There is a concept for practicing brass instruments that is fairly well known, but probably not done correctly by most of us – when practicing, rest as much as you play. Those instructions are fairly clear, but hard to implement and also leaves a lot of room for interpretation. What does it really mean to rest as much as you play while practicing?
My interpretation of this advice is to break that up into two concepts. First, when in the midst of a practice session when I get done with an exercise routine or piece that I’m practicing I will try to put the instrument down for the same amount of time it took me to play it before moving on to the next routine or piece. So in a 60 minute practice session I might only have the metal on the mouth for about 30 minutes of that hour, but it’s 5 minutes on, 5 minutes of rest, and so on. In actuality, there’s perhaps even more rest time than playing time if you count the very short breaks I’ll be taking built into whatever I’m practicing. Solo rep has rests in it, many technique exercises have repeated “sets” where I’ll take the mouthpiece off the lips for a moment and then move on to the next set, etc.
The other interpretation I have of resting as much as you play is to then put time between practice sessions. In general, I rarely practice more than an hour at a stretch, so when I come back to another practice session I make sure that I have an hour of not playing between. With my current schedule that’s not a problem since I usually am able to practice for an hour each morning and if I don’t have a gig or a rehearsal that evening will put in another hour in the evening. Back when I was a graduate music student I had a more demanding rehearsal and practice schedule and would organize my practice time around my rehearsal schedule so that I could put at least an hour in between each playing obligation.
The basic idea here is that while practicing you should always be refreshed enough to play correctly. When fatigue sets in it’s very easy to slip into habits that aren’t very helpful. Some of these habits will seem like they’re working, to an extent, but it’s often not until the next day where it feels stiff and unresponsive. Resting as much as you play both in a practice session and throughout the entire day helps you avoid that.
It’s also worth mentioning that players will respond differently to how much you rest and play. If you’re familiar with the basic brass embouchure types, players belonging to the two downstream types will typically find that they can play for longer periods of time, but when they finally get tired they will need a nice long break to recover. In contrast, players who belong to the upstream type find that they can get tire quickly, but all it takes is a short break to recover. These are generalizations and you can find exceptions, but they can be used to your advantage if you understand your embouchure type and how to play correctly for that type. For example, as an upstream player I find that practicing in shorter spurts of just a few minutes at a time, then resting for a few minutes, can get me through more challenging materials better than trying to go through everything as quickly as possible.
It’s important, at least at first, to be more diligent about this. Take out your phone and time yourself on how long it takes you to get through something you’re working on. Then set a timer for that amount of time and rest before you play again. Better still, record yourself and then listen back to it in its entirety. Hearing how you sound while not in the act of making music is great feedback. Another fine way to duplicate this is to find a practice partner working on similar things as you. If you’re working on technique routines, for example, you play an exercise and your partner plays it back, then you move on to the next one and go back and forth. If you’re practicing solo repertoire you can alternate phrases with each other, or play the same phrase back and forth. If improvising you can trade choruses, 16, 8s, or 4s. Rest for a few minutes between each set that you’re doing.
If you already practice this way, let us know in the comments why you’ve adopted this approach and how it’s worked for you. If you don’t, tell us why you’ve chosen to not do so or try it out for a week or three and then let us know if you felt a difference.
I had bookmarked these videos a while ago and then forgotten about them. I finally got around to watching them. They are a great introduction to the history of New Orleans style brass band music. It was made as part of the Historic New Orleans Collection’s exhibit, Dancing in the Streets: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans. They are really well done and worth a watch.
I wasn’t familiar with trumpet player Glenn Libman prior to coming across this video. Libman studied with Donald Reinhardt for a number of years. In this video for the Trumpet Diagnostics YouTube channel Libman got together with Bobby Medina and Paul Baron to discuss Donald Reinhardt’s pedagogy.
I don’t know exactly when Libman studied with Reinhardt, but I do know that Reinhardt altered some of his ideas and presentation over the years. Some of what Libman discusses in this video are contrary to things that I learned from my teacher, Doug Elliott, who also studied with Reinhardt for a number of years.
For example, Libman describes Reinhardt’s term “pivot” more about bring the bell of the instrument up or down. He does qualify it as bring the bell up also pushes the mouthpiece and lips up, but this is a tricky way to describe it. My preference is to call the phenomenon as an “embouchure motion” and discuss any horn angle changes as being related to keeping the mouthpiece pressure consistent across the entire range.
