For years I’ve been coming across advertisements for the Stratos, invented by trombonist Marcus Reynolds. I first heard about this device about 10 years ago, in 2013, and wrote up my initial thoughts here. In 2014 I came across another video from Reynolds and wrote my impressions of that video here. Reynolds is a tireless promoter and I’ve been seeing more and more of his posts and videos about this device the past couple of years, so I finally broke down and purchased one to see if it lives up to the hype.
Since this will be a long post, I’ll give you the tl/dr version up top – You can save your money. It’s possible that it can be used for a small number of embouchure tweaks, but it’s completely unnecessary and if you use it wrong it has the potential to hurt more than it helps. Using it correctly is harder than you might think. Reynolds’s instructions don’t take individual differences into account or certain embouchure mechanics that the Stratos interferes with.
What is the Stratos?
The Stratos is a device that is designed to attach to the shank of your mouthpiece. An adjustable rod with a suction cup then is set so that it rests against your chin while you play. There is some give with the chin rest due to a spring set up inside, but the general idea is that it will keep you from pressing the mouthpiece hard against the lips. There are two versions. The original is called the Stratos Encore Pro and costs £249.99 ($313.04 currently). A less expensive version, 3D printed I believe, is called the Stratos Performer and costs £79.99 ($100.17). They aren’t cheap and that doesn’t include shipping costs.
The inventor, Marcus Reynolds, is a U.K. based trombonist of some note. His embouchure bonafide comes from his experiences relearning how to play following an accident which pushed his mouthpiece through his top lip. After an operation he also apparently developed focal task specific dystonia in the embouchure. He diagnosed his initial return to playing as being held back by “lactic acid trying to repair the scar tissue” and invented the Stratos as a way for him to practice with the mouthpiece rim “hovering” over the scar tissue. Today he has returned to performing professionally and tirelessly promotes the Stratos.
When you order the Stratos Performer it will come unassembled and you’ll have a sheet of paper giving you a brief overview on how to assemble it, as well as a typed out link and QR code to a YouTube video that goes over putting it together. The typed out link was broken, but the QR code did direct me to this video. I did not receive any instructions from Reynolds on how to use the device with my order, so I had to do my own internet searches and reached out directly to him.
What Are the Claims?
Before I go into details on my personal thoughts, I think it’s helpful to take a closer look at the inventor’s claims and learn whether they hold water.
Air Stream Direction
The above video is one of the earlier ones you can find, I think originally made as a DVD that shipped with the original Stratos. Reynolds states:
What should happen is that the air you are buzzing through the mouthpiece should flow through the center of the shank of the mouthpiece. In many cases with amateur and professional alike, this is not necessarily the case and you will not be aware that they is in actual fact being directed by your lips into the bottom of the mouthpiece reducing the power and effectiveness of the air produced making it more difficult to reach the pure note you seek. Especially when you are playing notes in the higher register. If your teeth are not aligned when you play the air produced will be directed downwards hitting the bottom of the cup of the mouthpiece.
While Reynolds does acknowledge upstream and downstream embouchures here, blowing straight into the shank does not happen with well-functioning brass embouchures. The Stratos won’t help you blow straight into the shank, and if it does you’re moving in the wrong direction. This claim has been thoroughly debunked for quite a while – including by one of the sources that Reynolds cites (I guess he didn’t actually read the book).
I asked Reynolds a couple of times about this claim and never got a straight answer from him. It’s possible he’s modified this idea now.
Jaw Position and Teeth Alignment
The prime function of Stratos is to enable you to position your jaw and teeth correctly allowing you to position your lips on the mouthpiece with less pressure and maximum air power with minimal effort and maximum results.
“Correctly” in this context, according to Reynolds, is to position the jaw so the lower teeth and upper teeth are more or less aligned. Lining up the teeth works great for many players, not so well for others. This is personal. Reynolds assumes that what works for his physiology will work for everyone. There are just too many examples of excellent brass musicians who play with a receded jaw to assume that aligning the teeth is correct for everyone.
I think it’s likely that Reynolds allows for different positions of the jaw, including a receded jaw position or even one whether the jaw protrudes so the lower teeth are in front of the upper teeth. However, that’s not how he instructs people to use the Stratos, and it really needs to be made clearer in the instructions if my assumption is correct.
Mouthpiece pressure is more complex than Reynolds gives it credit. It’s been shown that we use more pressure than we realize in normal brass playing and also that we’re terrible judges of how much mouthpiece pressure an individual player is using in the first place.
