Even More On Horn Embouchure

I lately keep getting into online discussions with horn players and teachers about embouchure, so I’ve been  writing specifically about horn embouchures recently (although I believe that all brass embouchures essentially have the same characteristics, regardless of instrument).  I guess it’s because I’ve only just really started exploring some internet sites by horn players, and have found a number of really excellent ones.  One of those is Horn Matters.  There has been a really interesting discussion going on that was sparked by Dr. John Ericson’s post on Hornmasters and Mouthpiece Placement.

I have already commented at Dr. Ericson’s post and also wrote in more detail about it here.  Today I wanted to discuss some of the interesting comments that Dr. Ericson’s essay (and my response to it) sparked. First, Dr. Ericson wrote a short reply to my comment.

In defense of the short lengths of the quotes noted by Wilken, one thing I try to do is not quote long passages from other sources in posts such as these for the reason that I hope readers actually go read the originals to dig deeper. In the original draft of this post I had longer quotes from several of the publications but cut them down to either central points or interesting highlights. Perhaps I went a little too far, but the bigger picture goal of this series is to point people to a range of sources they might not know, especially classic sources, as they try to explore the bigger picture of horn and brass pedagogy and performance. Hopefully I have at least achieved that goal, and the above comments point readers to still other sources so I am glad to see the discussion going forward.

It appears that Dr. Ericson and I have misunderstood each other a bit.  When I commented on his site that his quotes were “incomplete” I was referring to the individual authors’ philosophies on teaching embouchure.  I didn’t mean to imply that because Dr. Ericson only quoted a relevant passage that his essay was “incomplete.”  I apologize for any confusion here or over at his site about this.

No disrespect is intended here for Dr. Ericson, or the authors he quoted, but when sources are providing inaccurate information, don’t you think that the profession as a whole is benefited when we correct it?  The role that mouthpiece placement has on a player’s embouchure form and function has been well documented and independently confirmed by a number of different authors.  Back when transparent mouthpieces and good quality cameras were harder to get a hold of we can forgive a lot of brass teachers for not being aware of embouchure types, but today there is a wide variety of information available on these topics with photographic and video evidence to back it up.  Why is it, then, that we brass teachers tend to rely on outdated sources for teaching embouchure?

Classic sources are certainly interesting to read for an historical perspective on brass pedagogy, but Farkas is a good example of my point here.  He (in)famously offered an incorrect hypothesis on brass embouchures in his text The Art of Brass Playing, which he later showed was inaccurate in his text A Photographic Study of 40 Virtuosi Horn Players.  Why is it that his earlier models are still sited and taught by most brass teachers, even though we have Farkas’ own evidence that he was wrong?

Farkas chose not to comment on the photographs in his later text, for some reason.  Rather, he chose to simply provide the evidence he collected and let his readers interpret it themselves.  Does anyone know what conclusions Farkas came to after this study?  Did he alter his pedagogy at all?

Wendell Rider is a horn player and teacher who has made some good points and raised some interesting questions in the comments on Dr. Ericson’s post.  He’s made a lot of his ideas publicly available, which I encourage everyone to check out here, here and here.  Here are some of Mr. Rider’s comments and my responses.

On the horn, placing the mouthpiece below the red membrane (lower lip) makes a big difference because of the large range of the instrument. On trombone it is different because you essentially have your whole mouth in the mouthpiece, which almost forces one to form a good embouchure that is almost independent of the mouthpiece or there will be practically no results at all. That means a good vibrating alignment and muscle control that keeps the lips in proximity. That is a generalization, but i think you may be able to see where i am going with this. On horn, the mouthpiece itself can get in the way of a good setting much more easily.

Well, to a certain point I agree, but when I take a very close look at players of all brass instruments, the same basic embouchure patterns emerge.  The smaller mouthpiece of high brass compared to low brass does have an effect on how much a change of mouthpiece placement has on the player’s embouchure.  With a trumpet or horn mouthpiece moving the placement just a small amount can result in a switch of which lip predominates inside the mouthpiece cup, which can completely change the embouchure type.

But ultimately this is just a matter of scale.  With low brass players, the large size of the mouthpiece can make for completely different issues.  Low brass players who need to place the mouthpiece very high or very low on the lips may find their nose or chin gets in the way, where horn players and trumpet players don’t usually have this problem.  High brass players with thicker lips may find that they must place the mouthpiece on the red to get their proper ratio of upper to lower lip inside, where the same player on a low brass mouthpiece with the same lip ratio would place the upper mouthpiece rim above the red membrane.

For most horn players, setting below the lower lip will cause trouble in the low range and probably a distinct embouchure ‘break,’ usually around the g below the treble clef. This results in a difficulty in moving from range to range and often creates a rather thin, hard tone. The exceptions to this, and I repeat that there are very few, will be people with very thin lower lips.