Libman also discusses Reinhardt’s IIIB type (what I usually call the Medium High Placement) as being the most common, and IIIA (Very High Placement) as being more rare. If I recall correctly, Reinhardt wrote or said something similar that his IIIB type was pretty common. That said, my experience has been different. I find many more players belong to the Very High Placement (IIIA) type than the Medium High Placement (IIIB). I wonder if the prevalence of modern orthodontics have made some types like the Medium High Placement/IIIB less common than they were during Reinhardt’s day.
He also describes free buzzing as working against upstream players, where I was taught that free buzzing was a very good exercise for upstream players (as long as you don’t buzz into the instrument). There seems to be something about the upstream embouchure type (Low Placement/IV) that these players have trouble building embouchure strength and endurance simply by playing a lot. Free buzzing seems to really help upstream players do so.
Regardless, I found the whole interview interesting and informative. There’s a lot of good information in there and if you are curious about Donald Reinhardt’s pedagogy it makes for a solid introduction.
Are there basic descriptors of what how an effective brass embouchure looks and functions? This is a very difficult question to answer, partly because an individual musician’s anatomical features will change around that particular player’s embouchure form and function. That said, there may be some specific features that we can look for that are common for all brass musicians, regardless of those anatomical differences. If we then also take into account the basic embouchure types we can then generalize effective embouchure form for each of these basic types.
Before going any further, it might be useful to define what we mean by “embouchure technique” in the first place, as well as what it means for an embouchure to be “effective.” You would think that something as basic as embouchure would be pretty clearly defined and understood by the field already, but definitions can vary from source to source. I’m going to use the definition and description as written by Kees H. Woldendorp, MD, Hans Boschma, BHS, Anne M. Boonstra, MD, PhD,aHans J. Arendzen, MD, PhD, and Michiel F. Reneman, PhD in their paper, “Fundamentals of Embouchure in Brass Players: Towards a Definition and Clinical Assessment.”
We propose the following definition of embouchure: embouchure is the process needed to adjust the amount, pressure,† and direction of the air flow (generated by the breath support) as it travels through the mouth cavity and between the lips, by the position and/or movements of the tongue, teeth, jaws, cheeks, and lips, to produce a tone in a wind instrument.
Embouchure can be described in terms of “functional” and “dysfunctional.” In “functional” embouchure, the wind player has the ability to efficiently create the intended tone (or range of tones) or sound in his/her wind instrument, without causing performance-related physical complaints. “Dysfunctional” embouchure is the opposite: embouchure which does not, or insufficiently, create the tone (or range of tones) or sound and/or causes physical complaints related to wind playing. Dysfunctional embouchure can occur without apparent physical com- plaints, e.g., in “squeezed playing” with ineffective high muscle tension in the facial area that restricts the range of playable notes. Examples of possible consequences of dysfunctional embouchure include a limited range of tones (restrictions in playing low and/or high tones), poor dynamics (restrictions in playing loudly and/or softly), sound artifacts (squeezed tone, burred tone, superimposed sounds, diminished harmonics of the sound, noise caused by air escape, faulty intonation, or difficulties producing clear tonal intervals ), difficulty playing long notes, pain, redness or swollen lips, and problems of “attack” (the start- ing or onset of the tone).
†Pressure is force divided by surface area, i.e., the opening of a reed or the equivalent of it in a brass instrument.
What I like about the above definition and descriptions is that it clearly recognizes the interaction the embouchure has with the rest of the playing system. Unlike some, I don’t feel that it’s wrong to separate a discussion of embouchure technique from any other specific technique (breathing, tonguing, slide technique/fingering, etc.). It’s worth recognizing that the brass embouchure is part of an overall playing network, but looking closely at that one piece will help us better understand how it fits within the larger picture.
Because of the inherent variations between different players due to anatomical differences the basic principles of a well functioning brass embouchure that describe everyone is limited, but I’ll try to list some anyway. Philip Farkas’s “The Art of Brass Playing” does describe some characteristics that make for a basic description, even though there is much that is inaccurate or misleading in that book. Specifically, Farkas’s discussion of “the brass player’s face” is a pretty fair starting point. I don’t have a personal copy of this book to quote, but my recollection was that Farkas discussed a “puckered smile” where the mouth corners are locked into place and the chin was described as being flat, as opposed to a “peach pit” appearance.
Taking into account that looking for the appearance of a flat chin or exactly where the mouth corners are locked can look different from player to player, Farkas’s advice here seems to hold up under scrutiny. Dr. Matthias Bertsch and Dr. Thomas Maca looked at what muscles in the face were activated by trumpet players in their article Visualization of Trumpet Players’ Warm Up By Infrared Thermography. The authors took an interesting approach to studying the warm up of trumpet players by photographing them using an infrared camera. Their results showed that the most experienced trumpet players showed consistency in the areas where the muscular effort was concentrated.
