Embouchure Question – Tongue Between Teeth

I’m in the process of cleaning out my email inbox and getting back to all the questions I’ve gotten over the past few months. Here’s one that I thought would be interesting enough to post here. Bob writes:

In the past we have touched on the the idea of TCE. I have some questions,or maybe I would like to hear some more of your observations of Why, the tongue between the teeth would hinder development of sound, range, flexibility. I am just very interested as to why I find this working so well and so easily for me. My range continues to grow in both directions as well as improvement in my tone. I’m not on a Devil’s advocate idea,just trying to gain some insight, if there is any,as to why is it embouchure specialists are so against something that I find wonderful for playing.

I don’t mind people playing devil’s advocate at all, and this is an interesting topic to discuss, regardless of what your personal thoughts are. I do think it’s accurate to state that playing with your tongue between your teeth is discouraged by most. However, it’s not completely unheard of. As I’ve brought up in other posts here, advocates of a “tongue controlled embouchure” (sometimes abbreviated as “TCE”) recommend the tongue tip presses against the lower lip while playing. Donald Reinhardt noted this phenomenon and listed it as one of his rare tongue types, correct for players with “long thick lower lips with exceptionally short stumpy lower teeth.” It’s possible that the reason Bob finds this technique so wonderful for playing is because it simply is the best possible method for his anatomical features.

That said, there are some folks who adopt a tongue controlled embouchure who I strongly suspect would be better off in the long term doing something different. Every player who plays with the tongue between the teeth like this I’ve heard in person (and almost without exception on video or audio too) has a tone that I find less-than-pleasant. Even if it gives them great high range, I just don’t like the way it sounds. If this doesn’t describe you, or if you’re happy with the sound, then perhaps it will be fine. For the large majority of players, however, there are some drawbacks to keeping the tongue between the lips that may not be obvious in the short term.

First, the attacks. If you’re attacking each pitch with the tongue striking the lips you’re working harder than you need to on each attack. Yes, some players get quite good at clean attacks this way, but there are more split second adjustments that need to happen compared to having your lips already in position for the the pitch and tonguing behind the teeth. Keeping the attacks clean with the tongue against the lips takes more vigilance than otherwise and I suspect that valuable practice time is better served working on other things that will work better in the long term.

Typically, keeping your tongue on the lips will require a more open jaw position than I think is optimal for the long term. There are a lot of players who get used to playing with a more open jaw position (with and without the tongue on the lips) that learn to play well, but in the long term this seems to run the risk of problems. Just this past weekend I worked with a horn player who couldn’t hold pitches steady. One of the things that ended up having a beneficial effect on her playing was to bring her teeth closer together. She had been playing at a high level for decades, but eventually she couldn’t make this technique work (and to be clear, there were other issues going on here and it wasn’t just the jaw position hindering her playing).

Donald Reinhardt, one of my go-to sources for brass embouchure form and function, felt that attacking the pitch with the tongue between the lips was one of the worst techniques for range, flexibility, endurance, and playing confidence. According to Reinhardt, this is because the mouthpiece ends up “bobbing and shifting its position during any detached tongued passages.” The brass player risks subconsciously letting up on the mouthpiece pressure prior to the attack and then the mouthpiece will be suddenly thrust back against the lips for the attack. All this thrusting of the mouthpiece back and forth of the mouthpiece against the lips means that your lips are taking a beating while playing.

As I’ve speculated on other posts about the tongue controlled embouchure, keeping the tongue tip against the lower lip while playing may provide a range boost for players because the forward position of the tongue really helps the player focus the air stream against the embouchure aperture. For some downstream players the tongue also ends up providing some of the lip compression that are more typically (and more correctly, in my opinion) done at the mouth corners. For players who find the tongue on the lower lip effective I recommend taking the tongue tip and instead attacking pitches behind the upper teeth and then snapping it to press against the gully behind and below the lower teeth. The tongue center can then be pressed forward towards the compressed embouchure formation but be kept off the lips entirely. This allows the jaw position to be closed enough for long-term progress and the muscular effort done at the mouth corners instead. Yes, this will take practice and time to make work, but I feel it’s better for most players over the long term.

I’ll close my thoughts again by quoting Reinhardt because in my experience I’ve found the following to be accurate.

Whenever a performer permits his tongue to penetrate between his teeth and lips, he is actually opening them to allow the tip of his tongue to penetrate between them. In so doing, he is subconsciously depending upon the timing of his reflexes to bring his lips together again for the purpose of vibrating. Some players get by in this manner for years but as they advance in age and their reflexes slow down, the real playing difficulties commence. Learn to use your tongue without molesting the embouchure formation in any way.

– Donald Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System

So Bob, maybe your experience is absolutely correct for you, but not most other folks. Maybe the reason you find it works better is because there’s something else you’re doing (or not doing) while playing without the tongue between the lips that makes a tongue controlled embouchure work better in the short term, but a different approach would work better in the long term. Since I haven’t been able to watch you play I can only speculate. Take my thoughts with a big grain of salt.

7 thoughts on “Embouchure Question – Tongue Between Teeth

  1. Dave,
    Thank you for answering my question.I can not speak for other players using a TCE method. I can only speak for myself.My attacks are not made with the tip of the tongue,but rather done dorsal style against the back of the top teeth and gums.This allows the tongue to reamin stationary,thereby eliminating the resetting(I think that is what you were getting at) of the lips.In my case the tongue rarely pushes against the bottom lip.It mostly sits against the lip to help aid in the collapsing of the bottom lip and also to aid in the formation of the lips/mouth around the tongue.Idon’t know if this makes what I do any more clear. What would your observations be concerning that approach.

    1. Hi, Bob.

      What you describe is pretty much what Donald Reinhardt discusses as one of his rare tongue types that are used by players with short lower teeth and large lower lips (assuming that you’re speaking of the tongue tip on the lower lip, not the upper lip). It’s certainly possible the reason you find this technique to work so well for you is because this is absolutely the best way for you. It’s also possible that you’re doing something (or not doing something) that is making the tongue on the lip a crutch and that making a correction to it (mouth corners, jaw position, etc.) would make your lip not collapse as you describe and keeping the tongue behind the lower teeth and gums work better. Hard to say without being able to watch you play and work with you in person.


  2. I recently had a lesson with Jay Friedman, who advocates tonguing between the teeth (no talk of touching the embouchure per se). His attacks are perfect and he is the most efficient player I’ve ever seen. Jay went on to say that the great Bud Herseth also tongued between the teeth for initial attacks. I’ll be darned.

    1. Interesting, Bruce. That surprises me that both Friedman and Herseth both tongue between the lips because their attacks are so clean. I still prefer to teach attaching behind the teeth, but there are a lot of different ways to use the tongue that work well for some folks.

  3. Tim, lots of folks do. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing.

    That said, would you post a reference for what you say? I’m always curious to learn more.

  4. I have played my whole life with tongue through lips method on bass trombone. I get big fat sound but biggest problem is triple tongueing which is virtually impossible. Too late now for me to change.

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