Pseudoscience in Brass Pedagogy

As a fan of science, I often like to step back from my world of music and take a look at what looking at teaching music through the lens of science is like. In the process, I’ve seen an awful lot of advice and support for methods that have the veneer of science, but are actually questionable, in my opinion. As a rule, us musicians don’t have the training or wherewithal to properly understand scientific methodology and we also frequently misunderstand or unintentionally distort science outside our area of expertise.

Pseudoscience, meaning claims that purport to be factual and scientific but are actually contrary to the scientific method, is pretty widespread in brass pedagogy. I wondered what would happen if I looked at some popular brass pedagogical methods and applied some of the same criteria that defines pseudoscience.

All the quotes and descriptions that follow are what have been actually said or written by brass teachers claiming a degree of expertise in this topic. I’ve left out names and resorted to always using masculine pronouns to protect the guilty and to stave off the inevitable accusation that in criticizing my real motive is to prop up my own value. If what I’m questioning resembles something you believe (or is something I quoted), please feel free to defend yourself in my comments or on your own blog, but please deal with what I actually write, not what you believe my motives to be. You know who you are. . .

So without further ado, I present some criteria and examples for considering pseudoscience in brass pedagogy.

It’s dogmatic

Proponents of a pseudoscientific belief tend to evolve very little, if at all, since the original idea was established. Research, if done at all, is often done in order to justify the belief, rather than improve understanding. A dogmatic belief accepts an authority as not to be doubted or questioned.

There are plenty of method books and instructions like this. Some instructors recommend 2/3 upper lip to 1/3 lower lip and some instructors the opposite. Some players insist that the secret to their success is playing a particular set of exercises while others have a completely different routine that must be relied upon.

The truth is there is no single approach that will address all brass education. The more dogmatic a teacher the less likely he or she will be able to adjust their instruction when the need arises to suit their individual students.

The idea is aimed directly at the public.

As far as a way of spotting pseudoscience, I have to take this one with a grain of salt when it comes to brass pedagogy. Most musicians and music teachers are concerned with making music and getting their students ready to make music. As a rule, we don’t run scientific studies and publish our results in peer reviewed journals. For someone trying to make a living in a field as competitive as music it’s only natural for brass players and teachers to market their products out to the general brass musician public.

However, there’s a point at which this becomes disingenuous. When responding to a somewhat negative review of his book in a professional journal devoted to medical issues suffered by performing artists, one brass pedagogue stated:

Dr. Steinhorn was certainly correct that [my book] does not offer any scientific data. It is not that sort of book. My intention was to offer a well-documented explanation to professional brass players of a perplexing dilemma.

The author of the above quote follows by admitting his collected “data” is anecdotal, but that’s fine because the book was written for musicians in mind. In other words, he felt it was OK deceive the general brass playing public into thinking that his research was scientifically derived because it wasn’t written for a scientifically literate audience.

Ideas that are non-testable.

Many pseudoscientific ideas in brass pedagogy can’t really be tested in any meaningful way. Often it’s because the claim is too vague or too broad to have any relevant way. The hazy thinking makes it possible to come up with an interpretation to fit the vague outcome of the original claim.

For example, one advocate of the so called “tongue controlled embouchure” once commented in an interview:

[I] honestly believe that those great players of the Baroque Era had to be using their tongues to control all the notes. We will never know for certain, but if I can play all the Trumpet parts that Bach wrote on the Baroque Trumpet with my tongue in this forward position as described by [name omitted] – what logical conclusion can we come to? To think that a great Genius like Bach would have accepted a spread and out of tune tone from a Trumpeter is ridicules (sic). If you look at all the Art from the period, it plainly depicts the Trumpeter as having puffed checks.

He at least readily admits that we won’t ever really know for certain, but states his method to be correct anyway because Bach is a genius and because artists show brass players puffing their cheeks. Does that mean that a cartoon tubist is a good example of good brass technique? It’s not evidence, it’s hopeful thinking.

If you’re going to accept art from the Baroque as evidence that trumpet players puffed their cheeks to play, then perhaps you should also consider that maybe you’re using the wrong cheeks. Just sayin’.

Verbose language and prose.

One reason that theories from pseudoscience are vague and untestable is that the language used by the proponents is far too vacuous itself. This often results in a ‘theory’ that is so conceptually slippery it becomes difficult to identify what is actually being argued – or how one might test it. Due to their nebulous content, such practices also nearly always hide all sorts of circular reasoning errors. Over-complex words, phrases and over-long sentences are employed in an attempt to ‘look’ scientific and intelligent.

Pseudoscientific theories are not only characterized by their vague and untestable claims, but the language that they use is often overly complex and written in a way that attempts to look scientific, but when you break their claims down the logic falls apart.