The analysis demonstrates that the main facial muscle activity during warm up is restricted to only a few muscle groups (M.orbicularis oris, M.depresor anguli oris). The “trumpeter’s muscle” (M.buccinator) proved to be of minor importance. Less trained players expressed a more inhomogenous thermographic pattern compared to well-trained musicians. Infrared thermography could become a useful tool for documentation of musicians playing technique.
The photo to the right shows one of the images in their paper. Notice the red portion of the trumpet player’s face, indicating which muscles were activated after his warm up. The “U” shape begins at the area just under the mouth corners and connects at the chin. For effective brass playing it appears to be important that the mouth corners be locked in place (more or less where they are while at rest) and the chin be held flat so that it doesn’t bunch up towards the lower lip. As best as I can tell, these basic principles apply for all effective brass embouchures, regardless of the musician’s basic embouchure type or individual variations.
Other easily observable characteristics of a well functioning brass embouchure that Farkas, and many others, list as important are too variable to be considered universal. Features like a centered mouthpiece placement with 2/3 upper lip inside, jaw position, and horn angle are not universal among excellent brass players and it’s quite easy to find examples that contradict those traits.
On the other hand, I believe that we can say that a functional brass embouchure will have a consistent amount of mouthpiece pressure where the entire rim of the mouthpiece and lips have a firm foundation on the teeth and gums underneath. In other words, there isn’t too much or too little pressure on one side or on one lip or another. It’s probably best for all players to keep a little more mouthpiece pressure on the lower lip compared to the upper lip as the upper lip tends to be more sensitive and prone to swelling or injury. I also suggest keeping mouthpiece pressure somewhat consistent between registers. Many players will descend into their low register and allow their mouthpiece to back off a significant amount. This can be problematic and lead to the musician needing to reset before ascending from that position.
Speaking of the jaw position, there are players who will want to position the teeth so that they are more or less aligned and others who need to play with the jaw position receded. Some players with an underbite might even play best with the lower teeth in front of the upper teeth. While those features are more personal to the individual player, I feel that keeping the jaw position more or less in place is best for pretty much every player. While there can be a very slight protruding or receding of the jaw (as well as some side to side movement) when changing registers, I don’t recommend dropping the jaw to descend. I have gone into why I feel this way elsewhere, if you care to read more about that.
There are two very important characteristics that all well functioning brass embouchures also have, but these principles are variable from player to player. The first is that one lip or another must predominate inside the mouthpiece and the air stream should be consistently blown past the lips either in a downward direction or upward direction, not straight into the mouthpiece. When the upper lip predominates the air stream will get directed at a downward angle as it passes the lips. This embouchure can be said to belong to the more common “downstream” types.
When these players play higher the air stream is directed further downstream, closer to the lower mouthpiece rim. The air stream will be blown closer to straight the lower the brass musician plays. Notice the photo to the left, showing a trombonist playing a high Bb (Bb4).
Less common are players who place the mouthpiece correctly with more lower lip inside. Because the lower lip predominates the air stream gets blown up as it passes the lips. Like the downstream embouchure types, upstream players will blow the air stream closer to straight out the lower the pitch, but direct the air stream at a higher angle so that it strikes closer to the upper mouthpiece rim for the higher pitches. Look for the upstream position on the player in the photograph to the right, playing an F above high Bb (F5).
Players who place the mouthpiece close to half and half upper to lower lip inside the cup are quite uncommon. One lip or another will usually predominate inside the cup regardless of a 50/50 placement. Rarely is this placement the correct placement for the individual, it will usually function more efficiently if the placement is moved higher or lower on the lips, depending on whether the brass musician’s anatomy makes their embouchure function best as an upstream or downstream one. Often times players like this will flip the direction of the air stream at particular points in their range, causing issues right around where the embouchure changes from upstream to downstream. The tubist in the video below has this issue and at his transition point you can see and hear the lips fighting for predominance. The air stream should never be blown straight into the mouthpiece.
Whether a brass musician is upstream or downstream, I think it is best if the player keeps the mouthpiece placement consistently in the same spot on the lips over the entire range. Some brass players will set their mouthpiece with a placement that works well for the high register and then change to another placement to play in the low register. The obvious drawback to this approach is that they develop an embouchure “break” where they need to reset the mouthpiece in order to play across that transition point. It’s better to learn to play the entire range on one setting.
