Further Evidence Against Learning Styles

I’ve written about “learning styles” a couple of times before, here and here. If you haven’t read them or it’s been too long ago, the gist of my argument is that music teachers and students need to abandon this idea of learning styles. The evidence doesn’t support that it’s actually true.

Dr. Steven Novella recently blogged about this topic on Neurologica. He summarizes “learning styles” as:

The idea is that individual people learn better if the material is presented in a style, format, or context that fits best with their preferences. The idea is appealing because, first, everyone likes to think about themselves and have something to identify with. But also it gives educators the feeling that they can get an edge by applying a simple scheme to their teaching. I also frequently find it is a convenient excuse for lack of engagement with material.

https://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/the-learning-styles-myth/

Novella’s blog post also mentions and links to the Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning’s article, Learning Styles as a Myth. The article is short, but well cited and doesn’t just discuss evidence against learning styles but also provides helpful evidence-based suggestions for improving pedagogy.

Lastly, it’s fun to play around with this online test to supposedly tell “What’s Your Learning Style?” Like Novella, I found it to be pretty silly. As a professional musician you’d expect my results to be skewed towards “aural,” but there’s so much subjectivity and missed context here. For example, one of the question asked what I would prefer to do for fun, and it included “listen to music” as one of the options. I actually answered “read” instead, because often I’m engaged in music and sounds so much throughout the day that for fun I prefer quiet to relax.

As I have argued before, what these test are telling you, at best, is what your learning “preference” is, not your learning style. There’s a difference between how a student wants to learn and whether or not the materials are being absorbed. It’s long past time for teachers to leave the learning styles myth behind.

Tooth Structure and Brass Embouchure, Part 2

I’ve blogged about this topic before, but it has been almost 8 years. One of the individuals I mentioned in there was Matty Shiner, a trombonist and teacher who had some strong ideas on tooth structure and what he considered ideal for brass playing. Matty Shiner’s brother, Eddie, was a trumpet teacher who shared Matty’s views. In an interview with one of Shiner’s former students, Jim Pugh, Matty was asked about tooth structure and embouchure.

JP: Explain your views on the teeth and how they relate to playing.

MS: If you notice your better players, nobody seems to have teeth like this (demonstrating, he shows an inverted point with his hands) or laterals sticking out like this. The teeth are like a bridge on a violin. There’s a certain curvature and the height has to be right. When a violinist takes an instrument for a new bridge, they measure it down to the thousandths of an inch. It has to be just right. And you have a notch for each string. Now suppose I took a knife and made the bridge a little shorter, that would be like somebody with a closed bite. If I made that bridge a half or quarter of an inch too high, it would be like somebody who has an overbite. There would be a lot of distance between the teeth, then all of the pressure is on the upper lip. It has to be pretty close. I did a clinic at the international trombone conference in Nashville on teeth alignment. After the seminar, I received bags of mail from all over the world.

JP: Do you see this as the way for the mouthpiece to sit in the proper place, using a high point as the center or is it more a means of shaping the air stream as it enters the mouthpiece?

MS: A little of both. You have to have a decent alignment of those teeth. We have a couple of boys here whose teeth are very flat. They get a good sound but their flexibility isn’t what it should be. After they have been playing a while, with their teeth being so flat, it cuts off the circulation and they have some problems. That needs to be corrected. There is a new system now called bonding. Before that, the only way you could make a change was by putting braces on the person’s teeth. It’s a long procedure and it takes a lot of time to align the teeth properly. But now with this bonding technique, if the dentist is shown where to put the bonding and understand the problem, within a short period of time, you can hear an improvement. Nobody can ever tell me that the teeth don’t mean anything.

The only other primary reference I can find about Shiner’s ideas comes from a 1972 dissertation by Charles Isley, A Theory of Brasswind Embouchure Based Upon Facial Anatomy, Electromyographic Kinesiology, and Brasswind Embouchure Pedagogy. While conducting research, Isley interviewed Shiner (but didn’t transcribe the interview for his paper). According to Isley, Shiner was actually recommending dental reconstruction for his students who didn’t have what Shiner considered “ideal.”

Shiner . . . recommend that the upper two central incisors form a slight outward V, or wedge shape, so that the greater amount of mouthpiece weight will ben in the center of the upper lip. According to this theory, the player would be able to avoid pinning the lips at the lateral points of mouthpiece contact, creating better muscular control of the lips inside the mouthpiece. Students whose natural front teeth arch depart from this wedge shape are advised to undergo orthodontic treatment. Results in such cases have been dramatic, offering strong support for the V shape in the upper central incisors. As to the lower teeth, a slightly rounded arch is considered desirable.

