Note – This post was inspired by an essay that Brad Edward’s wrote over 10 years ago. In fact I had started writing up this one a while back, but never got around to finishing it and publishing it. As I was looking through some old drafts, I came across this one and decided it was time to finish it.
I want to start this post off plugging Brad Edwards’s blog post (Encoding Habits) that got me thinking about this particular topic. In Brad’s writeup he poses an interesting hypothetical question when confronted with a relatively young student who wants to begin working on orchestral etudes. He described some thoughts he had when considering if the student was ready.
[I]f a high school player starts working on these excerpts without solid technique and possibly not a clear concept of “how it goes” musically, they will probably struggle with the excerpt.
Furthermore, if they learn that excerpt with bad habits, they can pull out the same music years later and BOOM those old bad habits are right there! It’s as if the bad habits are literally encoded into the music.
Brad’s discussion that follows is worth reading, but the above quote struck me as familiar. While I do tend to focus my artistic efforts on jazz, I also love playing classical music and keep a foot in both worlds, both as a musician and a teacher. While attitudes have changed, there still are some caricatures of the “jazz” teacher versus the “classical” teacher when it comes to how to approach teaching.
How might we look hypothetically at Brad’s thought, but from the standpoint of a young jazz student?
If a high school player starts working on improvising over tunes without solid technique and musical understanding they will probably struggle with the tune.
Furthermore, if they learn that tune with bad habits, they can play over the same tune years later and those bad habits return.
There are two parts to this conundrum.
First, there is the issue of the student playing with poor technique. This is one of the reasons why I tend to isolate technique practice and separate it from musical practice. I know that this idea isn’t very popular with some players and teachers who prefer to teach everything through assignments of music, but making technique corrections can take years of practice. If there is a concern about playing mechanics limiting the student’s abilities then I prefer to address them through assignments of exercises. The exercises should be simple enough to describe and while they might be a challenge to play, the student’s attention should be focused on playing correctly, not playing musically. The idea here is that fixing playing technique separate from music will keep the student from having to split attention into both how he or she is playing and how expressive he or she is playing. Once the technique has been assimilated it will become the way the student always plays – because that’s what works. This won’t risk teaching an unmusical performance because we’re going to work on playing with expression too, just at a different time.
The other issue is the musical understanding. This one is conceptually a more difficult concept to work with, I think. Let me offer a personal example.
For years as a young jazz student I struggled with playing the last measure of Blue Monk correctly. If you’re not familiar with the tune, the last phrase is played twice, but offset by a beat the second time in an unusual way that is a huge part of Thelonious Monk’s compositional (and improvisational) style. While playing the head I was constantly turning around the beat on this last measure and coming in a beat late on the repeat. I was aware that I was doing this, but I had a lot of trouble feeling this phrase differently from the way I learned it. Making the correction involved replacing that mental concept with the correct one through a combination of listening to the tune a lot and adding a mental count of the remaining beats to how long I hold the final note (“2, 3, 4..” instead of intuiting that the final note of the phrase ends on the previous measure).
I happened to be jamming on this tune last night with some students and didn’t screw up that phrase. I have established a new habit where even though the phrase still feels funny to me (I think that was what Monk was going for anyway) I no longer worry about playing it wrong.
Another example is the changes are too unfamiliar or move by too fast for the student to comfortably negotiate. Much like addressing technique separate from music, I like to address improvisation through isolating a particular topic and removing other elements from the mix for a while. For example, if the student is having trouble making a ii-V-I in a particular key I would have the student practice just that phrase outside of the context of the entire tune. If the tempo is the issue, we slow down or even eliminate tempo altogether. If the student has trouble playing good note choices I might have him or her practice improvising by only playing chord tones.
When practicing in this manner, the only thing you’re going to focus on is your particular practice goal. Anything else that comes out and happens to sound bad is OK for now. Improvising is a little like juggling many balls. If you focus on one ball, other balls that have not yet become unconscious will be dropped. That’s OK, you’ve now identified other areas that you can work on at another time in the same manner. Fix one issue at a time.
Jugglers have an expression, “If you’re not dropping you’re not learning.” As musicians and music teachers we should take a similar approach. Lessons and practice sessions are about identifying mistakes and correcting them by focusing on what’s wrong and what should be happening. I don’t feel the issue is so much about the risk of encoding a bad habit that comes back years later, but rather the lack of identifying the mistakes and making the effort to isolate and correct them early on.
