On Saturday, April 17, 2021 at 1:30 PM Eastern I will be hosting a free Zoom workshop covering basic brass embouchure patterns and some pedagogical implications of understanding these embouchure types, followed by a Q&A session. Have your instrument and set up your camera to get close up to your embouchure and we’ll conclude with “guess the embouchure type.”
Space is limited, so to reserve a spot please fill out the contact form below.
Edit: I’ve heard from one person who tried to use the contact form and got an error. It seems to be working for me, but if you have any trouble please leave a comment (I will get notified that there’s a comment in the queue if you haven’t had a comment approved here before) and I’ll back in touch with you.
Edit #2: The workshop is now full. If I hear back that someone isn’t going to be able to attend after all I will post an announcement here and on the Trombone Chat forum topic. Since there seems to be plenty of interest I am considering running another workshop later. If you’d like to see another one feel free to email me, post on the TC topic, or by leaving a comment here on this post.
After over 10 years of blogging I figured that I had already covered this very common embouchure issue in its own post, but after wanting to help out a teacher with some questions about it I searched and realized that I’ve only discussed the smile embouchure in the context other topics. In this post I’m going to dig into the smile embouchure and go over some common suggestions for eliminating it that I think are inefficient before I go over what I’ve found to be the best approach. If you want to skip all that, check out this post on free buzzing.
Around the turn of the last century it was apparently common for brass teachers to actually instruct students to ascend by pulling the mouth corners back into a smile. It works, to a degree, similar to the way that stretching a rubber band while you pluck it will cause the band to vibrate faster and therefore sound a higher pitch. This technique has a characteristic look.
Today this technique is almost universally rejected by brass teachers. It tends to limit the upper register and endurance. Pulling the mouth corners back to ascend eventually reaches a limit to where the musician simply can’t smile even further to ascend, resulting in a range cap. Stretching the lips back also makes the lips more sensitive to mouthpiece pressure. This results in difficulty with endurance and also simply risks injury due to mouthpiece pressure.
While brass pedagogy seems to have come to a general consensus on avoiding the smile embouchure, we don’t have an agreement on the best way to help students make corrections to the smile embouchure. Part of this disagreement is due to every student being a little different and responding to instructions in their own ways, but a large part of the disparity in instruction seems to be due to a general lack of knowledge about what’s happening in the embouchure in the first place.
Awareness and Conscious Effort Is Inefficient
If you’ve never struggled with the smile embouchure yourself it might seem that the best way to eliminate the smile embouchure is to help your student become aware of the problem and ask him or her to consciously stop it. Mirror observation is often used for feedback and brass teachers will often prescribe exercises that start in the range where the corners are not pulling back and ascend gradually into the trouble range. The idea here is to start from a point of good technique (mouth corners in place) and strive to keep that technique the same while ascending.
This usually doesn’t work, at least not very efficiently. It’s notoriously difficult for brass players to make this sort of adjustment for a couple of reason. First, these musicians have a “conditioned response” to ascending on their instrument. It’s simply too habitual for them to just stop. Secondly, and even more relevant, the muscles at and around the mouth corners are usually too weak to hold them in place while ascending.
It’s pretty well established now that the area around mouth corners are responsible for a lot of the muscular effort for a well-formed brass embouchure. There have been studies that empirically investigate which muscles in the embouchure are active while playing a brass instrument. The more advanced the player, the more focused the embouchure effort is on keeping the corners firm (and the chin flat). The advanced trumpet player in the image above (the top row) shows a much more focused muscular effort at the mouth corners (and chin) than the beginner (middle row) and trumpet student (bottom row).
One reason why it’s so difficult for brass students to eliminate the smile embouchure is because the muscles that should be holding the mouth corners in place are too weak. Just as you can’t expect someone to bench press 200 pounds without building up to it, a brass musician can’t hold their mouth corners in place without developing the strength to hold them in position.
