This post is a followup to Friday’s post. If you want to try to solve this embouchure puzzle on your own you should look at the video here first, then come back and read this one. In order to follow this post completely you’ll need to understand what the three basic brass embouchure types are. If you don’t, please read this post and watch the video embedded there. If you want a more complete discussion of this, start here at this page.
I’ve been taking some time lately to catch some video lessons with my one of my mentors, Doug Elliott. For those of you who might not already be familiar with Doug, he is a trombonist, mouthpiece maker, and an expert in brass embouchure technique. He was also the primary source in my dissertation, “The correlation between Doug Elliott’s embouchure types and selective physical and playing characteristics among trombonists.” Doug has been guiding me through an experiment we tried to fix the problems I’ve been dealing with.
Once more, here is a video that shows the issues that I’ve been covering up for a while now manifest. You can hear the choked upper register, but can you spot the mechanical issue that is causing it? The answer, and the path that Doug helped guide me though to make corrections, are below the break.
My embouchure formation is too puckered. The mouth corners should be locked in place further out, closer to where they are while at rest. Also related is where I’m putting the embouchure motion for my middle Bb to high Bb. The middle Bb is too far in the ascending direction and when I go for the high Bb I don’t really have any room to go. The combination of these two inconsistencies (probably also along the level of tongue arch, but let’s not dwell on that for now) make it easy for me to overshoot the high register. When I’m first warming up in the morning, it can also choke off the pitch entirely, as in the above video.
In a recent video lesson with Doug, we were talking about how free buzzing into the instrument can really help with the mouth corner position for downstream embouchure types (what he calls the “Very High” and “Medium High” embouchure types). Free buzzing (correctly) locks the mouth corners in place and trains the muscles at and just under the corners to stay there. Free buzzing into the instrument can help downstream players keep their corners correctly firmed for playing. But because I have the anatomy that makes the upstream/”Low Placement” embouchure type work best, my lip position between correct playing and correct free buzzing is upside down from each other. Free buzzing into an upstream embouchure requires flipping the air stream/lip position as soon as the mouthpiece contacts the lips. I do practice free buzzing regularly, but never buzzing into the instrument because of this air stream flip.
But what the heck, I don’t have any serious playing obligations right now. We spent some time trying to get me to free buzz into the instrument with a Low Placement embouchure to see what would happen. I even dug out an old trumpet I have and tried free buzzing into that instrument to see how that would work. As I expected, it really didn’t work so well for me. We gave it a pretty good effort, though, just to see what would happen.
Which led to Doug’s suggestion to see what would happen if I intentionally tried to play with one of the downstream embouchure types. Since I had been down that road before I took my first lesson with him in 1997, it’s unlikely that this would end up being more successful than my upstream embouchure. That said, being able to buzz into the instrument is a great way to train the mouth corners to lock where they need to be for playing. There might also be some other things I could learn from seriously experimenting with a downstream embouchure type. Doug reminded me that when Donald Reinhardt (his teacher) had a student who should be playing on an upstream embouchure but wasn’t, Reinhardt would often keep the student on the downstream embouchure type as long as possible. It might be good practice for me to go back to downstream for a while. He originally recommended trying this out for a week, but as I continued through it he suggested sticking with it for a bit longer, so it eventually ended up being a 10 day experiment. Here’s a video montage of this experiment, showing what things looked like before, during, and after playing for 10 days with a Very High Placement embouchure type, the exact opposite type I play best with.
If you’re a real nerd and need to see much more video footage of my practice, here’s a playlist that has a few minutes or so of each day.
In normal times I wouldn’t have been able to spend 10 days playing with the wrong embouchure type like this. It would have been impossible for me to play gigs and rehearsals with a Very High Placement embouchure type and trying to practice with one type and then go back to my usual one would likely have sounded pretty bad too. This makes for a good argument to video record myself practicing and spot check my own playing more often. Also, the field of brass pedagogy as a whole needs to better understand embouchure mechanics and move away from guiding everything by the results alone. I fell into these habits, in part, because I was able to disguise them by blowing my way past the issues. It seemed to be working, so I didn’t take the time to make the corrections until it got harder to cover up the problems.
I learned several things from this experience:
- I am definitely not going to permanently change to a Very High Placement embouchure type. It was fun at first, but by the end I was mentally really ready to go back to normal.
- Getting my mouth corners locked into place was much easier while playing as a Very High Placement embouchure type, due in a large part to being able to buzz into the instrument effectively.
- Mouth corner inhalations were easier as a VHP. Now that I’ve switched back I have some strategies I’ve come up with to help me keep my embouchure formation more stable while breathing.
- It was easier to get a darker sound with a downstream embouchure, although there was a certain lack of resonance that players who properly play with a VHP type have. Downstream players have it so easy!
- Playing Donald Reinhardt’s Elasticity Routine was easier with a VHP embouchure. Downstream players have it so easy!
- I struggled to keep an embouchure motion of pushing up to ascends when I got above F over the staff. A Very High Placement embouchure should continue to push up, but I had to really focus to keep pushing up to ascend there. It made it harder to play in the upper register during the experiment. Type switching between Very High Placement and Medium High Placement embouchure types is actually pretty common and these players will want to work out which type they really belong to and learn to play consistently as one type. Going through this experience was insightful and hopefully will help me work with students dealing with this issue. That’s one issue that as an upstream player I have easier than downstream players.
- Even when I was able to keep the VHP embouchure motion happening correctly my upper register never really increased over the course of the 10 days with a VHP embouchure type. My anatomy just isn’t well suited to a downstream embouchure. People who think Low Placement players should set their mouthpiece higher on the lips and let the muscles “develop the strength” don’t understand that no amount of practice will allow an upstream player to play efficiently with a downstream embouchure.
- A VHP embouchure felt “stuffy” to me. When I switched back to playing upstream I found that I ran out of air very quickly because I had gotten used to not needing to take in as much air to play with a VHP embouchure type.
Now that I have things moving in the correct direction, I have a lot of work to make the corrections I’ve made become habitual. When brass musicians spend years doing something a certain way it is really hard to change it, even when it’s obvious that it works better with the correction. But after going through this experiment I’ve become hyper-sensitive and really feel when my mouth corners pucker too much. I’m also catching myself overdoing my ascending embouchure motion quicker and have been able to pull it back to where it should be faster. All in all, I would call this experiment a success.
I’ve cross posted the above videos in a couple of different places and some of you might find the ensuing discussion interesting. The easiest one to look at is the Trombone Chat thread here. One of the members there asked to see some video of me just playing while not engaged in the experimentation to get a better idea of how things actually are working now. The below video was taken 5 days after switching back to my normal Low Placement embouchure type.