Lyle Sanford, who writes the nice Music Therapy blog, recently has posted about “lip calluses” on brass players. I used to get little rough spots on my lips that sound like what he’s describing back when I played with a dry embouchure. I commented on his blog that while I never was really bothered by them, they went away after I changed to a wet embouchure. These “calluses” seem to be caused by either abrasions from the lip vibrations or by twisting the lips up with the mouthpiece, which both are eliminated by wetting the lips before placing the mouthpiece.
This got me thinking a little more about wet and dry embouchures, and the advantages and disadvantages of both. Recalling that Donald Reinhardt has written extensively about this in his book, The Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, I dug out my copy and reread what he says.
I agree with Reinhardt’s basic advice, that anyone who can adopt a wet embouchure probably would do better in the long term. There are several advantages to playing on a wet embouchure, including:
- The wet lips provide lubrication, making response easier
- The wet lips provide lubrication, helping to eliminate abrasions
- The wet lips provide a slippery surface, making it easier for the player to slide the mouthpiece to where they want to place it during the initial placement
Advantages of a dry embouchure include:
- The dry lips are less slippery, making it less likely for the mouthpiece to slide to a different spot on the lips while playing
- The high register can feel easier
The main disadvantage to playing with a dry embouchure is that it becomes very hard to avoid twisting the lips up with the mouthpiece rim during placement, which I think may be the main source of the “lip calluses” that Lyle wrote about. Dry lip players need to be very careful while placing the mouthpiece that the bring the rim in contact with the lips at the exact placement that they need, since they can’t then slide the mouthpiece along the lips to fine tune its placement. Dry embouchure players often find they need to wipe off their lips continually while playing, particularly if it’s hot and they are sweating while wet embouchure players may find that in particularly dry climates they have to take the mouthpiece off the lips to wet their lips. Players who place the mouthpiece very low on the lips so that the rim is set almost on the red of the upper lip may find it helpful to adopt a top lip dry/bottom lip wet combination.
It can be good for players to practice playing with the opposite for a period of a few days to a couple of weeks. For example, if you play with a dry lip embouchure you might find that a wet embouchure makes your mouthpiece placement slide to a different placement while you practice. While normally I’d discourage placing the mouthpiece in different places, you might discover that the reason the mouthpiece slides to a different spot on your lips is because it actually works better there. A wet lip embouchure player who practices dry might find that he or she is actually allowing the mouthpiece to slide to different spots on the lips for different registers and can learn how to play with a more consistent placement this way.
Sometimes, as was my case, practicing differently may end up changing the way you normally play. Originally playing with a dry embouchure, when I started practicing with a wet embouchure I had a lot of trouble keeping the mouthpiece from sliding off my top while ascending (I have a very low placement, the rim is set right on the red of my upper lip). Over time, by strengthening my embouchure formation and relying more on muscular contraction to ascend, and less embouchure motion, I found that I could keep my placement consistent and enjoy the better response and easier initial mouthpiece placement with the wet embouchure. This has become the way I play normally now and I find that a dry embouchure isn’t as comfortable for me any longer.
Most players probably don’t think too much about whether their lips are wet or dry while playing and may even play with a combination of the two. Regardless, I do think it’s useful for players to carefully experiment in their practice sessions and try out one or the other for a week or so and then try out the other. Even though you may want to go back to what you normally do, it’s possible to learn some important things about your embouchure formation that you can transfer back later.