Charles Isely, p. 124

The bold emphasis is mine. If you didn’t have the tooth structure that Shiner felt was ideal he actually recommended an orthodontic procedure. This is highly problematic for a number of reasons, but most importantly – MUSIC TEACHERS DO NOT HAVE THE QUALIFICATIONS OR TRAINING TO RECOMMEND ANY MEDICAL PROCEDURE.

I also want to make note that I didn’t remove any citation for the final two sentences in the above quote about Shiner’s hypothesis and there should be one there. As far as I can tell, Shiner never published any papers or articles that discussed his methodology or statistical results. While it’s possible that one of the Shiner brothers actually did so, I suspect that I would have found it when conducting research on my own dissertation (which also happens to be on the topic of how anatomy influences trombone embouchures). The lack of publications on Shiner’s ideas doesn’t mean that he didn’t apply solid methodology and undergo some informal peer review, but it is a red flag to take the hypothesis with a grain of salt.

Another (major) red flag is that I highly doubt that any university Internal Review Board would grant approval to use human test subjects in such a way as to advise someone get dental reconstruction to test the hypothesis that there is an ideal tooth structure for brass embouchure. If you’re conducting research involving medical interventions you’d better believe that they will require you to make your methodology publicly available. If Shiner was conducting research without IRB approval this would be getting into both ethical and legal issues (at least today, maybe IRB protocols were looser back when the Shiner brothers were actively teaching). This means we should supplement with quite a few more grains of salt.

The most charitable conclusion I can draw from the above concerns is that Shiner was using a working hypothesis in his studio and informally conducting “research” to test his ideas. They appear to be based on “armchair speculation” about how brass embouchures supposedly function rather than objective data. Any results obtained from such an informal process is really suspect. Any data is anecdotal at best and researcher bias is almost certainly influencing Shiner’s conclusions. There really isn’t any solid evidence published on this topic in the literature to start with and also conflicting ideas with equal or more validity. Pass the salt.

Based on the above, my assumption is that Shiner was recommending an expensive and not completely risk free dental procedure based on dubious evidence. While the Shiner brothers may have had a lot going for their teaching and playing, I think we can safely ignore their advice. In fact, I think it’s fair to call it out as outright flawed.

Don’t get your medical/dental advice from me, Shiner, or any other music teacher. If you want to adjust your teeth, consult with your dentist or orthodontist and get a second opinion if you feel it’s appropriate.

Tartellog – Thoughts on Trumpet Pedagogy

I recently came across Tartellog, the trumpet blog of Joey Tartell. I forget how I happened across this post by him, but I really enjoyed reading his discussion of brass pedagogy that emphasizes critical thinking about how we teach.

With so many resources available today, it can be difficult to separate what may help you from what is just garbage from what could actually harm you.  To aid you in your search for good pedagogy, I’ve put together a list of five warning signs.  If you encounter any of these, think hard before proceeding.

His list of five warning signs are:

  • Shortcuts
  • Guarantees
  • Secrets
  • Gadgets and Equipment
  • “Schools”

His last warning sign, teachers who identify as belonging to a particular “school” of trumpet playing is one of the few I’ve come across that mirrors my own concerns about this trend. Like Tartell clarifies in his post, many teachers and students get wrapped up in self-identifying with a particularly influential pedagogue to the exclusion of any other approach or method. This stifles improving our teaching and doesn’t often serve the student well either.

What I mean by “schools” is the rigidity of basing all pedagogy from the mouth of one person. 

. . .

My problem comes from thinking that any one of them was the only person who could teach.  This leads to thinking that your “school” holds the secret, and no one else really understands.

And like Tartell, I’ve also found that when I’ve pointed this out as a problem, it often gets interpreted as me attacking a famous teacher.

If you studied with one of these teachers and are thinking:
“Hey, wait a minute, my teacher was great.  Why is Joey attacking my teacher?”‘
I’m not.  It is likely that I really like your teacher.  The point I’m trying to make is that just because your teacher was great doesn’t mean others weren’t.
If you think that only one person could teach, and that person is now dead, that means that your pedagogy is now dead too.  This is unacceptable.
Pedagogy should be an ever-evolving process, growing as needed with each generation.  We take what our teachers gave to us and, combined with our experiences, pass on what we know to our students.

I’m going to have to look through more of Joey Tartell’s Tartellog. Scanning through his other posts it looks like he has a lot of interesting things to say about brass playing and teaching there. Go check it out!

