The Three Basic Embouchure Types

When looking closely at a large number of brass player’s embouchures certain patterns emerge, irrespective of the player’s instrument or practice approach.  Using two universal features of all brass embouchures, the air stream direction as it pass the lips into the mouthpiece and the pushing and pulling of the lips and mouthpiece together up and down along the teeth, it’s possible to classify all brass embouchures into three basic types.

Since each of these three basic embouchure types function quite differently from each other it’s important for brass teachers to understand them, as different types respond to the same instruction in different ways.  Understanding what proper embouchure form is for each type will help teachers guide their students more efficiently and also understand when a player is playing on an embouchure that isn’t appropriate for his or her anatomy.  When confronted with a serious embouchure dysfunction it can help teachers discover the real cause of the troubles and how to best go about correcting them.

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Confirmation Bias and the Internet

Julia Glef on the blog Rationally Speaking has written an interesting essay on confirmation bias and how a Google search can play right into our predispositions and preconceptions.  She asks a very interesting question: is google making us less rational?

“Google may be making us all more knowledgable, but could it also be making us less rational? I’ve got a suspicion that online search engines are making us especially susceptible to at least one particular blunder: confirmation bias, the phenomenon by which you’re more likely to seek out, notice, and remember evidence that supports what you already believe.”

She goes on to describe P.C. Wason’s paper describing confirmation bias and how a typical Google search can almost perfectly recreate conditions similar to Wason’s experiment.  We forget that Google’s goal is to help us find what we want, not exactly what we need.

When conducting research, scientists are aware of the normal tendencies for humans to make judgements based on personal biases without even realizing such bias exists.  In order to combat this, rather then attempting to prove a hypothesis, scientists instead subject their hypothesis to tests in an attempt to falsify them.  When looking for information online, it’s necessary to do a bit of this too.

I am personally very excited about the possibilities the internet provides for the exchange of information and development of ideas.  Search engines are extremely powerful tools for finding information, but we sometimes forget their limitations.  There’s an old saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer every problem begins to look like a nail.  Remember to look through your “tool box” and try some other ways to find the information you need.

How To Transcribe: Some Advice for the Beginning Jazz Improviser

Why Transcribe?
Before covering a process for transcribing jazz, it is important to understand the point to transcribing jazz solos. Today we have access to a lot of written material giving advice on how to improvise and practice improvisation. There are books of solos that other people have transcribed for you. You can even get computer software that will transcribe music for you. With all this information presented for you already, why take the time to figure it out for yourself?

Jazz, like all music, is an aural art form – it is meant to be heard, not read or seen. Attempting to learn to play jazz well just by reading books will take you to a certain point, but will leave quite a bit out that is important to playing jazz. Only a part of improvising involves what notes to play, and you can’t really learn how to swing, phrase, shape notes, or pace your solos by reading music or words. You have to pay your dues by listening to the music.

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Brass Embouchures: A Guide For Teachers and Players

On November 8, 2009 I gave this presentation to the North Carolina Music Educators Convention, held in Winston-Salem, NC.  I was pleasantly surprised to have a generally full room of musicians and music educators who mostly seemed genuinely interested in learning more about a topic that is typically ignored in favor of a “let the body figure itself out” practice.

In order to make this information more accessible for both my NCMEA audience as well as to the general public, I created a video that includes my slide show notes, video footage, and the narration from my presentation. 

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Overcoming Composer’s Block

Virtually everyone who has composed music for long enough will experience mental blocks to getting projects started or completed. As this is a very familiar experience for authors, I thought it would be useful to compile some suggestions for overcoming writer’s block along with some of the things that I’ve personally found helpful for working my way out of composer’s blocks. Continue reading “Overcoming Composer’s Block”

The Embouchure Motion

I made the above video about a year ago to demonstrate and explain a phenomenon that is quite difficult to describe verbally or even using images, the “embouchure motion.”  Most brass players are completely unaware of their embouchure motion, or they may be peripherally aware of it but have an incomplete understanding of it.  Even among people whose expertise I trust in this matter seem do disagree on some of the finer points of it.  It’s a very complex topic and our understanding of it is superficial.

To summarize my points in the video, when changing registers brass players will slide the lips and mouthpiece together up or down along the teeth behind them.  Some players will push the lips and mouthpiece together up towards the nose to ascend and others will pull down towards the chin.  Although the general motion is up and down, most players have some angular deviation in the imaginary line that their mouthpiece moves along.  Some players look almost as if they are making an embouchure motion that is closer to side to side than up and down.

Here are two photographs of the same trombonist playing a low B flat (a major 9th below middle C) and a B flat two octaves higher (a minor 7th above middle C).

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Brass Embouchures and Air Stream Direction

In 1962 Philip Farkas, a noted teacher and former hornist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, published a book called The Art of Brass Playing. Subtitled, A Treatise on the Formation and Use of the Brass Player’s Embouchure, this text contained Farkas’s hypothesis on the proper embouchure for a brass instrument. According to Farkas, the proper embouchure would have the lips and jaw lined up in such a way that the air stream would be blown straight down the shank of the mouthpiece, illustrated as below.

from Phillip Farkas’s “The Art of Brass Playing”

It wasn’t until later that Farkas tested out this hypothesis and discovered that this wasn’t the case.  In 1970 he published a shorter text, titled A Photographic Study of 40 Virtuoso Horn Player’s Embouchures. The photographs Farkas took told a different story from earlier. 39 of the horn players buzzed in such a way that the air stream was directed at a downward angle, and 1 subject blew the air stream upward.

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