Over the past couple of years I’ve been dealing with some pain in my left thumb after holding my instrument for any length of time. I’ve got a similar issue in my right thumb and wrist that fortunately doesn’t bother my trombone playing, but it can become distracting at the end of playing a 3 hour gig.
There are contraptions that I know many players use to help hold the instrument for them, but I don’t feel that it’s quite necessary for me (yet) to go that far. In fact, I’m a little cautious about any change in how I’m holding my instrument because it is a very important part of playing technique. On trumpet and trombone, for example, the left hand pretty much holds the instrument by itself. The height and angle of the instrument as it contacts the lips is very much going to influence the embouchure technique (and in more ways than a lot of players seem to realize).
For most of my playing career I’ve been holding my trombone in the standard way, with my forefinger over the shank of the mouthpiece and my other fingers griping the instrument like this.
What I’m now finding is that that group keeps my thumb pulled away just enough to start hurting after a bit. But making a minor change by moving my middle finger on to the other side of the brace takes the pressure off my thumb.
It’s less of an issue when I play my symphonic horn with an F attachment. The nature of that grip is such that I can leave my second finger where it is standard or bring it on the other side of the brace like in the above photo, just with my thumb on the F trigger. It’s a little awkward that way because my 2nd finger might get a bit in the way of pressing the trigger down, so I tend to hold that horn traditionally. Both grips are close enough to each other that it’s not hard at all to keep my instrument at my lips correctly and consistently.
If you do an Internet search for “trumpet grips” you’ll find a lot more variations than you usually find with trombonists. Some teachers seem to make a bigger deal of holding the trumpet a particular way than others, but it of course depends a lot on the individual player’s hand size and, to a certain degree, the music that player performs. For example, a lead trumpet player specialist is not going to need to kick out the third valve slide as often as someone who plays more in the lower register, so you could argue that the former’s trumpet grip doesn’t need to concern that characteristic as much.
What I don’t advocate for is a grip or way of holding the instrument that is inconsistent. I believe it’s better in the long term for the musician to find a comfortable left hand grip that enables him or her to play everything that they may be asked to and keep it consistent. A consistent grip will go a long way to a consistent embouchure.
Lastly, for brass musicians who play tuba, horn, and euphonium/baritone horn you will need to do some experimentation to find a position of the instrument that is both comfortable for you to hold for long periods of time and also is ideal to match your physiology. Horn angles, mouthpiece placement, and other features of brass technique are personal. If a horn player, for example, rests his or her bell against her leg it may or may not put the mouthpiece on the lips at the right angle and height. He or she will also have some trouble performing standing up for a solo recital. It’s better to learn to play by holding the horn off the leg. Tubists and euphonium players might want to consider adjustable instrument stands to help hold the instrument at the correct height and angle to fit their body.
I’m always looking around for research based ideas on how we can improve our pedagogy and practice. I came across this article a while back, bookmarked it, and then promptly forgot about it. It concerns research published in 2016 called Motor Skills Are Strengthened through Reconsolidation, published in the journal Current Biology.
The key to learning a new motor skill – such as playing the piano or mastering a new sport – isn’t necessarily how many hours you spend practising, but the way you practise, according to a 2016 study.
Scientist Have Found a Way to Help You Learn New Skills Twice as Fast
No big surprise there, we already know that how you practice is more important than what you practice or how long you practice. What I’m curious about is what practice strategies had the most benefit.
Recent evidence has shown that memories can be modified through reconsolidation, in which previously consolidated memories can re-enter a temporary state of instability through retrieval, and in order to persist, undergo re-stabilization.
Motor Skills Are Strengthened through Reconsolidation
Reconsolidation is the process where memories, including how to perform motor skills, are recalled and changed as new knowledge is (or motor skill development, in this case) are added. In order to ensure this is happening the materials or skill being practiced are subtly altered in subsequent practice sessions. In the paper quoted above the researchers used a specially designed computer mouse that worked through squeezing it. Test subjects were asked to practice moving the cursor on a computer screen using this unfamiliar mouse. After six hours they were asked to repeat it, but one group of the subjects were asked to practice it using a subtly different squeezing technique. These subjects ended up outperforming the group that practiced the exact same mouse technique.
The key, according to the researchers, is to mix up the practice in subtle ways, not drastically. There also needs to be a six hour gap between the initial practice and the subtly altered practice in order to give the brain enough time to consolidate the original practice.
It’s also important to note that this study only looks at a particular skill, moving around a cursor with an unconventional mouse. It’s not a slam dunk that a similar approach will work for practicing a musical instrument, but there’s also no reason to believe that it won’t.
