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.
I was lurking on a brass forum and came across some discussion of the Stevens-Costello book, Embouchure Self-Analysis: The Stevens-Costello Embouchure Technique, by trumpet teacher Roy Stevens. It had been probably 15 years since I read this book, so I got a hold of a copy, reread it, and have started practicing out of this book. It’s an interesting book, filled with a lot of advice that I find very good, but also some inaccurate statements about brass embouchures and a lot of advice that is probably only relevant to a smaller portion of brass players.
Embouchure Self-Analysis was first self-published in 1971 and until Stevens’s death in 1988 remained in print. Afterwards, this text was harder to find until Bill Moriarity spearheaded an effort to get it reprinted in 2006. The copy I have lists a copyright for 2012 by David Hay. I ordered it here.
There are two main sections in this book. The first part is text and includes Stevens’s descriptions and suggestions for a well-functioning embouchure. I have mixed feelings about all this text, for a variety of reasons. My first complaint is that Stevens does what so many other brass teachers do, he assumes that how he plays must be “correct” for everyone. Stevens advised all players to play with an upstream setting and even instructs certain characteristics that won’t work for a certain minority of upstream players too. Brass musicians who aren’t suited for an upstream embouchure are who take Stevens’s instructions too far will struggle, but if you’re in the minority of players who have a Low Placement embouchure type and fit squarely into the variation of this type that Reinhardt classified as a Type IV embouchure the text describes very closely the mechanics of how this embouchure type tends to function at its best.
My own embouchure type is upstream, but I play with my jaw somewhat receded and have a lower horn angle. Reinhardt tabled this as a Type IVA. I just consider it to be a “Low Placement” embouchure type, since the same basic principals of playing correctly seem to apply to this variation. This is important, because a lot of the text discourages a receded jaw while playing, which is the best position for my anatomy. I can protrude my jaw into the position that Stevens recommends and I can make sounds that way, but it doesn’t work very well.
This is an important point and is my main criticism of this book. Roy Stevens essentially is advocating everyone play with the same embouchure type that worked for him. This flaw is very common in almost any brass resource that describes embouchure technique, so it’s not unique to Stevens. It’s ironic what Stevens’s student wrote in the appendix.
At the age of eighteen, I studied with a teacher who was credited with 50 years experience. After spending five years with this man I discovered the only theory his teachings were based upon was the altogether too common one of “I play the horn this way and so should you.”
Embouchure Self-Analysis, Stevens/Costello, p. 103
The key to working out of any method book is to understand that it’s not exactly what you practice, but how you practice that’s important. Anyone working out of this book will need to take at least some of Stevens’s descriptions of functioning embouchures with a grain of salt.
As I mentioned above, some of it is accurate for only one less common embouchure type.
The concept of aiming the air up for all notes or tones must be upheld. It is this formation of the embouchure musculature that will prevent slack or collapse of the surface tension in both lips.
Embouchure Self-Analysis, Stevens/Costello, p. 13
(This advice is great if you happen to have the anatomy that makes an upstream embouchure work best for you.)
Some of it is good general advice that will apply to most players.
Mouthpiece distribution of weight should be 40-45% top, 60-55% bottom.
Embouchure Self-Analysis, Stevens/Costello, p. 8
(The lower lip is usually a bit “meatier” than the upper lip and can take more mouthpiece pressure than the top lip. I feel it’s good advice for all players to keep a little more mouthpiece weight on the lower lip.)
And some of it I find questionable for almost all players.
I am vehemently opposed to the “common ground argument” of the (EEE) action of the tongue for the upper register combined with the relative jaw action. . .
Embouchure Self-Analysis, Stevens/Costello, p. 15-16
(It’s been pretty well established today that brass musicians alter the position of their tongue, generally raising it to ascend. For some players it can be more than others and for some players it can feel like they are keeping their tongue in position, but the reality is that tongue position while slurring and sustaining should move towards a higher position to ascend, just not too high.)
Sprinkled throughout the text are some unusual exercises or demonstrations. The most famous example is his “palm exercise.”
. . . [L]ay the instrument flat upon the palm of the left hand with the fingers extended in such way that with any excessive pressure, it will slide off.
Embouchure Self-Analysis, Stevens/Costello, p. 40
If you’re not already familiar with this exercise, here is a former student of Roy Stevens, Larry Meregillano, demonstrating and describing the exercise.
I’ve written about this idea before (Brass Myths – Hanging the Trumpet From the Ceiling, No Pressure Brass Embouchure – Fact or Urban Legend?, Trumpet on a String Legend Part 2 – Rafael Méndez). There may very well be something useful we can learn from trying this exercise out, but Stevens instructs us to, “Practice in this fashion at least a half hour a day, total playing time.” I can’t speak for you, but I’ve got too many other things to work on to spend 30 minutes with the instrument in my palm, even spread out over the day. It’s not the way I’m going to perform and the left hand grip is an important part of a trumpet or trombone musician’s embouchure mechanics. Frankly, I don’t find the palm exercise useful enough to practice it any more or recommend it to others. There are other, better ways to get at what you need.
