Thoughts On Mouthpiece Buzzing

When I was a music student mouthpiece buzzing didn’t seem so controversial as it seems to me today. Most of my teachers used it to a degree, but didn’t emphasize it too much. Today there are many books and routines for brass that incorporate or even focus on mouthpiece buzzing. There are also many teachers and players, some very prominent ones, who discourage any mouthpiece buzzing. Others swear by it. 

When I see disagreements in brass pedagogy and practice I like to take a step back and look at the question as objectively as possible. What does mouthpiece buzzing practice do to our normal brass playing? What’s the relationship to normal brass playing and why does it have a positive or negative effect? Are there ways to maximize the benefit and reduce any drawbacks? 

Mouthpiece buzzing requires the brass musician to focus the embouchure perfectly on pitch or else the note will be out of tune. On the instrument the player can get away with being a little off because the acoustics of the instrument will “slot” the note for you. However, if the embouchure still isn’t focused correctly on the instrument the tone won’t be as focused. I also suspect that playing a note with the embouchure not quite in focus is more tiring in the long term then working with the natural resonances of the instrument.

Even though buzzing on the mouthpiece doesn’t utilize the natural harmonic resonances of a brass instrument, it’s worth noting that a mouthpiece does have a harmonic frequency, It’s just a high one due to the very small resonance chamber that’s created. I’m not expert enough in the acoustic principles at play to know how this comes into play when mouthpiece buzzing, but I do know that many brass musicians find they have areas where they have issues when buzzing the mouthpiece. 

Along with requiring the embouchure to focus correctly, mouthpiece buzzing also works the player’s breathing. If you buzz into the mouthpiece alone you’ll find that you exhale the air more quickly. One school of thought is that by buzzing into the mouthpiece alone you practice really moving a lot of air quickly. The idea is that by getting used to moving more air than usual the player will be better able to move a lesser amount air on the instrument. 

Some teachers and players adjust the resistance while mouthpiece buzzing in some ways. There are devices that you can buy the allow you to fine tune the opening of at the shank end of the mouthpiece and simulate the back pressure of playing the instrument. A cheaper alternative is to put a bit of your finger up and block a bit of the hole at the shank of the mouthpiece.

Critics of mouthpiece buzzing offer that it’s different from playing the instrument. They argue, plausibly, that the technique you use for buzzing the mouthpiece well is going to be different from what you want to use while playing your instrument. I tend to agree that there probably other things that brass musicians can practice that will work better in the long term. If you’re too accomplished at buzzing the mouthpiece it risks getting in the way of playing the instrument well.

But there are situations where I think that mouthpiece buzzing can provide some benefits, with some caveats. I feel mouthpiece buzzing should be used sparingly and only for short times. When used, it’s best to immediately afterwards play something on the the instrument. Mouthpiece buzzing is different from playing the instrument, and if you are careful it’s possible to exploit that difference.

One of my mentors used mouthpiece buzzing mainly in the context for helping legato playing. He would have his studio play a phrase or three of a legato etude, then buzz it on the mouthpiece (only tonguing initial attacks after the breath, the rest no tongue). Immediately after buzzing, with as little time as possible, we were to pop the mouthpiece back into the instrument and start the etude over. Usually students would notice an improvement in tone and ease of playing. 

For teachers, this mouthpiece buzzing exercise can give your student a quick and easy “win” in your lesson. While benefits of mouthpiece buzzing seem to be a little more short-term, sometimes it’s good to give a student a boost of confidence. There are also definitely musical techniques that mouthpiece buzzing works on outside of brass technique, such as ear training and even expressive playing. 

I should also mention that mouthpiece buzzing is a great way to introduce beginners into how to form a brass embouchure. Free buzzing is usually pretty challenging for a beginner, at least while getting the embouchure form I want to encourage, but it’s much easier to do on a mouthpiece. Buzzing on the mouthpiece is often easier for a new player to get their first sound than trying it on the instrument.

All that said, I really haven’t used mouthpiece buzzing regularly in my own practice and teaching for a while. My preference is to work to address things in ways either directly on the instrument or in a way that is further removed from how normal brass playing works (i.e., through singing to develop ear training, free buzzing to develop embouchure strength, breathing exercises to develop good breath control). 

My two cents – You probably can do just as well without mouthpiece buzzing in the long term, but if you don’t do more than a few minutes or so a day you should be OK if you feel it’s helpful. I would recommend you don’t use it as a warm up, always start your practice by playing your instrument. When you do buzz on the mouthpiece, always immediately return to playing the instrument and ensure that you’re developing your ability there, rather than getting better at being a mouthpiece buzzer.

Alan Raph – Guess the Embouchure Type

Alan Raph is a bass trombonist. I first became familiar with him as one of the authors of Trombonisms. I learned how to doodle tongue from that book as an undergrad. Although I think he’s retired now, Raph is also a conductor and composer. He’s got several really interesting videos on YouTube discussing various elements of bass trombone technique.