How can we subtly alter the materials we’re practicing to achieve the reconsolidating effect? The closest analogue to the experimental design I can think of would be to practice on a different instrument, not necessarily a different instrument type. For example, I tend to select which trombone I practice based on whether I’m practice jazz or classical music, but when working on something like lip breaks or fretting patterns for jazz improvisation they could be practiced on my large-bore orchestral trombone instead. Another similar idea would be to practice on a different brass instrument altogether, say working on mechanical corrections to your embouchure on an instrument with a completely different sized mouthpiece.
There are obviously some other ideas that could provide a similar benefit. What thoughts do you have on how we can subtly alter our practice in order to maximize the benefits?
YouTube user “Trumpet Thoughts” (Donovan) put together a video that describes the three basic embouchure types using Donald Reinhardt’s terminology. I found it to be a pretty good basic description of the three basic embouchure types.
If you followed my link above the video you’ll see one of my summaries of these three basic embouchure types. Reinhardt did distinguish embouchure types into more detailed categories than the three basic ones, but these three types are enough to describe any functioning embouchure. The only difference between some of Reinhardt’s less common embouchure types and the three basic types is often just the position of the musician’s jaw while at rest. For a little more detail about these embouchure variations you can see my Reinhardt/Elliott Embouchure Type chart.
For example, my own embouchure technically would be categorized as a Reinhardt IVA embouchure type. In other words, I have a low mouthpiece placement so the air stream is directed up, and I pull my lips and mouthpiece together down to ascend (which Donovan discusses as a “pivot” in his video). But the only difference between my embouchure and Donovan’s is that I play with a receded jaw position and have a lowered horn angle.
Horn angle can be a very personal embouchure characteristic, even between players of the same embouchure type. If you look around my web site you’ll see some examples of Very High Placement (Reinhardt IIIA) embouchure type players that have the typical straight out horn angle, but some play better with a receded jaw position and a lowered horn angle. Most Medium High Placement (Reinhardt IIIB) embouchure type players have a receded jaw position and a lowered horn angle, but there are also many who play best with a horn angle close to straight out.
Reinhardt felt the lowered horn angle on an upstream player to be important enough to warrant its own embouchure type. On one of his instructional tapes he described a IVA.
I almost think of a Type IVA hasn’t developed and [is a] Type IV that hasn’t gotten around to being a Type IV, if you know what I mean. In other words, the horn is on its way up but never got there, so to speak.
So You Think You’re a Type IV – Donald Reinhardt instructional tape
On that particular tape (and on others) Reinhardt discusses working with a student’s horn angle by having him or her practice with it too high and too low for periods of time, then “whittling” the horn angle in over time. And you can also certainly find downstream embouchure type players who have horn angles that are different from what is typical. To my reasoning, a Low Placement embouchure type with a lowered horn angle (Reinhardt IVA) is really no different conceptually and doesn’t really require any shift in pedagogy from standard Reinhardt type IVs. Nor does it seem to be that much different from a Very High Placement (Reinhardt IIIA) who plays better with a lowered horn angle.
Horn angle is a continuum. At what point does a Type IV become a IVA? With any student, regardless of embouchure type, I want to help the student work out their own idiosyncrasies, including, but not limited, to where their horn angle works best for any particular note. With similar horn angle variations found in all the embouchure types I don’t see a need to separate the upstream embouchure type performers according to their horn angle.
A recent discussion on TromboneChat discussed playing pedal tones and whether or not it is appropriate to switch embouchure types for playing the pedals. Specifically, whether it’s helpful for a downstream player to change to upstream or vice versa. One participant wrote:
If you are a high placement downstream player, reverse your playing to upstream for pedals. I don’t know how you would do it if you are an upstream player already.
Basically, the airstream needs to aim more or less right at the mouthpiece throat.
First, it’s important to understand and define what upstream and downstream embouchures actually are. Follow the above link to read and watch some details, but to summarize when a brass musician places the mouthpiece with more upper lip inside the mouthpiece the air gets blown in a downward direction. When the mouthpiece is placed with more lower lip inside the air stream direction is blown up. This embouchure characteristic can be found on all functioning brass embouchures, regardless of how the musicians feels is what is happening. It’s not directly related to the position or the jaw, it’s the mouthpiece placement that makes the air stream blown up or down.
