

I also feel compelled to point out that I mostly skimmed these papers and articles, glossing over things that weren’t relevant to the topic of mouthpiece buzzing. It’s entirely possible that I missed or misunderstood some points in this literature and so you should take my evaluation of them with a grain of salt.

Results

You’ll see in the below chart that the vast majority of papers and articles I found simply state their opinion on mouthpiece buzzing without citing any sources or backing it up with logical speculation. It largely seems that almost everyone simply assumes mouthpiece buzzing is useful and the rational comes down to either tradition or anecdotal support. Some of them contain surveys of literature and/or brass teachers that endorse mouthpiece buzzing, but this is a poor method to judge the effectiveness of a pedagogical approach – if the pedagogical tradition is already biased towards mouthpiece buzzing then we can assume most players and teachers will be similarly biased. That doesn’t necessarily mean that mouthpiece buzzing is bad, but the reasons for it are flawed. As you’ll note in my chart below, very few people have subjected mouthpiece buzzing to an honest test.

Likewise, you’ll note that the vast majority of the literature I found falls into the “pro” camp towards mouthpiece buzzing, while only two ended up as “neutral.” I didn’t find any resources that were definitely against mouthpiece buzzing in this search, although I know of a few high profile teachers or players who are against it. A literature search for the term “mouthpiece buzzing” is probably going to be biased towards papers and articles recommending it, since authors who are against the practice are not likely to mention it at all if they are recommending another method.

A very large number of these resources got a “no” answer on Criteria 3 (does it avoid inaccurate speculation) because it claimed that the instrument functions as an “amplifier” for the buzzing lips. While this may be a good analogy for teaching and there is an element of truth to it, the actual physics behind the standing wave inside the instrument makes that idea too simplistic to logically speculate on the efficacy of mouthpiece buzzing as a practice method. This is one of those ideas that’s been repeated for so long that a lot of brass musicians accept it without question.

As an aside, one of the reasons I restricted my search to resources written in the 21st century is because in a recent Trombone Chat forum conversation one participant lamented that much of the discussion there revolved around pedagogy from 50 years ago or longer (specifically, that of Arnold Jacobs). That said, a great deal of the articles and papers I found cited Jacobs or even were specifically devoted to his pedagogy. Jacobs’s pedagogy is still dominant, at least in English language resources. While I feel there’s much that his approach has to offer players and teachers, there’s also much that needs revision and too often it’s the later that gets cited in support of certain pedagogical practices (you can read more of what I’ve written about Jacobs’s pedagogy here).

Out of the literature I found, there was only one study that made an attempt to measure whether or not mouthpiece buzzing is an effective practice tool, “The Effect of a Researcher Composed Mouthpiece Buzzing Routine On the Intonation and Tone Quality of Beginning Band Students,” by Jason Beghtol. In Beghtol’s review of the literature he doesn’t cite any other study that similarly tested mouthpiece buzzing, leading me to believe that it’s likely no one has done so before him. I think it’s very important to note that the results of Beghtol’s tests showed no statistically significant results between his sample population of students who were given mouthpiece buzzing instruction compared with his control group. Keep in mind that there were some limitations of methodology that make it difficult for us to draw up conclusions that will apply to the general brass playing population, but so far the only empirical evidence concerning the use of mouthpiece buzzing shows that it’s no more effective than not mouthpiece buzzing at all.

