This post is a followup to Friday’s post. If you want to try to solve this embouchure puzzle on your own you should look at the video here first, then come back and read this one. In order to follow this post completely you’ll need to understand what the three basic brass embouchure types are. If you don’t, please read this post and watch the video embedded there. If you want a more complete discussion of this, start here at this page.
I’ve been taking some time lately to catch some video lessons with my one of my mentors, Doug Elliott. For those of you who might not already be familiar with Doug, he is a trombonist, mouthpiece maker, and an expert in brass embouchure technique. He was also the primary source in my dissertation, “The correlation between Doug Elliott’s embouchure types and selective physical and playing characteristics among trombonists.” Doug has been guiding me through an experiment we tried to fix the problems I’ve been dealing with.
Once more, here is a video that shows the issues that I’ve been covering up for a while now manifest. You can hear the choked upper register, but can you spot the mechanical issue that is causing it? The answer, and the path that Doug helped guide me though to make corrections, are below the break.
Many brass musicians have had embouchure breakdowns, including some very exceptional players. So it should come to no surprise that a mediocre player, like myself, can run into some issues with embouchure technique. This in spite of my interest in brass embouchure technique and almost 25 years of study in embouchure form and function.
For years I’ve had some nagging difficulties that have caused some problems in my playing. I’m usually able to muscle my way through them, especially after warming up for a while, but I haven’t been fixing the mechanical problems, only getting good at covering them up. This is actually quite common. What’s strange is that I know exactly what I’m doing wrong and what I should be doing, it’s just been a bear to make the corrections happen consistently.
Recently I’ve decided to make it a priority to fix these problems. Since at the current time we’re still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I don’t have any serious performing obligations so this is a good time to get this done. I’ve been catching some video lessons from my mentor, Doug Elliott, who has been guiding me through an interesting embouchure experiment that has helped solidify things for me. But before I post about that I want to give the masses a chance to see my problems manifest and make your best guess as to what you think is going wrong. Then, offer your hypothetical advice.
Can you spot the mechanical issues? How would you fix them with a student? Post your thoughts in the comments here. On Monday I’ll post what Doug and I figured out was happening and the experiment we tried that eventually made for good improvements.
I’ve been meaning to blog about this topic for a few months now, ever since I got an email from someone asking about whether I was aware of any acoustical research projects in brass instruments using artificial lips that take into account air stream direction. As far as I know, there haven’t been any. My recollection is that the emailer was a grad student conducting research, but I’ve lost the email and my reply. If that was you (or you are similarly conducting research using artificial lips to play brass instruments), please email me again or post a comment here and tell us what you found out.
Recently I came across a couple of videos from Youtube user iSax Laboratories. This first one is a description of how they built a robot to play trombone.
And in this one we get to see and hear it in action.
He agrees with some of the commenters that it’s not a very good sound. I have to give him a lot of credit for trying this out and even if it’s not going to replace human musicians just yet, it’s a neat proof-of-concept.
Regular readers of this blog will probably already know that human musicians don’t place the mouthpiece dead center on the lips. Some of that is certainly due to the “foundation” of the teeth and gums behind the lips. However, one lip or another must predominate inside the mouthpiece and we know that the embouchure will either function as a downstream or upstream embouchure. I asked iSax Laboratories about this on his YouTube comments section and he replied that he had tried some different positions and settled on the one in the above video, where it seemed to work best.
There have been some other similar attempts. Back around 2010 Toyota built robots that apparently really played brass instruments. It supposedly blows air into the instrument and has artificial lips to produce the sound. However, I’m skeptical that the artificial lips are similar to the above robot. There has been acoustic research that uses oscillators as “artificial lips,” but I’m not certain how these Toyota robots recreate the brass embouchure. Check out the following video and look to see if you can see any artificial lips on this robot.
If the artificial lips attempt to recreate a human musician’s lips I can’t spot them on this robot. It is somewhere inside the robot, since the robot’s “mouth” seems to be simply a round hole. At least that’s what it looks like to me in this video. The resolution isn’t high enough to see any better.
On our way to Geekcon, we stopped at a local grocery store and got a plastic jar for pasta storage. As soon as we arrived the hackathon, Avi hooked it up to some lips he improvised from water-filled latex gloves, drilled a small hole in the jar, and hooked the air pump output to it, and pressed the trumpet against the lips. After a few minutes of tinkering with the position of the lips and the pressure applied by his fingers — there it was: a pure trumpet sound!
Go to the link I posted above to see more videos of their experiments, including some with robotic fingers as well.
There have been several studies done that use artificial lips to study acoustics and instrument design. As best as I can tell, the first design of using tubes filled with water was done in 1997 by J. Gilbert and J.F. Pettiot for a paper published in Proc. Institute of Acoustics, titled “Brass instruments, some theoretical and experimental results.” I haven’t read this paper, just seen references to it, so I can’t comment on it. A number of papers I have refer to their design of artificial lips as the one used to conduct additional research.
J. Wolfe, A.Z. Tarnopolsky, N.H. Fletcher, L.C.L. Hollenberg, and J. Smith published a paper titled “Some Effects of the Player’s Vocal Track and Tongue On Wind Instrument Sound” in 2003. They used two different artificial players. One used fluid filled latex “lips” that appears to be similar in design to Gilbert’s and Pettiot’s one. The other they described as, “a simple cantilever spring. We call this version of the player Phyl, for ‘PHYsicist’s Lips’.” (Wolfe, et al)
In 2007 Seona Bromage’s thesis used artificial lips made of latex rubber tubes filled with water. Bromage’s paper includes this image, which suggests that the mouthpiece was centered on the artificial lips.
Here’s a photograph of the actual “mouth.”
Bromage also compared the artificial lips playing a trombone to actual musicians playing, using a transparent mouthpiece. I have to admit that the discussion of the physics involved went over my head, so I’m not sure what to think of the results of this paper.
In fact, I’m not sure what to make of any of these acoustics papers. I *think* that I’m following the general discussion, but an awful lot of the physics are beyond my understanding. Combine that with the use of terms that mean something different to me (for example, upstream and downstream are terms that I would use to describe the general direction the air is directed as it passes the lips into the mouthpiece, but in physics they mean something completely different).
Just as musicians like me are not usually well trained in physics, I doubt that the physicists studying the acoustics of brass instrument have a well informed understanding of brass embouchure mechanics. To be honest, I don’t find many brass musicians have an accurate understanding of embouchure mechanics either. For the purposes of their physics research I guess it doesn’t make that much difference, but I am curious if modeling the lips in a more realistic way would maybe provide some insights that we could use to advance our understanding of instrument construction or brass pedagogy.
Again, if you’re engaged in research like the above, please leave a comment or drop me a line. I’d like to hear more about this and see if I can wrap my head a little better around this topic.