Back when I was a high school and college music student my brass teachers never really emphasized nor discouraged mouthpiece buzzing. It didn’t seem to be a point of controversy. I knew that a lot teachers recommended it, but I didn’t really consider it more than doing it occasionally. As a doctoral trombone student, my mentor, John Seidel, did have certain exercises that he used that involved buzzing on the mouthpiece. These days there are many high profile brass performers and teachers who actively discourage it while others argue that it’s extremely valuable.
I’ve written about this topic before (here and here), but until recently I haven’t gone out of my way to get a decent look and see what empirical evidence is out there for and against mouthpiece buzzing. I did a quick search in a college library catalogue for “mouthpiece buzzing,” limiting it to sources published since 2000, to see what would come up in the academic and professional literature. I ended up finding 35 articles/papers that had something to say about mouthpiece buzzing, of which only 29 actually addressed whether mouthpiece buzzing was useful for teaching and practice. By no means is this a comprehensive literature review, but rather gives us a snapshot into what sort of information is available and what the state of current research is on the topic.
Rather than summarizing each reference, I instead just looked at the following five criteria:
- Does the article/paper empirically research the efficacy of mouthpiece buzzing?
- Does the article/paper speculate on the efficacy of mouthpiece buzzing with relevant and/or accurate information?
- Does the article/paper avoid speculation on the efficacy of mouthpiece buzzing using anecdotal, irrelevant and/or inaccurate information?
- Does the article/paper properly cite sources or otherwise logically reason out its arguments for the efficacy of mouthpiece buzzing?
- Is the article/paper pro-mouthpiece buzzing, con-mouthpiece buzzing, or neutral?
Note that I’ve phrased the questions in the above criteria in order to make “yes” answers show that a resource would be a helpful reference for objectively looking at the effectiveness of mouthpiece buzzing. Likewise, any “no” answers mean that this paper or article would not make a very good objective reference. That’s not to say that the paper isn’t good, it just won’t be able to objectively answer the question on whether or not mouthpiece buzzing is a positive or negative practice approach.
I also feel compelled to point out that I mostly skimmed these papers and articles, glossing over things that weren’t relevant to the topic of mouthpiece buzzing. It’s entirely possible that I missed or misunderstood some points in this literature and so you should take my evaluation of them with a grain of salt.
You’ll see in the below chart that the vast majority of papers and articles I found simply state their opinion on mouthpiece buzzing without citing any sources or backing it up with logical speculation. It largely seems that almost everyone simply assumes mouthpiece buzzing is useful and the rational comes down to either tradition or anecdotal support. Some of them contain surveys of literature and/or brass teachers that endorse mouthpiece buzzing, but this is a poor method to judge the effectiveness of a pedagogical approach – if the pedagogical tradition is already biased towards mouthpiece buzzing then we can assume most players and teachers will be similarly biased. That doesn’t necessarily mean that mouthpiece buzzing is bad, but the reasons for it are flawed. As you’ll note in my chart below, very few people have subjected mouthpiece buzzing to an honest test.
Likewise, you’ll note that the vast majority of the literature I found falls into the “pro” camp towards mouthpiece buzzing, while only two ended up as “neutral.” I didn’t find any resources that were definitely against mouthpiece buzzing in this search, although I know of a few high profile teachers or players who are against it. A literature search for the term “mouthpiece buzzing” is probably going to be biased towards papers and articles recommending it, since authors who are against the practice are not likely to mention it at all if they are recommending another method.
A very large number of these resources got a “no” answer on Criteria 3 (does it avoid inaccurate speculation) because it claimed that the instrument functions as an “amplifier” for the buzzing lips. While this may be a good analogy for teaching and there is an element of truth to it, the actual physics behind the standing wave inside the instrument makes that idea too simplistic to logically speculate on the efficacy of mouthpiece buzzing as a practice method. This is one of those ideas that’s been repeated for so long that a lot of brass musicians accept it without question.
As an aside, one of the reasons I restricted my search to resources written in the 21st century is because in a recent Trombone Chat forum conversation one participant lamented that much of the discussion there revolved around pedagogy from 50 years ago or longer (specifically, that of Arnold Jacobs). That said, a great deal of the articles and papers I found cited Jacobs or even were specifically devoted to his pedagogy. Jacobs’s pedagogy is still dominant, at least in English language resources. While I feel there’s much that his approach has to offer players and teachers, there’s also much that needs revision and too often it’s the later that gets cited in support of certain pedagogical practices (you can read more of what I’ve written about Jacobs’s pedagogy here).