The Current State of Brass Embouchure Pedagogy

A topic on Trombone Chat got me thinking about the current state of brass embouchure pedagogy.

As Doug notes in the forum thread, traditional brass pedagogy has been dominated by Arnold Jacobs’s approach. In this approach you actively avoid working on the embouchure. In essence most brass students are taught to breathe well and focus on the end product. You should ignore the embouchure.

And that’s why brass embouchure research is so rare and generally unknown outside of a few. Fortunately I was encouraged to explore this topic for my graduate research. I know graduate students who were actively discouraged from doing any sort of pedagogy research on brass embouchures because it wasn’t appropriate or worth doing.

What does the latest research say about teaching brass embouchures? I just scanned through an academic library searching for “(embouchure) AND (pedagogy)” for publications that have come out in the past 5 years. I found just 6 relevant hits.

The Effect of a Researcher Composed Mouthpiece Buzzing Routine on the Intonation and Tone Quality of Beginning Band Brass Students
Beghtol, Jason. The University of Mississippi, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2017. 10746240.

No mention of embouchure types that I noticed. (The abstract notes, “Results suggest the inclusion of a daily mouthpiece buzzing routine does not have a significant effect on beginning band brass students’ intonation or tone quality.”)

OPTIMIZATION OF THE BRASS PLAYING BREATHING PROCESS IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE PHYSIOLOGICAL PROCESSES OF NATURAL BREATHING
Bardins, Sandis; Marnauza, Mara. Problems in Music Pedagogy; Daugavpils Vol. 13, Iss. 1/2, (2014): 97-110.

This one mentioned embouchure twice. The author’s point in both of those sentences is that breathing is important to a well functioning embouchure.

This leads to creating an unnecessary tension and stress in the body, because the natural inspiratory reflex (so-called Herring-Breuer reflex) is not implemented (White, 2005), and also contributes to the expiratory muscle fatigue and rapid decrease of the physical endurance – general for the body, because the body is not supplied with oxygen, as well as embouchure, which receives a reduced amount of air for creation of a sound and has to compensate it by pressing the mouthpiece against the lips.

This approach to mastering breathing patterns in wind instrument playing has several advantages:

3. a more stable air flow which relieves work of the embouchure, thus increasing its endurance and working limits in ultimate registers.

This article pretty much represents mainstream brass pedagogy. Fix the breathing and embouchure will do fine, no need to learn about how embouchure works.

Approaches to the Horn Embouchure: Historical and Modern
Author: Schons, Anthony
Journal: The Horn call
ISSN: 0046-7928
Date: 02/01/2015 Volume: 45 Issue: 2 Page: 58

I actually can’t find this full text online, so I don’t know what it says about embouchure. It could be relevant and I’m curious because I’d like to see how horn pedagogy has evolved (or not). Horn pedagogy seems to have its own quirks that you don’t see in other brass teaching.

Insights on Dealing with Braces
Whitis, James. School Band & Orchestra; Las Vegas Vol. 17, Iss. 9, (Sep 2014): 36-38,40,42,44,46

This article is not scientific at all and is based on the author’s personal experience both having braces and teaching students with braces. I don’t think the advice in there isn’t bad, per se, but it is very incomplete. I’ve seen a lot in the literature that’s like this, one teacher or player’s anecdotes are described, but rarely subjected to any testing.

Song and Wind 2.0: goal-oriented teaching in the applied studio
Karen Marston
International Trombone Association Journal. 42.1 (Jan. 2014): p32+.

The only reason this came up in my search was because the term “embouchure” was in one of the citations (Fletcher, S. (2008). The effect of focal task-specific embouchure dystonia upon brass musicians: A literature review and case study. Doctoral Dissertation. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.). Here’s the specific citation.

From this perspective, it has been easier to discuss, disseminate, and perhaps even implement the comparatively clearer assertions of more behaviorist-leaning teachers; therefore, despite enthusiastic support for Jacob’s ideas, the dialogue on teaching within our field often continues to target task-oriented concepts. (Fletcher, 2008; Marston, 2011)

I’ve read both Fletcher’s and Marston’s dissertations (she cites her own dissertation a lot in this article). I think her criticism of “task-oriented concepts” are off base. The criticism that so much of this type of teaching is contradictory is, to me, evidence that a model, such as Donald Reinhardt’s and Doug Elliott’s embouchure type approaches need to be better understood in order to evaluate and compare different pedagogical practices. If you aren’t analyzing things correctly, you’re not going to teach the right task oriented concepts in the first place. Sure, it’s a lot easier to focus on product over process and get an immediate benefit. But if you’re going to truly compare task-oriented versus product oriented pedagogy you should at least learn how to do both right.

