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.
Update: 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.