The bulk of the book, however, are exercises that will be familiar to most brass musicians. The exercises tend to be organized around chord arpeggios playing along the overtone series. Stevens suggests playing each exercise set slurred and tongued. The ranges expand from the lower end of the trumpet range all the way up to the extreme upper register. There are dynamics indicated that get you playing soft and loud. There are exercises similar to ones you might find in Arbans that work on tonguing and fingering patterns. So you’re going to find that this book addresses a pretty complete list of brass playing technique.
A lot of space is saved in the book by not writing out complete exercises, but by writing out a single variation, say a rhythmic pattern, and asking you to play the previous exercise fully with that variation. I think this is good both for making the book a little more manageable to read, but also because I think it’s good to learn to play things without reading music.
There are a handful of exercises that can be played with 2 or 3 players, which would be useful for teachers who are warming students up or helping them with scales in different keys while in lessons.
I haven’t spent time working out of the back half of the book, but I have been using the exercises in the early part as part of my morning practice routine for a couple of months now. Since I’m aware enough how my chops work there are several instructions on how to practice them that I’ve ignored, but overall I feel that the time spent has been helpful. One of the flaws in the book, I feel, is that there’s little attention given to what order to practice the materials in and there’s simply too much in there to use all in one day, so you’ll need to skip around. I took the approach to play through everything up to a point and then picked and chose some things to focus on daily. I also have been doing fewer sets of most of the exercises. For example, rather than go up an exercise by half steps I go up by whole steps and get through the exercise faster. You’ll need to try the material out for yourself and see how you respond to them.
So overall my personal experience working out of Embouchure Self-Analysis has been positive, but your milage may vary. If you are definitely a “Low Placement” embouchure type and have the more common characteristic of aligning the teeth while playing then you’ll probably do pretty well following most of Stevens’s advice. If you’re not, you’ll need to work out which parts you need to ignore, such as a placement with more lower lip inside the mouthpiece or a horn angle close to straight out. The exercises themselves are pretty good and most brass players will find working on them to be a pretty good embouchure workout. Just practice them carefully and don’t overdo it.
Have you read this book and tried out the exercises for yourself? Did you study with Roy Stevens and have something to add or a correction to make? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section. I’d love to hear the opinion of others about it.
I’ve posted about the Trumpet Gurus Hang Youtube channel before here. Every week José Johnson brings in a trumpet player or teacher to talk making music. The latest episode features Rich Willey. Rich is based in the same area as me, so we have played together many times. Rich also studied extensively with Donald Reinhardt, one of the primary sources of my dissertation research. He is also currently working with my mentor, Doug Elliott, who’s teaching and pedagogy helped me break past my own musical hurdles and strongly influenced the way I teach.
Check out this episode to learn a little more about Rich and Reinhardt’s teaching.
Andrea Giuffredi is a very fine Italian trumpet player with a series of YouTube videos with exercises and backing tracks. You can put them on, listen to Giuffredi play the exercise, then play the exercise back. Here’s an example, which conveniently is a series of exercises based on octave slurs. Octave slurs are useful for guessing a player’s embouchure type because the interval is large enough that you can usually spot the embouchure motion fairly easily. Take a look at this video and see if you can guess his embouchure type. My guess is after the break.
Back in October 2012 I conducted a pilot study to see whether it would be accurate to state that one could simply listen to a trumpet player and tell by sound alone whether or not that player placed the mouthpiece with a significant amount of rim on the vermillion of one lip. Since then the plugin I used to collect the participants’ answers is no longer being updated for WordPress and is no longer available, so you won’t be able to take the test that way. Furthermore, the original page I created to show the answers and videos to the participants after they took the test seems to have been lost into the aether. This page is my recreation of that post, but it’s been so long I don’t exactly recall how much I wrote there.
Since I’m writing this up now as a post I’m going to put the results below the “read more” fold. If you’re catching this post from the home page you won’t be able to see the results until you click that link, so try the survey out first and then come back to see how well you did.
All the embedded videos below are the same video with all six trumpet players. I set up each embedded video to start directly on the particular player, however.
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.
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.
Let’s take a look at some trombonists next.
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.
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 was cleaning out some broken bookmarks on my browser and found a (now dark) blog called Lip Rip Blues by trumpet player Jonathan Vieker. In 2011 he severely injured his lip, had surgery, and blogged about his rehabilitation process. Vieker wrote posts covering how he injured himself in the first place, dealing with the psychological repercussions, his setbacks and success, and more.
The morning after I got hurt, as I made a cup of coffee and sat down at the computer to figure out what was wrong with the muscle in my lip, I discovered quickly that there just wasn’t enough information available about embouchure injuries.
This site is my attempt to do something about that.
My interest in lip injuries is peripheral to the research I’ve done on brass embouchure technique. While some brass musicians ask me for help when they have a lip injury, I haven’t personally injured my lip beyond the point where more than a couple of days off would be enough. Players like Vieker help me better understand both the physical and mental issues that brass musicians go through after a severe lip injury.