Kind Words From Rusty McKinney

Rusty McKinney, bass trombone
Rusty McKinney, bass trombone

A short while ago I got an email from Rusty McKinney, formerly the bass trombonist with the Utah Symphony. Rusty is one of the examples of an upstream orchestral player I mentioned in my article about five common embouchure misconceptions, specifically referring to the myth that all players need to place the mouthpiece centered or with more top lip inside the mouthpiece. Rusty has a low placement and plays quite well with it! He gave me permission to quote our email exchange and so here are some of the things he mentioned to me, with a few of my thoughts scattered between.

HI Dave,

I ran across your site and saw that you mentioned me in your upstream are in “Myths ” section. I often make the upstream list and am intrigued and slightly amused that it is usually me and jazz artists!

Like Rusty, I too find it interesting that most of the upstream players that we know about are jazz players. It’s definitely true that downstream players are more common, not because of any inherent advantage but because more players don’t have the anatomical features that make upstream players work best. I also feel that because teachers have a tendency to teach what worked for them personally that many upstream players are taught to move their mouthpiece higher on the lips and are forced into a downstream embouchure inadvertently. These players will typically struggle and either never reach their full potential or give up brass playing altogether. Because jazz players are more likely to be self taught and classical players tend to go through formal music education (particularly in conservatories, where tradition is strong) this tends to weed out upstream players in favor of downstream players.

Anyway, I wanted to let you know that I am more in your neighborhood than I used to be. I left the Utah Symphony about two years ago to switch my emphasis to being a church music director and as such I am now fulltime at White Plains United Methodist Church in Cary, NC.

I am still playing regularly, often subbing in the NC symphony, and playing for NC Opera and various orchestras that are put together for Duke Chapel. And I have given master classes this past Spring at UNC Chapel Hill for Mike Chris’ Studio and at UNCSA for John Ilika’s studio.

Hope we can connect sometime. My upstream embouchure still works just fine!

One of the common arguments I hear from downstream teachers who discourage the low mouthpiece placement that is what makes an upstream embouchure is that it will eventually break down. Rusty is a perfect example of how an upstream embouchure can function very well long term, when the player learns to work with his or her natural tendencies.

Too many folks dismiss the embouchure and that is a bad thing. I would have been ruined by well meaning teachers had I not been so bull headed. And been lucky to find folks along the way like Doug [Elliot] who either understood how the upstreamer functions or as with others who didn’t care how I did it, as long as I got good results and had endurance.

One of the funniest moments was when I was in Jr. High and my teacher, a respected ( and rightfully so ) college professor had me play for a visiting artist from Las Vegas. He had a few suggestions about improving my legato but said nothing about my embouchure. When my teacher started pointing out all the things that were “wrong” with my set-up the clinician said, “Hey man, if  you can get a sound like that you could stick the mouthpiece in your ear for all I care!”  It was pretty funny. My teacher wasn’t especially amused.

Great story. Thanks to Rusty for stopping by and allowing me to post his emails. I’m excited that he’s now so close to where I am (Asheville, NC) and the next time I make it out east towards him I hope that we’ll be able to hook up and share some upstream embouchure stories.

My own upstream embouchure is still working fine too!

Guess the Embouchure Type – Wild Bill Davidson and Ashley Alexander

It’s time for another “Guess the Embouchure Type.” This time I’m going to take a look at trumpet player Wild Bill Davis Davidson and trombonist Ashley Alexander and see if I can guess which embouchure type they have. Take a look at the below video and see what you think. My guess after the break.

Wild Bill Davis Davidson is a tough one, while Ashley Alexander’s is quite easy to spot.  Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Wild Bill Davidson and Ashley Alexander

Herbert Clarke Noticing Upstream Cornet Player

A discussion about my Playing in the Red Blindfold Test over on the Trumpet Herald Forum brought up Herbert Clarke. Looking through my copy of his Technical Studies I didn’t find any specific recommendations about mouthpiece placement, so I decided to poke around online and see if there was any advice attributed to Clarke about mouthpiece placement. While I wasn’t able to find anything specific, I did find something interesting that apparently was written in Clarke’s Series of Autobiographical Sketches. Clarke tells the story of how he went to a concert and heard a very fine cornet player solo.

The number, an extremely difficult cornet solo which demanded great endurance in playing was the Excelsior Polka by Frewin (I later purchased a copy for cornet and piano). At the ending of the solo the young player was given an ovation of tumultuous applause, in which I joined vigorously. The cornetist again arose, but this time stepped to the front of the platform, and to my wonderment played the entire solo through for the second time without seeming tired or making a slip. The remarkable thing about his performance was that he played so easily, gracefully; apparently with unconcern, and without any facial muscular contortions or movements. His face did not become purple, distorted, or show any signs of strain. I always had made such hard work in playing even a simple little polka which did not reach G on the first space above, that to watch him play with such perfect ease a number which seemed filled with top “C’s” and then end it on the highest note, actually dumfounded me. It was both a revelation and an inspiration!

After the close of the concert I inquired as to the players identity, and learned that he was a Walter B. Rogers who came from the little town of Delphi, in Indiana, I also found out that he played at the Opera House when the season was done.

Later Clarke had the opportunity to watch Rogers perform up close and he noticed his mouthpiece placement. Clarke tried to imitate Rogers here but found it impossible for him.

