This post has been inspired by an ongoing discussion over at James Boldin’s Horn World Blog. If you’re joining the conversation now, you can catch up by reading James’s post here, my response, and then his followup. Briefly, we’ve been musing about why there are fewer horn player’s who place the mouthpiece with more lower lip inside compared to other brass. Because the lower lip predominates with this embouchure, the air stream is blown upward into the cup and is sometimes called an “upstream” embouchure.
It’s also important for brass teachers and players to understand that a player’s embouchure type isn’t a choice to be made by emulating another player, they are related to each player’s unique anatomy. When a brass player works against their physical characteristics by adopting an embouchure type that doesn’t suit their face, embouchure difficulties result.
Of the three basic embouchure types, the two downstream embouchure types (placing the mouthpiece with more upper lip inside) are more common. Players who have the anatomy suited to play best with an upstream embouchure (more lower lip inside the mouthpiece) are more rare. It’s not clear how much less common upstream players are, but my best guess is maybe around 15%.
That said, if you compare horn players’ embouchures with other brass instrument players you’ll probably find even fewer upstream players. Many horn players speculate that there is something about the instruments itself that makes this so, however there really doesn’t appear to be any difference in basic brass embouchure form and function between any of the instruments. Assuming this is the case, there must be something else going on.
Dr. Boldin’s post, Why More Upper Lip in the Mouthpiece, may provide some clues. In his essay he quotes a few method books for horn players and teachers that all recommend more upper lip inside the mouthpiece, and in a couple of cases, the author’s speculation on why this is important for horn players. In spite of the apparent Low Placement Embouchure type of players like Phil Myers and Dennis Brain, I have not found any horn texts that even mention that this embouchure type is valid for horn. In fact, most seem to rigidly discourage it.
This attitude is not unique to horn pedagogy. Glancing through some books I happen to have on hand, I can find some similar quotes to the ones Dr. Boldin found.
A performer whose mouthpiece inner edge is habitually placed on the red (vermillion) of the upper lip is using an embouchure that is not capable of producing the flexibility, strength, and endurance necessary for normal performance. It should be avoided at all costs.
– Frank Gabriel Campos, Trumpet Technique, page 73
Watch especially for too low a placement that causes the upper rim to rest on the red part of the upper lip. . . ; it is essential to use the conventional two-thirds upper, on-third lower placement.
– Scott Whitener, A Complete Guide to Brass, page 185
My own embouchure, pictured on the left, is absolutely wrong according to those experts. This tendency for brass teachers to discourage a low mouthpiece placement is not just specific to horn, but common for all the brass. However, and this is my main point here, horn texts tend to be much more rigid than that of other brass texts. Suggestions by teachers on the other brass are more likely to mention the less common, but equally correct, upstream embouchure as being valid for a certain number of players.
Most trombone players, place the mouthpiece more on the top lip than on the bottom lip – say two-thirds top, one-third bottom. This usually produces the best results. There are, however, some excellent players who reverse these proportions, and who play too well for their mouthpiece placement to be considered wrong.
– Dennis Wick, Trombone Technique, page 21
As one can see, we are not all looking for uniformity in mouthpiece placement in relation to the embouchure, except that in most cases, there is more upper lip in the mouthpiece than lower lip.
– Edward Kleinhamer, Mastering the Trombone, page 21
Let me offer an analogy now that, while admittedly not perfect, would explain why you will find fewer upstream horn players than on the other brass instruments. If you teach art students that it’s acceptable to draw with your left hand, lefties will get to use the hand that works best for them, but most students will naturally draw with their right hand because there are more right handed people. However, if you teach all art students that it’s “essential” to paint with the right hand and that you should “avoid at all costs” painting with the left, you’re going to end up with a lot of right handed painters and left handed artists who either quit out of frustration or manage to muddle their way through, but never realize their full potential.
What I’m arguing against is a sweeping generalization with regards to brass embouchures. Just because most artists are right handed does not make it vital to draw and paint with the right hand. Similarly, just because most brass players have downstream embouchures does not make it essential to adopt a downstream embouchure. Horn players and teachers, who rely on texts that actively discourage upstream embouchures, are going to have fewer “lefties” than the rest of the brass.
What do you think? Is it possible that there is something different enough about the horn or is it a self-selection bias based on traditional horn pedagogy? Are you aware of any horn texts that acknowledge or even encourage an upstream embouchure?