And again, I have to make the point that it’s valuable for teachers to understand the process too, even if they minimize their discussion of the mechanics of brass playing with their students. The whole point of Marston’s article is to teach brass technique by emphasizing the end goal, and while acknowledging that there are smaller steps to reach that goal, at no point does she make any mention to what good brass technique is other than to mention breathing.

And Marston’s impressions that task-oriented teaching is dominant today seems off to me. If the 6 papers and articles I found today are representative, Song & Wind is getting more attention.

A pedagogical approach for developing the endurance, technical facility and flexibility necessary to perform Anthony Plog’s Concerto for Solo Trumpet, 14 Brass, and Percussion
Sullivan, Michael. California State University, Long Beach, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2014. 1528052.

This last one is a case study of one student’s preparation for a demanding performance. The embouchure references in here seem to be mainly related to specific exercises the author found particularly helpful in preparing to perform, but an awful lot of those embouchure exercises reference air flow as the key. While I don’t want to minimize the role that good breathing plays for successful brass playing, it does represent mainstream brass pedagogy’s approach that the only thing that is important for embouchure is to have good breathing.

So there you have it, for what it’s worth. Bear in mind that this was a cursory search and there are probably some hidden gems that I didn’t come across. I also intentionally kept the search terms narrow and eliminated hits that weren’t relevant (anything related to woodwind for example and historical papers). Of the 6, three emphasized breathing as the key for embouchure technique. One article was based purely on anecdotes, so the information should be taken with a grain of salt. Only one made any attempt at scientific inquiry and subjecting pedagogical ideas to a test.


Point of clarification update – there are definitely more than these out there, probably a lot more, it was just what happened to be accessible through one college library web site. My interest in using these six was to use it as a snapshot for what current  research happens to be out there on brass embouchure pedagogy. 

MusicWorks Asheville in the News

MusicWorks Asheville, the El Sistema program I am Program Director for, was featured on a local television morning news program yesterday. I’m very proud of our student, Eric, who was an outstanding spokesperson for us. He got up very early to be there and talk to Lauren Brigman about MusicWorks. Be sure to watch the video towards the end and see Eric teach Lauren how to play the first phrase of Ode to Joy.

Signups Underway for MusicWorks! Asheville Program

Music Literacy – Why it’s declining and how to improve your reading skills

Having a certain degree of proficiency in reading music notation is considered an important skill for most musicians. If you’re going to perform classical music music literacy is essential. Many of the jazz performances I do require the musicians to sight read charts. If you want to play in a pit orchestra for a musical theater production you will need to know how to read music. In spite of this requirement for these musical endeavors, music literacy appears to be on the decline.

Writing in the Journal of Music Teacher Education, Edward P. Asmus wrote:

I have noticed a phenomenon that seems to be on the rise: an increasing number of applicants auditioning for entrance into undergraduate music programs are unable to read music. Colleagues across the nation, music recruiters, ensemble directors, and theory teachers are all reporting an increasing number of entering music majors who are unable to read music notation and produce music on their major instruments from it. Those auditioning are able to play or sing prepared pieces with performance levels sufficient for admission. However, when they are asked to sight-read musical notation, the results are dreadful.

I’ve noticed something similar, not just with undergraduate students but also even many professional musicians. The reasons for this decline are varied, but I believe that some of this trend comes from pressures placed on music educators at the high school level.

Consider a typical high school band program. During the fall semester, it’s much more likely that the only band experience the students will have will be marching band. While the music is usually initially learned through sheet music, there isn’t much emphasis placed on reading it. In fact, the goal is to have the music memorized as quickly as possible. Once the music has been learned, the show often emphasizes the drill over the music. While I don’t want to denigrate the hard work that great marching band programs put into their show, these bands typically work the same music for months. There’s not much opportunity for these students to spend time practicing their music reading skills.

High school chorus programs are often worse at teaching music literacy. It’s very easy to resort to teaching the music by rote imitation and vocal students often struggle with music notation. It takes some effort on the part of the choir director to help students improve their sight singing.

For both the band and choral programs at high school there are also the pressures of contests. Receiving a high rating on a contest is often one of the main ways that music educators will be judged on their teaching by administrators who likely have little to no music education themselves. It can be tempting for the music teacher to teach primarily for the contest and play the same music for a long time, rather than spend time learning new music through notation. When students don’t get much opportunity to practice their reading, they don’t improve.

