The Current State of Brass Embouchure Pedagogy

A topic on Trombone Chat got me thinking about the current state of brass embouchure pedagogy.

As Doug notes in the forum thread, traditional brass pedagogy has been dominated by Arnold Jacobs’s approach. In this approach you actively avoid working on the embouchure. In essence most brass students are taught to breathe well and focus on the end product. You should ignore the embouchure.

And that’s why brass embouchure research is so rare and generally unknown outside of a few. Fortunately I was encouraged to explore this topic for my graduate research. I know graduate students who were actively discouraged from doing any sort of pedagogy research on brass embouchures because it wasn’t appropriate or worth doing.

What does the latest research say about teaching brass embouchures? I just scanned through an academic library searching for “(embouchure) AND (pedagogy)” for publications that have come out in the past 5 years. I found just 6 relevant hits.

The Effect of a Researcher Composed Mouthpiece Buzzing Routine on the Intonation and Tone Quality of Beginning Band Brass Students
Beghtol, Jason. The University of Mississippi, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2017. 10746240.

No mention of embouchure types that I noticed. (The abstract notes, “Results suggest the inclusion of a daily mouthpiece buzzing routine does not have a significant effect on beginning band brass students’ intonation or tone quality.”)

Bardins, Sandis; Marnauza, Mara. Problems in Music Pedagogy; Daugavpils Vol. 13, Iss. 1/2, (2014): 97-110.

This one mentioned embouchure twice. The author’s point in both of those sentences is that breathing is important to a well functioning embouchure.

This leads to creating an unnecessary tension and stress in the body, because the natural inspiratory reflex (so-called Herring-Breuer reflex) is not implemented (White, 2005), and also contributes to the expiratory muscle fatigue and rapid decrease of the physical endurance – general for the body, because the body is not supplied with oxygen, as well as embouchure, which receives a reduced amount of air for creation of a sound and has to compensate it by pressing the mouthpiece against the lips.

This approach to mastering breathing patterns in wind instrument playing has several advantages:

3. a more stable air flow which relieves work of the embouchure, thus increasing its endurance and working limits in ultimate registers.

This article pretty much represents mainstream brass pedagogy. Fix the breathing and embouchure will do fine, no need to learn about how embouchure works.

Approaches to the Horn Embouchure: Historical and Modern
Author: Schons, Anthony
Journal: The Horn call
ISSN: 0046-7928
Date: 02/01/2015 Volume: 45 Issue: 2 Page: 58

I actually can’t find this full text online, so I don’t know what it says about embouchure. It could be relevant and I’m curious because I’d like to see how horn pedagogy has evolved (or not). Horn pedagogy seems to have its own quirks that you don’t see in other brass teaching.

Insights on Dealing with Braces
Whitis, James. School Band & Orchestra; Las Vegas Vol. 17, Iss. 9, (Sep 2014): 36-38,40,42,44,46

This article is not scientific at all and is based on the author’s personal experience both having braces and teaching students with braces. I don’t think the advice in there isn’t bad, per se, but it is very incomplete. I’ve seen a lot in the literature that’s like this, one teacher or player’s anecdotes are described, but rarely subjected to any testing.

Song and Wind 2.0: goal-oriented teaching in the applied studio
Karen Marston
International Trombone Association Journal. 42.1 (Jan. 2014): p32+.

The only reason this came up in my search was because the term “embouchure” was in one of the citations (Fletcher, S. (2008). The effect of focal task-specific embouchure dystonia upon brass musicians: A literature review and case study. Doctoral Dissertation. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.). Here’s the specific citation.

From this perspective, it has been easier to discuss, disseminate, and perhaps even implement the comparatively clearer assertions of more behaviorist-leaning teachers; therefore, despite enthusiastic support for Jacob’s ideas, the dialogue on teaching within our field often continues to target task-oriented concepts. (Fletcher, 2008; Marston, 2011)

I’ve read both Fletcher’s and Marston’s dissertations (she cites her own dissertation a lot in this article). I think her criticism of “task-oriented concepts” are off base. The criticism that so much of this type of teaching is contradictory is, to me, evidence that a model, such as Donald Reinhardt’s and Doug Elliott’s embouchure type approaches need to be better understood in order to evaluate and compare different pedagogical practices. If you aren’t analyzing things correctly, you’re not going to teach the right task oriented concepts in the first place. Sure, it’s a lot easier to focus on product over process and get an immediate benefit. But if you’re going to truly compare task-oriented versus product oriented pedagogy you should at least learn how to do both right.

And again, I have to make the point that it’s valuable for teachers to understand the process too, even if they minimize their discussion of the mechanics of brass playing with their students. The whole point of Marston’s article is to teach brass technique by emphasizing the end goal, and while acknowledging that there are smaller steps to reach that goal, at no point does she make any mention to what good brass technique is other than to mention breathing.

