Embouchure Misconceptions – Five Myths About Brass Embouchures

If you look around at a number of different resources for brass players and teachers you will notice that while there is a general consensus on topics such as breathing, there is a lot of contradictory advice on brass embouchures.  In the above video I look at five commonly held myths about brass embouchures.

1.  If you want to sound like a famous player you should use the same embouchure as that player.  If you want your students to have a well functioning embouchure, they should use the same embouchure as you.

Most players and teachers seem to feel that the embouchure that works well for them personally must be the correct one, so they instruct others to play similarly.  Sometimes students who emulate a famous player believe the key to sounding that good is to adopt the same embouchure as that player.

The trouble with this logic is that everyone has a different face and what works well for one player doesn’t for another.  There are examples of successful brass players with very different looking embouchures.  A one-size-fits-all approach to embouchure development will be successful if you or your student happens to have the anatomy suited to that instruction, but others will fail.

Brass teachers and players should understand that no matter how conventional or strange looking an embouchure is, it is always one of a kind.

2.  The embouchure is too complex to analyze properly.  Trying to do so will lead to paralysis by analysis.

If you haven’t already seen some of my other brass embouchure resources, please look through some of those to see one way embouchures can be analyzed.  I’ll just briefly comment here that while all brass embouchures are unique, there are some basic patterns that anyone can learn to spot with a little background and experience.  Using successful players of each different pattern as a guide it’s possible to learn what practice methods are more successful and which instructions should be avoided for each particular embouchure type.

Brass players who find that embouchure analysis is hindering their playing should consider that either their analysis is faulty to begin with or they are simply trying to do too much at once before they are ready to move on.  Furthermore, it’s very difficult to analyze anything you’re doing while you’re in the act of doing it.  That’s why we have teachers and coaches to help us.  There’s a time and place to take a close look at your embouchure, but when you’re done with that you should move on and put your attention on your next practice goal.

3.  There are no embouchure problems, only breathing problems.

While most brass teachers and players would probably qualify this somewhat, the opinion that breathing is the single most important area for brass technique development is almost universally believed, at least in the United States.  It’s very common for teachers to address embouchure issues purely through breath work.

Now it’s definitely true that good breathing is extremely important for good brass technique.  Because an embouchure depends on air being blown past the lips to even function, the interaction of these two factors are dependent on each other.  Improving the breath support will help a player’s embouchure function more efficiently.

Still, throwing lots of good air against a poorly functioning embouchure is a little like a woodwind player trying to fix a bad reed by improving his breathing, rather than changing the reed.  Unfortunately, brass players cannot change their lip-reed, so they must train themselves to use their lips and air together in a way that not only sounds good, but also doesn’t risk long term injury.

If you watch my video you will see brief video clips of different embouchure issues I happened to catch.  These include resetting the mouthpiece on the lips while playing, twisting the lips with the mouthpiece, smiling to ascend, flipping the direction of the air stream, reversal of the embouchure motion, and playing with an embouchure type that doesn’t fit the player’s face.

4.  The best way to develop a good embouchure is through emphasis on musical expression, just like learning to speak is done through imitation and unconscious trial and error.

Most of my comments about breathing and the embouchure also apply here.  Musicians are musical communicators and that should be our number one goal.  We absolutely need to spend a lot of time practicing playing with expression in order to perform musically.  Playing with the focus on musicality does often help technique fall into place.

I believe that musicians can learn a bit from athletic training methods, if we carefully consider the similarities and differences.  Professional athletes spend time working on their form outside of the context of competition.  They also cross train to develop strength and control that translate into a better performance in their sport.

Brass musicians can similarly benefit from training the physical act of playing their instrument out of a musical context.  This holds true for all aspects of brass technique, not just the embouchure.

5.  The best mouthpiece placement is centered on the lips, with more top lip inside the mouthpiece.  You shouldn’t place the mouthpiece rim on the red of the upper lip.

This last myth is widely believed and is also one of the more common causes of embouchure troubles for many brass players.  It is true that most players will find placing more top lip inside the mouthpiece to work best, but many players play much better with more lower lip inside.  This is not so rare as people seem to think.

