Tooth Structure and Brass Embouchure, Part 2

I’ve blogged about this topic before, but it has been almost 8 years. One of the individuals I mentioned in there was Matty Shiner, a trombonist and teacher who had some strong ideas on tooth structure and what he considered ideal for brass playing. Matty Shiner’s brother, Eddie, was a trumpet teacher who shared Matty’s views. In an interview with one of Shiner’s former students, Jim Pugh, Matty was asked about tooth structure and embouchure.

JP: Explain your views on the teeth and how they relate to playing.

MS: If you notice your better players, nobody seems to have teeth like this (demonstrating, he shows an inverted point with his hands) or laterals sticking out like this. The teeth are like a bridge on a violin. There’s a certain curvature and the height has to be right. When a violinist takes an instrument for a new bridge, they measure it down to the thousandths of an inch. It has to be just right. And you have a notch for each string. Now suppose I took a knife and made the bridge a little shorter, that would be like somebody with a closed bite. If I made that bridge a half or quarter of an inch too high, it would be like somebody who has an overbite. There would be a lot of distance between the teeth, then all of the pressure is on the upper lip. It has to be pretty close. I did a clinic at the international trombone conference in Nashville on teeth alignment. After the seminar, I received bags of mail from all over the world.

JP: Do you see this as the way for the mouthpiece to sit in the proper place, using a high point as the center or is it more a means of shaping the air stream as it enters the mouthpiece?

MS: A little of both. You have to have a decent alignment of those teeth. We have a couple of boys here whose teeth are very flat. They get a good sound but their flexibility isn’t what it should be. After they have been playing a while, with their teeth being so flat, it cuts off the circulation and they have some problems. That needs to be corrected. There is a new system now called bonding. Before that, the only way you could make a change was by putting braces on the person’s teeth. It’s a long procedure and it takes a lot of time to align the teeth properly. But now with this bonding technique, if the dentist is shown where to put the bonding and understand the problem, within a short period of time, you can hear an improvement. Nobody can ever tell me that the teeth don’t mean anything.

The only other primary reference I can find about Shiner’s ideas comes from a 1972 dissertation by Charles Isley, A Theory of Brasswind Embouchure Based Upon Facial Anatomy, Electromyographic Kinesiology, and Brasswind Embouchure Pedagogy. While conducting research, Isley interviewed Shiner (but didn’t transcribe the interview for his paper). According to Isley, Shiner was actually recommending dental reconstruction for his students who didn’t have what Shiner considered “ideal.”

Shiner . . . recommend that the upper two central incisors form a slight outward V, or wedge shape, so that the greater amount of mouthpiece weight will ben in the center of the upper lip. According to this theory, the player would be able to avoid pinning the lips at the lateral points of mouthpiece contact, creating better muscular control of the lips inside the mouthpiece. Students whose natural front teeth arch depart from this wedge shape are advised to undergo orthodontic treatment. Results in such cases have been dramatic, offering strong support for the V shape in the upper central incisors. As to the lower teeth, a slightly rounded arch is considered desirable.

Charles Isely, p. 124

The bold emphasis is mine. If you didn’t have the tooth structure that Shiner felt was ideal he actually recommended an orthodontic procedure. This is highly problematic for a number of reasons, but most importantly – MUSIC TEACHERS DO NOT HAVE THE QUALIFICATIONS OR TRAINING TO RECOMMEND ANY MEDICAL PROCEDURE.

I also want to make note that I didn’t remove any citation for the final two sentences in the above quote about Shiner’s hypothesis and there should be one there. As far as I can tell, Shiner never published any papers or articles that discussed his methodology or statistical results. While it’s possible that one of the Shiner brothers actually did so, I suspect that I would have found it when conducting research on my own dissertation (which also happens to be on the topic of how anatomy influences trombone embouchures). The lack of publications on Shiner’s ideas doesn’t mean that he didn’t apply solid methodology and undergo some informal peer review, but it is a red flag to take the hypothesis with a grain of salt.

Another (major) red flag is that I highly doubt that any university Internal Review Board would grant approval to use human test subjects in such a way as to advise someone get dental reconstruction to test the hypothesis that there is an ideal tooth structure for brass embouchure. If you’re conducting research involving medical interventions you’d better believe that they will require you to make your methodology publicly available. If Shiner was conducting research without IRB approval this would be getting into both ethical and legal issues (at least today, maybe IRB protocols were looser back when the Shiner brothers were actively teaching). This means we should supplement with quite a few more grains of salt.

