In 1962 Philip Farkas, a noted teacher and former hornist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, published a book called The Art of Brass Playing. Subtitled, A Treatise on the Formation and Use of the Brass Player’s Embouchure, this text contained Farkas’s hypothesis on the proper embouchure for a brass instrument. According to Farkas, the proper embouchure would have the lips and jaw lined up in such a way that the air stream would be blown straight down the shank of the mouthpiece, illustrated as below.
It wasn’t until later that Farkas tested out this hypothesis and discovered that this wasn’t the case. In 1970 he published a shorter text, titled A Photographic Study of 40 Virtuoso Horn Player’s Embouchures. The photographs Farkas took told a different story from earlier. 39 of the horn players buzzed in such a way that the air stream was directed at a downward angle, and 1 subject blew the air stream upward.
Farkas appears to have been unfamiliar with texts on brass playing written by Donald Reinhardt. As early as 1942 Reinhardt had noticed these embouchure characteristics. He also determined that it was the ratio of upper to lower lip inside the mouthpiece that made the embouchure upstream or downstream. When the mouthpiece is placed with more upper than lower lip inside the cup the air stream gets blown down. When the mouthpiece is placed with more lower lip the air stream gets blown up. Reinhardt felt that the individual player’s anatomy would be the most important determining factor in which embouchure would work best for a particular player.
Sometime in the 1980s Lloyd Leno was doing some research into how the lips vibrated inside the mouthpiece and was surprised to discover that different players would blow the air upstream or downstream. He filmed several well known trombonists using high speed photography. Michael Leno, Dr. Leno’s son, gave me permission to post his film on YouTube, where you can also hear some of Leno’s comments as he screened his film. It’s in three parts.
While researching for my dissertation I looked at a number of trombonists’ embouchures and confirmed those findings. All brass players appear to play with either an upstream or downstream embouchure, and one type is almost always better than the other, depending on the player’s anatomy. Since mouthpiece placement is what determines the player’s air stream direction, and what works best is determined by the player’s physical characteristics, using another player’s mouthpiece placement as a model to follow is usually going to be wrong. It can even cause severe problems down the road, if the player continues to play on an embouchure type not suited for his or her face.
Here’s a short video I created to help demonstrate air stream direction on different brass players.
All these videos and resources are all just scratching the surface of a complex topic like the embouchure. If you have any questions or criticisms feel free to leave them in the comments section. Check back later for another post about brass embouchures.