Horn Angle Changes For Brass

If you look at a large enough number of different brass musicians play over their entire range you’ll notice that some of them will noticeably alter their horn angle when changing register. Some will do this to a large degree, others appear to not do so much at all. Some players might appear to tilt their instrument bell up to ascend, while others might do the opposite. Many players even bring their horn angle side to side as well.

What’s going on here? What’s correct? How much should a brass musician worry about this when practicing? How much should a teacher understand?

One of the first things to consider with regards to a horn angle change is the position of the lower jaw. Donald Reinhardt wrote,

The principal duty of the lower jaw while playing is to provide an adequate playing base or foundation so that both the inner and the outer embouchures may function as one solid synchronized unit, regardless of the player’s type classification. This playing base must hold intact while the jaw is protruded and receded (according to the register being played), regardless of any jaw malocclusion that may exist in the player’s jaw formation.

“Encyclopedia…,” p. 152

Reinhardt at times would advise his students to exaggerate the horn angle changes in order to encourage the correct jaw manipulation. So for Reinhardt, getting a student to change the horn angle was often a way to encourage the correct jaw position for the student. He didn’t want the student to be thinking about the jaw while playing so much, so by altering the horn angle the jaw would need to move into its correct position in order to maintain the foundation of the teeth and gums under the lips and mouthpiece rim (which Reinhardt often referred to as the “legs” of the embouchure, likening it to the four legs of a table or the three legs of a tripod). This tracks with what researchers who study the development of motor skills say about keeping your focus as external as possible. You could concentrate on the sensation of your embouchure “legs” by paying attention to how the rim is in contact with your lips, but Reinhardt wanted to move the focus outward, towards the bell of the instrument instead.

There does appear to be a direct relationship between jaw position and horn angle, but this can be personal to the individual brass musician. Many players will, for example, protrude their jaw slightly to ascend and recede it to descend and the horn angle should follow the jaw in order to maintain the “legs” of the embouchure. But almost everyone has a malocclusion to a certain degree and the jaw will often also move from side to side. Watch this trumpet player very closely and note how his jaw moves both in and out and side to side as he changes register, but also note his horn angle.

The view from his side shows that his jaw comes forward slightly as he ascend, while he also brings the horn angle lower, which seems opposite of what you might expect (more on this topic below). But I find the front view a little more interesting and helpful to demonstrate side to side angles. Notice that as he ascends his jaw moves to his left and when descending his jaw moves to his right. But his horizontal horn angle remains pretty static. Watch it again and listen for the intonation and tone on the higher and lower pitches. Does it sound just a little pinched and flat on the high C to you?

For fun, I asked him to play the same slurs, but to also try bringing his horn angle over to one side and compare what happens. Notice that when he slurs from the middle C to the high C he still brings his jaw over to his left while ascending. When he also changes his horn angle towards the right to ascend I feel the pitch is more in tune and the tone more focused. When he brings his horn angle to the left to ascend (the same direction his jaw is moving) the pitch on the high C is definitely flat. The effect is easier to see. Bringing his horn angle to his left to descend helps the low C to be more in tune and focused while bringing his horn angle over to his right (the same direction his jaw is moving) obviously chokes off the note.

This sort of side to side horn angle change is often accompanied with a jaw movement side to side as well and it seems to work best when those two things happen in the opposite direction. If the jaw is moving to the right to ascend, then the horn angle should probably move to the left. This seems to be universal for all brass players with some side to side motion in the jaw/horn angle. When this is working efficiently, according to the individual player’s variation, it can also minimize both the jaw change and horn angle change when they work together. It can also help correct some other mechanical issues. For example, for years I would have to reverse the direction of my embouchure motion to play a pedal Bb. It made playing down in my low register difficult for me. When I began to practice bringing my horn angle to my right while allowing my jaw to move to my left the reversal of embouchure motion direction began to minimize and is almost eliminated for me now.

Speaking of the embouchure motion the way a player pushes and pulls their lips and mouthpiece together along the teeth and gums while playing directly influences the correct horn angle as well. Consider again having the “legs” or the feeling of the rim against the teeth and gums. Our teeth and gums are not a flat surface. There’s some curvature to it, both along the horizontal and vertical. A player’s most efficient embouchure motion is usually also not straight up and down, there’s almost always at least a little side to side variation as well. When changing registers and making the correct embouchure motion a player should follow the shape of the teeth and gums underneath the mouthpiece rim and lips. If while ascending, for example, the brass musician pushes up and to the right the horn angle will probably work best if it comes up slightly and moves to the right as well, following the teeth and gums underneath.

Think of a ball and socket joint. The mouthpiece is like the socket while the musician’s teeth and gums are like the ball. When the socket/mouthpiece are pushed up and to the left it follows the shape of the ball/teeth and gums. It’s not the horn angle that dictates the embouchure motion as much as the embouchure motion dictating how the horn angle needs to change.

Since everyone is going to have different anatomy, everyone’s horn angle will be unique to the individual musician. But there are methods that teachers and players can use to help work out what works best. I’ve touched on this topic in my Embouchure 101 resource, but I’ll briefly describe how I currently work with students to help them with their horn angles.

I will ask a student to sustain a note and move their horn angle around left and right and listen. I want to see how far the musician can bring the horn angle to either side as well as hear what this does to the tone and pitch. If the pitch goes flat when the angle is brought to the left it will probably go sharp when brought to the right. Somewhere in between will be where the pitch becomes most in tune and the timbre will be the most focused. Then repeat on the same note keeping the horizontal horn angle where it is, but tilt the horn angle up and down finding where along the vertical access where the pitch is most in tune and tone is most focused. You can also try moving the bell of the instrument around in a circle, starting with a very big circle and then making it smaller and smaller, circling in on the best angle for the particular note. Repeat on higher and lower notes. I use pitches along the open fingering/1st position partials.