Here’s a quote from someone who believes he has broken the embouchure “code:”

As a way to set up my own inner resonance system…chest, throat, back of tongue, soft palate, the rest of the tongue, jaw position, lips etc…so that when I freebuzz any given note the setting(s) for that note are the most efficient ones that are possible for me to achieve, all I have to do is to sing the note while my lips are in some sort of ready-to-buzz position and isolate the overtones which would be most desirable to me if I was playing the note on the trombone (The 5th and 6th partials, mostly. The  3rd and 5th of the “trombone” chord.) , then w/out appreciable change of that system transfer said “buzz” from my vocal cords to lips, and then place the m’pce on my chops (again w/out serious compromises) and start playing.

Inner resonance system? Isolate the 5th and 6th partials? Numbers and scientific terms make it seem profound, but what does that really mean? He continues with another common ploy, citing made up statistics:

I literally had about 40% or 50% more endurance than is usually the case, plus what I could play was simply…better. Bigger sound, more range, better connections, faster. The works. 

Now…I’m only talking maybe 10% better. 15%. Somewhere in there.

Using statistics to make your case that aren’t backed up by real data is extremely common in brass technique books. Here’s a couple of other examples, by a different author:

Teachers fail to consider the ida that only 10% can make the flat chin work.


Ninety-five percent of the players coming to me, whatever their age, are shallow breathers.”


Three out of ten players may receive some initial benefit from changing lip position, because three in ten will get better regardless of the system used.

Others invent scientific sounding terms or misuse legitimate ones. Here’s how one author defined what he called “the most common performance-related injury in brass playing:” 

For the purpose os discussion here, Embouchure overuse syndrome refers to any chronic embouchure-related playing problem which last for more that two weeks and includes any or all of the following: lip pain, chronic lip swelling or bruising, numb rubbery, or cardboard lips, recurring pressure-point abrasions, air-induced abrasions, lack of endurance, unfocused sound, lack of playing control, and chronic high-range problems.

Yikes, did he leave any technique problems out? Every brass student I’ve ever had has Embouchure Overuse Syndrome! Quick, let’s get to the emergency room before it starts catching!

Seriously, if there’s an injury to the lips or embouchure area let’s call it what it is, torn muscle, pinched nerve, lip abrasion, whatever. Classifying a syndrome for a myriad of very common playing concerns and then implying that they are all the result of something as vague as “overuse” smacks of snake oil salesmanship.

When I injured my knee my doctors didn’t tell me I had “knee overuse syndrome,” I was given an x-ray and then MRI exam to determine what exactly was injured (torn medial meniscus), surgery to help repair the injury, and then physical therapy targeted at helping me recover faster and avoid a future injury. I would hope that someone diagnosing what sounds like a medical condition to take similar care in prescribing treatment. A brass performer who has torn his obicularis oris is going to require a completely different treatment program than someone who has pinched a nerve or abrasions on the lips. Not to mention issues like lack of playing control and high range problems that are likely to be unrelated to any medical condition.

Conceptual hijacking.

One very common way brass teachers will engage in pseudoscientific practice is to take scientific concepts that aren’t well understood by the general public and to cite them as evidence for their beliefs. This can be intentional or blatant, and it’s particularly insidious because it seems so legitimate to us.

Here is a criticism of my embouchure research in which I use a transparent mouthpiece to observe the position of the lips inside the mouthpiece. He starts off with physicist Erwin Schrodinger’s thought experiment, the infamous “Schrodinger’s Cat.” Then he takes his turn into left field:

So the end result of this paradox is that as far as the observer knows, the cat is equally living and dead. Indeterminacy in its most perfect expression, and of course impossible.

OK…how does this apply to playing a brass instrument?

By opening OUR steel chamber (observing the airstream direction in this case), we terminate the experiment. AT THAT MOMENT, our airstream is doing whatever it must do. There is no telling whether that airstream is doing whatever is observed without stopping the system. As soon as it is stopped, the living embouchure is also stopped. End of experiment.

In our case, not only is the subject alive and/or dead (upstream or downstream), but there are infinite possibilities of HOW “upstream or downstream” it really is (HOW alive is the cat?)  

Indeterminacy squared.

A flagrant, and unfortunately quite common misinterpretation and misuse of quantum mechanics. He offers no evidence that mere observation of a player’s lip position with the use of a transparent mouthpiece is unknowable in the same manner as subatomic particles. It’s akin to recommending that you play billiards in the dark because the photons from the light are going to interfere with your shot.

As I mentioned above, sometimes the conceptual hijacking is seemingly unintentional. When writing to support Arnold Jacob’s assertion that a vowel sound of “oh” tongue position was best for playing brass, he cited a scientific paper.