And Marston’s impressions that task-oriented teaching is dominant today seems off to me. If the 6 papers and articles I found today are representative, Song & Wind is getting more attention.

A pedagogical approach for developing the endurance, technical facility and flexibility necessary to perform Anthony Plog’s Concerto for Solo Trumpet, 14 Brass, and Percussion
Sullivan, Michael. California State University, Long Beach, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2014. 1528052.

This last one is a case study of one student’s preparation for a demanding performance. The embouchure references in here seem to be mainly related to specific exercises the author found particularly helpful in preparing to perform, but an awful lot of those embouchure exercises reference air flow as the key. While I don’t want to minimize the role that good breathing plays for successful brass playing, it does represent mainstream brass pedagogy’s approach that the only thing that is important for embouchure is to have good breathing.

So there you have it, for what it’s worth. Bear in mind that this was a cursory search and there are probably some hidden gems that I didn’t come across. I also intentionally kept the search terms narrow and eliminated hits that weren’t relevant (anything related to woodwind for example and historical papers). Of the 6, three emphasized breathing as the key for embouchure technique. One article was based purely on anecdotes, so the information should be taken with a grain of salt. Only one made any attempt at scientific inquiry and subjecting pedagogical ideas to a test.

Point of clarification update – there are definitely more than these out there, probably a lot more, it was just what happened to be accessible through one college library web site. My interest in using these six was to use it as a snapshot for what current  research happens to be out there on brass embouchure pedagogy. 


Hey Dave i have an issue. Im pretty sure im moving my jaw forward and backwards unintentionally causing me to have a dkwnstream and upstream embouchure. I have a low placement.



I’d have to see what you’re doing. Moving your jaw forward and backwards is a normal part of a functioning embouchure, as long as it doesn’t do that too much. If you are a true “low placement” type then your embouchure should be upstream regardless of your jaw position.



Hello Dave, are you still providing help to students with embouchure problems? I have watched most of your videos on youtube and I think they are very instructive. However, I struggle to identify what kind of embouchure I am using when playing trombone, since most of your embouchure examples shown in your videos are very distinctive to mine. (I am an Asian)

I have been playing bassoon for roughly six years but just started trombone last year. After a whole year of daily practice and have huge experience of breathing technique from the bassoon, I cannot even hit high A flat by any means (and barely high G). This issue has made me think that embouchure is the main obstacle I am having now. I will be very glad to send you a video of myself playing, thanks Dave!



I’m happy to take a look at your embouchure via video. Look at the descriptions of what I’d like to see here:

If you’ve only been playing a year I’m not sure I’d try to guess what embouchure type you’ll end up best on yet. Bassoon embouchure and the air flow/pressure are going to be different from trombone, so perhaps you’re confusing something like mouth corner placement or something that I can see to help.


Karen Marston

Hi Dave –

Thank you for reading my article, and dissertation. Given that you are familiar with my work, I was surprised to read that you feel I do not have a grasp on task-oriented pedagogies. Like most students of my generation, I was raised on these pedagogies. In addition, if you have read my dissertation, you must have found the literature review, which includes about 50 pages of carefully researched content on all pedagogical threads within the field, including those I regard as task-oriented. Since my article was intended to explain goal-oriented teaching, there was no reason to include other pedagogies there. (And, as you note, my dissertation is cited, so people can find that content.)

To clarify, my argument is not that task-oriented approaches are without merit, or that they fail to facilitate improvement, but that placing the focus of attention consistently on task, rather than product, has been correlated with maladaptive states, such as dystonia. Given this, product should be favored over task, in order to facilitate healthy habits, efficiency, and long term health. Since your post discredits my research and conclusions, based on what you perceive to be a lack of knowledge on my part, I felt it was important to clarify.


Hi, Karen.

Thanks for stopping by and clarifying. I’m not certain that we are both quite on the same track in our discussion, so here’s some clarification from my end:

Given that you are familiar with my work, I was surprised to read that you feel I do not have a grasp on task-oriented pedagogies.

If I ended up giving the impression that you don’t have a grasp on how task-oriented pedagogies are supposed to work (when applied correctly), that wasn’t my intention. Rather, I was looking at the current state of research onto brass embouchure technique and noting that articles and papers that purport to address embouchure technique rarely, if ever, actually discuss what good embouchure technique actually is. Those that do tend to be contradictory to each other and ignore research that takes an objective look at embouchure form and function.

The other point I was making is that if the snapshot of articles above is representational, and I believe them to be, then it seems like goal oriented pedagogy is predominant.

