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.

Hallelujah Chorus for Trombone Quartet

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.

Hallelujah Chorus

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).

A Visit From St. Nick

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

Donald S. Reinhardt Plays “Blue Bells of Scotland”

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.

Pseudoscience in Brass Pedagogy

As a fan of science, I often like to step back from my world of music and take a look at what looking at teaching music through the lens of science is like. In the process, I’ve seen an awful lot of advice and support for methods that have the veneer of science, but are actually questionable, in my opinion. As a rule, us musicians don’t have the training or wherewithal to properly understand scientific methodology and we also frequently misunderstand or unintentionally distort science outside our area of expertise.

Pseudoscience, meaning claims that purport to be factual and scientific but are actually contrary to the scientific method, is pretty widespread in brass pedagogy. I wondered what would happen if I looked at some popular brass pedagogical methods and applied some of the same criteria that defines pseudoscience.

All the quotes and descriptions that follow are what have been actually said or written by brass teachers claiming a degree of expertise in this topic. I’ve left out names and resorted to always using masculine pronouns to protect the guilty and to stave off the inevitable accusation that in criticizing my real motive is to prop up my own value. If what I’m questioning resembles something you believe (or is something I quoted), please feel free to defend yourself in my comments or on your own blog, but please deal with what I actually write, not what you believe my motives to be. You know who you are. . .

So without further ado, I present some criteria and examples for considering pseudoscience in brass pedagogy.

It’s dogmatic

Proponents of a pseudoscientific belief tend to evolve very little, if at all, since the original idea was established. Research, if done at all, is often done in order to justify the belief, rather than improve understanding. A dogmatic belief accepts an authority as not to be doubted or questioned.

There are plenty of method books and instructions like this. Some instructors recommend 2/3 upper lip to 1/3 lower lip and some instructors the opposite. Some players insist that the secret to their success is playing a particular set of exercises while others have a completely different routine that must be relied upon.

The truth is there is no single approach that will address all brass education. The more dogmatic a teacher the less likely he or she will be able to adjust their instruction when the need arises to suit their individual students.

The idea is aimed directly at the public.

As far as a way of spotting pseudoscience, I have to take this one with a grain of salt when it comes to brass pedagogy. Most musicians and music teachers are concerned with making music and getting their students ready to make music. As a rule, we don’t run scientific studies and publish our results in peer reviewed journals. For someone trying to make a living in a field as competitive as music it’s only natural for brass players and teachers to market their products out to the general brass musician public.

However, there’s a point at which this becomes disingenuous. When responding to a somewhat negative review of his book in a professional journal devoted to medical issues suffered by performing artists, one brass pedagogue stated:

Dr. Steinhorn was certainly correct that [my book] does not offer any scientific data. It is not that sort of book. My intention was to offer a well-documented explanation to professional brass players of a perplexing dilemma.

The author of the above quote follows by admitting his collected “data” is anecdotal, but that’s fine because the book was written for musicians in mind. In other words, he felt it was OK deceive the general brass playing public into thinking that his research was scientifically derived because it wasn’t written for a scientifically literate audience.

Ideas that are non-testable.

Many pseudoscientific ideas in brass pedagogy can’t really be tested in any meaningful way. Often it’s because the claim is too vague or too broad to have any relevant way. The hazy thinking makes it possible to come up with an interpretation to fit the vague outcome of the original claim.

For example, one advocate of the so called “tongue controlled embouchure” once commented in an interview:

[I] honestly believe that those great players of the Baroque Era had to be using their tongues to control all the notes. We will never know for certain, but if I can play all the Trumpet parts that Bach wrote on the Baroque Trumpet with my tongue in this forward position as described by [name omitted] – what logical conclusion can we come to? To think that a great Genius like Bach would have accepted a spread and out of tune tone from a Trumpeter is ridicules (sic). If you look at all the Art from the period, it plainly depicts the Trumpeter as having puffed checks.

He at least readily admits that we won’t ever really know for certain, but states his method to be correct anyway because Bach is a genius and because artists show brass players puffing their cheeks. Does that mean that a cartoon tubist is a good example of good brass technique? It’s not evidence, it’s hopeful thinking.

If you’re going to accept art from the Baroque as evidence that trumpet players puffed their cheeks to play, then perhaps you should also consider that maybe you’re using the wrong cheeks. Just sayin’.

Verbose language and prose.

One reason that theories from pseudoscience are vague and untestable is that the language used by the proponents is far too vacuous itself. This often results in a ‘theory’ that is so conceptually slippery it becomes difficult to identify what is actually being argued – or how one might test it. Due to their nebulous content, such practices also nearly always hide all sorts of circular reasoning errors. Over-complex words, phrases and over-long sentences are employed in an attempt to ‘look’ scientific and intelligent.

