Air Pockets and Guess the Embouchure Type – Frank Rosolino

Recently I came across an idea that trombonist Frank Rosolino played with air pockets under his upper lip. David emailed me to ask about this and mentioned that the guy he heard it from sat in on a gig with Rosolino and noticed it. Then last week while traveling to a gig with trombonist Joey Lee, he mentioned the same thing. Joey told me the fellow he heard it from speculated that the air pockets under Rosolino’s upper lip were responsible for him occasionally “airing out” when going for high notes.

I’m generally skeptical about claims like this unless I read it from a primary source, but it is possible that Rosolino did play with air pockets under his upper lip. I’ve blogged about this technique before, but in the context of trumpeter Tim Morrison. In this particular case there is an interview I found where Morrison discusses how and why he plays this way.

I was curious to compare what Morrison’s upper lip looked like (as someone who is known to play with air pockets under his upper lip) with Rosolino’s while playing, so I went back and watched some video of Morrison playing and then compared it to this video footage of Frank Rosolino. If you skip ahead to 1:53 you can jump right to a pretty good close shot of Rosolino playing for a bit. Then skip ahead to 2:35 and get a look from the front. See if you can tell if there are air pockets there or not. While your at it, see if you can guess his embouchure type. My guess below, followed by more discussion on playing with air pockets.

With his big mustache and shadows created by the studio lightingit’s not obvious how high on the lips he placed the mouthpiece, but I think it’s a pretty good guess that he’s got enough upper lip inside the mouthpiece to qualify as one of the basic downstream embouchure types. Sometimes “very high placement” types and “medium high placement” types have mouthpiece placements that look very similar to each other, so it’s really necessary to see the direction of the embouchure motion to type the player.

With Rosolino’s playing on this video it was easier for me to focus on the top part of his mouthpiece and look for it moving closer to or further away from his nose. Rosolino does appear to have some air pockets happening, and that causes some features that may make it harder to clearly see his embouchure motion if you’re watching around his mouth corners at first. I’m pretty sure I see a consistent motion of up to ascend and down to descend, which would classify Rosolino’s embouchure type as the “very high placement” one.

Regarding the air pockets, it’s not something that I would encourage and in most cases I would probably recommend to reduce any puffing or eliminate it, if possible. But in some situations it appears that a cheek puff is not only OK, but actually necessary. Dizzy Gillespie is an extreme example, but when he was playing at his best you can see that his mouth corners are perfectly firmed and the cheek puff is kept away from them.

Donald Reinhardt recommended air pockets under certain circumstances. He wrote in his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System:

Sometimes a little puff will form under the upper lip while playing at great volume in the upper register.  This, however, is of little consequence as long as it does not interfere with the mouthcorners.  Never permit a puff to form under the lower lip regardless of the performer’s physical type; this fault makes a trumpet sound like a cornet, a cornet like a flugelhorn, a trombone like a baritone, etc.

– Donald Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System p. 220

My teacher, Doug Elliott, was kind enough to allow me to interview him in 1998 for a good long time about brass embouchures, which I transcribed for my dissertation research. In this interview I asked Doug a bit about puffing.

How does puffing the cheeks affect the embouchure?

Well, puffing the cheeks basically eliminates all of the muscle from the picture, unless you’ve developed an embouchure that uses puffed cheeks, like Dizzy Gillespie had quite firm embouchure in spite of the fact that his cheeks were puffed.  But it’s useful for some players, not all, to find the best jaw position, and sometimes the placement, because it allows you to work with just basically the mouthpiece position on the teeth.  You don’t have the muscles involved as much as they are without your cheeks puffed.  This doesn’t work for everybody, but with a lot of people you can find the position on the teeth that works the best.  You can also sometimes work with going between a puff and no puff to work in certain corrections to find the right placement and make it work.

So do you ever recommend cheek puffing during an actual performance?

There are a lot of trumpet players who absolutely require a cheek puff in the upper part of the cheeks to play high notes.  The former lead trumpet player in the Air Force Falconaires, Colorado Springs, is a great trumpet player who has a considerable cheek puff in his upper cheeks.

(finds photographs)

Here we have a double C, with cheek puff, versus a middle C without the puff.  This is a totally correct way to puff your cheeks.  It stays away from the corners, pretty much, it’s basically in the upper part.  And many trumpet players absolutely require that to get a significant amount of sound in the high range.  It’s not a bad thing at all, it’s a good thing.

Just trumpet players?

Oh, I suppose that there would be some trombone players who that might apply to, but for the most part, probably not.

What is it the cheek puffing doing that’s aiding the production of the tones in the upper register?

Most likely just creating more resonating air column from the other side of the horn from the horn.  I’m not really sure exactly how all that works but there’s some significance to the size of the cavity in your mouth and your lungs and all that so far as the sound goes.  That’s one of the reasons everybody sounds different.

As far as whether this applies to Rosolino, it’s hard to say. Every player is different and what is going to work well for one is often completely wrong for another. It’s hard to argue that Rosolino is playing “wrong” based on how good it sounds.

What do you think? Did you have a different guess of his embouchure type? What are your thoughts about his air pockets? Please leave your comment below.

Paul T.

I agree that Frank is a very high placement type, but I don’t have anything to add to your (excellent) discussion of cheek puffing, since we have the same sources on this topic.

I’ve seen this whole video before, but in bits and pieces. It’s great to see it all in one continuous video. Thanks for posting this!

Max Acree

Its honestly hard for me to make out any movement at all , but I would have always guessed Rosolino a “medium placement type” based on his amazing flexibility and preference of small rims with deep cups.

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