It is definitely true that as a brass musician plays lower the air stream will be blown closer towards the shank of the mouthpiece. But I don’t feel it should switch air stream direction. In fact, I don’t buy that this is actually happening with the examples shown or discussed in the Trombone Chat topic. For example, one participant feels that this film of George Roberts playing a pedal F demonstrates a switch from upstream to downstream.
If you’re not convinced, let’s take a look at a bunch of different trombonists playing a pedal Bb. First, let’s look at the more common downstream types.
Downstream Pedal Bb
The above photo captures the aperture close to its most open position and the air stream does look like it might be being blown straight into the shank. Note the slight overlap of the upper lip over the lower.
This player shows a similar lip position as the player above. Both players place their mouthpiece quite close to half and half, perhaps too much so. Again, notice how the lips are lining up. In this case the upper lip doesn’t look like it overlaps quite as much over the lower.
This one doesn’t have the best angle, but you can see the upper lip overlapping the lower lip slightly. Here’s several more.
You get the idea. In the above examples there is more upper lip inside the mouthpiece and the upper lip slightly overlaps the lower. This upper lip overlap is easier to see in higher register notes because the air stream is blown more sharply downward, but the same general lip position is present on the pedals too.
I want to point out that some of the above players reset their mouthpiece placement to a more centered placement to play pedals. This is something I advise against, but it’s important to notice this fact because it is something that happens with upstream trombonists as well.
Let’s compare the downstream players with some photos of upstream trombonists playing a pedal Bb and see if there’s an obvious difference.
Upstream Pedal Bb
The glare off the flash on the mouthpiece along with the position the lip aperture happened to be in makes it a little harder to see, but notice the mouthpiece placement allows for more lower lip inside. This trombonist resets the mouthpiece to a position closer to half and half for pedal range – and example of “shifting” to play pedals that I advise against. If you rely on resetting the mouthpiece for pedals you’re always going to have trouble getting in and out of the pedal register. It’s best to learn to play pedals in a way that matches your embouchure form for the normal playing range.
This upstream trombonist also resets the mouthpiece to a more centered position. You can see the loose right mouth corner. Collapsing the embouchure formation to descend is a common issue. Those features aside, notice the lower lip is overlapping the upper lip slightly. There is a distinctly different lip position compared with the downstream embouchures.
This upstream trombonist has a placement close to half and half for his entire range. I didn’t capture the aperture in a very open position for the above photo, but that is a pedal Bb. Photos of this musician playing higher notes shows it much more clearly as an upstream embouchure. Again, notice the lip position and compare to the downstream players.
This photo got the aperture in a position that makes it easier to note the upstream air direction for a pedal Bb. Notice how the lower lip predominates and overlaps slightly.
Here’s another example. The glare of the flash again gets in the way a bit, but you can see the predominance of the lower lip inside the mouthpiece and the lower lip is slightly in front of the upper. This is opposite of all the downstream examples.
The above photo is me playing a pedal Bb. My friend didn’t quite get the side angle I had with the other photos, so it’s harder to see the lower lip coming out in front of the upper, but you can clearly see how much more lower lip is inside the mouthpiece.
There is a general type of lip position you can see inside the mouthpiece that is different between downstream and upstream brass musicians. If you take the time to look closely at a number of different brass embouchures like this you’ll become adept at spotting the difference. Look closely at the above photographs and also the entire Leno film I embedded above and look for which lip tends to overlap the other. With downstream players the upper lip will be slightly in front of the lower while with upstream embouchures you’ll see the lower lip slightly in front of the upper. It doesn’t matter what the horn angle is or jaw position, the mouthpiece placement makes the embouchure upstream or downstream. Notice in the above photo examples that you can find players with receded or aligned jaw positions playing upstream and downstream.
One thing that you won’t be able to see in just the isolated photographs is that there is a gradual adjustment of the air stream direction from high to low. When a downstream embouchure brass musician plays in the upper register the air stream is blown more sharply downstream and when that musician plays in the lower register the air stream will be blown at a smaller angle downward. This is reversed for upstream embouchures. The Lloyd Leno film I embedded above shows this pretty clearly in slow motion.
So the question is whether or not it’s appropriate to change embouchure types for pedals. As a tenor trombonist, I don’t need to perform pedals very frequently and generally the context in the tenor literature for pedal tones are such that if I did need to reset or make a radical shift in my embouchure to get pedal tones out I probably could. So you could make an argument that as long as this shift doesn’t happen in the normal playing range it’s no big deal.