Pseudoscientific theories are not only characterized by their vague and untestable claims, but the language that they use is often overly complex and written in a way that attempts to look scientific, but when you break their claims down the logic falls apart.

Here’s a quote from someone who believes he has broken the embouchure “code:”

As a way to set up my own inner resonance system…chest, throat, back of tongue, soft palate, the rest of the tongue, jaw position, lips etc…so that when I freebuzz any given note the setting(s) for that note are the most efficient ones that are possible for me to achieve, all I have to do is to sing the note while my lips are in some sort of ready-to-buzz position and isolate the overtones which would be most desirable to me if I was playing the note on the trombone (The 5th and 6th partials, mostly. The  3rd and 5th of the “trombone” chord.) , then w/out appreciable change of that system transfer said “buzz” from my vocal cords to lips, and then place the m’pce on my chops (again w/out serious compromises) and start playing.

Inner resonance system? Isolate the 5th and 6th partials? Numbers and scientific terms make it seem profound, but what does that really mean? He continues with another common ploy, citing made up statistics:

I literally had about 40% or 50% more endurance than is usually the case, plus what I could play was simply…better. Bigger sound, more range, better connections, faster. The works. 

Now…I’m only talking maybe 10% better. 15%. Somewhere in there.

Using statistics to make your case that aren’t backed up by real data is extremely common in brass technique books. Here’s a couple of other examples, by a different author:

Teachers fail to consider the ida that only 10% can make the flat chin work.

And:

Ninety-five percent of the players coming to me, whatever their age, are shallow breathers.”

And:

Three out of ten players may receive some initial benefit from changing lip position, because three in ten will get better regardless of the system used.

Others invent scientific sounding terms or misuse legitimate ones. Here’s how one author defined what he called “the most common performance-related injury in brass playing:” 

For the purpose os discussion here, Embouchure overuse syndrome refers to any chronic embouchure-related playing problem which last for more that two weeks and includes any or all of the following: lip pain, chronic lip swelling or bruising, numb rubbery, or cardboard lips, recurring pressure-point abrasions, air-induced abrasions, lack of endurance, unfocused sound, lack of playing control, and chronic high-range problems.

Yikes, did he leave any technique problems out? Every brass student I’ve ever had has Embouchure Overuse Syndrome! Quick, let’s get to the emergency room before it starts catching!

Seriously, if there’s an injury to the lips or embouchure area let’s call it what it is, torn muscle, pinched nerve, lip abrasion, whatever. Classifying a syndrome for a myriad of very common playing concerns and then implying that they are all the result of something as vague as “overuse” smacks of snake oil salesmanship.

When I injured my knee my doctors didn’t tell me I had “knee overuse syndrome,” I was given an x-ray and then MRI exam to determine what exactly was injured (torn medial meniscus), surgery to help repair the injury, and then physical therapy targeted at helping me recover faster and avoid a future injury. I would hope that someone diagnosing what sounds like a medical condition to take similar care in prescribing treatment. A brass performer who has torn his obicularis oris is going to require a completely different treatment program than someone who has pinched a nerve or abrasions on the lips. Not to mention issues like lack of playing control and high range problems that are likely to be unrelated to any medical condition.

Conceptual hijacking.

One very common way brass teachers will engage in pseudoscientific practice is to take scientific concepts that aren’t well understood by the general public and to cite them as evidence for their beliefs. This can be intentional or blatant, and it’s particularly insidious because it seems so legitimate to us.

Here is a criticism of my embouchure research in which I use a transparent mouthpiece to observe the position of the lips inside the mouthpiece. He starts off with physicist Erwin Schrodinger’s thought experiment, the infamous “Schrodinger’s Cat.” Then he takes his turn into left field:

So the end result of this paradox is that as far as the observer knows, the cat is equally living and dead. Indeterminacy in its most perfect expression, and of course impossible.

OK…how does this apply to playing a brass instrument?

By opening OUR steel chamber (observing the airstream direction in this case), we terminate the experiment. AT THAT MOMENT, our airstream is doing whatever it must do. There is no telling whether that airstream is doing whatever is observed without stopping the system. As soon as it is stopped, the living embouchure is also stopped. End of experiment.

In our case, not only is the subject alive and/or dead (upstream or downstream), but there are infinite possibilities of HOW “upstream or downstream” it really is (HOW alive is the cat?)  

Indeterminacy squared.

A flagrant, and unfortunately quite common misinterpretation and misuse of quantum mechanics. He offers no evidence that mere observation of a player’s lip position with the use of a transparent mouthpiece is unknowable in the same manner as subatomic particles. It’s akin to recommending that you play billiards in the dark because the photons from the light are going to interfere with your shot.