First, the relative thinness or thickness of a player’s lips seems to have no general effect on the player’s best embouchure type.  Or at least, there are so many other factors that are involved that I won’t make a generalization about that.  After crunching the numbers for my dissertation the results showed no statistically significant correlation between lip thickness and embouchure type.

Secondly, I want to be clear that a mouthpiece placement with more lower lip inside is less common for all brass instruments, not just horn.  This is where I like the left-handed analogy.  Most players on all brass are going to do better with one of the downstream embouchure types.  Upstream players are sort of like lefties, less common but essential for success for those who are truly left handed/upstream.  I haven’t been able to collect a large enough random sample to run stats on this, but my current best guess is maybe somewhere around 15% of brass players have the anatomy suited best for a Low Placement (upstream) embouchure type.

For me to change my views about whether upstream embouchures are different for horn because of the size of the mouthpiece I would need to see some evidence.  Looking at trumpet players, who similarly have a smaller mouthpiece, you will find even more upstream players than on all the other brass.  With low brass, the reason may partly be due to the increased size of the mouthpiece making it difficult for upstream players to place the mouthpiece without the chin getting in the way.  Horn players don’t appear to have the same issue, yet there are fewer upstream horn players around than upstream trumpet players.  I believe that this has to do more with traditional horn instruction, which tends to rely on texts that were written by players who belong to one of the two downstream embouchure types (click here for an older post on this topic).

Where I take issue with Mr. Rider is that his viewpoint appears to be that an upstream embouchure is an “exception.”  All brass embouchures are unique, even ones that conform to one of the more common embouchure types.  All embouchures are therefore “exceptions.”  From a pedagogical standpoint, I think it’s more useful to come to a more complete understanding of the different brass embouchure types and how each one functions different from each other.  Otherwise, we’re relying on random chance and hoping that we don’t screw up too much when confronted with a student belonging to a different embouchure type.

I find those high speed camera things extremely interesting, but the emphasis in analysis seems to be on air direction more than anything else, almost to the point that that was what the people involved with were looking for more than anything else to begin with. Am I wrong about that?

When Lloyd Leno began his research using high speed filming and transparent mouthpieces he was actually trying to confirm that the lips actually vibrated at the same frequency as the pitch being played, a point of contention with some brass teachers at the time (he found it does, by the way).  When he conducted his initial study he was surprised when he noted 3 of his subject playing with a downstream embouchure and 1 was playing with an upstream embouchure.  He decided to look further into this, which resulted in his film Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures.  He didn’t go into his research looking for this or trying to prove it, it resulted from interpreting the data he collected.

The effect of mouthpiece placement on air stream direction has been written about by a number of authors (Reinhardt, Farkas, Turnbull, Gibson, etc.) and is easily confirmed.  But I don’t think you should take their word, nor mine, in this matter.  Here is one place where you can order transparent mouthpieces for a reasonable price.

I don’t think the air direction has as much to do with successful vibration as does the proximity of the lips and the ability to bring them together or move them apart, and hold those positions. After all, the frequency of vibration is what matters here. There are a lot of theories and methodologies that are put forward, but a higher vibration is a smaller, somewhat tighter one, and a lower vibration is a larger, looser, but not out of control one. When we change the direction of the air, it is one way of moving the lips closer or farther away from each other. As long as the lips don’t overlap and destroy the vibration, this can be an effective way to bring the lips closer together or vice versa. So in that sense, i agree some conclusions can be drawn from air direction, but i don’t find it to be a complete methodology because of the possibility of what could happen using those directions- too many possible outcomes, some bad.

It is true that higher pitches require faster vibrations with a smaller aperture and less lip mass vibrating and the reverse for lower pitches.  But if you look at functioning brass embouchures in a transparent mouthpiece you will probably notice that one lip or another always predominates and the embouchure will either be upstream or downstream.  You will also notice that for some players their lips do overlap in a particular way, sometimes correctly and sometimes incorrectly.

It’s not a complete methodology in and of itself, it’s only a tool to be used when it’s appropriate for the situation.  Look at this video to see one such situation.

On horn, the mouthpiece often comes into play with this process, often in an unproductive way. In order for us to maintain an unobstructed vibration, we have to be careful about embouchure placement because the mouthpiece may be hindering our freedom of movement, and if we are overlapping our lips too much, the vibration will be cut off because the lips will be hitting each other in a vertical, overlapped manner. By setting at the very bottom of the red part of the lip, we get the use of the strength of the lower lip and our set point keeps the lip from sliding up and getting behind the upper lip. A secure ‘set point’ is also a big help to consistency and the freedom to move about the range, actually much the same way a trombone player would do it, which is hard for us to achieve with improper placement. I hope this is clear.