The most charitable conclusion I can draw from the above concerns is that Shiner was using a working hypothesis in his studio and informally conducting “research” to test his ideas. They appear to be based on “armchair speculation” about how brass embouchures supposedly function rather than objective data. Any results obtained from such an informal process is really suspect. Any data is anecdotal at best and researcher bias is almost certainly influencing Shiner’s conclusions. There really isn’t any solid evidence published on this topic in the literature to start with and also conflicting ideas with equal or more validity. Pass the salt.

Based on the above, my assumption is that Shiner was recommending an expensive and not completely risk free dental procedure based on dubious evidence. While the Shiner brothers may have had a lot going for their teaching and playing, I think we can safely ignore their advice. In fact, I think it’s fair to call it out as outright flawed.

Don’t get your medical/dental advice from me, Shiner, or any other music teacher. If you want to adjust your teeth, consult with your dentist or orthodontist and get a second opinion if you feel it’s appropriate.

bob gehner

greetings, I’m curious if you’ve done any research / profiling on the late Derrick Watkins? At a close look at his MP setting one notices that the tongue enters the mouthpice cup ( and retracts ?) a split second before he actually sets and attacks a note. Any ideas as to why he did that? Thanks for your time. Bob

Karl Hübben

What a good luck that my daughter learned for dentist, i have very uneven upper front teeth (caused by an accident in my childhood) and the biggest problem was a sharp edge on one of them cutting in the upper lip. She “rounded” this point and it’s a big improvement in playing, the teeth formation means a lot!

Karl

Kamil B

I would go a step further — you need both a dentist/orthodontist AND a master teacher to weight in on this. In fact, you probably also need a fluid flow analysis (how the lips vibrate, how much pressure is on the lips, teeth placement, pressure applied, etc.) expert.

This is a multi-disciplinary problem which is what makes it so hard and probably why there’s nothing solid on the topic. You could certainly start with background literature search such as what Shiner and the author are discussing I think the author is right — to take this to the next level, we’ve got to prove a connection. The scientific method is an excellent way of doing this. Additionally, unless we have unlimited humans to experiment on…we’ll need to be more clever and computer models are a great starting point.

With that being said, common sense does go a long way so until this study is done, try what the author says (master embouchure YOUR way) since this doesn’t require anyone else but yourself.

Personally, I believe teeth play a role and I also am one of those “flat teethers” 🙂 Maybe later we’ll be called the new flat earthers.

Matthew Klee

I struggle with embouchure limitations that I believe to be a composite of several negative factors:
1. “neutral centerline”, being described as the position the two lips meet when relaxed relative to where your teeth meet when held together, is way up my upper teeth at the gum line. Find yours by closing your teeth, putting your lips together in a relaxed fashion, slip a credit card or business card between your lips and see where it goes. I postulate that the “best” result is if it is exactly where your teeth meet and the farther the deviation from that up or down will cause limitations in tone, flexibility, and range for mechanical and kinesiology reasons.

To compensate for this limitation, I have to drag (with mouthpiece), and support (with exaggerated muscle development) my upper lip down.

2. my lower teeth point out such that the lower lip rests more on a line than a surface. I postulate that this limits flexibility and tone while also limiting blood flow (faster lip swelling, lower endurance).

I do not see these two potential limiting factors being mentioned in publications or threads. Opinions, speculation welcome …

Also, I find that bonding on teeth is a reversible and reasonably inexpensive way to “play” with tooth contour ideas to see if they impact your playing. The problem is that there are few “experts” and little science-based modeling that incorporate all the possible variables to come up with the “ideal” modifications for any given individual. I would welcome that to change. I am surprised that there isn’t more PhD level dissertation work being done in this area. It seems like the impact of work following the scientific method could be large.

Dave

Hi, Matthew.

In order to offer any suggestions about your playing I would need to see and hear your chops in action. If you can post video footage, I sometimes can spot some helpful things that way.

Yes, my observation is that very little research in brass embouchure pedagogy is around that uses science-based methods. There tends to be a culture in brass pedagogy that discourages any sort of analysis to embouchure technique. The few of us who are interested in a more objective way to approach it tend to not be trained in appropriate research methodology. I would like to see those issues change.

Dave

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