That said, I think it’s best to avoid any embouchure type switching or radical shifts in embouchure, regardless of what range it’s in. For one thing, shifting back and forth will cause a noticeable break in the embouchure and right at that switch you’ll be able to see and hear something happen. Here is an example of this happening in the normal playing register on a tubist.
Notice the lip position inside the mouthpiece. For his lower register his lower lip predominates and the embouchure is upstream. In the middle of his register he flips lip position and the upper lip begins to predominate and the air will be blown downstream. He’s quite adept at going back and forth, but you’ll hear that he almost always cracks the notes around the break. When asked to play something that happens right at this switch things can easily break down.
This tubist happens to have a mouthpiece placement too close to half and half, so he is unable to keep the embouchure functioning for the entire range as either upstream or downstream. Notice that his type switching happens without a radical change in jaw position or other shift that might be noticeable if you don’t know what to look and listen for.
Something similar can happen for trombonists when they play pedal tones, but the same disadvantages that the above tubist is dealing with apply. Again, you could make the argument that a tenor trombonist who plays pedals infrequently shouldn’t worry too much about playing the pedal range differently, but if that embouchure type switching creeps into the normal playing range it will be more problematic. Regardless, I feel that spending time in the practice room to minimize or eliminate any unnecessary or drastic shifts in embouchure technique is better – even for the pedal register.
For years I’ve been coming across advertisements for the Stratos, invented by trombonist Marcus Reynolds. I first heard about this device about 10 years ago, in 2013, and wrote up my initial thoughts here. In 2014 I came across another video from Reynolds and wrote my impressions of that video here. Reynolds is a tireless promoter and I’ve been seeing more and more of his posts and videos about this device the past couple of years, so I finally broke down and purchased one to see if it lives up to the hype.
Since this will be a long post, I’ll give you the tl/dr version up top – You can save your money. It’s possible that it can be used for a small number of embouchure tweaks, but it’s completely unnecessary and if you use it wrong it has the potential to hurt more than it helps. Using it correctly is harder than you might think. Reynolds’s instructions don’t take individual differences into account or certain embouchure mechanics that the Stratos interferes with.
What is the Stratos?
The Stratos is a device that is designed to attach to the shank of your mouthpiece. An adjustable rod with a suction cup then is set so that it rests against your chin while you play. There is some give with the chin rest due to a spring set up inside, but the general idea is that it will keep you from pressing the mouthpiece hard against the lips. There are two versions. The original is called the Stratos Encore Pro and costs £249.99 ($313.04 currently). A less expensive version, 3D printed I believe, is called the Stratos Performer and costs £79.99 ($100.17). They aren’t cheap and that doesn’t include shipping costs.
The inventor, Marcus Reynolds, is a U.K. based trombonist of some note. His embouchure bonafide comes from his experiences relearning how to play following an accident which pushed his mouthpiece through his top lip. After an operation he also apparently developed focal task specific dystonia in the embouchure. He diagnosed his initial return to playing as being held back by “lactic acid trying to repair the scar tissue” and invented the Stratos as a way for him to practice with the mouthpiece rim “hovering” over the scar tissue. Today he has returned to performing professionally and tirelessly promotes the Stratos.
When you order the Stratos Performer it will come unassembled and you’ll have a sheet of paper giving you a brief overview on how to assemble it, as well as a typed out link and QR code to a YouTube video that goes over putting it together. The typed out link was broken, but the QR code did direct me to this video. I did not receive any instructions from Reynolds on how to use the device with my order, so I had to do my own internet searches and reached out directly to him.
What Are the Claims?
Before I go into details on my personal thoughts, I think it’s helpful to take a closer look at the inventor’s claims and learn whether they hold water.
Air Stream Direction
The above video is one of the earlier ones you can find, I think originally made as a DVD that shipped with the original Stratos. Reynolds states:
What should happen is that the air you are buzzing through the mouthpiece should flow through the center of the shank of the mouthpiece. In many cases with amateur and professional alike, this is not necessarily the case and you will not be aware that they is in actual fact being directed by your lips into the bottom of the mouthpiece reducing the power and effectiveness of the air produced making it more difficult to reach the pure note you seek. Especially when you are playing notes in the higher register. If your teeth are not aligned when you play the air produced will be directed downwards hitting the bottom of the cup of the mouthpiece.
While Reynolds does acknowledge upstream and downstream embouchures here, blowing straight into the shank does not happen with well-functioning brass embouchures. The Stratos won’t help you blow straight into the shank, and if it does you’re moving in the wrong direction. This claim has been thoroughly debunked for quite a while – including by one of the sources that Reynolds cites (I guess he didn’t actually read the book).