Each note will have it’s own horn angle that makes the pitch play best and assuming that overall embouchure form is working well enough and that the breathing and tongue arch aren’t getting in the way you’ll also note the individual player’s pattern. The horn angle will change gradually along one direction as the notes ascend and gradually in the opposite direction as notes descend. Typically the amount of horn angle change to ascend an octave from a particular pitch will be the same as descending from the same starting pitch, just in the opposite direction. If it’s not, try to see if minimizing the angle change in one direction or making more in the opposite direction works. As a starting point, I feel it’s best to keep these angle changes consistent between octave, similar to working with the player’s embouchure motion.

In summary, everyone will have their own unique changes of horn angle while playing because everyone has different facial anatomy. The player’s horn angle is determined primarily by the shape of the musician’s teeth and gums underneath the mouthpiece rim and lips and angle changes help provide the player with a firm foundation on the teeth and gums for the rim and lips. Some players will tilt their horn up and down more while others may bring their horn angle from side to side more. The amount of horn angle change a musician needs can vary from player to player, but it will generally be close to the same amount to slur up an octave as it is to slur down an octave from the same note. A teacher can help a student work out the best horn angles by watching and listening to the student move the horn angles left to right and up to down, paying attention to where the pitch goes and where the tone is most focused.

The next post will discuss some exercises that a brass musician can use to solidify horn angle changes and make them work subconsciously so that the musician can concentrate more on playing more expressively.

Basic Brass Embouchure Characteristics

Here is a 13 minute video I put together to discuss a couple of basic brass embouchure characteristics that I think are important for all players and teachers to understand. If you’ve poked around here on my blog or watch some of my YouTube channel before you already know about this stuff.

I made this one pretty quickly compared to the time I’ve spent on other videos I’ve posted on this topic. This video was specifically made to quickly address some things I was trying to discuss on a closed internet group that is nominally devoted to brass embouchure advice. I say “nominally” because the main purpose of this group seems to be the administrator pushing his wares, lessons, and Patreon page and there’s very little actual discussion about brass embouchure technique or advice.

The little discussion about brass embouchure technique that has been posted there has a lot of misinformation. For example, there are people who believe that lining up the teeth and getting the horn angle close to straight out makes the player blow the air stream straight down the shank of the mouthpiece (not true). Others seem to believe that tilting the horn angle up makes the player upstream and tilting it down makes the player downstream (also not true). Everyone seems to be well intentioned, they are just misinformed.

My big gripe over the direction the discussion on that group takes is that so much of the conversation revolves around information that’s just wrong. We can honestly discuss the details of things like mouthpiece pressure and jaw position (two things the administrator of that group is very focused on), but it bothers me when recommendations are based on erroneous details. It’s much better to base our pedagogy on reality, not confirmation bias. Particularly if the suggestions involve spending around $300 to purchase a device that is of dubious use, in my opinion.

Tips Writing for Wind Ensemble By Alan Theisen

A friend of mine, composer and saxophonist Alan Theisen, has an essay on his web site worth checking out. It’s called Ten Tips for Composing For Band. The title is self explanatory but the additional information and recommendations for score study are great. Here are a few items from his list and some of my additional thoughts about it.

  1. Make space for resonance!

With this tip Alan compares scoring for the orchestra compared to the wind band and recommends that the bass instruments be scored lower in their register and bring the inner voices up on the higher side to leave a gap between the lowest instruments and the next instruments up. He lists this as his primary piece of advice for writing for wind ensemble.

I think this is also good advice for scoring for big band as well. Frequently with my trombone voicings, for example, I’ll have the 4th trombone (bass trombone) at least a Perfect 5th lower than the 3rd trombone, sometimes even more. I will often do the same thing for the baritone sax and 2nd tenor sax. Here’s an example from my most recent big band chart, an arrangement of the 16th century Finnish Christmas carol.

Gaudete! Sax Voicings

You can see in this concert pitch excerpt from my arrangement the large gaps between the bari sax and 2nd tenor. I’m a major 9th away on the first chord. On the downbeat of the 2nd measure the distance between those two instruments is 2 octaves and a 2nd! The rhythm section is playing at that moment, but there’s no other horns playing at this moment to fill in notes between those ranges.

4. Think in terms of “flat” keys.

Again, when scoring for a big band I will also tend to favor flat keys. This is, of course, opposite from what you might do when scoring for strings. Yes, good musicians practice and can sound good in all keys, so this certainly isn’t a “rule,” per se. However, wind instruments tend to sound better in the flat keys by nature and flat keys just sound more natural to those instruments.

6. Keep an eye on rests.

Particularly with brass instruments you need to give the musicians a chance to take the metal off the mouth and rest the chops. What’s nice about following this advice is that it also can provide some built in variety to the sonic landscape you’re writing. By passing around the phrases/sections/etc. between different instruments and not having everyone play all the time together you have lots of opportunities to play with timbre and colors.

10. Study scores by Alfred Reed.

Reed was amazing at scoring music for many types of ensembles, but his wind band writing is golden.

For big band scoring and arranging I recommend the book Inside the Score by Rayburn Wright. This book takes 2-3 charts by Sammy Nestico, Thad Jones, and Bob Brookmeyer and analyzes them in detail, going through everything from voicing techniques to how the peaks and valleys of intensity figure through each chart. It’s an excellent book for big band composers and arrangers to see how three masters scored their music for jazz ensemble.

Check out the rest of what Alan wrote over on his web site.