Embouchure Questions – Lower Register For Low Placement Type

I’ve recently gotten a couple of very similar questions about the Low Placement embouchure type from my YouTube video Five Myths About Brass Embouchures.  “albrt2890” asks:

I have a student (f horn) who plays with a large amount of lower lip however when he descends into the lower register of the horn he changes his mouthpiece position so that he has more upper lip in the mouthpiece. Would it benefit him to try to play horn with the “Standard” embouchure through all ranges?

“dreadss64” similarly asks:

i use that same embouchure when i play my trumpet! But when i play mello i have to change it.its really hard diging out those low notes. My brass teacher said my trumpet embouchure is bad and that i need to change it. Do you agree?

First of all, without being able to watch a student play in person I can’t say for whether or not that player’s embouchure type is correct.  That said, in virtually every case I’ve seen where a player was playing naturally with an upstream embouchure type (meaning, more lower lip inside the mouthpiece), this was the correct type for the player.  There is something about the combination of physical characteristics that makes it possible for upstream players to play (sort of) by moving their mouthpiece placement higher on the lips and making their embouchure downstream.  However, players who are properly one of the two downstream embouchure types can’t seem to make an upstream embouchure work at all.  Along with the normal rarity of upstream embouchure types (maybe 15% of brass players, maybe even less) this makes many downstream teachers assume that an upstream embouchure is incorrect and one of the first things they do is try to “fix” their upstream students by moving their mouthpiece placement up to a downstream placement.  This is usually the last thing they want to do.

Low Placement Embouchure Type (High Bb)

While every player’s embouchure is unique, there are certain tendencies Low Placement type embouchure players have.  When working correctly, they often find that their upper register is quite strong, but they sometimes struggle getting much sound and flexibility in the low register.  To compensate, sometimes they will move their mouthpiece placement higher on the lips, sometimes even switching to a downstream embouchure like “albrt2890’s” student, or sometimes simply moving their placement closer to center, but still upstream like the student pictured here.

Low Placement Embouchure Type (Low Bb)

One analogy I like is that players belonging to this embouchure type are sometimes like a “muscle” car.  Engines on these cars can run really rough and sputter along while idling at a stop light, but once the car gets up to highway speeds their engine purrs along and runs very smooth.  Likewise, some Low Placement type players will find that their upper register works great, but they have a lot of trouble bringing the embouchure coordination down into their lower registers.

These players shouldn’t resort to changing their mouthpiece placement in order to make the lower register stronger, they will end up loosing the great lip compression they have for the upper register (and, no, it won’t come back with practice after the muscles have “time to adjust,” as some of you might be thinking).  What they want to do is learn how to descend properly with the same embouchure that works so well for their upper register.

First, these players may find their overall warmup to work better by starting on higher pitches than many other players.  Personally, as a Low Placement type myself, I start on F above middle Bb (trombone) or even high Bb as my first note of the day.  Trumpet players may want to start on G on top of the staff or even high C.  Tubists might try starting on F in the staff and horn players on around a C or E towards the top of the staff, maybe even G on top of the staff.  Less experienced players may want to start a little lower than this, but avoid starting off the day in the lower register.

Once these players have established their embouchure feel in the higher side of the middle register and in the upper register they can start working their way down from there.  They should start on a higher note and practice descending down on the same breath, to avoid giving themselves a chance to reset when they catch a breath.  If exercises require more than one breath to finish they can breathe through their nose while keeping the mouthpiece placement on the same spot on the lips.  As they descend they should gradually play softer and allow the tone to get thinner at first.  Avoid collapsing the embouchure formation and try to not drop the jaw at all.  Over time, this will help these players figure out exactly what they need to do with their lips (and tongue arch, and breathing too) to descend and the tone will start to open up.

One thing that can really help work out how to descend with compression here is to learn about how the embouchure motion works for the particular player.  While everyone has some unique deviations in the amount of motion and the exact angle it tracks along, Low Placement embouchure type players will push the mouthpiece and lips together as one upwards towards the nose to ascend.  There is a tendency to overdo the amount of motion to descend, so be careful here to not push up too much.  Sometimes the horn angle will want to change slightly as they descend also, maybe moving off to one side or tilting slightly down (maybe even up slightly, although this seems to be less common).  One way to check the embouchure motion and horn angle is to find out what works to ascend an octave from a middle range note and try making it work the same, just in the opposite direction to descend an octave from that middle range note.  This can be really tricky and if you guess wrong you might make things worse, so it’s best to do this under the guidance of a teacher who knows what to look and listen for.

Getting the low register opened up like this takes time, but ultimately I feel it’s better to do it this way than to try to do the reverse.  Changing the embouchure so that the low register works and building up from there simply won’t work for Low Placement type players.  It can even mess a player up quite a bit, as I’ve shown here.  Although upstream players often have more trouble with the low register than many other players, they can develop their low range well enough to even play bass trombone, such as Russell McKinney and Blaire Bollinger (one of my teachers, Doug Elliott, has taken photographs of Bollinger and you can go here to see one).

Lastly, I tell my students dealing with issues like this that in rehearsals and performances they should do whatever they need to in order to get down into the low register.  If that means they move their mouthpiece placement or resort to an excessive jaw drop, that’s OK.  They should just be aware that doing this has limitations that can cause problems and while practicing they should work on trying to play their whole range with the same embouchure that works best for their upper register.  When they start getting the hang of this they will naturally start performing like this because it will work better, without needing to move their attention away from the musical expression.

One thought on “Embouchure Questions – Lower Register For Low Placement Type

Leave a Reply