Donald Reinhardt and the Pivot System – A Criticism

People who are familiar with my specific interests within brass pedagogy may be surprised to find me criticizing Donald Reinhardt, as his writings were one of my primary sources for my dissertation.  Even though I never studied directly from Reinhardt, he has been a major influence on my approach to teaching and practicing.  While I think he has been unfairly dismissed by many brass teachers who misunderstand his approach, the writings he left behind are in a large part to blame for the confusion.  Many of his former students, who insist on teaching exactly as he taught, also further exacerbate the confusion.

Donald Reinhardt (1908-1989) was a trombonist and brass teacher.  As a younger man he had some playing difficulties that he was not able to practice his way out of and had many teachers that were also unable to make recommendations that led to real progress for him.  One day, after an accident damaged his tuning slide, he got the repaired instrument returned without the counterweight attached.  This resulted in a much lower horn angle than he was used to playing with and he discovered that this allowed him to finally play a high B flat for the first time.  Curious as to why this different horn angle would have such a profound effect on his playing, he first built mouthpiece rim visualizers and then fabricated transparent mouthpieces so that he could study the differences between the embouchures of different brass players.  After some years of study and teaching private lessons for free to test his ideas, Reinhardt developed an approach to teaching brass which he wrote about in a couple of different books.  The most detailed of these was his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System.

Therein lies my first criticism; the label.  Reinhardt himself would come to regret these terms because they led to much confusion about his approach.  The use of the term “system” led to misunderstandings that he regretted, since it implied that it was a single approach for all players, when his goal was to treat each student according to their unique physical and musical needs.  The term “pivot” has become even more problematic.

Ask a brass player what pivoting is and most will tell you that this means tilting the instrument while you change registers, which some players noticeably do while others don’t seem to do that much.  Reinhardt’s definition of “pivot” was actually different from this (the term I use is “embouchure motion“).  Many former students of Reinhardt’s still cling to this term, even though it’s confusing to the point of where even if you define what he meant by it, players will still mix it up.  In my honest opinion, the term “pivot” should simply be avoided altogether.  No matter how often it is explained, this term cannot be rescued.

The next criticism I have with Reinhardt’s approach is oddly enough also one of its strengths.  In order to be as complete as possible and include as many different ways of playing he developed a taxonomy of tonguing types and embouchure types that are much too complicated for the average brass student or teacher to make effective use of.  As an example of how confusing this can get, here is a brief description of Reinhardt’s embouchure types.

Reinhardt Types I and II

Reinhardt classified embouchures into 4 main types, with several subtypes, resulting in nine distinctly different types.  The main types were determined both by the position of the players’ jaw while resting and the amount of upper to lower lip inside the mouthpiece cup.  The Type I embouchures were players whose jaw while at rest was such that the upper and lower teeth would be perfectly aligned.  The Type II embouchures were players who had an underbite and whose lower teeth would protrude beyond the upper teeth while at rest.  The Type III embouchures were players whose lower jaw was receded while at rest, but who placed the mouthpiece so that more upper lip was inside.  These players might protrude their jaw to play or have it in a slightly receded position.  Type IV embouchure players also had a receded jaw position while at rest, but placed the mouthpiece with more lower lip inside.  These players could similarly protrude their jaw to play or keep it slightly receded.  The major Types II and IV are upstream embouchures, while the major Types III are downstream.  The Type I is downstream, however the Type IA is upstream.

Reinhardt Types III and IV

Confused yet?  The inconsistent internal logic gets more confusing still, since all of the Types I and II function essentially the same as one of the other types, the only difference is the position of the player’s jaw while at rest.  While the Types III embouchures are all downstream and the Types IV are upstream, the IIIA is distinctly different from the III and IIIB because it has a different “pivot” type.  Some of the subtype III and IV embouchure types function exactly the same as other subtypes, the only functional difference being the general position of the jaw while playing.

One of Reinhardt’s former students, Doug Elliott, first explained brass embouchure types to me in the simplified three basic embouchure types that I use today.  Elliott’s approach is much simpler and the terms he advocates are more descriptive and less likely to be misunderstood.  While even teachers who specialize in teaching a brass instrument are likely to confuse Reinhardt’s embouchure types and find it an unwieldy taxonomy to use, Elliott’s three basic types are easy enough for a non-brass music teacher to understand and use effectively for teaching middle school and high school band.

As I never had the opportunity to study directly from Reinhardt, I really can’t say how his approach may have evolved today.  Regardless, many of his former students are quite adamant that using Elliott’s approach is “watering down” Reinhardt and they prefer to keep his teaching “pure.”  Reinhardt used to describe his approach as scientific.  For his former students to truly continue in a scientific approach they would need to realize that the strength of the scientific method is that it changes over time, as we learn new information and discover better ways to communicate and educate.  Other pedagogues have much to offer that Reinhardt’s writings don’t cover.  By forcing Reinhardt’s pedagogy into a static system that doesn’t adapt and adjust to the way that the profession as a whole communicates we end up making the Pivot System the exact opposite of what it was intended to be.  Rather than an approach that finds each individual’s best way to learn to play it becomes associated with a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching brass that leaves too much room for confusion to be useful.