Embouchure Problems Are Embouchure Problems – QED
One of the most common approaches I come across from teachers, who I feel should know better, promote the idea the all embouchure problems are really breathing problems. These teachers insist that the best way to help a student make corrections to a smile embouchure are to work on breathing. Many also emphasize assignments of music, rather than technical exercises.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong in teaching good breathing and musical expression, any smile embouchure correction that happens as a result here is largely going to be in spite of, rather than because of the focus on breathing. Don’t misunderstand what I’m pointing out. Excellent brass technique requires efficient breathing and musical expression, but embouchure problems are embouchure problems. Teachers who advocate for developing embouchure technique purely through good breathing and musical expression usually insist that it’s ultimately better to take a student’s attention away from their embouchure. That may be all well and good, depending on the student, but in the process they ignore what the real cause and effect of the smile embouchure actually is. In this case, I think advocating that the teacher have a good understanding of embouchure technique here is different from discussing how much of that to communicate to students and when.
In a little bit I’ll show you how you can get a student to stop pulling the mouth corners back into a smile while forming an embouchure almost immediately (with some qualifications). I have never seen working on breathing to help a student correct a smile embouchure as immediately. If fixing the breathing fixes any “embouchure problem” immediately then the original issue was misdiagnosed. Embouchure problems are embouchure problems – by definition.
Sure, working on breathing and musical expression can (eventually) result in a brass musician correcting the smile embouchure. However, this is because the student is developing embouchure strength and control over time from practicing the instrument, not because the breathing is better or the musician’s mental image of the music is in mind. Furthermore, some players who happen to be more prone to a smile embouchure appear to have difficulty building embouchure strength simply by playing a lot (see Low Placement embouchure type players), at least more so compared to peers who have different anatomical features.
In my experience, regular free buzzing practice is the fastest and most efficient route to eliminating the smile embouchure, for a number of reasons. While I go over my rational, it’s important that I specify how I teach free buzzing and address some common concerns about it.
There are many brass players and teachers who dismiss free buzzing because it doesn’t directly relate to how the instrument is played. This is true, but if you are careful and methodical about your approach you are actually exploiting this difference. Consider the “conditioned response” difficulties I mentioned above.
For advocates of fixing the smile embouchure with breathing and musical expression, my rational for addressing it instead with free buzzing should be already familiar to them.
For example, in order to change the preconditioned responses elicited in a student when playing his or her instrument, Mr. Jacobs will simply remove the musical instrument and have the student blow on the back of the hand, buzz on a mouthpiece, or breathe into a strange apparatus. By conditioning the correct response away from the horn, it is then transferable to the instrument. This offers the additional benefits of keeping exercises from dulling musical passion, enhancing strangeness, allowing a multi-sensoral approach, and avoiding previously conditioned baggage. Most importantly, this additive approach keeps players from having to go back to square one on their instruments-particularly valuable for professional players who must maintain a busy schedule. Thus instead of altering a bad behavior, Mr Jacobs advocates that one simply learn a new correct behavior to supplant it by changing stimuli and eventually transferring the response back to the horn. Meanwhile, the old, undesired behavior will extinguish itself from lack of use.
When a student has developed a habitual way of playing the instrument that is getting in their way, it’s very difficult to approach it from what they are doing wrong. Instead, it’s more effective to go after what to do correctly. Furthermore, crafty teachers like Arnold Jacobs used ways to remove the trigger for the conditioned response (the instrument) and make corrections where those bad habits didn’t come into play. As the proper technique became learned, the instrument was gradually added to the mix.
Free buzzing does exactly this, with the added benefit of actually building strength in the muscles that hold the mouth corners in place. Furthermore, free buzzing higher pitches softly and with a mosquito-like sound makes it virtually impossible to pull the mouth corners back into a smile. Instead of helping to raise the pitch, it hinders it. While free buzzing the brass musician has to keep the corners locked in place.
So to return to what I wrote above, it instantly fixes the smile embouchure, albeit in a different context. It introduces “strangeness” removing the conditioned response. Even better, where playing the instrument allows the student to pull the corners back to ascend before the range caps, free buzzing only reinforces the correct mouth corner position. For these reasons, I feel that using free buzzing to eliminate a student’s smile embouchure is superior to addressing it directly while playing or through breathing and musical expression.
How to Free Buzz
My personal favorite free buzzing exercise to teach is from Donald Reinhardt. He prescribed slightly rolling in the lower lip inward and just over the lower teeth while bringing the top lip down to lightly touching the lower lip.