Some of the professional musicians that I’m familiar with also struggle with sight reading. Often times these musicians are very talented players, with good technique and abilities, but they too may spend a lot of their time either performing music that is already learned, learned by rote, or never notated in the first place. It’s a shame, because I enjoy playing with many of these players but so many of the gigs I play and book require good sight reading ability.

What can individual musicians do to improve their music literacy? Of course one of the best ways to improve your sight reading is to practice sight reading, there are some other things that players can do to work on reading notation better.

  1. Learn scales and chord arpeggios – The trend is to get these memorized as quickly as possible, and while I agree that this is an important goal for all musicians, there’s some value in practicing scales and patterns while reading them. Most tonal music will be made up of scales and chords and it’s useful to be able to visually recognize these patterns. When you’re sight reading a piece of music that has a fragment of a scale you will recognize it faster and spend less time processing it and more time scanning ahead.
  2. Follow along with a score while listening to a recording – This is a similar idea to reading scales and chords. You want to make a connection between the visual schema (in this case, the schema is a notated “packet” of musical information) and the aural realization of it. Much like reading text, your eyes and brain quickly skim over words that you’ve read many times and no longer need to slow down to process it.
  3. Transcribe music – Jazz musicians use transcription all the time as a tool for learning improvisation. There’s something to be said for memorizing the a solo without resorting to notating it, but by writing it down you’re approaching it from the opposite direction of #2 above. It can be quite difficult to work out rhythmic notation for many musicians, but this process helps you assimilate what the visual representation of that sound looks like on paper.
  4. Learn lots of music from notation – I don’t mean to sight read lots of music here, I mean to really learn to play a piece of music. The trouble with practicing sight reading is that the goal is to get through the music, not fix mistakes. By spending time learning to play music from the written page and ensuring that it’s accurate you will learn to make the corrections in your reading that you have to skip over when you’re playing in real time.
  5. Learn to recover while reading – There are different ways to approach practicing a piece of music, and they all have some validity. If you’re performing or rehearsing with other players you don’t have the luxury to stop and go back, you need to recover and pick up with your part as quickly as you can. This is why I strongly encourage music students to always finish the phrase you’re playing before you stop and go back to practice a trouble area. If you always stop right after a mistake, you will not develop the ability to recover when a mistake happens in performance. This is sort of the opposite side of the coin from #4 above. You have to be able to continue playing past a mistake, but you also need to go back and learn how to not make the same mistake again.

There are other strategies that individual musicians can employ in their practice. There is also some pedagogical research I’ve recently looked at that investigates effective ways to teach music literacy in the classroom. There’s a lot more that can be said about music literacy, but I’d also like to hear your ideas. Do you feel your reading skills are strong enough? What have you done to practice your sight reading skills? What strategies do you employ with your students? Leave your comments below.

Learning a Musical Instrument as an Adult

My wife has recently become seriously interested in learning to play music after not really having any musical education prior. While she’s dabbled a bit in the past, she needed to find an instrument and genre of music she was particularly excited about to get to the point of where she decided to take the plunge. For her, it’s Celtic harp.

She enjoys being able to ask me for help. Even though I don’t have a background in either Celtic music or harp, I’m still able to answer basic questions and even more complex ones involving music theory or ear training. I’ve been on the lookout lately for things that she might find useful and came across 7 tips for adults taking up a musical instrument. Honestly, the advice that’s in there is good for anyone, regardless of how old you are or even whether you’re just starting out with music or have been playing for decades.

  1. Dedicate a small amount of time every day to practice.
  2. Find some new music to play.
  3. Get your instrument serviced.
  4. Give yourself something to work for.
  5. Remember why you’re doing it.
  6. Persevere.
  7. Don’t be afraid.

Frankly, the above suggestions (and you should read through the short article for extra thoughts on each piece of advice) are solid for learning anything new. OK, maybe “get your instrument serviced” won’t apply to something like creative writing, for example, but the gist of the article does an excellent job of getting started on creative projects.

Arguing For Science Based Brass Pedagogy

Learning to play any musical instrument, including trombone, is an inherently “knacky” experience. So much of what you need to do to be successful involves trying something a bunch of times, making small physical adjustments each time, until it clicks once. Then there’s a lot of trial and error trying to make it work that way consistently. Each musician’s playing sensations are going to be different and be influence by not only anatomical differences, but also the history of how they played before and their personal beliefs and biases.

This is undoubtedly why a lot of brass pedagogy involves teaching musical artistry first and teaching technique through modeling and metaphor. The end result, however, is that there is less consensus about what good brass technique is and how to achieve it. We have a tendency to look towards so-called “natural players” for advice, who may be the least qualified to tell us what’s actually physically happening when performing.