The mouthpiece effects vibration on all the brass as Mr. Rider describes, not just horn and trumpet.  Again, it’s a degree of scale between high brass and low brass.

As far as his description about setting the mouthpiece a particular way, Mr. Rider is describing how he uses his own upper and lower lips, which seems to be similar to how more common embouchure types behave.  My own embouchure, whether I’m playing trombone or any of the other brass (I’m not a doubler, mind you) functions almost opposite of Mr. Rider’s.  For examples of real upstream horn players you can check out Dennis Brain, Phil Myers, Bruno Schneider, and Terence Johns.  Because us upstream players have the anatomy that is suited for this embouchure type, we are going to get different playing sensations than Mr. Rider’s descriptions.

On horn i also think that it can be dangerous to set into the upper lip because for most people, that lip is more delicate and can be hurt a lot easier than the lower lip. This is especially a problem for older players who are using a lot of pressure. Of course lips vary a great deal in terms of size, shape, consistency and musculature, so some lips can take a lot more abuse than others, with the caveat of age still being a factor.

The upper lip is indeed more sensitive to pressure than the lower lip, but this goes for the entire lip, not just the red membrane.  Keeping the weight of the mouthpiece a little more on the lower lip is good advice for all players, I believe.  Now if you don’t have the anatomy that is suited to play with a Low Placement (upstream) embouchure type and you try to place the mouthpiece with the rim on the red of the upper lip you’re definitely going to have to use too much pressure against the top lip.  However, for those of us with the anatomy that makes this embouchure type work best, it usually requires less mouthpiece pressure to play with the low placement than moving the mouthpiece so the upper lip predominates.  If you’re a downstream player, you’ll just have to take my word for this because if you personally try to play as an upstream player you’re going to get the same results as Mr. Rider describes.

As an aside, for some reason players who are best suited for a Low Placement (upstream) embouchure type tend to be able to force their embouchure to work as one of the downstream types, although this never works as well for the player as using the type that’s correct for his or her face.  On the other hand, most downstream players simply can’t make an upstream embouchure work at all.  This leads some teachers to assume that practice will make an upstream player eventually more successful with a downstream embouchure.  It won’t.

There is always some mouthpiece placed on the red of the upper lip, regardless of how high or low the placement is.  As long as the placement is suited for the individual player’s anatomy and he or she is playing correctly for their embouchure type, the amount of mouthpiece pressure on the top lip should be manageable for all players.  Move the placement to where it results in an improper mouthpiece placement for the individual and you risk excessive pressure on the top lip, regardless of whether it’s on the red or not.

Ultimately I’m not trying to prove Mr. Rider or any of the authors Dr. Ericson quoted wrong, I’m just pointing out where I think their information is incomplete.  I think public discussions of this topic are essential for progressing beyond what authors like Farkas, Jacobs, Reinhardt, and others have had to offer already.  We can’t simply accept what someone else has written without taking a moment to confirm for ourselves how to best apply their advice.  In order to learn how to do this we need to share our own backgrounds and evidence with each other and work out how and why we come to different conclusions.  I wish more horn players (and brass players in general) would be willing to get online and discuss and defend their ideas about embouchure.  I’d like to thank Mr. Rider and Dr. Ericson for their open minds and willingness to hash this out in a public forum as we’ve been doing.

Wendell Rider

I guess we need to define some terms and variables here. First of all, if you want to divide all (successful?) embouchures into up or down streams, that is OK with me. I just don’t find it that interesting in itself. Its there, but for teaching purposes, I don’t find that enough for horn players.
On horn it is rare to find really successful up stream players, but I’m sure there may be some out there. To say DB was an upstream layer might be a reach, since he was basically a double inset player. Maybe einsetzen horn players are up-stream. That would be interesting to know, perhaps .I have watched PM up pretty close and I would have to pass on that one as well, but maybe you have more data. If someone finds a way to use their chops effectively that is different than the norm, god bless.
What I find that doesn’t work about the vast majority of up stream players that I have encountered on horn is that by putting ones lower lip fully into the mouthpiece one is going to have great difficulty in playing the full range of the horn because the mass, shape and consistency of all that lower lip is going to get into the way in the low register. And it is going to get in the way when one changes registers. That is NOT true of the opposite.
This is one reason why trumpet players can get away with an upstream embouchure, because they don’t have to play that low. They can gear their embouchure for a range that does not require a super low register. Also, if you include screech trumpeters or jazz players in this mix, then we have to start talking about tone color, which is another variable here. The tone quality of a classical horn player is a critical thing. Just getting the notes is not enough. The horn should have the capability of a very soft smooth sound that is different from the other brass instruments. The upper lip, as the predominant lip, or the lip that does most of the vibrating and makes the most changes to the vibration has the potential to also make the best horn horn sound.
I am also sticking to my guns about setting into the upper lip. On a horn mouthpiece, with its relatively narrow rim, that can be dangerous because it pins the upper lip muscles and can cause players, especially students, to use more pressure because they can’t manipulate the muscles. By crushing the lip, it does makes it ‘tighter,’ sort of like a doughnut that has been squashed. That sort of abuse mounts up, and most of these players have range and endurance problems anyway.
The red part of the upper lip is not as strong as the red part of the lower lip, and the lower lip, in most cases is not going to give one the right kind of buzz for the lower register.
As far as one lip predominating goes, OK, fine, if that is what you want to call it. We are more like a single reed than a double reed in some ways, but again, I don’t find this to be particularly enlightening. If the lips are set up correctly, the vibration will be what it needs to be, with perhaps a little help from the teacher to avoid disasters caused by trying to play too high too soon or just making up an embouchure that has no future.
Maybe we should talk about this in person or have a video chat. I am well set up for that. I have to go now, so maybe I will get back and finish my take on your thorough answer to my other post.
In any case, I enjoy reading about your research. I think at tis point we need to define more what we are talking about n some areas.


