Dennis Brain and the Upstream Horn Embouchure

There’s an interesting discussion going on over at James Boldin’s Horn World Blog on Dennis Brain’s embouchure.  If you’re a horn player you are no doubt already a Dennis Brain fan.  Whether or not you’re a horn player, if you’re a brass musician you should get to know his recordings of the Mozart horn concerti.  Brain is still enormously influential to horn players, in spite of him having such a short career and living a relatively long time ago (1921-1957, he was killed in a car accident).

One reason why I’m interested in Brain’s playing is he appears to have been a Low Placement (upstream) embouchure type.  Watch this video and look closely at Brain’s embouchure.

Update 9/24/22 – While going through my blog to fix broken images and links I noticed that the original video I posted was no longer available. I’ve posted a different video of Brain performing. I *think* it has the same video I was commenting on below, but none of the time s

Brain’s mouthpiece placement is quite low, even lower than most upstream players usually are.  Boldin’s blog article has some still photos, I think from this video.  I would like to point out in particular the moment from 2:39-2:46 in the video.  You can not only see the placement looking like it’s right on the red of his upper lip, but also see his embouchure motion (down to ascend, up to descend, for Very Low Placement embouchure types).

For some reason, horn players are very reluctant to consider this embouchure type as valid on horn.  Horn books almost universally teach a mouthpiece placement with around 2/3 upper lip inside.  This works great, if you happen to have the anatomy that is suited to a downstream embouchure, but Brain’s embouchure is an excellent example that it’s quite possible to play horn extremely well on an upstream embouchure, provided that your anatomy is better suited for it.

Now it is definitely true that most brass players have the physical characteristics that make a downstream embouchure work best.  Upstream players are a minority of brass players on all instruments.  But for some reason it is more rare to find upstream horn players.  Boldin speculates:

. . . I think in the case of the horn, the tolerances in terms of mouthpiece placement are much smaller due to the small size of the mouthpiece and the length of the instrument.  It is true that the horn can be played – and played quite well – with more lower than upper lip in the mouthpiece, but I think for a majority of horn players (more so than the other brass instruments), more top lip in the mouthpiece is necessary.

If the smaller size of the mouthpiece was a factor, then perhaps we should expect that there should be fewer upstream trumpet players as well.  However, the reverse seems to be true, I’ve found many more upstream trumpet players than on low brass.  One possible reason for this is that the chin more easily gets in the way with the larger mouthpiece of a low brass embouchure (my trombone embouchure has the lower rim set right on my chin).  Mouthpiece size does seem to affect embouchure type, usually because low brass players have less room on the lips to move the mouthpiece around.  The smaller the mouthpiece, the easier it is to place the mouthpiece low enough to play upstream (or, for that matter, very high on the lips or further to one side, if that happens to be correct for the individual player).

If the length of the instrument is a factor here, I don’t understand how.  As best as I can tell from comparing different embouchures on all the brass instruments, the same basic principles apply regardless of instrument.  There could be some acoustical principles involved that I’m not aware of or considering, though, so take that with a grain of salt.  I’m not an expert on the physics of brass.

My own hypothesis is that the reason we don’t see more upstream horn players is because most horn teachers are very much against this embouchure.  This is also why, I think, we see more upstream brass musicians playing jazz than classical.  Jazz musicians are less likely to have formal music education and are less interested in traditional brass pedagogy.  Brass students who are interested in classical playing are more likely to study from a teacher who follows the 2/3 upper lip tradition.  If you’re properly an upstream player and this is how you’re taught to play you are more likely to give up in frustration or struggle with technique.  Upstream horn players get weeded out by instruction that selects for downstream players.

As an anecdote for support of this idea, look at this video for the upstream horn player (beginning 2:30 into it).  As a high school senior looking at colleges and majors, she was told by a horn professor that if she wanted to major in music she would need to change her embouchure.  She happened to select a different degree track and kept happily playing with an upstream embouchure in student ensembles as a non-major up until her graduation.  While she never got rid of her tendency to smile to ascend (a common issue with upstream embouchures for some reason), I saw no reason to believe that she couldn’t be quite successful as a performer with her current embouchure.  Be sure to watch the end of that video clip to see an upstream trumpet player who got similar instruction and decided to make the embouchure change.

While you’re at it, be sure to go look through more of James Boldin’s blog.  I haven’t had the chance to look through too deeply yet, but it looks like he’s got plenty for all brass musicians, and lots more if you’re a horn player.

5 thoughts on “Dennis Brain and the Upstream Horn Embouchure

  1. This is a shy of relief to me. I am an upstream horn player. Luckily, my horn teacher isn’t making me change my embouchure but I am having a LOT of problems in my low register. My high register is great! I can whip out high C’s all day… but I can barely make my pedals even speak… and certainly cant play them well after a couple minutes of playing in the high register. I have watched all of your videos on different embouchures and the typical problems that occur with each. I do smile but very little so Im not too worried about it. I don’t really get tired up there anyways. It sometimes is thinned out but I’ll continue to work opening it up from not smiling as much. My low horn issues start around low G, third space down. After that point, it just doesnt speak very well. And I definitely cant play lower than pedal C. I notice that I collapse my embouchure but trying to keep it isn’t working. I’ve tried the motion up, it naturally does that anyways, thats not helping. Not really sure where to go from here… Could I send you a video of me playing my horn through all the ranges and give me some advice on how to get the low horn notes out? Im struggling a LOT :/ Thanks!!!!

  2. I know this is an old post, but I play with an upstream. I actually have the opposite of strong ranges. I have a serviceable high register, but my low range is almost always solid. Do you still accept videos for review? I’d love to send in mine.

    Also, I’m going through different mouthpiece setups, and I was wondering if you’ve found a general mouthpiece setup for upstream horn players such as large bore vs small bore, large cup vs small cup? Rims would be dependent on your lips I would assume.

    1. Deron, if you can post video of your chops I’ll take a look and see what I can see. Without watching, my first educated guess is that if you have an upstream embouchure you might want to move the mouthpiece lower (closer to the chin). The mouthpiece placement for some upstream players can look quite low compared to the more common downstream types and some folks just don’t get enough lower lip inside the mouthpiece.

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