Couple this with a persistent culture of ignorance in brass pedagogy. It’s normal for some brass teachers to discourage folks to analyze their playing. It will to lead to “paralysis by analysis.” If you do,  you won’t see the forest for the trees. Imitate the sound you want and you’ll learn it, just like you learned to talk as a baby. If a centipede had think about how it walked it would get nowhere. Don’t think, play.

I find this attitude confusing. Why would a teacher disparage questioning and thinking? That’s the message it sends. And that’s what those students end up passing on when they become teachers.

The other side of this coin is the vast amount of pseudoscience you can find in brass pedagogy. Part of this is due to literal interpretations of analogies and over reliance on fallible playing sensations. A lot of it is due to us over estimating what we actually know. At its heart, it’s a lack of scientific literacy. Trombone teachers usually aren’t scientists, but we tend to misunderstand what science actually is and mistrust it. It’s often seen as a non-overlapping magisterium with both music and teaching. If the science suggests something we’re teaching is wrong, that’s just an egghead in the white tower who hasn’t spent enough time in the trenches.

Science isn’t a collection of disciplines like anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and acoustics, although those disciplines might inform how we teach trombone. Science isn’t about acquiring facts either, although they might help us too. At it’s heart, science is about exploring the limits of what we know. It’s about testing a hypothesis and challenging assumptions. And it also happens to involve a lot of creative thinking, much like in music.

Superficially, we probably already do this in our instruction. We try out something with a student and assess whether it worked. We test it out for a while and then try something else. If we can’t find the answer is a resource we have, we create one specific to the student. When something works for one student, we try it out with another student and see what happens. Over time, we can develop a large repertoire of analogies and methods and get a good feel for when to try one and when to try the other.

However, we sometimes confuse this for science. Science recognizes that the nature of that experimentation we did in our teaching studio is inherently biased. It’s too easy to simply confirm what we already believe, rather than learn something new. You can’t look for evidence that your hypothesis is right, you look for ways to falsify your beliefs. If you ideas withstand that sort of scrutiny, then maybe you’re on to something. Brass pedagogy has long only looked for evidence to support our preconceived beliefs.

Herein lies the scientific method’s greatest strength. It is self-correcting and always looking to learn more. Science-based pedagogy has been more popular in other disciplines (e.g., athletics) because brass pedagogy hasn’t been as good at fixing our old mistakes. We routinely revere long dead pedagogues, now and then referring to their texts as “bibles” and former students of those teachers as “disciples.” This isn’t an attitude conducive to change.

There is good science being done on brass pedagogy. Our understanding of both the acquisition of motor skills and the specific physical process of playing the trombone is better understood now than it was when I was a student. The exciting part is that access to this research and the scientists who do this is easier than ever. What’s difficult is vetting the information into a correctly nuanced context. That takes some effort and should be an ongoing process. You can’t just look at what we know, but also question how we know what we know.

Another Upstream Brass Embouchure Rant

The following rant was inspired by a Trombone Pedagogy Facebook group thread started by a teacher who was wondering how to help a young student who was playing with his lower lip predominant. The teacher was asking for advice on how to correct this embouchure. My rant below is in response to many of the ensuing comments. I will be paraphrasing instead of directly quoting, in part because these responses are so common and don’t really need an attribution for context.

First, a little background on what an upstream embouchure is. All brass musicians, regardless of what they might think they are doing or should be doing, play in such a way that one lip or another predominates inside the mouthpiece. When the upper lip is predominant, most common, the air stream passes the lips in a downward direction.

Most brass players have an embouchure that is similar, although the amount of upper to lower lip may be different. A minority of brass musicians, however, do the opposite. These players place the mouthpiece closer to the chin and because of the predominance of lower lip the air stream gets directed upwards.

With that basic understanding out of the way, I will get into addressing some of these typical comments.

Change the mouthpiece placement. That student will thank you for it later.

While it does happen that students will adopt an upstream embouchure when they should be playing downstream, it’s much more common for these “low placement embouchure type” players to be playing that way because it is the most efficient embouchure type for their anatomical features. Before you change the mouthpiece placement you need to address issues with embouchure form, breathing, tonguing, posture, etc. Usually if you correct those other playing characteristics the embouchure will function better.

Sometimes you can disguise those other issues by changing the mouthpiece placement, but that’s only covering up the real problems the student is having. Before the embouchure form is developed properly, for example, you just can’t tell where the best mouthpiece placement is for a particular student.