As I mentioned above, sometimes the conceptual hijacking is seemingly unintentional. When writing to support Arnold Jacob’s assertion that a vowel sound of “oh” tongue position was best for playing brass, he cited a scientific paper.

This research has confirmed Jacob’s claims . . . Hence, high notes need a relatively higher air pressure than low notes, but this air pressure will be bigger at the lips, not because of the obstruction of the tongue, but because of more expiratory work by the respiratory musculature, which is why the use of vowels with a high tongue position to facility playing in the high register doesn’t not seem appropriate.

I cut a bit from the above quote to get to the heart of what the author is communicating. He is advocating to keep the tongue position lower in the oral cavity and avoid raising the tongue position higher to ascend. However, when I went to the cited paper, I discovered something contrary to what was being claimed. The emphasis is mine.

The tract geometry affects the played pitch by typically 20 cents over both instrument-dominated and reed-dominated regimes in both instruments. It can also cause a transition between different playing registers.

In reality, the paper doesn’t really address the topic of whether or not arching the tongue higher in the mouth to ascend is proper technique or not, it simply shows that it has an effect on timbre, intonation, and can influence the playing register. The argument that the tongue arch should consistently remain low in the mouth or change according to the register while playing could be debated, but the cited paper doesn’t really provide evidence for the former.

Confirmation bias (selective evidence).

One of the most common examples of confirmation bias is the experience of hearing your phone ring just as you are thinking about someone in particular and it just so happens to be that person calling. It’s a notable coincidence and sticks out in our minds, as opposed to all those times we are thinking about that same person and they didn’t call.

We are all victims of our own confirmation bias, it’s part of what makes us human. We’re great recognizers of patterns, even when patterns don’t actually exist. This means we need to be very careful interpreting the results of our teaching and practicing, particularly when applying them to a general population.

I am my own favorite example of confirmation bias. When collecting data for my dissertation research on trombone embouchures I had convinced myself that I was able to predict a trombonist’s embouchure type simply by looking at their anatomical features. In reality, I was remembering all those times I got a hit, but forgot about the misses. When I crunched the numbers and looked at the data I learned that I was wrong.

I mentioned above the author who used the term “embouchure overuse syndrome.” He believes this to be the single most common cause of practically every embouchure symptom anyone has ever had. While reading the following passage by this author, think about what I wrote about statistics above:

In the eighteen-years of my research, 4736 bona fide embouchure overuse injuries/playing disabilities were reported to me from all of the world.  [a whole bunch of statistics were then cited about these subjects, which I’ve eliminated because they are meaningless]  These histories formed the basis of my thesis on embouchure injuries, and the resulting rehabilitation system I developed grew out of my one-on-one sessions with injured players.  I know of no other author who has collected such a huge database of information on the subject of embouchure pain, problems, or injuries.

This individual has not published his methodology or data, so I cannot say for certain if the flaws I see are accurate. Until that information is made publicly available, however, the burden of proof is on him. In fact, I would argue that ideas that are supported without evidence can be dismissed without evidence too.

How was it determined that all 4736 subjects were “bona fide” injuries caused by embouchure overuse syndrome? Was their data collected via self reporting or was a more reliable method designed to avoid confirmation bias used? More bluntly, how many of those over 4000 subjects were actually seen in person and how many were self reports from player’s who just happened to come across the author’s web site? Were all those subjects who emailed and called and were included in the “thesis” also made aware that they were participating in a medical study and gave permission to use the results. What sort of survey was given to determine the statistics? Did he take the care to make sure that he wasn’t leading the subjects’ answers by asking question like, “Did your problems follow after a very demanding playing engagement?” 

What active brass player doesn’t have difficult and challenging performances from time to time? They are quite common for almost every serious musician. It’s like thinking of someone as the phone rings and it being them on the phone. You don’t think about all the times you played hard and didn’t get injured, but if you get injured you notice.

Data that doesn’t attempt to address confirmation bias is not data, it is anecdote. The more anecdotes you have that conform to your beliefs don’t make it more compelling.

No matter how high you stack cow pies, they won’t turn into a pile of gold.

Metaphorical/analogy driven thinking.

Metaphors and analogies are important to both science and music pedagogy. Particularly complex or abstract ideas often rely on analogies in order to get the point across. It’s perfectly valid and, to a degree, unavoidable. That doesn’t excuse otherwise intelligent teachers and musicians from drawing erroneous conclusions about reality based on a mental image that clicked for them.

We must let our minds fill with the sound of our musical message and related emotions. . . Our thoughts must go to the stimuli (“songs in the head) as we overcome the challenges of music and the physical phenomena of playing a brass instrument. . . When thinking of the body, stiffness results. But, when thinking of the sound, relaxation can occur. Some performers play so effortlessly and naturally that they are sometimes referred to as “natural player.” All you have to do is imagine that you are a natural player long enough, and you will become one.