I asked Reynolds a couple of times about this claim and never got a straight answer from him. It’s possible he’s modified this idea now.
Jaw Position and Teeth Alignment
The prime function of Stratos is to enable you to position your jaw and teeth correctly allowing you to position your lips on the mouthpiece with less pressure and maximum air power with minimal effort and maximum results.
“Correctly” in this context, according to Reynolds, is to position the jaw so the lower teeth and upper teeth are more or less aligned. Lining up the teeth works great for many players, not so well for others. This is personal. Reynolds assumes that what works for his physiology will work for everyone. There are just too many examples of excellent brass musicians who play with a receded jaw to assume that aligning the teeth is correct for everyone.
I think it’s likely that Reynolds allows for different positions of the jaw, including a receded jaw position or even one whether the jaw protrudes so the lower teeth are in front of the upper teeth. However, that’s not how he instructs people to use the Stratos, and it really needs to be made clearer in the instructions if my assumption is correct.
Mouthpiece pressure is more complex than Reynolds gives it credit. It’s been shown that we use more pressure than we realize in normal brass playing and also that we’re terrible judges of how much mouthpiece pressure an individual player is using in the first place.
In my experience excessive mouthpiece pressure is a result of something else not working correctly. When you fix the actual issue the mouthpiece pressure will usually reduce on its own. In fact, many players don’t use enough mouthpiece pressure, particularly in the lower register. Often they have trouble with applying a proper amount of mouthpiece pressure because they are not firming their lips up enough to accept the normal amount of pressure necessary for efficient playing in the first place. Reducing mouthpiece pressure as an a priori assumption is hit or miss at best, you need to understand overall embouchure form and function and the relationship mouthpiece pressure has in the bigger picture.
In other videos Reynolds makes a big deal about reducing mouthpiece pressure so that the blood can flow to the lips. In Part 3 of the original DVD he states, “I think the more blood can get in there the more strength there is. . . This pressure pushes the blood away.”
I don’t have any serious medical training or formal study of anatomy, so you can take my thoughts with a grain of salt. I don’t think Reynolds knows what he’s talking about either, though. I suspect that if we were actually starving the lips of oxygen from lack of blood flow that we would see the lips turning blue and have other more serious issues than a red ring on the lips. Don’t worry about a red pressure ring on the lips from the mouthpiece rim, that happens to a many players and doesn’t suggest you’re using too much pressure.
Why Is This Important?
All of the above premises are dubious claims at best and outright wrong at worst. Now that doesn’t mean that the Stratos is useless, but it was designed under false premises. If the rationale behind why the device was invented is faulty in the first place then it stands to reason that the conclusions of what it’s actually doing are probably wrong too,
The lack of understanding about basic embouchure characteristics such as air stream direction, jaw position, and teeth alignment are huge red flags to me. I don’t feel that Reynolds truly understands brass embouchure technique as well as he thinks and what he suggests that the Stratos is doing for one’s playing is not the case. Nor is what Reynolds recommends going to be correct for many brass musicians.
How To Use It According To Inventor
I mentioned above that I had to go out of my way to find instructions on how Reynolds advises students to use the Stratos. I emailed him for help and he directed me to this video.
In this video Reynolds instructs us to set the Stratos up so that the chin rest and mouthpiece rim are lined up and play some simple scale fragments. Then you adjust it so the chin rest extends just a hair further and repeat. This will supposedly make it so that the higher pitches are as easy to play as the lowest note in the scale. As you continue this process of setting the chin rest even further past the rim you are instructed to keep the jaw forward, even though it’s being pushed back by the chin rest. When you reach this point the mouthpiece will only be lightly touching the lips with very little pressure. Continue until you’re essentially free buzzing into the instrument and practice like that for a bit. Then you pull back the chin rest so that it’s far enough to not contact the chin at all and play. In comparison “the note just flew out,” as Reynolds proclaims when he plays with the chin rest off. You’re supposed to practice about 10 minutes a day like this with the Stratos, then take it off. If you revert back to your “bad habits” you put it back on for a bit.