That student should try another instrument instead. Has he/she considered a woodwind instrument or vocals?

I tend to avoid encouraging a student to change to a different instrument if they’ve expressed an interest in their brass instrument. Sure, maybe some folks will take to another instrument and never look back, but that’s a solution in search of a problem. If you need more bass clarinetists in your band be honest about why you are encouraging the change. If you’re suggesting the change because you don’t know how to help that student, then do some homework and learn. This is your responsibility as a teacher (or even as someone giving advice on the internet). Ask questions. That’s what the Facebook Trombone Pedagogy group is for!

Upstream players are players who have a protruded lower jaw or an underbite. That’s what makes them upstream.

Players with an underbite almost always play better with an upstream embouchure, but that alone isn’t going to make their embouchure upstream. There must be more lower lip inside the mouthpiece in order for their embouchure to function upstream (Caveat – Sometimes lip texture comes into play. It’s rare, but you might look at an embouchure from the outside and think it’s one direction but when you look on a transparent mouthpiece the lip position seem flipped. My feeling is that moving the mouthpiece placement to a more appropriate placement can often help).

I don’t have a way to post the video clip (nor have I obtained permission), but my teacher, Doug Elliott, made a film in the 1980s called The Brass Player’s Embouchure. In this film he shows a trombonist with an underbite, but with a mouthpiece placement that was close to the nose and it function downstream. Moving this player’s mouthpiece placement so that it had more lower lip inside worked better.

And not all upstream players will have a protruded jaw position anyway.

Look again at the downstream embouchure example I posted above and note his jaw position. Jaw position while playing will be an influence, but doesn’t actually make a player upstream or downstream.

Also worth considering are Donald Reinhardt’s embouchure types. While I prefer to teach and communicate using different terminology, he did make note of players with particular jaw positions while at rest compared to playing. For example, he classified players with a natural, even bite.

Such brass musicians will almost always need to place the mouthpiece either very high (close to the nose, downstream) or very low (close to the chin, upstream). It might go either way, and for players like this it is sometimes quite difficult to tell which way it might go. Even if that is a very accomplished brass musician (read through what Brad Goode has written about figuring out his embouchure type).

That’s an [insert one brass instrument type here] thing. Those of us who play [insert other brass instrument type here] can’t/shouldn’t play upstream.

After 20 years of studying brass embouchures on all instruments intensively, I’ve come to the conclusion that while there are some differences that the size of the mouthpiece causes, it’s only a matter of scale and that the same embouchure characteristics are found on all the brass instruments.

Now it’s easier to find examples with trumpet players for a couple of reasons. Consider that the larger the mouthpiece, the more likely that the chin or nose will get in the way of placing very high or very low. A trumpet mouthpiece, on the other hand, allows much more leeway for getting the most efficient ratio of upper to lower lip for the particular player. That said, horn players are much less varied, which I believe is due to the adherence of a particular pedagogue’s advice as well as a comparative lack of players who are self taught and simply do what works instead of what is commonly taught.

That’s an [insert musical style] thing. It won’t work for [insert another musical style].

It’s only good for [high or low register playing]. It won’t work for [low or high register playing].

Like the brass instrument argument, I hear this all the time and from opposite sides of the spectrum. There are upstream brass musicians known for their upper register. There are also upstream brass players known for the lower register. They can be found playing in all styles of music successfully.

Embouchure type is influenced by the musician’s anatomical features, not playing style, instrument choice, or musical genre.

When you place the mouthpiece with so much rim contact on the upper lip, it isn’t free to vibrate and causes problems.

Both lips do vibrate in conjunction, but they do not vibrate with equal intensity. The predominant lip inside the mouthpiece vibrates with greater intensity. Brass embouchures appear to be sort of between a double reed phenomenon, where both reeds vibrate with equal intensity, and a clarinet reed, where the reed vibrates against the surface of the mouthpiece. For a brass embouchure to function efficiently the lip that has more rim contact (the upper lip in the case of the upstream brass musician) will function somewhat like the clarinet mouthpiece while the other lip (lower lip for upstream embouchures) is more like the reed.

This isn’t arm chair speculation. You can see it in Lloyd Leno’s film quite easily. Here’s part 1 of 3, but the link is to the entire playlist.

If you watch the entire film you’ll also be able to note some downstream trombonists in the film who place the mouthpiece with a great deal of rim contact on the lower lip. For some reason this isn’t as widely discouraged, even by the same players who make this argument when it concerns an upstream embouchure.

I am an experienced teacher and performer and I have never come across a successful upstream player.