The bold in the quote above is not mine, it is in the original text. Read it again. What he’s telling you is that if you want to be a fine player, all you have to do is think you are for long enough.

This sort of magical thinking is all the more tempting because there’s a kernel of truth in there. When teaching skills that require motor control, whether it’s playing a brass instrument or making a golf putt, intrinsic learning (focus on the goal, such as a beautiful and expressive performance or a successful putt) has fairly conclusively been shown to be superior to extrinsic learning (focus on the mechanics of playing or putting), at least in the short term. What proponents of the “think about music and the body will figure itself out” approach improperly do is turn their pedagogy into a false dichotomy. While the brass musician’s goal should be effortless technique while all attention is on the musical message, that is not necessarily the best path.

These advocates are also fond of the tired cliche that focus on technique will lead to “paralysis by analysis,” which strikes me as an excuse to be intellectually lazy and not learn how and what to analyze. I’ve written more about this tired expression here.

Anecdotes as evidence

There are so many examples of this fallacy around that I won’t even bother to quote any here (look above for some). Anecdotes have their place, but must be placed in proper context. Way too many players and teachers find a method that seems to do wonders for them and some of their students and immediately presume that their method is correct for everyone.

Special pleading (elusive evidence)

Special pleading is sometimes informally referred to as “moving the goalpost.” When confronted with evidence to suggest our ideas are wrong, it’s easy to move the criteria around. Or we state that the evidence is an “exception.”

One individual with a reputation for helping players with severe embouchure issues treats their problems as an emotional condition, rather than a physical one. When confronted with students that don’t respond to his emotional counseling, however, rather than consider that the approach he is taking might be the best for the individual and try something different (or refer the player to someone else) he states that the reason for their failure to improve is because:

There are many people. . . that will never be willing to make the right effort. . . Most people who don’t respond to treatment are not really disciplined.

One brass author feels quite strongly that all brass players free buzzing embouchure should work exactly the same as his free buzzing embouchure. When I showed him a high speed video of noted trombonist Stuart Dempster both free buzzing and playing in a transparent mouthpiece instead of modifying his theory he decided that he had not at that time worked much on “transferring his free buzz to his horn (or the reverse) with as little change as possible.” He was probably not familiar with Dempster’s playing. 

While questioning one author’s assertions I was told that I was incapable of understanding.

If there is any bias, it is yours. You have apparently never suffered a performance injury, and yet, you are attempting to judge a body of work about something you clearly do not understand. It is like a person who does not have carpal tunnel syndrome who buys a book on CT treatments and tries to judge the efficacies and worth of those treatments.

I don’t know for a fact that my orthopedist has ever had a knee injury like the one I had, but he certainly understood the efficacies of treatment and did a damn fine job on my surgery. Having suffered and recovered from a knee injury in no way makes me qualified to diagnose and treat another individual’s knee pain.

This logical fallacy is actually quite common when people defend their favorite methods. If only you would give their approach a try for just a little longer it will eventually start to work. When a student fails to succeed after practicing their exercises the blame is usually placed on the student for practicing them incorrectly. Their lack of self-correction makes is unscientific in nature and makes for bad pedagogy.

Conspiracy theory thinking

Pseudoscientific thinking often takes the form of a real truth that “they” don’t want you to know about. This usually takes the form of some sort of “academic establishment” that is locked away in their ivory tower, too far removed from actually making music themselves.

The academic/orchestral/industrial complex orthodoxy prescribes one setting for all ranges. But the exigencies of a practical professional life preclude that for all but the most perfectly physically gifted of us. When confronted with this idea, the orthodox tend to get a little…upset.

Exaggerated Claims

The late Carl Sagan noted that good scientists are always considering that they could be wrong. Good scientists don’t exaggerate the strength of their evidence. Good brass teachers should do similarly. The bold emphasis in the quote below is mine.

A dynamic development system that’s easy to learn and works for every trumpet player.

It’s OK for a teacher to say, “I don’t know.” Obviously no single approach will work for everyone. There are just too many variables. Unfortunately, it’s human nature to not only gain confidence with experience, but it’s also easy to slip into overconfidence. A healthy dose of humility goes a long way.

The noted traits of pseudoscience above shouldn’t be taken as proof that those ideas are wrong, per se, but they do raise red flags. Particularly when those ideas are contradicted by other evidence, we need to question what brass pedagogy says more often.

With that said, I want to encourage you to begin reading my site with these characteristics of pseudoscience in mind. Off the top of my head I can think of examples I’ve written here that fit the above criteria and I’m sure there are plenty more that I’ve not considered yet. When you find those inconsistencies, I would like to ask that you call me out on them and let me know in a comment or email. If I can’t logically defend those ideas, then they need to be revised, updated, and corrected.

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.