In my experience excessive mouthpiece pressure is a result of something else not working correctly. When you fix the actual issue the mouthpiece pressure will usually reduce on its own. In fact, many players don’t use enough mouthpiece pressure, particularly in the lower register. Often they have trouble with applying a proper amount of mouthpiece pressure because they are not firming their lips up enough to accept the normal amount of pressure necessary for efficient playing in the first place. Reducing mouthpiece pressure as an a priori assumption is hit or miss at best, you need to understand overall embouchure form and function and the relationship mouthpiece pressure has in the bigger picture.
In other videos Reynolds makes a big deal about reducing mouthpiece pressure so that the blood can flow to the lips. In Part 3 of the original DVD he states, “I think the more blood can get in there the more strength there is. . . This pressure pushes the blood away.”
I don’t have any serious medical training or formal study of anatomy, so you can take my thoughts with a grain of salt. I don’t think Reynolds knows what he’s talking about either, though. I suspect that if we were actually starving the lips of oxygen from lack of blood flow that we would see the lips turning blue and have other more serious issues than a red ring on the lips. Don’t worry about a red pressure ring on the lips from the mouthpiece rim, that happens to a many players and doesn’t suggest you’re using too much pressure.
Why Is This Important?
All of the above premises are dubious claims at best and outright wrong at worst. Now that doesn’t mean that the Stratos is useless, but it was designed under false premises. If the rationale behind why the device was invented is faulty in the first place then it stands to reason that the conclusions of what it’s actually doing are probably wrong too,
The lack of understanding about basic embouchure characteristics such as air stream direction, jaw position, and teeth alignment are huge red flags to me. I don’t feel that Reynolds truly understands brass embouchure technique as well as he thinks and what he suggests that the Stratos is doing for one’s playing is not the case. Nor is what Reynolds recommends going to be correct for many brass musicians.
How To Use It According To Inventor
I mentioned above that I had to go out of my way to find instructions on how Reynolds advises students to use the Stratos. I emailed him for help and he directed me to this video.
In this video Reynolds instructs us to set the Stratos up so that the chin rest and mouthpiece rim are lined up and play some simple scale fragments. Then you adjust it so the chin rest extends just a hair further and repeat. This will supposedly make it so that the higher pitches are as easy to play as the lowest note in the scale. As you continue this process of setting the chin rest even further past the rim you are instructed to keep the jaw forward, even though it’s being pushed back by the chin rest. When you reach this point the mouthpiece will only be lightly touching the lips with very little pressure. Continue until you’re essentially free buzzing into the instrument and practice like that for a bit. Then you pull back the chin rest so that it’s far enough to not contact the chin at all and play. In comparison “the note just flew out,” as Reynolds proclaims when he plays with the chin rest off. You’re supposed to practice about 10 minutes a day like this with the Stratos, then take it off. If you revert back to your “bad habits” you put it back on for a bit.
How well did the above instructions work for me? It was disastrous when I followed it to the letter. I absolutely play better with a receded jaw position and my horn angle tilted down. Starting with the chin rest aligned with the mouthpiece rim was already at the point of where it was sounding terrible and too much effort to play. Sure, I’m not using nearly as much mouthpiece pressure as I usually do, but that’s not really a good thing. I can confirm that when you position the chin rest all the way back and return to playing as normal that the note will “just fly out” like Reynolds claims in the above video. The comparison of how easy it is to play without the Stratos felt easy because I just spent 10 minutes trying to play wrong. It’s like hitting myself in the head with a hammer – it feels good when I stop.
If you’re a brass musician like me who plays best with a receded jaw position you might be able to learn something by practicing in a way that is actually incorrect for a bit, but you’re risking messing up your chops by following Reynold’s instructions. Instead, you should probably start with the chin rest in position where it works best. When I switched to starting with the Stratos set up in my normal playing position I got results more similar to Reynolds’s demonstration video. But that just means it sounded worse and worse until I stopped using the Stratos. Again, it feels better when I stop using it – not because it’s helping me play more efficiently but because I stopped playing wrong.
What It’s Actually Doing and What It Could Actually Be Helpful With
The Stratos does make you play differently, just not in a way that is accurately described by Reynolds. With some understanding of how brass embouchures actually function there are a couple things that the Stratos could have some possible use for.
The best use I found from practicing with the Stratos was using it to provide tactile feedback on the jaw. The position of the jaw is a very important part of a brass musician’s embouchure. For a player with a habit of keeping the jaw in a position that is less than ideal for their anatomy, you could use the Stratos to provide some tactile feedback as to whether the jaw is in the correct placement. For players who open their mouth wide to breathe or drop their jaw to descend you could use the Stratos to again help the player notice more readily when they are pulling their jaw out of the correct position.