Without any assistance from the mouthpiece or the instrument, form the lips in the prescribed manner and sustain a buzz on middle concert B flat to the fullest extent of a normal playing breath. . . Buzz and inhale three times in the prescribed manner and strive to make each buzz a higher pitch than the previous one – then rest.
Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, p. 169, by Donald Reinhardt
That’s it. Maybe 3-5 minutes at most. Done as described and with just a little bit of work daily spread out over several weeks it should make for noticeable improvements without the risk of feeling “muscle bound” or otherwise screwing up a brass musician’s chops.
As an aside, I edited out the part where Reinhardt instructs holding your finger over your lips when inhaling and breathing in through the mouth corners for clarity here, but I do teach and recommend that in my more detailed discussion and video of this exercise. I also want to point out that the free buzz should be soft and thin sounding. Try to make it sound like a mosquito buzz.
That one exercise done daily for a few weeks or so should translate into a reduction of the smile embouchure at least, and over time can even eliminate it by itself. If your student needs some more help, there are two additional ideas you can try with free buzzing. One can be helpful for pretty much all players, others require you to know and understand the student’s basic embouchure type. These are also based on (if not outright taken from) exercises I picked up from Reinhardt’s writings.
Using Reinhardt’s description of a free buzz above, instruct your student to free buzz a pitch that is at least F below middle C (concert pitch, in other words F3 or F inside the bass clef). Keep the free buzzing tone soft and mosquito-like. After free buzzing that pitch, have the student play the pitch on their instrument as a long tone, then stop and rest. Then buzz pitches up a scale and repeat this exercise until they start feeling fatigued. Observe how the mouth corners look, but it’s not necessary to have the student watch in a mirror unless it helps then to see it (another option is to have the student watch in the mirror every other pitch). This exercise, which I feel is good for any brass player, can help eliminate the smile embouchure by helping the student to experience the correct mouth corner position while free buzzing and then quickly try to translate that to the instrument.
If the student is one of the downstream embouchure types, particularly the Very High Placement type, you can take the above exercise but instead of free buzzing and then playing the pitch on the instrument next, have him or her free buzz into the instrument. For some downstream embouchure type players this can be an excellent way to fine tune other elements of embouchure form as well as the mouth corner position. Low Placement/upstream type brass player will not want to practice buzzing into the instrument, since their mouthpiece placement too drastically changes certain elements of their embouchure form while playing compared to free buzzing.
Free buzzing ticks off all the boxes that we know is effective for correcting instrumental technique. It specifically strengthens the muscles we want. It forces the brass musician’s mouth corner form towards the habit we’re trying to develop while also removing the trigger for the habit we’re trying to eliminate. Lastly, it’s effective over time, but it’s probably more efficient than any other common approach to correcting the smile embouchure.
Remember, keep your student’s free buzzing light, soft, and somewhat airy sounding. A little bit every day spread out over time is much better than a lot at once.
One final idea for those teachers who insist that everything their student works on should have musical value. Use the same described procedure for free buzzing (soft and thin sounding, keep it above F3, etc.) but free buzz simple tunes. Personally, I think it’s fine to work on instrumental technique by removing it from a musical context at times, but if your student has difficulty switching focus back on the music or slips too easily into trying to multitask while playing, free buzzing melodies has the same benefits.
I haven’t yet watched all videos and gone through all the PDF downloads, but if the quality is consistent from the first video this is a great series of instructional videos for brass players wanting to learn more about the pedagogy of Carmine Caruso. Here’s the first video.
Landsman has been the principle horn player for the Metropolitan Opera for over 25 years and is on the faculty of The Juilliard School.
Donald Reinhardt created an exercise he called the “Pivot Stabilizer.” He intended students to use this exercise as their first notes of the day. Here is the exercise, with some hand written notes and instructions for a specific trumpet student.
In order to better understand this exercise you first should forget about the embouchure “pivot.” Reinhardt defined it a certain way, but unless you studied it from him you almost certainly don’t understand what it is. Instead, think of this as an exercise to stabilize a brass musician’s “embouchure motion.”
