Embouchure Type Switching For Pedals

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.

Notice that in this video that Roberts places the mouthpiece so that there’s more upper lip inside. The upper lip predominates and overlaps the lower lip. The film maker, Lloyd Leno, even classifies Roberts as playing with a downstream embouchure. I don’t see anything in this film clip that would indicate Roberts flips his air stream from downstream to upstream for this pedal F. Certainly the air stream is directed closer to blowing straight into the shank, but I don’t think it’s reversing and blowing upstream.

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.

How To Buy a New Trombone

For the first time in decades I’ve bought a brand new trombone (a King 2B, nothing too fancy). While trying out instruments I was reminded about some advice that Donald Reinhardt had put together on how to test out instruments if you were purchasing a new trombone. I think that the manufacturing processes have probably gotten a lot better than when Reinhardt wrote this and the instrument standards have improved too, but the suggestions he offers are still probably good to check. If you’re interested in purchasing a new trombone, check these things.

Assuming that you have examined and found the case and instrument finish OK, check the following points:

1. Because of the high cost of good instruments, I strongly advise that you take a good musical friend with you at the time of purchase. Two opinions are better than one…

2. When checking the slide action, it is vital that you do so with a lubricant, because all slides run good when dry for the first few minutes. If the store forbids this, do not buy the instrument…

3. Do you like the “blowing resistance” over the entire playable range, AT ALL DYNAMIC LEVELS?

4. Does the instrument have tremendous variations in TONAL TIMBRE in the various registers, AT ALL DYNAMIC LEVELS?

5. If the instrument has a .547 bore or larger, SLIDE SPRINGS ARE A MUST! All too many so-called “first class instruments” do not have them. This is of particular importance if the instrument has an F and E valve attachment (or a double valve to include the Eb and D)…

6. Does the valve attachment “BLOW STUFFY” – if it does reject the instrument?

7. The low – middle – and high Bb’s should be a close match – “INTONATION WISE” without too much lip adjustment, so to speak…

8. If the high C in the first position speaks more responsive and freer than the high Bb, do not buy this instrument…

9. The instrument must possess a good high Bb in the third position…

10. Is the high D in the first position so flat that you cannot handle it?

11. Is the high D between the second and third positions a good sounding note?

12. Is the high Eb in the long first position a good note?

13. If the high E is unplayable in second position, reject this instrument…

14. Is the Ab in third position (the one below the high Bb) a good responsive note?

15. If the middle D is so flat and the F above it so sharp that you cannot handle it, do not buy this instrument…

Donald S. Reinhardt, How To Buy a New Trombone

J.C. Higginbotham’s Solo On “Mint Julep”

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.

Brass Embouchure Pedagogy Workshop

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.

Embouchure Experiment – 10 Days With the Opposite Type

This post is a followup to Friday’s post. If you want to try to solve this embouchure puzzle on your own you should look at the video here first, then come back and read this one. In order to follow this post completely you’ll need to understand what the three basic brass embouchure types are. If you don’t, please read this post and watch the video embedded there. If you want a more complete discussion of this, start here at this page.

I’ve been taking some time lately to catch some video lessons with my one of my mentors, Doug Elliott. For those of you who might not already be familiar with Doug, he is a trombonist, mouthpiece maker, and an expert in brass embouchure technique. He was also the primary source in my dissertation, “The correlation between Doug Elliott’s embouchure types and selective physical and playing characteristics among trombonists.” Doug has been guiding me through an experiment we tried to fix the problems I’ve been dealing with.

Once more, here is a video that shows the issues that I’ve been covering up for a while now manifest. You can hear the choked upper register, but can you spot the mechanical issue that is causing it? The answer, and the path that Doug helped guide me though to make corrections, are below the break.

Can you spot the cause of the problem?
Continue reading “Embouchure Experiment – 10 Days With the Opposite Type”

Embouchure Difficulties – Spot the Cause

Many brass musicians have had embouchure breakdowns, including some very exceptional players. So it should come to no surprise that a mediocre player, like myself, can run into some issues with embouchure technique. This in spite of my interest in brass embouchure technique and almost 25 years of study in embouchure form and function.

For years I’ve had some nagging difficulties that have caused some problems in my playing. I’m usually able to muscle my way through them, especially after warming up for a while, but I haven’t been fixing the mechanical problems, only getting good at covering them up. This is actually quite common. What’s strange is that I know exactly what I’m doing wrong and what I should be doing, it’s just been a bear to make the corrections happen consistently.

Recently I’ve decided to make it a priority to fix these problems. Since at the current time we’re still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I don’t have any serious performing obligations so this is a good time to get this done. I’ve been catching some video lessons from my mentor, Doug Elliott, who has been guiding me through an interesting embouchure experiment that has helped solidify things for me. But before I post about that I want to give the masses a chance to see my problems manifest and make your best guess as to what you think is going wrong. Then, offer your hypothetical advice.

Can you spot the mechanical issues? How would you fix them with a student? Post your thoughts in the comments here. On Monday I’ll post what Doug and I figured out was happening and the experiment we tried that eventually made for good improvements.