Whether or not they are aware of it, brass musicians will push and pull the mouthpiece and lips together along the teeth and gums while changing registers. Some players will push the mouthpiece and lips towards the nose to ascend and pull down towards the chin to descend. Other players will do the reverse, pull down to ascend and push up to descend. Watch the following video to see two different trumpet players playing octave slurs. Without instructing them to demonstrate this technique, both naturally played this way for this video recording.
Even considering the general direction of pushing or pulling the mouthpiece and lips, which I prefer to call an “embouchure motion,” there are variations. While the general direction is up and down, most players will have some angular deviations in that line, sometimes very much so. More universally, I believe it’s safe to say that the track of the embouchure motion should be in a straight line across the player’s entire range and not hook off at a different angle or change direction at a certain point in the player’s range. I also feel that it’s best to make the amount of motion that the player makes the same between octaves. For example, if the player pushes up and to the right to ascend from middle Bb to high Bb, the player should pull down and to the left to descend the same amount from middle Bb to low Bb. So it should be the same amount of embouchure motion, just in the opposite direction. See the diagram to the right that demonstrates this principal.
Another feature of the embouchure motion that can be both overlooked and over-emphasized is how the horn angle can change as the player makes the embouchure motion while changing ranges. For example, in our hypothetical player depicted in the diagram here pushes up and to the right to ascend. Because her teeth, gums, and jaw have some curvature to them, as she pushes to the right she will need to bring her horn angle slightly over to her right to maintain that consistent pressure or loose the foundation towards the right side of the mouthpiece rim. The reverse would be true for this hypothetical player for descending. She would want to bring the horn angle towards her left to descend. Horn angle can also move up and down to follow the shape of the players teeth and gums as well as whatever slight jaw protruding or receding that might be present. Much like the amount of embouchure motion, I feel it’s best to keep the amount of horn angle change consistent between octaves, just in the opposite direction when ascending/descending from the same pitch. The presence of crooked teeth or other anatomical features might make this suggestion different for certain players, but as a starting point I find it to be a good one.
The two characteristics of air stream direction and the general direction of the above embouchure motion are the main distinguishing features of the three basic embouchure types as Doug Elliott first described them to me. I won’t go into more detail about them here, since this post is supposed to be as general as possible, but I do want to point out that each of these basic embouchure types have their own idiosyncrasies that can provide models for effective embouchure principles within the context of each type. Follow the above link to learn more or read through my Embouchure 101 resource for a more complete discussion of each type.
The embouchure “aperture” is defined as the hole in which air passes through as the brass musician plays the instruments, but there is a degree of controversy over what the aperture is doing while sustaining a pitch. More specifically, a number of players and teachers claim that the aperture is always open while blowing. Here are just a few.
Technically, the aperture is always open while playing, otherwiseair would not be moving through the lips. For our intents, think of the size of the aperture as being on a sliding scale that oscillates between varying degrees of openness and closedness.
To add to the confusion, many teachers and players also describe the embouchure aperture as needing to be “open” or “closed,” but appear to be talking about the general size or shape of the aperture overall, rather than keeping the lips completely in an open position while playing. I’ve also read some players describe an “open” aperture as one where the player begins the pitch with the lips in an open position and a “closed” aperture where the lips are touching and the aperture is blown apart to start.
The trouble with all the above is that it is speculation, largely based on playing sensations. Since a great deal of brass playing happens inside the mouthpiece at high speed, where we really can’t easily see what’s going on, we’re going to inherently rely on what we think is happening. However, there have been several observational studies which clearly show the brass embouchure functioning, so we don’t need to speculate. Look at the following videos and see whether the embouchure aperture remains open.
It’s quite clear from all this video footage that the embouchure aperture opens and closes rapidly during the production of a tone on a brass instrument. Further details show that the higher the pitch the smaller overall the aperture gets at it’s largest spot while lower notes have a larger opening at the most open end of the cycle. Likewise, louder notes end up with the aperture cycle being larger and softer notes have a smaller cycle. In spite of what the earlier players and teachers claim, it really doesn’t appear that brass musicians play with their aperture open at all times.
Why is this important? Well for one, I find it interesting and think describing the actual function of brass playing correctly to be more honest. There’s really nothing wrong with teaching and practicing with analogy or inaccurate playing sensations leading our technique – so long as those are understood to be analogies. But playing sensations are different from player to player. Leading a student to efficient playing technique may be effective by asking her to play with an “open aperture,” but if the student is too loose in the first place then this advice could lead to the a more extreme problem. Even if the analogy initially works, mistaking it for truth can lead to the student continuing to move towards that analogy and take it too far in the long term.