How well did the above instructions work for me? It was disastrous when I followed it to the letter. I absolutely play better with a receded jaw position and my horn angle tilted down. Starting with the chin rest aligned with the mouthpiece rim was already at the point of where it was sounding terrible and too much effort to play. Sure, I’m not using nearly as much mouthpiece pressure as I usually do, but that’s not really a good thing. I can confirm that when you position the chin rest all the way back and return to playing as normal that the note will “just fly out” like Reynolds claims in the above video. The comparison of how easy it is to play without the Stratos felt easy because I just spent 10 minutes trying to play wrong. It’s like hitting myself in the head with a hammer – it feels good when I stop.
If you’re a brass musician like me who plays best with a receded jaw position you might be able to learn something by practicing in a way that is actually incorrect for a bit, but you’re risking messing up your chops by following Reynold’s instructions. Instead, you should probably start with the chin rest in position where it works best. When I switched to starting with the Stratos set up in my normal playing position I got results more similar to Reynolds’s demonstration video. But that just means it sounded worse and worse until I stopped using the Stratos. Again, it feels better when I stop using it – not because it’s helping me play more efficiently but because I stopped playing wrong.
What It’s Actually Doing and What It Could Actually Be Helpful With
The Stratos does make you play differently, just not in a way that is accurately described by Reynolds. With some understanding of how brass embouchures actually function there are a couple things that the Stratos could have some possible use for.
The best use I found from practicing with the Stratos was using it to provide tactile feedback on the jaw. The position of the jaw is a very important part of a brass musician’s embouchure. For a player with a habit of keeping the jaw in a position that is less than ideal for their anatomy, you could use the Stratos to provide some tactile feedback as to whether the jaw is in the correct placement. For players who open their mouth wide to breathe or drop their jaw to descend you could use the Stratos to again help the player notice more readily when they are pulling their jaw out of the correct position.
But that use needs to first come with an understanding of where the jaw should be for the individual player. I guess you could also use the Stratos to help find the correct position of the jaw by gradually adjusting the position of the chin rest as described above, but I find it easier to simply move the horn angle and have the student follow the horn angle with the jaw while listening to intonation and tone. I’ve had pretty good success helping students find their individual correct jaw position and horn angle without any devices. It’s at least as effective, and a whole lot cheaper.
Other than this form of external feedback on the jaw position, I didn’t find there to be any real value in practicing with the Stratos. Furthermore, I feel that everything that it can do for your embouchure technique can be done just as easily without it, provided you have the background to understand how your embouchure functions correctly.
What It’s Hindering
While I anticipated the Stratos would interfere a great deal with the embouchure motion, I was surprised that it was easier to push and pull my lips and mouthpiece and slightly alter my horn angles than I expected. That said, it still is inhibiting my ability to freely make those necessary alterations and my playing is just a bit sloppier than without it on. Some players might find their embouchure motion is static enough that it’s not a big deal, but I found using it discouraged the correct changes I need. If you need to reduce the amount of embouchure motion and horn angle change that you use there are easier (and cheaper) ways to go about it than using the Stratos.
The instructions don’t go over using the Stratos to find the correct jaw position for a player who correctly plays with a receded jaw. I don’t know for sure if Reynolds would allow for this in a private lesson, but his online videos ask you to start with the chin rest and rim aligned and then protrude the chin rest even further from there. If you follow his instructions literally and happen to be a brass musician who plays correctly with a receded jaw position this is not going to be helpful.
When positioned in a particular way the Stratos does indeed make it so you have to use less mouthpiece pressure. As I mentioned earlier, in my experience it’s more common to find players who don’t use enough mouthpiece pressure, so in this case reducing the mouthpiece pressure is the opposite of what they need to move towards. For players who are using too much mouthpiece pressure there are usually other things that are not working correctly so that the musician is relying on the excessive pressure as a crutch. With an understanding of embouchure form and function you can fix the cause of the symptom and usually the excessive pressure will go away on its own. Simply reducing mouthpiece pressure on its own is treating the symptom and not fixing the actual problem. There may even be some risk of injury for players when they take the Stratos off to play if they don’t make the necessary correction to their embouchure form.
So You Still Want To Learn More
If you really want to learn more about the Stratos it’s quite easy to get in touch with Reynolds. He’s very accessible and seems genuinely excited about the Stratos. You can contact him through his web site and watch his videos on YouTube. He also is the administrator of a Facebook group (mis)named “Brass Embouchure Advice,” which you can search for on Facebook and join if you’re so inclined. Keep in mind any advice you get there is almost certainly going to be recommending the Stratos. Reynolds states, “All my students had success with it. It’s almost a device that cannot not work.” (I don’t believe this to be the case). Advertisements of anything other than an endorsement of the Stratos are prohibited, for the most part. In my experience trying to post in that group I often had long delays in getting my posts approved and actually was banned for a while simply for posting this link.