Some of the better known brass players who appear to be upstream players include Wynton Marsalis (jazz and sometimes classical trumpet), Freddie Hubbard (jazz trumpet), Jon Faddis (jazz trumpet), Woody Shaw (jazz trumpet), Rusty McKinney (bass trombone with Utah Symphony), Larry Wehe (former trombone soloist with Navy and Army concert bands), Rob McConnell (jazz valve trombone), Dick Nash (studio trombonist), Don Lusher (jazz trombone), Kai Winding (jazz trombone), Bobby Burgess (jazz trombone), Dennis Brain (horn soloist), Phil Myers (horn with New York Philharmonic), J.P Torres (latin jazz trombone), Doc Severinson (jazz trumpet), and many more.  While this list contains more jazz brass players, there are probably as many in the classical field.  Classical brass musicians are more likely to study from teachers who discourage an upstream embouchure while jazz musicians are more likely to be self taught and use the embouchure that works.  Also, it’s harder to find photos or videos of classical brass players close up compared with jazz brass players, for some reason.

If you’ve got a different opinion, want to point out something I got wrong, or have a question let me know in the comments section.  Better still, post your own video and show us how your own embouchure works.

21 thoughts on “Embouchure Misconceptions – Five Myths About Brass Embouchures

  1. Question: I have a teenage son who plays tuba (classical) and bass trombone (jazz). He’d like to take a few trumpet lessons. Is this likely to screw up his embouchure? It is problematic to “cross-train” on different instruments?

    Oh, and re #4….my son has recently reported being encouraged by his tuba teacher to get a mental image around the piece he’s playing and to use that to improve his musicality. What a difference! I spend a lot of time listening to his practice sessions and this has probably been one of the tips that produced almost instantaneous improvement in his sound.

    1. Hi, Janet. Your son will probably do just fine playing some trumpet. I’ve doubled off and on with all the brass instruments with varying degrees of success, but usually found that the experience was positive for my trombone playing (my major instrument). Some players struggle with doubling, but if he’s already switching between bass trombone and tuba he’s already familiar with the experience and probably won’t find it messes him up (provided he still practices the others).

      And yes, having a good mental image of what you want to sound like is vital. It would be like trying to speak a foreign language without ever learning what the words sound like. My point in this article is that it doesn’t fix embouchure issues unless the problem isn’t really in the embouchure. Sometimes young players think too much on what they’re doing and forget to concentrate on what they want it to sound like.

      Thanks for stopping by!


  2. Hello, I have been playing tuba for 6 years, and have alittle over a 4 octave range, well I’ve been messing around with what is known as the “High Gear” on the trumpet and applying it to my tuba playing, which has extended my high range a whole octave, making it no 5 octaves, is this technique suitable? p.s. My tone stays perfect between embouchure tranistions as I accend into the high range.

    1. Hi, Jacob. Thanks for stopping by.

      Without being able to watch you play in person, I’m can’t say whether or not what you’re trying out is sustainable. Based on what you say, it sounds OK. It really depends on what you mean by “embouchure transitions.” If you’re switching between types or otherwise have an embouchure “break,” then you probably don’t want to rely on doing whatever it is you’re doing. I’d have to watch you play to be able to say more.

      What is “High Gear?” I’ve not heard this term or method before.


  3. Hi,
    I play trombone in both the concert band in my high school, and the jazz band. I can’t seem to get a good jazz trombone tone, even though my tone is fine for classical. I was wondering if there is a specific technique I could try to help me.

    1. I play on different equipment to play jazz and classical trombone. That could help you. Beyond that, at your level I would concentrate on getting a focused sound and not worry about it being fine for classical or jazz. There is more variety of what is considered acceptable for jazz than classical, so if you’re getting a fine classical sound then it should do just as well for your jazz playing.

  4. I appreciate this article. It really changed some uncertain concepts I had about brass playing. I have two questions:
    1) How much time should one devote towards tecniques and musicality(sight reading)? 2) if you had to choose one out of the two(if you had a small amount of time) which one would you choose?

    1. Hi, E.

      It really depends on your current ability level and the amount and type of playing you do outside of your personal practice time. Ideally you want to work technique and musicality every day. If you have only a small amount of time to practice (say 30 minutes), touch on a little technique for about 10 or 15 minutes. When you’ve touched on some playing mechanics and then play something musical for 10 or 15 minutes. Adjust as you need to lightly touch on what you want to cover.

      Good luck!


  5. This is a terrific article. I need some advice though if you wouldn’t mind. I’m an upstream trombone player about to graduate with a Music Education degree, and have had severe embouchure-related issues which effect my music making. I’ve gotten past what I could, but overall am not happy with my college experience as a performer. (Consistent, FOCUSED practicing with very little improvement over the years) My studio professor is terrific and well known, and I have had lessons with some TOP players. One told me I was fine, and another recommended for me to change to a downstream.