But that use needs to first come with an understanding of where the jaw should be for the individual player. I guess you could also use the Stratos to help find the correct position of the jaw by gradually adjusting the position of the chin rest as described above, but I find it easier to simply move the horn angle and have the student follow the horn angle with the jaw while listening to intonation and tone. I’ve had pretty good success helping students find their individual correct jaw position and horn angle without any devices. It’s at least as effective, and a whole lot cheaper.
Other than this form of external feedback on the jaw position, I didn’t find there to be any real value in practicing with the Stratos. Furthermore, I feel that everything that it can do for your embouchure technique can be done just as easily without it, provided you have the background to understand how your embouchure functions correctly.
What It’s Hindering
While I anticipated the Stratos would interfere a great deal with the embouchure motion, I was surprised that it was easier to push and pull my lips and mouthpiece and slightly alter my horn angles than I expected. That said, it still is inhibiting my ability to freely make those necessary alterations and my playing is just a bit sloppier than without it on. Some players might find their embouchure motion is static enough that it’s not a big deal, but I found using it discouraged the correct changes I need. If you need to reduce the amount of embouchure motion and horn angle change that you use there are easier (and cheaper) ways to go about it than using the Stratos.
The instructions don’t go over using the Stratos to find the correct jaw position for a player who correctly plays with a receded jaw. I don’t know for sure if Reynolds would allow for this in a private lesson, but his online videos ask you to start with the chin rest and rim aligned and then protrude the chin rest even further from there. If you follow his instructions literally and happen to be a brass musician who plays correctly with a receded jaw position this is not going to be helpful.
When positioned in a particular way the Stratos does indeed make it so you have to use less mouthpiece pressure. As I mentioned earlier, in my experience it’s more common to find players who don’t use enough mouthpiece pressure, so in this case reducing the mouthpiece pressure is the opposite of what they need to move towards. For players who are using too much mouthpiece pressure there are usually other things that are not working correctly so that the musician is relying on the excessive pressure as a crutch. With an understanding of embouchure form and function you can fix the cause of the symptom and usually the excessive pressure will go away on its own. Simply reducing mouthpiece pressure on its own is treating the symptom and not fixing the actual problem. There may even be some risk of injury for players when they take the Stratos off to play if they don’t make the necessary correction to their embouchure form.
So You Still Want To Learn More
If you really want to learn more about the Stratos it’s quite easy to get in touch with Reynolds. He’s very accessible and seems genuinely excited about the Stratos. You can contact him through his web site and watch his videos on YouTube. He also is the administrator of a Facebook group (mis)named “Brass Embouchure Advice,” which you can search for on Facebook and join if you’re so inclined. Keep in mind any advice you get there is almost certainly going to be recommending the Stratos. Reynolds states, “All my students had success with it. It’s almost a device that cannot not work.” (I don’t believe this to be the case). Advertisements of anything other than an endorsement of the Stratos are prohibited, for the most part. In my experience trying to post in that group I often had long delays in getting my posts approved and actually was banned for a while simply for posting this link.
As I said, Reynolds is easy to reach and enthusiastic about the Stratos. After mine arrived I reached out to him by email and he offered to give me a lesson (he would have charged $100) with a money back guarantee if I didn’t find it helpful. I tried to schedule something with him during my spring break when I had a lull in my schedule, but between both of our busy schedules and the time difference we weren’t able to find a time to get together. It’s possible that my opinion of the Stratos would have changed with a lesson from its inventor, however I feel that I already know enough about brass embouchure technique to understand what the Stratos can actually do and how to do the same thing without it. But you might feel differently and if you are interested it’s probably not too hard for you to make that happen – provided you’re willing to drop over $200 on both the device and a lesson.
However, I feel you’ll need to take Reynolds’s advice with a grain of salt. In his instructional videos and other places online he mischaracterizes brass embouchure technique, often offering contrary descriptions of how things should function. It mostly seems he makes recommendations that describe how he thinks he plays, without consideration of what is actually happening and how it can be different from player to player.
The Stratos is expensive, overpriced for the value in my opinion. Everything that I might use it for can be done just as easily, perhaps better, without the device. There are some inherent risks using it that could lead you to habituating something that is wrong for your embouchure. You’ll need to make some effort to find instructions on how to use it, since it’s not obvious when it is shipped to you, unless you want to spend the money to catch a lesson directly with Reynolds. Furthermore, those directions are not universally good for all brass musicians.
My Stratos is now in my junk drawer with old mouthpieces and other things I don’t use. At some point I will probably try it out with a student, just to see what happens, but I won’t use it as suggested by Reynolds and I won’t recommend anyone spend the money to purchase their own.