After the show was over I walked along to think about it, and finally determined to try to imitate this “wonder”. The next morning after breakfast I took my cornet to my room and commenced to experiment, but the more I blew the harder it became for me. Then I stood before the mirror and tried to adjust the mouthpiece to my lips the same as I had observed Rogers do the night before, placing just a little of it on the upper lip with more on the lower lip and drawing the latter in slightly over the teeth, but not a tone came out of the cornet! I tried it again and again with no better results, and then I did actually get mad. I kept up this experimenting all that day, and the following night bought another front seat ticket for the some show. On this night Rogers played a cornet solo between the acts, not standing up before the audience but remaining seated. The selection was Hartman’s Carnival of Venice, and well, perhaps I did not watch him as he played it!

Based on Clarke’s description (bold emphasis is mine) it is probable that Rogers had an upstream (low placement type) embouchure. This embouchure type is less common than the downstream types, but is correct for a sizable minority of players. Many teachers recommend against this embouchure type based on their own experiences trying to play this way and failing. Downstream embouchure type players will almost always find playing with an upstream, low placement embouchure challenging, to say the least. Here’s what Clarke found when he tried it.

The next morning I tried the same way of playing as on the previous day, only changing the position of the mouthpiece against my lips, and again struggled to produce tones. The only result being that I found myself worse off than before, and by the end of that week I could play neither in the old way nor in the new. This was so discouraging that I nearly arrived at a point of giving up the whole thing in disgust. Fortunately for me, however, I had been born with a goodly amount of perseverance and obstinacy in my makeup and stuck to the game although not without admitting to myself that if it was necessary to play the cornet in the old way and suffer with the some strains and headaches as before, perhaps it might be as well if not better to discard playing altogether.

For some reason upstream players tend to do better playing downstream than downstream players incorrectly playing upstream. This seems to reinforce the idea that placing the mouthpiece so there’s more lower lip inside is wrong. However, for players with the anatomy that is suited for a low placement embouchure type this won’t work as well as sticking with the best placement for their face and learning to work with it.

The moral of the story is that you should work with the mouthpiece placement that works best for you and learn to play your entire range that way. Trying to “fix” your chops by imitating someone with a different embouchure type can be destructive to your playing. Asking your students to adopt your own embouchure type because that’s how you happen to play isn’t always going to work either.

Brad Goode’s Skeleton Mouthpiece Warm-Up and Guess the Embouchure Type

I’ve had this YouTube video bookmarked for a while and been meaning to post it. Trumpet player Brad Goode demonstrates a warm up he uses with a “skeleton mouthpiece” (sometimes called an embouchure visualizer).

One thing that I’d like to echo that Brad says in his video is that the “visualizer” is not really very good for looking at the embouchure. The lack of normal resistance sometimes will make the lips form in a slightly different position than they will when playing, which is why I prefer to use a transparent mouthpiece for embouchure diagnosis. The skeleton mouthpiece has some interesting potential for practice, though. Check out how Brad uses it and while we’re at it, let’s play “Guess the Embouchure Type.” My guess after the break.

Continue reading Brad Goode’s Skeleton Mouthpiece Warm-Up and Guess the Embouchure Type

Guess the Embouchure Type: Martin Kretzer

It’s been a while since I played “Guess the Embouchure Type.”  Aulis sent me a link to a video he spotted of the Berlin Philharmoniker performing an excerpt from Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra with a good look at trumpet player Martin Kretzer’s embouchure.  Take a close look at around 2:07 and 2:14 and see which embouchure type you think Kretzer has.  My guess after the break.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type: Martin Kretzer

Brass Embouchures: A Guide For Teachers and Players Take 2

Here is a cleaned up version of my 50 minute video presentation called Brass Embouchures: A Guide For Teachers and Players.  While I’ve had this presentation up on YouTube already, I had to split it into 6 parts when I initially posted it.  Later I tried to post it in a single video, but the audio and video didn’t sync up towards the end.  This time I believe it should work just fine all the way through.

A Big Band of Upstream Players

Embedding was disabled on this YouTube video, so you’ll have to follow this link to watch the Don Lusher Big Band from 1987 perform Two O’Clock Jump.  It’s a good performance, with lots of good soloing in the brass section.

What’s so interesting is that the “low placement” upstream embouchure players in Lusher’s brass section outnumber the more common downstream types players.  Lusher himself is a “low placement” player as well and at least 3 of the 4 trumpet players are upstream players.

As I alluded to, it’s a little unusual to have more upstream players in a group than downstream players, as most people have the physical characteristics that make them better suited for one of the downstream embouchure types.  Still, it does happen occasionally.  A few years ago I was directing an all-county honor jazz band made up of high school students.  Out of the 8 brass students, 4 were upstream and if you counted myself and the band director at the hosting school, the upstream players outnumbered the downstream.  It’s uncommon, but it happens once in a while.  This video can make a good demonstration to show people who deny that “low placement” players can have good range and endurance or who want to claim that it’s so rare that they teach all their students to avoid it.

Tip of the horn to Paul T. for sending this one in to me.

Embouchure Question: Top Lip Pressure

Brian stopped by and asked the following question.

I’ve watched all your videos in the last 2 days and have been studying Reinhardt with the encyclopedia for quite awhile and I appreciate your use of “embouchure motion” rather than pivot. My embouchure is upstream, off to the L side, angle almost straight out. I had been using side movement: R and up for low reg. and L and down for higher reg. In the ency. Reinhardt says it is best no matter what type to put pressure on lower lip but in listening to your videos you say that with a low placement upstream emb. more vibration happens with the lower lip and I seemed to have confirmed this today. Putting more pressure on top for low notes and then more pressure on bottom lip for high notes. This seems to free up vibrations and the side mvt. is not so extreme. Is this correct for low placement upstreamer? thank you, Brian

As always, I have to caution you about taking advice from someone who can’t watch you play in person.  It’s really tough to know for certain what’s going on. Continue reading Embouchure Question: Top Lip Pressure