Hallelujah Chorus for Trombone Quartet

Back almost 20 years ago I wrote an arrangement of the Hallelujah Chorus, from G.F. Handel’s Messiah. I happened across it a couple of weeks ago and as I had just gotten a new microphone I decided to record myself playing all four parts, figuring I could post it as a holiday greeting. Here’s the recording.

And here’s the sheet music for it.

You might want to listen to it before you bother downloading it. I’m not sure why I wrote the 1st trombone part so high, maybe I was hoping to show off? I got it to sound passable in the recording by isolating that phrase and playing it a few times until I got it to sound OK, but I wouldn’t want to try that in a live performance. You can probably fix that by just playing trombone 1 down an octave there, but that puts it in unison with another part and I guess I wanted it to be in octaves like Handel’s original. Try it out and let me know how it goes.

The bass trombone part is a little rough in the recording, partly because I’m playing it on a tenor trombone and partly because I hadn’t played that horn for months (I’d mostly been playing my King 2B and staying out of the trigger range, but this was a positive kick in the seat to brush the dust off that horn and start working on my low register again).

Donald S. Reinhardt Plays “Blue Bells of Scotland”

Former Reinhardt student, Rick Gordon, recently found an old cassette tape of Reinhardt performing Blue Bells of Scotland, by Arthur Pryor, from June of 1926. Reinhardt would have been 18 years old at that time. Check it out.

It’s extremely impressive playing for anyone, let alone someone who is only a young adult! Consider also the recording technology of the time required musicians to get everything in a single take, you couldn’t go back and punch in to clean things up.

I was curious about where this recording lined up with the story Reinhardt wrote in his book, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System. In the preface he described how he became interested in studying a physical approach to brass technique, after years of studying with 18 “so-called brass instrument instructors.”

One day prior to the advent of the bell lock, I knocked the bell section off the slide section of the instrument while inserting a mute. The bell struck the sharp outer edge of the tympani rim and fell to the floor. The tuning slide was completely flattened, rendering the horn unplayable When I had it repaired, the repairman neglected to replace the balancing weight, making the horn extremely front-heavy. As soon as I tried to play the unbalanced instrument, I noticed that I could play a very weak high Bb. Since this was the first high Bb that I ever played, I was naturally quite elated. In trying to analyze this phenomenon, I realize that since the instrument was decidedly front-heavy, the membrane (red) of my lower lip had moved in a slightly over my lower teeth. This was because the horn angle was considerably lower than before. Thus, the fact that my jaw was slightly more receded than usual permitted the lower lip membrane to move slightly in and over my lower teeth, increasing my embouchure compression.

Encyclopedia of the Pivot System – Donald S. Reinhardt, p. IX-X

Based on the above description of Reinhardt’s abilities before this event, it must have happened before he made this recording. But based on the information he put in the Encyclopedia, I would date this event happening around the same time, perhaps a year or two later, which is curious. My dating of this tuning slide accident is based on other things he wrote in his preface.

He states that he began studying music formally at the age of 8 (violin and music theory). After two years he decided he wanted to play a brass instrument (he preferred French horn), but his father kept him on violin for another year until he began taking brass lessons. This would have been at the age of around 11 (age of 8+2 years of violin+1 year of his father insisting he stay on violin). Then later he studied “thirteen and a half years of trombone lessons,” frustrated because of his range difficulties. That puts the date of the tuning slide accident somewhere around his young 20s.

Ralph Dudgeon, in his 2000 article for the International Trumpet Guild Journal, “Credit Where Credit is Due: The Life and Brass Teaching of Donald S. Reinhardt,” suggests this happened even later. Dudgeon states, “Apparently, it was in this period [in the early 1930s] that Reinhardt studied with the ’18 so-called teachers.”

Why worry about this timeline in the first place? Well, first and foremost I’m curious and my academic background has trained me to look for the details in order to put things into the context for a bigger picture. If this was recorded before his tuning slide accident, then something is off in Reinhardt’s preface to the Encyclopedia. Maybe his dates in the preface were off or maybe the recording was made when he was older. Perhaps Reinhardt exaggerated his playing difficulties for effect.

My teacher, and former student and friend of Reinhardt’s, assumes that the tuning slide accident must have happened in early high school. If so, that would make the most sense based on the quality of Reinhardt’s playing on this recording.

Alan Raph – Guess the Embouchure Type

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

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

Continue reading “Alan Raph – Guess the Embouchure Type”

Sound Differences Between Embouchure Types

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

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

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

Trumpet 1
Trumpet 2
Trumpet 3
Trumpet 4
Trumpet 5

Let’s take a look at some trombonists next.

Trombonist 1
Trombonist 3
Trombonist 4
Trombonist 5

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

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

In other words, this doesn’t prove anything.

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

When you’ve left your guess in the comments, you can go here to see the answers. Update – the page with the answers got broken with the move of this site to a new server and an update of the WordPress theme. If you want to look at the answers you can right click on the images and look for the labels. VHP is Very High Placement, etc.