Heya, Wendell.

I think the my main point that either you disagree with or seem to be missing is that a player’s embouchure type is determined by the player’s anatomy, not what instrument he plays, how his favorite player plays, or teacher plays. As far as defining my terms and variables, rather than try to go into it here I’d invite you to look through some of the other posts and resources I’ve made available here. Perhaps I’ve covered it already.

It is true that Low Placement players often find that the high range is easier to develop than low range. Assuming that this embouchure type is correct for the player’s anatomical features, the solution is to learn how to work with that embouchure type correctly, something that a lot of downstream teachers have little to no experience in doing and they often inadvertently make things worse by instructing those players like one of the downstream types. In my experience, trying to change a Low Placement (upstream) player to a downstream type may help the musician play lower, but at the expense of the upper register. In this situation, the upper register usually completely caps out at a certain point and never gets better (the upper register should get softer and thinner and gradually peter out, rather than an OK higher note and then just above it there’s no way the player can hit it). In my opinion it’s better for players that have this situation to learn to play the low register with the Low Placement embouchure, rather than try to develop the upper register in a way that just doesn’t work for the player.

I disagree about downstream players never having a similar issue. Players belonging to the Very High Placement type who place the mouthpiece extremely high often have similar characteristics, a strong upper register and difficulty bringing it down without resetting the mouthpiece closer towards center. The solution is similar too, learn to descend with the same embouchure that works for the upper register. This embouchure type is more common and brass teachers seem to be able to help Very High Placement players better and so it probably doesn’t seem to be as big an issue because of it.

Curiously, I’ve had many trumpet players and trombone players try to argue the opposite of your point. It’s common for them to figure that a Low Placement embouchure is OK for the low register, but breaks down in the upper register.

As far as upstream jazz players and their tone, you have to consider variables like their equipment choices too. Wynton Marsalis is a pretty good classical trumpet player and he appears to have an upstream embouchure.

Your descriptions about the role of the upper lip in a horn embouchure are also true of downstream players of all brass. Again, for players with the anatomy that makes an upstream embouchure work best, this is not the case. If a downstream player tries to play upstream they will “crush the lip,” as you suggest, because it’s inefficient for their anatomy. Upstream players don’t find this, because it takes much less effort for them to play with the lower placement.

Thanks for your comments. Maybe when my teaching and playing schedule slows down a little we can “meet” virtually and talk about these things this way. You obviously have a great deal of experience and much of what you say lines up with things I’ve noticed too.


Lyle Sanford

I’m going to have to go deeper into your writing to get what you’re talking about here. Just want to say I’ve been astonished at how unsettled the horn world is. There’s not a standard instrument and there’s no agreement on how to play it. Can’t help thinking that a generation or two down the road if things settle out, maybe it’ll lose the reputation of being such a difficult instrument. I’m self taught as part of trying to be familiar with all the instrument families. If I were younger and wanting to study horn for real, trying to find a teacher that would suit me individually would seem to be a real challenge. Seems as if horn players, more than most instrumentalists, need to always be checking they’re doing what’s best for themselves and be open to the possibility their teacher is leading them astray.

Great blog. Well organized and easy to navigate.


Hey, Lyle.

Thanks! I enjoy your blog too (http://registeredmusictherapist.blogspot.com/ go check it out, everyone)!

It’s really not just horn players, I think. Lots of brass players ignore certain technique factors like embouchure in favor of a “let the body figure itself out” sort of practice. I don’t think a little knowledge and study can hurt, personally, and I also happen to be interested in it.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.