Horn Angle Changes For Brass

If you look at a large enough number of different brass musicians play over their entire range you’ll notice that some of them will noticeably alter their horn angle when changing register. Some will do this to a large degree, others appear to not do so much at all. Some players might appear to tilt their instrument bell up to ascend, while others might do the opposite. Many players even bring their horn angle side to side as well.

What’s going on here? What’s correct? How much should a brass musician worry about this when practicing? How much should a teacher understand?

One of the first things to consider with regards to a horn angle change is the position of the lower jaw. Donald Reinhardt wrote,

The principal duty of the lower jaw while playing is to provide an adequate playing base or foundation so that both the inner and the outer embouchures may function as one solid synchronized unit, regardless of the player’s type classification. This playing base must hold intact while the jaw is protruded and receded (according to the register being played), regardless of any jaw malocclusion that may exist in the player’s jaw formation.

“Encyclopedia…,” p. 152

Reinhardt at times would advise his students to exaggerate the horn angle changes in order to encourage the correct jaw manipulation. So for Reinhardt, getting a student to change the horn angle was often a way to encourage the correct jaw position for the student. He didn’t want the student to be thinking about the jaw while playing so much, so by altering the horn angle the jaw would need to move into its correct position in order to maintain the foundation of the teeth and gums under the lips and mouthpiece rim (which Reinhardt often referred to as the “legs” of the embouchure, likening it to the four legs of a table or the three legs of a tripod). This tracks with what researchers who study the development of motor skills say about keeping your focus as external as possible. You could concentrate on the sensation of your embouchure “legs” by paying attention to how the rim is in contact with your lips, but Reinhardt wanted to move the focus outward, towards the bell of the instrument instead.

There does appear to be a direct relationship between jaw position and horn angle, but this can be personal to the individual brass musician. Many players will, for example, protrude their jaw slightly to ascend and recede it to descend and the horn angle should follow the jaw in order to maintain the “legs” of the embouchure. But almost everyone has a malocclusion to a certain degree and the jaw will often also move from side to side. Watch this trumpet player very closely and note how his jaw moves both in and out and side to side as he changes register, but also note his horn angle.

The view from his side shows that his jaw comes forward slightly as he ascend, while he also brings the horn angle lower, which seems opposite of what you might expect (more on this topic below). But I find the front view a little more interesting and helpful to demonstrate side to side angles. Notice that as he ascends his jaw moves to his left and when descending his jaw moves to his right. But his horizontal horn angle remains pretty static. Watch it again and listen for the intonation and tone on the higher and lower pitches. Does it sound just a little pinched and flat on the high C to you?

For fun, I asked him to play the same slurs, but to also try bringing his horn angle over to one side and compare what happens. Notice that when he slurs from the middle C to the high C he still brings his jaw over to his left while ascending. When he also changes his horn angle towards the right to ascend I feel the pitch is more in tune and the tone more focused. When he brings his horn angle to the left to ascend (the same direction his jaw is moving) the pitch on the high C is definitely flat. The effect is easier to see. Bringing his horn angle to his left to descend helps the low C to be more in tune and focused while bringing his horn angle over to his right (the same direction his jaw is moving) obviously chokes off the note.

This sort of side to side horn angle change is often accompanied with a jaw movement side to side as well and it seems to work best when those two things happen in the opposite direction. If the jaw is moving to the right to ascend, then the horn angle should probably move to the left. This seems to be universal for all brass players with some side to side motion in the jaw/horn angle. When this is working efficiently, according to the individual player’s variation, it can also minimize both the jaw change and horn angle change when they work together. It can also help correct some other mechanical issues. For example, for years I would have to reverse the direction of my embouchure motion to play a pedal Bb. It made playing down in my low register difficult for me. When I began to practice bringing my horn angle to my right while allowing my jaw to move to my left the reversal of embouchure motion direction began to minimize and is almost eliminated for me now.

Speaking of the embouchure motion the way a player pushes and pulls their lips and mouthpiece together along the teeth and gums while playing directly influences the correct horn angle as well. Consider again having the “legs” or the feeling of the rim against the teeth and gums. Our teeth and gums are not a flat surface. There’s some curvature to it, both along the horizontal and vertical. A player’s most efficient embouchure motion is usually also not straight up and down, there’s almost always at least a little side to side variation as well. When changing registers and making the correct embouchure motion a player should follow the shape of the teeth and gums underneath the mouthpiece rim and lips. If while ascending, for example, the brass musician pushes up and to the right the horn angle will probably work best if it comes up slightly and moves to the right as well, following the teeth and gums underneath.

Think of a ball and socket joint. The mouthpiece is like the socket while the musician’s teeth and gums are like the ball. When the socket/mouthpiece are pushed up and to the left it follows the shape of the ball/teeth and gums. It’s not the horn angle that dictates the embouchure motion as much as the embouchure motion dictating how the horn angle needs to change.

Since everyone is going to have different anatomy, everyone’s horn angle will be unique to the individual musician. But there are methods that teachers and players can use to help work out what works best. I’ve touched on this topic in my Embouchure 101 resource, but I’ll briefly describe how I currently work with students to help them with their horn angles.

I will ask a student to sustain a note and move their horn angle around left and right and listen. I want to see how far the musician can bring the horn angle to either side as well as hear what this does to the tone and pitch. If the pitch goes flat when the angle is brought to the left it will probably go sharp when brought to the right. Somewhere in between will be where the pitch becomes most in tune and the timbre will be the most focused. Then repeat on the same note keeping the horizontal horn angle where it is, but tilt the horn angle up and down finding where along the vertical access where the pitch is most in tune and tone is most focused. You can also try moving the bell of the instrument around in a circle, starting with a very big circle and then making it smaller and smaller, circling in on the best angle for the particular note. Repeat on higher and lower notes. I use pitches along the open fingering/1st position partials.

Each note will have it’s own horn angle that makes the pitch play best and assuming that overall embouchure form is working well enough and that the breathing and tongue arch aren’t getting in the way you’ll also note the individual player’s pattern. The horn angle will change gradually along one direction as the notes ascend and gradually in the opposite direction as notes descend. Typically the amount of horn angle change to ascend an octave from a particular pitch will be the same as descending from the same starting pitch, just in the opposite direction. If it’s not, try to see if minimizing the angle change in one direction or making more in the opposite direction works. As a starting point, I feel it’s best to keep these angle changes consistent between octave, similar to working with the player’s embouchure motion.

In summary, everyone will have their own unique changes of horn angle while playing because everyone has different facial anatomy. The player’s horn angle is determined primarily by the shape of the musician’s teeth and gums underneath the mouthpiece rim and lips and angle changes help provide the player with a firm foundation on the teeth and gums for the rim and lips. Some players will tilt their horn up and down more while others may bring their horn angle from side to side more. The amount of horn angle change a musician needs can vary from player to player, but it will generally be close to the same amount to slur up an octave as it is to slur down an octave from the same note. A teacher can help a student work out the best horn angles by watching and listening to the student move the horn angles left to right and up to down, paying attention to where the pitch goes and where the tone is most focused.

The next post will discuss some exercises that a brass musician can use to solidify horn angle changes and make them work subconsciously so that the musician can concentrate more on playing more expressively.

Bruce Bevans

Excellent essay, Dave. You are exactly right! It reminds me of the time Doug Elliott demonstrated this to me using a tennis ball and my horn to demonstrate your point. As a VHP, I was shocked how much motion, or “tilt” or “swivel” is involved. When I play a a double high B flat, my horn angle is at the correct level. By “taking the top down,” the angle tilts lower to my left as I descend. It’s my base line

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