This research has confirmed Jacob’s claims . . . Hence, high notes need a relatively higher air pressure than low notes, but this air pressure will be bigger at the lips, not because of the obstruction of the tongue, but because of more expiratory work by the respiratory musculature, which is why the use of vowels with a high tongue position to facility playing in the high register doesn’t not seem appropriate.

I cut a bit from the above quote to get to the heart of what the author is communicating. He is advocating to keep the tongue position lower in the oral cavity and avoid raising the tongue position higher to ascend. However, when I went to the cited paper, I discovered something contrary to what was being claimed. The emphasis is mine.

The tract geometry affects the played pitch by typically 20 cents over both instrument-dominated and reed-dominated regimes in both instruments. It can also cause a transition between different playing registers.

In reality, the paper doesn’t really address the topic of whether or not arching the tongue higher in the mouth to ascend is proper technique or not, it simply shows that it has an effect on timbre, intonation, and can influence the playing register. The argument that the tongue arch should consistently remain low in the mouth or change according to the register while playing could be debated, but the cited paper doesn’t really provide evidence for the former.

Confirmation bias (selective evidence).

One of the most common examples of confirmation bias is the experience of hearing your phone ring just as you are thinking about someone in particular and it just so happens to be that person calling. It’s a notable coincidence and sticks out in our minds, as opposed to all those times we are thinking about that same person and they didn’t call.

We are all victims of our own confirmation bias, it’s part of what makes us human. We’re great recognizers of patterns, even when patterns don’t actually exist. This means we need to be very careful interpreting the results of our teaching and practicing, particularly when applying them to a general population.

I am my own favorite example of confirmation bias. When collecting data for my dissertation research on trombone embouchures I had convinced myself that I was able to predict a trombonist’s embouchure type simply by looking at their anatomical features. In reality, I was remembering all those times I got a hit, but forgot about the misses. When I crunched the numbers and looked at the data I learned that I was wrong.

I mentioned above the author who used the term “embouchure overuse syndrome.” He believes this to be the single most common cause of practically every embouchure symptom anyone has ever had. While reading the following passage by this author, think about what I wrote about statistics above:

In the eighteen-years of my research, 4736 bona fide embouchure overuse injuries/playing disabilities were reported to me from all of the world.  [a whole bunch of statistics were then cited about these subjects, which I’ve eliminated because they are meaningless]  These histories formed the basis of my thesis on embouchure injuries, and the resulting rehabilitation system I developed grew out of my one-on-one sessions with injured players.  I know of no other author who has collected such a huge database of information on the subject of embouchure pain, problems, or injuries.

This individual has not published his methodology or data, so I cannot say for certain if the flaws I see are accurate. Until that information is made publicly available, however, the burden of proof is on him. In fact, I would argue that ideas that are supported without evidence can be dismissed without evidence too.

How was it determined that all 4736 subjects were “bona fide” injuries caused by embouchure overuse syndrome? Was their data collected via self reporting or was a more reliable method designed to avoid confirmation bias used? More bluntly, how many of those over 4000 subjects were actually seen in person and how many were self reports from player’s who just happened to come across the author’s web site? Were all those subjects who emailed and called and were included in the “thesis” also made aware that they were participating in a medical study and gave permission to use the results? What sort of survey was given to determine the statistics? Did he take the care to make sure that he wasn’t leading the subjects’ answers by asking question like, “Did your problems follow after a very demanding playing engagement?” 

What active brass player doesn’t have difficult and challenging performances from time to time? They are quite common for almost every serious musician. It’s like thinking of someone as the phone rings and it being them on the phone. You don’t think about all the times you played hard and didn’t get injured, but if you get injured you notice.

Data that doesn’t attempt to address confirmation bias is not data, it is anecdote. The more anecdotes you have that conform to your beliefs don’t make it more compelling.

No matter how high you stack cow pies, they won’t turn into a pile of gold.

Metaphorical/analogy driven thinking.

Metaphors and analogies are important to both science and music pedagogy. Particularly complex or abstract ideas often rely on analogies in order to get the point across. It’s perfectly valid and, to a degree, unavoidable. That doesn’t excuse otherwise intelligent teachers and musicians from drawing erroneous conclusions about reality based on a mental image that clicked for them.

We must let our minds fill with the sound of our musical message and related emotions. . . Our thoughts must go to the stimuli (“songs in the head) as we overcome the challenges of music and the physical phenomena of playing a brass instrument. . . When thinking of the body, stiffness results. But, when thinking of the sound, relaxation can occur. Some performers play so effortlessly and naturally that they are sometimes referred to as “natural player.” All you have to do is imagine that you are a natural player long enough, and you will become one.