    I’m considering after my senior recital to swap to tuba, to possibly one day play in a college ensemble in graduate school (for Music Ed. or conducting) after a few years. Do you think this is a good idea, or do you suggest another route?

    1. Hi, Chris.

      Your experience is somewhat similar to my undergraduate trombone success. I worked very hard to grab every little bit of technique I could, but never really could break past certain points. My own troubles were related to me not playing on an upstream embouchure, so I don’t know that I would switch to a downstream embouchure (assuming that you’ve correctly typed your embouchure as upstream and that this is indeed the correct one for you).

      Upstream embouchures can be finicky and certain types of instruction that works great for downstream players can send upstream players into a downward spiral. I may be able to offer some suggestions, but I’d have to see you play to help. Is there any way you can take video footage of your embouchure?

      As far as switching to tuba, I play tuba sometimes (really I’m a trombonist) and love it. You can sometimes learn a lot about your primary instrument by doubling on another. If you love tuba more than trombone, by all means switch! If you’re changing instruments because you’re simply frustrated there’s no guarantee that you won’t have similar issues on tuba down the road. I’d pick an instrument that you really enjoy the most and try to find a teacher who better understands your embouchure type and what you need to practice to break through your barriers.

      Good luck!


    1. I mean more lower lip inside the mouthpiece. Angling the instrument isn’t really the determining factor for air stream direction.

  6. Hey I have been playing trombone for 7 years now and the embouchure I have devolved is much like the lip curl embouchure I have read about trumpets using. Is this expectable? I feel like is use about 5/6 upper lip and 1/3 lower. I can create a great buzz but it feels like I should be using more lower lip. But then I’m afraid of a pinched sound so idk . What do you think ?

  7. I can’t tell you how much misery myth 5 caused me. From 4th grade until my second year of college I was a very good, some would even say great) horn player (french horn) as anyone. I loved the horn and I could play. But I had a very intense, very severe, old school teacher who demanded that I play the horn with the mouthpiece 2/3 upper 1/3 lower.

    As good as I got technically and tonally, I was never comfortable in the upper register and would easily tire on higher parts. I could use the A above the treble clef and could hit the C above that but it was never comfortable or solid. My teacher insisted that I was just naturally a low horn player. I’d never known anything different, and never thought to try. My sophomore year I gave up and changed my major from music to agriculture (long story).

    Fast forward 40 years. I went to a church where they started the services with a shofar. First time I heard it I thought it was weird. I looked at my wife and said: “if they bring out a snake or something, I’m out of here.”

    After a while, I started thinking “I could blow the shofar better than the person who was doing it.” One day she went on vacation so I picked up a shofar and blew it. I could get several notes out of the thing.

    As anyone familiar with the ancient instrument knows, the mouthpiece is very small so you sort of move it to anywhere on your embouchure you can get any sound. For me that was very low (1/3 upper, 2/3 lower or even a little lower). After a while, I could play bugle calls on the thing and I started wishing I still had a horn. But horns are so damn expensive that I got a trumpet. For the first time in 40 years I was playing a brass instrument, albeit one I’d never played before. I taught myself fingerings and played for fun only. I realized that with a lower mouthpiece placement, I could play the high register fine. For the first time ever, my range ability far exceeded my technical ability. Within a month I could play a high C (2 ledger lines above the staff) and by 6 months I could play a double high C and could even hit the triple high C (I couldn’t really use anything above the G above high C, but I could play them).

    After a few months, I wanted to get better technically and with trepidation found an experienced teacher but started my first lesson saying “whatever you can help me with, fine, but I’m not changing my mouthpiece placement.” He was more of the: “hey, it’s your anatomy” school.

    Fast forward another few months and I rented a french horn just to see if I could still play. I was rusty but, using a low placement, I can play musically to high C (2 ledger lines above treble staff) and can hit a third or so above that.

    Long story longer, at 60 years old I play both horn and trumpet with a church worship team and every now and then I’ll wistfully wonder what would have happened had my very well known and highly esteemed (at the time) horn teacher had been a little less dogmatic about the whole 2/3-1/3 thing.

  8. Robert, I love your story and resonate with it a lot.

    I’m younger than you (31years old), but had a similar story, fortunately had the luck to escape from the hands of the Damon of the myth, but still resonate with your story very much.

    I really wish you will start enjoying playing the french horn again.

    (Sorry David, I’ve to commented before you)

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