I also found this one of him playing an unaccompanied solo. While you listen, watch his embouchure and see if you can guess his embouchure type. My guess after the break.

Continue reading Alan Raph – Guess the Embouchure Type

Sound Differences Between Embouchure Types

Many brass teachers and players in the know about embouchure types will talk about the typical differences in tone between players belonging to different embouchure types, including me. For example, “Low Placement” upstream players tend to have a brighter tone than “Medium High Placement” embouchure type players. But while I think these tendencies have some validity, I think there’s enough variation among individuals belonging to the same embouchure type that you would never want to type someone based on sound alone.

Apparently, Donald Reinhardt claimed that he could tell a player’s embouchure type merely by hearing him or her play. Frankly, I doubt that anyone can do this, but I suppose if anyone could it would have been him. I think a player’s tone can be a clue, but certainly isn’t definitive.

I was curious about this, so I grabbed several audio clips from one of my old embouchure research projects and ran them through Audacity to look at the spectrograph. Here are 6 trumpet players.

Trumpet 1
Trumpet 1
Trumpet 2
Trumpet 2
Trumpet 3
Trumpet 3
Trumpet 4
Trumpet 4
Trumpet 5
Trumpet 5
Trumpet 6

Let’s take a look at some trombonists next.

Trombonist 1
Trombonist 1
Trombonist 2
Trombonist 3
Trombonist 3
Trombonist 4
Trombonist 4
Trombonist 5
Trombonist 5
Trombonist 6

Since I know which player belongs to which embouchure type, it’s easy for me to look and listen to them and think that I’m seeing and hearing a difference. Two of the above trumpet players stand out in particular to me in their spectrograph as being similar, but it might just because I’m looking for a pattern to fit what I already happen to know.

Unfortunately, what I’ve done isn’t going to be a very scientific way of determining a difference in tone between players of different types. I did record them all using the same equipment, but these were in different locations, which is going to affect what the mic is picking up. I didn’t control for how far away the camera/mic was from the player or even if the player was facing towards the mic or towards the side. Some of the players are playing starting on a different note, ascending first or descending first, etc.

In other words, this doesn’t prove anything.

I’d like to hear what you think. Assuming you’re already familiar with the basic brass embouchure types, what is your guess for each player based on the audio file and spectrograph? If you’re using Reinhardt’s embouchure types, all of these players fit IIIA, IIIB, and IV/IVA.

When you’ve left your guess in the comments, you can go here to see the answers.

Armed Forces Medley by the Asheville Jazz Orchestra

Earlier this month the U.S. celebrated Independence Day, but because of the current pandemic both my concerts that day were cancelled. Instead, players from the Asheville Jazz Orchestra recorded their parts to my medley arrangement of the U.S. Armed Forces theme songs.

I meant to post this on July 4, but at the time this site was in the process of being fixed after an issue on the server side. When my site was fixed I forgot about posting this until now.

I’m Back

If you’ve stopped by in the past couple of weeks you’ve noticed that everything since 2010 had disappeared. The contents of this web site were large enough that I wasn’t able to restore from a backup on my own and it turns out it was more difficult for my hosting company for some reason too. Regardless, everything has been restored and should be back to normal. If you do spot something that needs fixing please post a comment to me and I’ll try to get it fixed for you.

Further Evidence Against Learning Styles

I’ve written about “learning styles” a couple of times before, here and here. If you haven’t read them or it’s been too long ago, the gist of my argument is that music teachers and students need to abandon this idea of learning styles. The evidence doesn’t support that it’s actually true.

Dr. Steven Novella recently blogged about this topic on Neurologica. He summarizes “learning styles” as:

The idea is that individual people learn better if the material is presented in a style, format, or context that fits best with their preferences. The idea is appealing because, first, everyone likes to think about themselves and have something to identify with. But also it gives educators the feeling that they can get an edge by applying a simple scheme to their teaching. I also frequently find it is a convenient excuse for lack of engagement with material.

Novella’s blog post also mentions and links to the Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning’s article, Learning Styles as a Myth. The article is short, but well cited and doesn’t just discuss evidence against learning styles but also provides helpful evidence-based suggestions for improving pedagogy.

Lastly, it’s fun to play around with this online test to supposedly tell “What’s Your Learning Style?” Like Novella, I found it to be pretty silly. As a professional musician you’d expect my results to be skewed towards “aural,” but there’s so much subjectivity and missed context here. For example, one of the question asked what I would prefer to do for fun, and it included “listen to music” as one of the options. I actually answered “read” instead, because often I’m engaged in music and sounds so much throughout the day that for fun I prefer quiet to relax.

As I have argued before, what these test are telling you, at best, is what your learning “preference” is, not your learning style. There’s a difference between how a student wants to learn and whether or not the materials are being absorbed. It’s long past time for teachers to leave the learning styles myth behind.