The bold in the quote above is not mine, it is in the original text. Read it again. What he’s telling you is that if you want to be a fine player, all you have to do is think you are for long enough.

This sort of magical thinking is all the more tempting because there’s a kernel of truth in there. When teaching skills that require motor control, whether it’s playing a brass instrument or making a golf putt, intrinsic learning (focus on the goal, such as a beautiful and expressive performance or a successful putt) has fairly conclusively been shown to be superior to extrinsic learning (focus on the mechanics of playing or putting), at least in the short term. What proponents of the “think about music and the body will figure itself out” approach improperly do is turn their pedagogy into a false dichotomy. While the brass musician’s goal should be effortless technique while all attention is on the musical message, that is not necessarily the best path.

These advocates are also fond of the tired cliche that focus on technique will lead to “paralysis by analysis,” which strikes me as an excuse to be intellectually lazy and not learn how and what to analyze. I’ve written more about this tired expression here.

Anecdotes as evidence

There are so many examples of this fallacy around that I won’t even bother to quote any here (look above for some). Anecdotes have their place, but must be placed in proper context. Way too many players and teachers find a method that seems to do wonders for them and some of their students and immediately presume that their method is correct for everyone.

Special pleading (elusive evidence)

Special pleading is sometimes informally referred to as “moving the goalpost.” When confronted with evidence to suggest our ideas are wrong, it’s easy to move the criteria around. Or we state that the evidence is an “exception.”

One individual with a reputation for helping players with severe embouchure issues treats their problems as an emotional condition, rather than a physical one. When confronted with students that don’t respond to his emotional counseling, however, rather than consider that the approach he is taking might be the best for the individual and try something different (or refer the player to someone else) he states that the reason for their failure to improve is because:

There are many people. . . that will never be willing to make the right effort. . . Most people who don’t respond to treatment are not really disciplined.

One brass author feels quite strongly that all brass players free buzzing embouchure should work exactly the same as his free buzzing embouchure. When I showed him a high speed video of noted trombonist Stuart Dempster both free buzzing and playing in a transparent mouthpiece instead of modifying his theory he decided that he had not at that time worked much on “transferring his free buzz to his horn (or the reverse) with as little change as possible.” He was probably not familiar with Dempster’s playing. 

While questioning one author’s assertions I was told that I was incapable of understanding.

If there is any bias, it is yours. You have apparently never suffered a performance injury, and yet, you are attempting to judge a body of work about something you clearly do not understand. It is like a person who does not have carpal tunnel syndrome who buys a book on CT treatments and tries to judge the efficacies and worth of those treatments.

I don’t know for a fact that my orthopedist has ever had a knee injury like the one I had, but he certainly understood the efficacies of treatment and did a damn fine job on my surgery. Having suffered and recovered from a knee injury in no way makes me qualified to diagnose and treat another individual’s knee pain.

This logical fallacy is actually quite common when people defend their favorite methods. If only you would give their approach a try for just a little longer it will eventually start to work. When a student fails to succeed after practicing their exercises the blame is usually placed on the student for practicing them incorrectly. Their lack of self-correction makes is unscientific in nature and makes for bad pedagogy.

Conspiracy theory thinking

Pseudoscientific thinking often takes the form of a real truth that “they” don’t want you to know about. This usually takes the form of some sort of “academic establishment” that is locked away in their ivory tower, too far removed from actually making music themselves.

The academic/orchestral/industrial complex orthodoxy prescribes one setting for all ranges. But the exigencies of a practical professional life preclude that for all but the most perfectly physically gifted of us. When confronted with this idea, the orthodox tend to get a little…upset.

Exaggerated Claims

The late Carl Sagan noted that good scientists are always considering that they could be wrong. Good scientists don’t exaggerate the strength of their evidence. Good brass teachers should do similarly. The bold emphasis in the quote below is mine.

A dynamic development system that’s easy to learn and works for every trumpet player.

It’s OK for a teacher to say, “I don’t know.” Obviously no single approach will work for everyone. There are just too many variables. Unfortunately, it’s human nature to not only gain confidence with experience, but it’s also easy to slip into overconfidence. A healthy dose of humility goes a long way.

The noted traits of pseudoscience above shouldn’t be taken as proof that those ideas are wrong, per se, but they do raise red flags. Particularly when those ideas are contradicted by other evidence, we need to question what brass pedagogy says more often.

With that said, I want to encourage you to begin reading my site with these characteristics of pseudoscience in mind. Off the top of my head I can think of examples I’ve written here that fit the above criteria and I’m sure there are plenty more that I’ve not considered yet. When you find those inconsistencies, I would like to ask that you call me out on them and let me know in a comment or email. If I can’t logically defend those ideas, then they need to be revised, updated, and corrected.