As I said, Reynolds is easy to reach and enthusiastic about the Stratos. After mine arrived I reached out to him by email and he offered to give me a lesson (he would have charged $100) with a money back guarantee if I didn’t find it helpful. I tried to schedule something with him during my spring break when I had a lull in my schedule, but between both of our busy schedules and the time difference we weren’t able to find a time to get together. It’s possible that my opinion of the Stratos would have changed with a lesson from its inventor, however I feel that I already know enough about brass embouchure technique to understand what the Stratos can actually do and how to do the same thing without it. But you might feel differently and if you are interested it’s probably not too hard for you to make that happen – provided you’re willing to drop over $200 on both the device and a lesson.
However, I feel you’ll need to take Reynolds’s advice with a grain of salt. In his instructional videos and other places online he mischaracterizes brass embouchure technique, often offering contrary descriptions of how things should function. It mostly seems he makes recommendations that describe how he thinks he plays, without consideration of what is actually happening and how it can be different from player to player.
The Stratos is expensive, overpriced for the value in my opinion. Everything that I might use it for can be done just as easily, perhaps better, without the device. There are some inherent risks using it that could lead you to habituating something that is wrong for your embouchure. You’ll need to make some effort to find instructions on how to use it, since it’s not obvious when it is shipped to you, unless you want to spend the money to catch a lesson directly with Reynolds. Furthermore, those directions are not universally good for all brass musicians.
My Stratos is now in my junk drawer with old mouthpieces and other things I don’t use. At some point I will probably try it out with a student, just to see what happens, but I won’t use it as suggested by Reynolds and I won’t recommend anyone spend the money to purchase their own.
If you have already contacted me about tomorrow’s brass embouchure Zoom hangout you should have gotten an email from me with the Zoom link. If you didn’t get it, please make sure you’re checking the email account you reached out to me and look in your spam folder, just in case.
If you can’t find it, please reach out to me again and let me know. If you didn’t let me know you’re interested already and want to participate let me know and I’ll send you the Zoom info.
There were two days/times that tied for being the most convenient for people to attend, so I arbitrarily chose Tuesday, April 4, 2023 at 1 PM eastern (5 PM GMT).
This is a free Zoom “workshop” where I will spend about an hour discussing basic brass embouchure patterns and what I think the pedagogical implications of understanding how brass embouchures function. Afterwards we’ll spend time just hanging out and informally discussing brass pedagogy and playing, including taking the time to determine participants embouchure types and discussing troubleshooting specific problems.
If you want to attend please fill out the below form with your name and email. I will email you a Zoom link, probably on Monday.
Participants are encouraged to have your instruments around for the informal discussion. As I mentioned, I would like to take the time to play “guess the embouchure type” and see if we can offer some helpful advice for players and teachers working with brass embouchure issues.
Back a couple of years ago, when the pandemic lockdown was happening, I put together a couple of Zoom lectures to discuss brass embouchure pedagogy. I’ve been considering doing this again, so here’s an online poll to assess both the level of interest in participating and when a good day/time would be. This would be free, but I will ask you to register at a later date. Choose as many of the following options as you want.
Update – The poll is now closed. The Zoom hangout will happen on Tuesday, April 4 at 1 PM Eastern (5 PM GMT). See this post for info on how to get into the Zoom meetup.
The exact times might fluctuate, so instead of 10 AM maybe I’d start it at 10:30 or 11:00. So if the time frame is close, but maybe within an hour of when you think you could make it, go ahead and indicate the time that is close for you and leave a comment here with your hoped for start time. Last couple of times I did this we went a couple of hours, so I expect that we’ll hang out about the same length of time.
You might need to be logged into WordPress or otherwise be a registered commenter on my blog here to participate, I’ll try to test this later. If you’re having issues submitting your requested days/times, you can always just reach out to me through my contact form instead.
I’m going to play “guess the embouchure type” again, this time looking at a couple of videos of Christopher Martin’s trumpet playing. Martin is the principle trumpet with the New York Philharmonic and formerly played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, so you know his playing is impeccable. Take a look at his chops in these two videos and see if you can guess his embouchure type. My guess after the break.
The best look at his embouchure is at the very beginning, when he plays the Pictures at an Exhibition excerpt. Since this trumpet solo involves a lot of large intervals you should be able to get a good enough look at his chops to tell, but here’s another video that has good shots of his embouchure for much longer.