9 thoughts on “Donald Reinhardt and the Pivot System – A Criticism

  1. I think that you confuse the reader – and brass player, in the 4th paragraph.

    It’s not a question of positively tilting the instrument, but letting the instrument move according to the minimum amount of movement needed by the jaw in order to direct the air into the mouthpiece ‘upwards’ or ‘downards’ to achieve a different pitch.

    This will, of course, vary according to every individual’s anatomy and we’re all different, so don’t blindly copy the amount of momement that someone else makes. as it might be disastrous for you!

    A movement by the embouchure of a 1/4 inch ‘pivot’ may easily result in a movement of at least an inch at the end af a trombone slide in 6th position.

    Try getting the idea with a pencil : place the pencil on the surface, hold it at the ‘blunt’ end in the right hand between thumb and forefinger then rotate it clockwise about half an inch,. The tip of the pencil will move about 2 inches.

    There’s nothing wrong with the term ‘pivot’, just in its correct interpretation Like so many things in this strife-torn world, the word is not the reality…

    1. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts, Eric.

      I think that you confuse the reader – and brass player, in the 4th paragraph.

      It’s not a question of positively tilting the instrument, but letting the instrument move according to the minimum amount of movement needed by the jaw in order to direct the air into the mouthpiece ‘upwards’ or ‘downards’ to achieve a different pitch.

      My point in that paragraph is that Reinhardt’s use of the term “pivot” as he defines it in his book, The Encyclopedia of the Pivot System is misleading and confusing. I’m not sure where you get the idea that the instrument is tilted in order to direct the air into the mouthpiece upwards or downwards, but that is not from any of Reinhardt’s writings that I’m familiar with, nor does it appear to reflect what happens when I observe what happens with a transparent mouthpiece (it may be what some people believe and have written, but that doesn’t appear to be accurate). The amount of upper to lower lip inside the mouthpiece is what determines the general air stream direction, not horn angle. The higher the pitch, the closer to the rim (up or down) the air stream will strike, depending on whether the player has an upstream embouchure or downstream one. And some players of the same category of air stream direction will tilt their instrument in opposite directions to help them change registers. Some players have more of a side to side angle change than up and down. Yes, the jaw manipulation is related to this, but this is a personal feature and not something that you can broadly characterize based on a player’s embouchure type.

      My criticism of Reinhardt in that particular paragraph is that the term “pivot” brings about confusion because most brass players misunderstand what is meant by this and think it means tilting the instrument, as you seem to imply. This is a feature that is important to understand, but it is not what Reinhardt meant by “pivot.” Please see my link on the embouchure motion for more clarification.

  2. As a former student of Dr Reinhardt, i could never critize the man. He helped my euphonium playing in a life changing way. I will never forget that trip to phiily for my first lesson. I was lucky that college low brass instructor – dr. Richard powell at WVU – recommended him and set it all up for him. I had started young with the bad habit of the “smiling” embouchure and it was habdicaping me in my progression. DDR helped me increase my range 3 octaves over a summer. I was lucky that dr Powell taught and understood the pivot system having himself studies under DDR. I think the man was a god send. I think the help he gave to his students far outweigh any criticism one might have in understanding his book by itself. Dr Powell required his students to get the book and used it as a study guide for his students. But to make the trip and spend the day with this man was an unforgetable experience. I still remember the framed blank check signed by maynard furgerson hanging on the wall behind his desk, given to him by maynard for teaching his son to play. I might agree that reading the book by itself might be hard to understand or comprehend. But i was lucky enough to have a professional teacher in college who taught it and also send me to philly to study with DDR. I eill forever be indebted to both of these gentlemen and could never criticize either.

  3. Rob, I’m envious of your opportunity to study directly with Reinhardt, as I never did personally. Instead, I studied also from one of Reinhardt’s former students, Doug Elliott. Perhaps it’s because I never studied from Reinhardt that I’m able to step back and objectively look at the Pivot System and how the terminology and categorization can be improved. Reinhardt changed his definitions and approaches over his teaching career, so I think the best model to follow would be his own.

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment!

  4. Dave:
    I studied with Donald for about 1 year, each Saturday available. I needed his personal observation and comments as the volume was confusing to me. He coached me each week and admittedly if I had secured instructions form a professional at Curtis I feel I would have had an equal amount of improvement. Donald did get me back where I should have been following some brutal playing on the road for a few weeks with a tough book. Nerves created chops that were in need of repair. He was great.
    I recall being the first student on a Saturday morning and Donald had just arrived with his coffee. We chatted for awhile and the conversation led him to pick up his hugh bass bone. No warm up whatsoever, he blew a high F softly into a sound that was wonderfully forte.
    I wanted that but it never happened.

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