My first response to this is that you’re probably not qualified (yet!) to identify one when you see it. Furthermore, if you don’t consider embouchure types to be a useful pedagogical tool, then you’re simply not going to look for them – even if you know what to look for. So many teachers seem to think that by watching a player blow air, free buzz, mouthpiece buzz, talk, whatever, that you’re going to be able to determine a player’s embouchure type. You can’t. Or at least I can’t and I doubt you can.

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t need a transparent mouthpiece to type most players’ embouchures, but I know the limitations of this and will grab a transparent mouthpiece when needed. Simply put, the most accurate method of typing a brass musician’s embouchure is to look at how they play while playing the instrument into a transparent mouthpiece. Rim visualizers can give you important clues, but the lack of resistance and the reflection of the standing wave back to the lips (as well as other factors) come into play and make a rim visualizer less accurate.

To my knowledge, no one has yet conducted a robust enough study to determine the percentage of upstream players, but by my best guess I would say around 10%-15%. That’s a sizable enough minority that anyone who takes the time to actually look for upstream players among your students and performing colleagues will find them. If you’re not seeing them, you’re probably not looking.

That said, an awful lot of teachers who should know better make a big deal about “correcting” an upstream embouchure when they see one. I get emails and private messages all the time from folks describing this situation. Particularly for teachers who work with older students you’re going to find fewer upstream students because they get “weeded out” by well-intentioned, but ignorant teachers. Either those students quit brass out of frustration or they play with less success than they could because they had their embouchure changed to a less efficient one. I’m a good example of the later, although I was never changed to downstream. I was instructed from the get go to play downstream. Which leads to:

We should teach what’s most common because that will have the best chance of success.

There is some logic to this, but in the case of mouthpiece placement I don’t even think we should talk about it with beginners. Teach embouchure form, not mouthpiece placement, and most of the time I’ve found the student will naturally gravitate to the best embouchure type for his or her anatomy. When it doesn’t, then it’s time to intervene, but this correction needs to be an educated choice that eliminates difficulties in embouchure form (or breathing, tonguing, whatever is influencing the student’s embouchure in a negative way) first.

I am an experienced teacher and never have to consider a brass embouchure type. It’s unnecessary and even makes things worse!

It does take some effort to learn how to type a brass student’s embouchure and use it to make embouchure corrections and design a course of study and practice that will work best for the individual student, but it’s not rocket science. If you found studying music history and music theory to inform your brass playing in a positive way then you already understand how taking the time to learn about different related topics is useful. If embouchure analysis is making things worse it’s because the analysis is faulty in the first place. Learn how brass embouchures actually function and apply what you learn, adjusting as you need to. And if the student is analyzing their embouchure technique at the wrong time, help your student learn to focus on one thing at a time while practicing for a bit each day and focus on the musical expression the rest of the time.

And if you throw out that tired phrase, “paralysis by analysis” I say you’ve lost credibility and the argument.

/rant

Not Yet – Practicing to Improve

Here is another TED talk, this time by Carol Dweck.

Carol Dweck researches “growth mindset” — the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and to solve problems. In this talk, she describes two ways to think about a problem that’s slightly too hard for you to solve. Are you not smart enough to solve it … or have you just not solved it yet? A great introduction to this influential field.

Dweck discusses research looking at how different students react to challenge. When given tasks that were just slightly too difficult for them to do, some students reacted positively to the challenge, while others had more negative reactions. Students who have the “growth mindset” understand that they have a chance to learn. They may not be able to perform that task, but they understand that it’s only temporary. Not yet.

Teachers can help encourage the growth mindset. Dweck advises encouragement through praise and to reward the process of learning in addition to performing well. Help them to understand that when the move out of their comfort zone is a good path to learning and getting better.

While the research Dweck cites are mainly geared towards younger students, I think that the growth mindset is the proper attitude for even adult music students. It’s challenging even for older students to want to spend time out of their comfort zone. This ties in nicely with last week’s post from another TED talk about practicing.

As a teacher, there are two big takeaways I get from Dweck’s video. First, there’s the advice she offers to how to encourage a growth mindset in your students, but there’s also a deeper pedagogy lesson in there too. Changing up your approach to teaching, particularly if you feel it’s already successful, is hard. You have to move outside your comfort zone in order to become a better teacher.

My challenge to students this week is to explore practicing out of your comfort level. Don’t simply practice things you can already do well. Teachers have a similar challenge. Find a new bit of pedagogy and find ways to use it in your teaching, even if you don’t find it particularly relevant to that situation. Explore with your students the difference it makes in their results and mindset.