TitleCriteria 1Criteria 2Criteria 3Criteria 4Criteria 5
“Dr. Nathaniel O. Brickens: His Pedagogy, Career, and Influence On Trombone Performers and Educators,” Dunwoody Mirvil, 2008NoYesNoNoPro
“A review of the unique injuries sustained by musicians,” Michele Heinan, 2008NoNoYesNoPro
“Pedagogical Methods of Vincent Cichowicz as Witnessed by Larry Black, 1964-1966,” Brittany Hendricks 2013NoNoNoNoPro
“Developing a Solid Bass Trombone Sound,” Aaron Wilson, 2016NoNoNoNoPro
“A Guide To Daily Routines,” James Boldin, 2011NoNoNoYesNeutral
“Conrad Herwig Masterclass,” Antonio J. Garcia, 2014NoNoNoNoPro
“Endurance: Thoughts On Winning the Unwinnable,” Patrick Boyle, 2009NoNoNoNoPro
“A Lost Embouchure Found: A Journey Back From Focal Dystonia,” Ashley Gulbranson, 2014NoNoNoNoPro
“Empowering Musicians: Teaching, Transforming, Living,” William J. Dawson, 2016NoNoNoNoPro
“Starting the French Horn: Step-By-Step to Ensure Success,” Drew Phillips, 2019NoNoNoNoPro
“Song and Wind In Canada: The Impact of Arnold Jacobs’s Teaching on Canadian Tuba Pedagogues,” Jonathan David Rowsell, 2018NoNoNoNoPro
“A Pedagogical Approach For Developing the Endurance, Technical Facility and Flexibility Necessary to Perform Anthony Plog’s Concerto for Solo Trumpet, 14 Brass, and Percussion,” Michael Sullivan, 2014NoNoNoNoPro
“The Modern Trumpet Player,” Tony Carlucci, 2011NoNoNoNoPro
“Steps Toward More Effective Brass Blowing,” Chad Criswell, 2009NoNoNoNoPro
“Technique Tips: Accuracy,” Jeffrey Agrell, 2010NoNoNoNoPro
“From Blat to Beautiful: Help Your Trumpeters Develop a Great Embouchure,” Alicia Sanderman, 2004NoNoNoNoPro
“Making a Good Sound On the Trumpet,” Thomas Dust, 2007NoNoNoNoPro
“Embouchure Problems In Brass Instrumentalists,” Richard J. LedermanNoYesNoNoPro
“Five Basics For a Horn Embouchure,” Andrew M. McAfeeNoNoNoNoPro
“Euphonium Euphoria: Encouraging Great Sound and Facility from Your Euphonium Players,” Aaron WilsonNoNoNoNoPro
“No More ‘Bad Days’ – A Trumpet and Brass-Instrument
Warm-Up Routine that Works,” Christian McIvor, 2017
NoNoNoNoPro
“Upper Register Training for Young Horn Players,” Drew PhillipsNoNoNoNoPro
“Endurance: Thoughts On Winning the Unwinnable,” Patrick Boyle, 2009NoNoNoNoPro
“To Bee Or Not To Bee: The Art of Buzzing,” Mike HeriottNoNoNoNoPro
“Teaching Beginning Trombone Players,” Todd L. Fallis, 2001NoNoNoNoPro
“Lessons Learned From the Slide Trumpet,” Chase Sandborn, 2003NoNoNoNoPro
“The Buzz On Horn Buzzing,” Jon Chappell, 2008NoYesNoNoPro
“Mouthpiece Buzzing,” Gillian MacKay, 2012NoYesYesYesPro
“The Effect of a Researcher Composed Mouthpiece Buzzing Routine On the Intonation and Tone Quality of Beginning Band Students,” Jason Beghtol, 2018YesYesNoYesNeutral

You might wonder after going through this exercise what I personally think at this point. My opinion on mouthpiece buzzing hasn’t changed. There are probably some situations where it can be a useful tool, when done a certain way. It’s also possible that doing it wrong or too much can actually be counterproductive. I think it’s very likely that when done correctly and moderation that it’s not really all that more useful than practicing other things that have less risk of working against how we want to actually play the instrument, so I’m going to continue to avoid it in my own practice and use it sparingly in my teaching.

Brass Embouchure Pedagogy Workshop

On Saturday, May 22, 2021 at 1:30 PM Eastern I will be hosting another 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 your spot please fill out the contact form below. I will email you the Zoom info when we get closer to the date of the workshop.

    Your Name (required)

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    Brass Embouchure Workshop

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    Brass Embouchure Pedagogy Workshop Complete

    Thank you to everyone who attended yesterday’s brass embouchure pedagogy workshop. Special thanks to Paul and Doug for helping to contribute by request and offer some additional insights.

    If you were able to attend I’d like to hear your thoughts on what you liked and what you would want improved. I plan to offer another, maybe in around a month, and hope to make some changes to improve the quality and content. Please post your comments here or send me an email.

    When I’m ready to schedule another workshop I will post about it here, so you can keep your eyes open for an announcement. In the mean time, I have many resources that cover the same information on this web site. The most comprehensive one is my Embouchure 101 resource.

    Brass Embouchure Pedagogy Workshop Info

    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.

    Brass Embouchure Pedagogy Workshop

    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.

    Embouchure Experiment – 10 Days With the Opposite Type

    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.

    Can you spot the cause of the problem?
    Continue reading Embouchure Experiment – 10 Days With the Opposite Type

    Embouchure Difficulties – Spot the Cause

    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.

    Artificial Lips For Acoustics Study (and fun)

    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.

    – Visualization of the Lip Motion of Brass Instrument Players, and Investigations of an Artificial Mouth as a Tool for Comparative Studies of Instruments, Seona Bromage, p. 11

    Here’s a photograph of the actual “mouth.”

    – Visualization of the Lip Motion of Brass Instrument Players, and Investigations of an Artificial Mouth as a Tool for Comparative Studies of Instruments, Seona Bromage, p. 22

    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.

    Bad Gateway Issues

    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.

    Deliberate Practice

    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.