Out of the literature I found, there was only one study that made an attempt to measure whether or not mouthpiece buzzing is an effective practice tool, “The Effect of a Researcher Composed Mouthpiece Buzzing Routine On the Intonation and Tone Quality of Beginning Band Students,” by Jason Beghtol. In Beghtol’s review of the literature he doesn’t cite any other study that similarly tested mouthpiece buzzing, leading me to believe that it’s likely no one has done so before him. I think it’s very important to note that the results of Beghtol’s tests showed no statistically significant results between his sample population of students who were given mouthpiece buzzing instruction compared with his control group. Keep in mind that there were some limitations of methodology that make it difficult for us to draw up conclusions that will apply to the general brass playing population, but so far the only empirical evidence concerning the use of mouthpiece buzzing shows that it’s no more effective than not mouthpiece buzzing at all.
|Title||Criteria 1||Criteria 2||Criteria 3||Criteria 4||Criteria 5|
|“Dr. Nathaniel O. Brickens: His Pedagogy, Career, and Influence On Trombone Performers and Educators,” Dunwoody Mirvil, 2008||No||Yes||No||No||Pro|
|“A review of the unique injuries sustained by musicians,” Michele Heinan, 2008||No||No||Yes||No||Pro|
|“Pedagogical Methods of Vincent Cichowicz as Witnessed by Larry Black, 1964-1966,” Brittany Hendricks 2013||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“Developing a Solid Bass Trombone Sound,” Aaron Wilson, 2016||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“A Guide To Daily Routines,” James Boldin, 2011||No||No||No||Yes||Neutral|
|“Conrad Herwig Masterclass,” Antonio J. Garcia, 2014||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“Endurance: Thoughts On Winning the Unwinnable,” Patrick Boyle, 2009||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“A Lost Embouchure Found: A Journey Back From Focal Dystonia,” Ashley Gulbranson, 2014||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“Empowering Musicians: Teaching, Transforming, Living,” William J. Dawson, 2016||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“Starting the French Horn: Step-By-Step to Ensure Success,” Drew Phillips, 2019||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“Song and Wind In Canada: The Impact of Arnold Jacobs’s Teaching on Canadian Tuba Pedagogues,” Jonathan David Rowsell, 2018||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“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,” Michael Sullivan, 2014||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“The Modern Trumpet Player,” Tony Carlucci, 2011||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“Steps Toward More Effective Brass Blowing,” Chad Criswell, 2009||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“Technique Tips: Accuracy,” Jeffrey Agrell, 2010||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“From Blat to Beautiful: Help Your Trumpeters Develop a Great Embouchure,” Alicia Sanderman, 2004||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“Making a Good Sound On the Trumpet,” Thomas Dust, 2007||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“Embouchure Problems In Brass Instrumentalists,” Richard J. Lederman||No||Yes||No||No||Pro|
|“Five Basics For a Horn Embouchure,” Andrew M. McAfee||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“Euphonium Euphoria: Encouraging Great Sound and Facility from Your Euphonium Players,” Aaron Wilson||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“No More ‘Bad Days’ – A Trumpet and Brass-Instrument|
Warm-Up Routine that Works,” Christian McIvor, 2017
|“Upper Register Training for Young Horn Players,” Drew Phillips||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“Endurance: Thoughts On Winning the Unwinnable,” Patrick Boyle, 2009||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“To Bee Or Not To Bee: The Art of Buzzing,” Mike Heriott||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“Teaching Beginning Trombone Players,” Todd L. Fallis, 2001||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“Lessons Learned From the Slide Trumpet,” Chase Sandborn, 2003||No||No||No||No||Pro|
|“The Buzz On Horn Buzzing,” Jon Chappell, 2008||No||Yes||No||No||Pro|
|“Mouthpiece Buzzing,” Gillian MacKay, 2012||No||Yes||Yes||Yes||Pro|
|“The Effect of a Researcher Composed Mouthpiece Buzzing Routine On the Intonation and Tone Quality of Beginning Band Students,” Jason Beghtol, 2018||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Neutral|
You might wonder after going through this exercise what I personally think at this point. My opinion on mouthpiece buzzing hasn’t changed. There are probably some situations where it can be a useful tool, when done a certain way. It’s also possible that doing it wrong or too much can actually be counterproductive. I think it’s very likely that when done correctly and moderation that it’s not really all that more useful than practicing other things that have less risk of working against how we want to actually play the instrument, so I’m going to continue to avoid it in my own practice and use it sparingly in my teaching.