Embouchure Motion – The natural motion a brass player makes when changing registers where the mouthpiece and lips together will be pushed and pulled along the teeth and gums in a generally up and down motion. The position of the mouthpiece on the lips doesn’t change, just the relationship of the mouthpiece rim and lips to the teeth and gums. Some players will push upward to ascend while others will pull down. Some players will have a track of their embouchure motion that is side to side. For more details on this phenomenon go here.
Assuming that you fully understand the embouchure motion definition above, you can make use of Reinhardt’s exercise to help make a student’s embouchure motion function more efficiently with less conscious effort. The arrows drawn into the music above are a specific trumpet student’s embouchure motion direction, just make sure that you’re instructing (or using, if this is for your own practice) the correct embouchure motion for the individual student. The student should use this exercise as a way to find where the tone is most open and resonant for each particular note.
The first time through each three measure set the student should watch what the embouchure motion looks like in a mirror. On the repeat Reinhardt instructed the student to close his or her eyes and instead focus on the feel of the embouchure motion assisting with the slurs. The “V” after each set was Reinhardt’s notion to remove the mouthpiece from the lips for a moment before moving on to the next set.
One thing I wanted to adjust for this exercise was the starting note and where the “home base” range for this exercise lies. For many students, particularly the Very High Placement and Low Placement embouchure types, it can be more useful to use a higher pitch as the central range point. Many of these musicians will find it easier to play correctly in their upper register, so slurring up to the high range before playing down to their low range gives them a better chance to descend correctly (as opposed to slurring down to the low range before up to the high range, as Reinhardt’s original exercise).
The above exercise duplicates the purpose of Reinhardt’s “Pivot Stabilizer” but moves the center of the exercise to G on top of the staff (for trumpet) and also has the student playing an ascending slur first, before descending to low C.
If you want to experiment with your own practice or teaching using these exercises here are some printable files for you.
A few months ago I caught up with Doug Elliott and took another lesson. For those who don’t know, Doug’s embouchure types and terminology are the ones I prefer to use here and my lessons and interview with him were important resources for my dissertation. Doug studied from Donald Reinhardt and took Reinhardt’s ideas and developed a presentation of them that makes them easier to understand.
At any rate, at my last lesson with Doug he reminded me of Reinhardt’s “Elasticity Routine,” or at least the technique and point behind it. I have some inconsistencies in how my chops function between my upper register and F3 and below. Glissing without using the slide between partials in this register are helping me make my embouchure function more consistently. They are also pretty good for developing lip flexibility and overall embouchure control.
There was a forum topic on the Trombone Forum that was discussing similar exercises, so I threw together a short video describing and demonstrating what I’ve been practicing. It’s not as good as Doug’s demonstration for me, but I think you can get the point of how the Elasticity Routine works. The exact glisses that you do are not as important as how you do them. Do not let up on the mouthpiece pressure and try to gliss between those partials as smoothly as possible.
I had a couple of pretty good glisses in there and some examples of me struggling to make them sound smooth. They all sound better now than they did a few months ago. The point is not that this should sound good (although that’s what I’m trying for when practicing this drill), but how they help your playing.
Dr Peter Iltis conducted a study using a functional MRI chamber at the Biomedical NMR Lab at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen, Germany, watching hornist Sarah Willis’s tongue position as she plays in different registers, different tonguing patterns, and different dynamics. This (safely) replicates some of the fluoroscopic studies that were done with brass players. Check out some of the footage.
It’s pretty clear in this video that her tongue position raises as she ascends and lowers as she descends. I also find it interesting how there is a slight “bump” with the tongue arch when slurring. In other words, her tongue arch to slur up might jump up high and then snaps down to a slightly lower position, but still higher than it was on the lower note. This may be the equivalent of attacking the note with the tip of the tongue, giving it an extra push to slot, but with a much smoother attack to the pitch for slurred notes.
Iltis is interviewed about his research on a second video. Since he is also a horn player he has a good understanding of how brass players play as well as are taught about tonguing.
I was going through some bookmarked links from a while back and found this performance of the Antonio Rosetti Horn Concerto in Eb Major by Hungarian hornist Nagi Miklos. Not only was this piece new to me (at least I don’t recall having heard it before, in spite of it being part of the standard horn rep), but I wasn’t familiar with Miklos either. Check out Miklos’s playing and this piece on this YouTube video. While you’re at it, watch his chops and see if you can guess his embouchure type. My guess comes after the break.