Site Updates Will Continue

Oops. If you were looking for something here in the last couple of days you got an error message. In making some updates some stuff got changed around which resulted in the site not being accessible. The solution turned out to be pretty easy, it was harder for me to figure out what changed than it was to make the correction.

At any rate, now that I’ve got that fixed, I’m planning on doing some more cleaning up of the site here. Hopefully there won’t be any other access issues, but you might notice some plugins going off and on as I test out some different stuff.

Remote Recording Sessions

Like a lot of musicians right now, I’ve been participating in some different recording projects where all the musicians either video or audio record themselves from different locations and then put everything together to sync things up. It’s been a good way for me to keep excited and interested in playing music, even though we’re not able to make music in person right now.

There are many places people can go for advice on the technological aspects of putting together these recording projects, and most of those resources are probably more informed and experienced than I am. I did, however, want to share some of the things I’ve been working on recently and how those recordings were put together.

This first one my involvement was just as a player. The parts were sent out and assigned to everyone and we were given a click track and some basic instructions to help everyone get coordinated. I did maybe 3 or 3 takes, with a few false starts in there. The click track we used was modified from a recording of a quartet performing this piece. The starting tempo was plugged in and a metronome clicked it off. During a couple of moments where there was some silence a metronome click was dubbed in to help all the musicians stay at the same tempo without being able to breathe together and cue each other.

While recording for this project I found it a little tricky to cue up my camera, then the click track, and get into position to be ready to play quickly enough. In retrospect, having a longer count off or even just some extra silence at the beginning of the click track would have made it just a little bit easier to be ready to play from the beginning.

Once the parts were all recorded, the audio files were pulled out and synced with each other using GarageBand. The videos were compiled and synced up separately using Adobe Premier Pro and the mixed and edited audio was dropped into the video. Some of the audio and video aren’t perfectly lined up with each other, but you have to look for it and the final audio ended up pretty good.

I made this video for my elementary school music students, so it’s a bit on the silly side. I did this project completely on my own and took me a while, mostly because I don’t have the necessarily video editing software to do this split screen video technique, so I had to come up with a different solution. Again, I started with a click track that was just a bass line and a metronome click. In order to get the opening shtick to a line up with the timing I also recorded my lines and stuck them in before the bass line started in the click track. That way I was saying my lines about the same time as on the click track and would also be able to react on the other video parts at the right time.

I mentioned I don’t have video editing software to do the split screen technique, so my solution was to open up four QuickTime windows on my computer monitor and start each one at the correct time while recording my screen, also using QuickTime. In order to get them synced together I needed to find a way to start separate video window one at a time and at the correct time. My solution was to include at the beginning of each video a count off for each instrument as a point of reference.

So on each video at the very beginning I recorded myself saying, “One, two – one, tow three four. Voice, two – one, two, three four” (in time with the metronome click in my headphones), then “Bone, two…” “Bass, two…” and “Keys, two…” On my computer I arranged the video windows where I wanted them and then watched each video until just before that instrument was counted in. In other words, starting the trombone video would start it right at the “Bone, two…” count off, etc. I then recorded my screen with QuickTime and started the voice window, starting the trombone window right as the voice recording got there, then started the other two video windows in the same way. There was a lot of hit-or-miss here where I ended up a a little bit off, but after a few tries I was able to get each video playing together being synced up pretty close.

The audio for this was done in GarageBand to make sure the audio was lined up. The QuickTime screen recording and the audio recording from GarageBand were lined up as close as I could get using iMovie. I wouldn’t want to try to use this technique for more than 4 videos, but it did the job for me.

Grandpa’s Spells

This last one is just an example of an audio recording project I made with two of my musician friends/colleagues. My friend Annie played both bass and guitar on this and James played the trombone. The tune is a Jelly Roll Morton composition called “Grandpa’s Spells.” I sent out a click track to Annie and James ahead of time that included a metronome click and a bass and drum part.

To create the bass and piano click track, as well as to help me chart out the arrangement we were to use, I used Finale to input in simple parts, exported those parts as a MIDI file, and then dumped those into GarageBand. Once in GarageBand I could record my part over those and send out click tracks to the other musicians that had their part removed. That way James could play his piano part without having a MIDI piano getting in his way, etc. The musicians recorded their parts and sent them back to me, which I dumped back into GarageBand to edit and mix.

Even though the musicians I’ve worked with on these, and other similar projects, were not able to get together in person or go to the same studio to record, it’s pretty amazing what we are able to do today with fairly cheap and easy to use technology. In fact, I would say that the most difficult hurdle to completing these projects is that you need to rely on everyone to have the time, energy, and inclination to set up a device to record on and a device to listen to the click track on at the same time and record their part. For a variety of reasons, many of my current remote recording projects are in limbo because we’re still waiting for musicians to get around to doing their part. Hopefully I’ll have some more of these to share before too long.