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.