Here’s another question I got from my virtual pile of email. This one is from Veronika.
I am a French horn/trumpet player in high school and I play with an embouchure that is off to my right of my lips and I have had teachers tell me I need to fix it or I will hit a point where it will get in the way of my playing and I have had others say that if it works for me then I should be fine I would like to know if this is a bad thing and if I need to fix it if you could get back to me ASAP it would be great
As I usually have to say with questions like this, I can’t really answer your question without watching you play, preferably in person. Every player is different and so for me to say without seeing you that you need to change your embouchure (or keep it the same) would not be good advice. Your teachers, on the other hand, have presumably watched you play and notice something not working correctly and have offered a suggestion. My first instinct would be to follow their advice and give it an honest effort.
However, even some very fine musicians and experienced teachers often make some erroneous recommendations simply because they don’t have an interest in embouchures and assume that what works for them (and even a majority of their students) must be correct. Everyone has a different face, so everyone will have a different embouchure. If you do a search for “off center” here on my blog you’ll see many examples of embouchures that are placed to one side, and some of these are world class brass musicians. Most players will find that their embouchures are a little to one side, but generally centered along the horizontal. Some players play much better with a very off-center mouthpiece placement.
It’s difficult to generalize why some players do better with an off-center placement. Sometimes brass musicians will talk about a protruding or sharp tooth that requires them to place the mouthpiece so the rim can’t contact the tooth. I’ve heard other players describe how they intentionally place the rim over a protruding tooth or gap in order to “lock in” their placement. Again, it’s a very personal feature.
Getting back to Veronika’s question, I would just close by pointing out that it’s not how your embouchure looks that is important, it’s how it functions and how good it sounds. If you sound best with an off-center mouthpiece placement then I think that this is where you should leave it. Whenever I recommend an placing the mouthpiece in a different spot than where it is I do so because there is an immediate improvement in something that needs to be fixed and because I can’t fix that issue with any other method. If your teacher is telling you that in time the “muscles will develop” with a more centered placement I would try to find a different teacher and grab a second opinion when you can. I’ve even heard of some cases where excellent brass players have done everything their teacher told them to do in their lessons, but practiced how they knew they should play on their own in order to get by. That’s not ideal, but always an option if you think you’re being steered wrong in this area.
Do you have a question about brass embouchures or any other music related topic you’d like to see me discuss here? Drop me a line with your questions.
I’ll be playing and directing the Asheville Jazz Orchestra again at our monthly show at the White Horse Black Mountain in Black Mountain, NC this Saturday. The first set of big band jazz starts at 8 PM. I’m excited about a couple of “subs” who will be playing with us. Visiting from Michigan State University, Joe Lulloff will be playing alto sax. Brad Jepson, one of the co-directors of the Greenville Jazz Collective Big Band, will be playing in our trombone section. It should be a particularly hard-swinging band this time around, so I’ve put a bunch of challenging charts in the set list. If you’re in the area, come on out.
At any rate, it’s Friday and here are some of my picks for your music-related surfing this weekend. Enjoy.
If the ensemble has to stop because of you, explain in detail why you got lost. Everyone will be very interested.
I had bookmarked this page with a black and white photograph of Louis Armstrong In Egypt. It talks a little bit about the United State’s “jazz diplomacy” during the Cold War. Coincidentally, I recently came across a very well done colorized version of the same photo (and 53 other colorized historical photos).
And to finish off this week, if you ever suffered from self-defeating thoughts about maybe not just having the natural ability to play music, watch this amazing horn player.
Bassist Michael Thurber takes us through the history of the bass with 45 songs and 9 different instruments in the below video.
On January 24, 2011 James Boldin started an etude recording project where he video recorded himself performing etudes from Kopprasch’s Sixty Selected Studies Op. 6. Start here with No. 1. You can read his final thoughts after completing this three year project . A great resource for horn students and teachers.
1959 was a significant year for jazz. There were four seminal albums recorded that year, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz To Come. Learn more about these albums and the context of the history of jazz and the civil rights movement in 1959 The Year That Changed Jazz.