To clarify, my argument is not that task-oriented approaches are without merit, or that they fail to facilitate improvement, but that placing the focus of attention consistently on task, rather than product, has been correlated with maladaptive states, such as dystonia.

You mentioned this on the Trombone Pedagogy Facebook group a while back, but when I asked for a citation or clarification your reply then was to the effect that you “don’t engage in Facebook debates.” Unless I missed it, your dissertation and article don’t actually address this question. Are you able to clarify now?

But regardless, I think we both agree that attention “consistently” on task (or on product) is not recommended.

Given this, product should be favored over task, in order to facilitate healthy habits, efficiency, and long term health.

David Vining has written, “I would learn later that musicians who get dystonia are often very natural players who don’t typically have to overcome great technical shortcomings in their formative years.” Karen, you wrote, “Usually they are interpreted as ‘maintenance’ problems, and the player engages in a more consistent, rigorous practice schedule. Unfortunately this only aggravates the problem.”

I question whether it’s the talk-oriented reaction that is aggravating the issue or the lack of understanding of what embouchure mechanics are actually related to the issues in the first place. Given the lack of general knowledge about embouchure form and function in the field as a whole, most players and teachers are simply not equipped with the information they need to make corrections incorporating a task-oriented procedure.

It seems to be more likely that embouchure dystonia correlates with a lack of prior background in how and when to correctly analyze the embouchure. When a problem begins to arise, these natural players end up trying to make corrections without the understanding of why they are having issues in the first place. A task-oriented approach that isn’t aimed at the necessary correction will inevitably make things works. I don’t feel that we can blame the dystonia on the task-oriented practice, but rather a lack of understanding of how and when to use it correctly.

No one, to my knowledge, has looked at brass embouchure types as a variable. Since these embouchure types exist and all brass players can be objectively classified according to how their embouchure functions, I would think this is an important area of research. Even more important, I can anecdotally state that players exhibiting symptoms consistent with “embouchure dystonia” almost always can be seen to be embouchure type switching in some way or another. Personally, I feel that these are important and objective considerations to look at when diagnosing and treating embouchure dysfunction. They are also pretty helpful simply for teaching good technique to students not having serious issues.

Although there are some researchers in Europe who have been taking a look at these things, brass embouchure research typically mentions these objective criteria in passing, if at all.

Thanks again for stopping by. Please feel free to correct any other misunderstandings I have on your work and thank you for sharing your research with the online community.


Cynthia T. Carrell

Re-read Jacob’s teachings. He never says to ignore the embouchure. He says that most embouchures will work, given good air-flow and musical concepts. His teaching was revolutionary because the previous generation mostly wrote about the MECHANICS of playing, i.e. the “proper” embouchure etc. The result of that sort of teaching was that many players used lots of tension etc. and developed “paralysis from analysis.” It also led to over-thinking and less musical playing in many cases.

It has been my experience that there are only a very few hard and fast embouchure formation “rules,” and Jacob’s said similarly, “It it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” On the other hand, he did lots of research and study on breathing, anatomy etc so that he could explain and show things correctly to students, to dispel incorrect habits. THEN he re-focused on the SONG and WIND.


Hi, Cynthia. Thanks for stopping by and offering your thoughts.

I want to first mention that Jacobs’s teaching has been a huge influence on me, both from the in-person masterclasses I attended in college and from the books about him, but many of my primary teachers were Song & Wind advocates. While I never studied directly from Jacobs, I feel I’ve got a pretty good idea how and why he taught.

He never says to ignore the embouchure.

Jacobs said, “I hardly ever consider the embouchure.” Windsong Press used to have a video of some masterclasses and lessons where Jacobs discussed the embouchure and he says this early on in the video. Furthermore, Jacobs’s words and the writings about him only demonstrate a superficial understanding of brass embouchure technique. The main point I wanted to make in this post is that the state of research on brass embouchure technique and pedagogy is being held back by this attitude of hardly ever considering the embouchure and instead treating embouchure issues always as if they were breathing or focus problems.

His teaching was revolutionary because the previous generation mostly wrote about the MECHANICS of playing, i.e. the “proper” embouchure etc.

This may be true, but earlier authors (and many of Jacobs’s contemporaries) also arguably didn’t really understand playing mechanics. There are many examples of this, as well as objective descriptions of brass embouchure technique, here on my blog if you decide you want to learn more.

On the other hand, he did lots of research and study on breathing, anatomy etc so that he could explain and show things correctly to students, to dispel incorrect habits. THEN he re-focused on the SONG and WIND.

There’s no reason why we can’t do the same thing with brass embouchure mechanics. There are ways to address playing technique in such a way to make for faster and more consistent improvements than ignoring the embouchure and addressing breathing and musical expression (almost) exclusively. Those are important topics and need to be covered, but so is the embouchure. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.



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