Facts do matter. If you’re going to teach by analogy just make a quick point to clarify that this is just “how you like to feel or think of it.” Teach the truth.
When I was an undergraduate student I bought my first Real Book. This was back in the day before the legal copy was published by Hal Leonard. There was a music store local to my college that carried them, but they weren’t on display. You had to ask for them and they would go in the back and bring one out for you. Later, in graduate school, the “Real Book guy” would swing through once every year or so and unload a bunch of books from his car and sell them off to music students. I still have copies of those books.
I had heard before that the Real Book was something put together by students at Berkley College of Music, but not learned the complete story behind them until recently.
In the mid-70s, Steve Swallow began teaching at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, an elite private music school that boasted one of the first jazz performance programs in the country. Swallow had only been teaching at Berklee for a few months when two students approached him about a secret project. “I keep referring them to them as ‘the two guys who wrote the book,’ because…they swore me to secrecy. They made me agree that I would not divulge their names,” explains Swallow. The “two guys” wanted to make a new fake book, one that actually catered to the needs of contemporary jazz musicians and reflected the current state of jazz. And they needed Swallow’s help.
That book is a double edged sword. It’s a good starting point for jazz students to learn tunes and it was the first popular fake book that updated the tunes to include contemporary jazz standards. But there are many mistakes in a lot of the tunes and often they don’t reflect how most jazz musicians perform the tunes. These days it’s more common to see jazz musicians carrying around a tablet with scans of fake books or the iRealB app instead.
One of the most persistent myths in education is that students have a “learning style.” This misunderstanding is so pervasive that most teachers believe that their students will learn best when materials are presented to them in a manner that matches their supposed modality (most commonly broken into visual, auditory, reading, and kinesthetic). Unfortunately, this has not been shown to have any effect on student success. In fact, it’s an unnecessary approach that takes time away from presenting the materials in a manner that is consistent with the subject matter. In other words, the topic being studied should be presented correctly.
Music requires an auditory component. Some students are going to do better than others in picking up things by ear, but that doesn’t mean that students who take longer should be presented that material in a “visual” way. Some students sight read more easily than others, but that doesn’t mean that teaching music literacy in a kinesthetic manner is better for them. We are all visual learners, auditory learners, reading learners, and kinesthetic learners. We’re all analytical and intuitive.
Here’s a fun video I recently came across that describes the learning styles myth and goes into some details about the research that has (and hasn’t been) done on it.
I’ve written a bit about this topic before. It’s one of those things that a lot of people get hung up on, in spite of the evidence that it doesn’t work.
It’s Independence Day in the U.S. The Asheville Jazz Orchestra performed our annual Patriotic Big Band Concert last night after a 1 year hiatus. He’s a chart we performed honoring all the men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, a medley arrangement I wrote for the San Luis Big Band.
We recorded it last year during the pandemic by having everyone record their parts individually at home to a click track, and then I assembled each part in GarageBand. Some of us had nice microphones, some of us just used cell phones, so the sound is a little different on each player. All things considered, I think it came out OK.
Over a year ago I had started rehearsing with a band that was going to be performing Jelly Roll Morton’s tune, Mint Julep. I began transcribing J.C. Higginbotham’s solo from Morton’s recording, but when the pandemic hit we stopped getting together and I forgot to finish transcribing the solo. While recently going through some notes I found my transcription half completed. It’s not a terribly difficult solo to transcribe, so I powered through and got it finished. Here’s the recording for you to listen to Higginbotham’s solo.
I like this solo because it’s different from Kid Ory’s style from the same time period. Where Ory would have taken more of a “tailgate” approach, Higginbotham’s solo is more trumpet-like.
Here’s a PDF link to the solo if you want to print it out for yourself. As always when I post a transcription, I suggest that you don’t trust my work. The real value in learning solos isn’t so much to be able to play the notes from the page, but to train your ear and really pick up on the nuances that the soloist uses. There’s a lot in this solo that isn’t really possible to notate, but by repeatedly listening, singing, and playing along with the recording you’ll start to pick up on them and be able to incorporate them into your own playing more naturally.
Here in the U.S. it is Memorial Day today, when we take time to remember the men and women who have died in service to the country. In honor of them, here is a video of the Asheville Jazz Orchestra’s recording of Armed Forces Medley.
I wrote this arrangement back in 2006 for the San Luis Valley Big Band. The AJO recorded this in 2020, with each player recording their part separately and sending me their recording. I then assembled them all together into the full band.