General Principles of Effective Brass Embouchure

Are there basic descriptors of what how an effective brass embouchure looks and functions? This is a very difficult question to answer, partly because an individual musician’s anatomical features will change around that particular player’s embouchure form and function. That said, there may be some specific features that we can look for that are common for all brass musicians, regardless of those anatomical differences. If we then also take into account the basic embouchure types we can then generalize effective embouchure form for each of these basic types.

Before going any further, it might be useful to define what we mean by “embouchure technique” in the first place, as well as what it means for an embouchure to be “effective.” You would think that something as basic as embouchure would be pretty clearly defined and understood by the field already, but definitions can vary from source to source. I’m going to use the definition and description as written by Kees H. Woldendorp, MD, Hans Boschma, BHS, Anne M. Boonstra, MD, PhD,aHans J. Arendzen, MD, PhD, and Michiel F. Reneman, PhD in their paper, “Fundamentals of Embouchure in Brass Players: Towards a Definition and Clinical Assessment.”

We propose the following definition of embouchure: embouchure is the process needed to adjust the amount, pressure,† and direction of the air flow (generated by the breath support) as it travels through the mouth cavity and between the lips, by the position and/or movements of the tongue, teeth, jaws, cheeks, and lips, to produce a tone in a wind instrument.

Embouchure can be described in terms of “functional” and “dysfunctional.” In “functional” embouchure, the wind player has the ability to efficiently create the intended tone (or range of tones) or sound in his/her wind instrument, without causing performance-related physical complaints. “Dysfunctional” embouchure is the opposite: embouchure which does not, or insufficiently, create the tone (or range of tones) or sound and/or causes physical complaints related to wind playing. Dysfunctional embouchure can occur without apparent physical com- plaints, e.g., in “squeezed playing” with ineffective high muscle tension in the facial area that restricts the range of playable notes. Examples of possible consequences of dysfunctional embouchure include a limited range of tones (restrictions in playing low and/or high tones), poor dynamics (restrictions in playing loudly and/or softly), sound artifacts (squeezed tone, burred tone, superimposed sounds, diminished harmonics of the sound, noise caused by air escape, faulty intonation, or difficulties producing clear tonal intervals ), difficulty playing long notes, pain, redness or swollen lips, and problems of “attack” (the start- ing or onset of the tone).

†Pressure is force divided by surface area, i.e., the opening of a reed or the equivalent of it in a brass instrument.

Fundamentals of Embouchure in Brass Players: Towards a Definition and Clinical Assessment, (Woldendorp, et al)

What I like about the above definition and descriptions is that it clearly recognizes the interaction the embouchure has with the rest of the playing system. Unlike some, I don’t feel that it’s wrong to separate a discussion of embouchure technique from any other specific technique (breathing, tonguing, slide technique/fingering, etc.). It’s worth recognizing that the brass embouchure is part of an overall playing network, but looking closely at that one piece will help us better understand how it fits within the larger picture.

Because of the inherent variations between different players due to anatomical differences the basic principles of a well functioning brass embouchure that describe everyone is limited, but I’ll try to list some anyway. Philip Farkas’s “The Art of Brass Playing” does describe some characteristics that make for a basic description, even though there is much that is inaccurate or misleading in that book. Specifically, Farkas’s discussion of “the brass player’s face” is a pretty fair starting point. I don’t have a personal copy of this book to quote, but my recollection was that Farkas discussed a “puckered smile” where the mouth corners are locked into place and the chin was described as being flat, as opposed to a “peach pit” appearance.

Taking into account that looking for the appearance of a flat chin or exactly where the mouth corners are locked can look different from player to player, Farkas’s advice here seems to hold up under scrutiny. Dr. Matthias Bertsch and Dr. Thomas Maca looked at what muscles in the face were activated by trumpet players in their article Visualization of Trumpet Players’ Warm Up By Infrared Thermography.  The authors took an interesting approach to studying the warm up of trumpet players by photographing them using an infrared camera. Their results showed that the most experienced trumpet players showed consistency in the areas where the muscular effort was concentrated.

The analysis demonstrates that the main facial muscle activity during warm up is restricted to only a few muscle groups (M.orbicularis oris, M.depresor anguli oris).  The “trumpeter’s muscle” (M.buccinator) proved to be of minor importance.  Less trained players expressed a more inhomogenous thermographic pattern compared to well-trained musicians.  Infrared thermography could become a useful tool for documentation of musicians playing technique.

Visualization of Trumpet Players’ Warm Up By Infrared Thermography, (Bertsch, et al)

The photo to the right shows one of the images in their paper. Notice the red portion of the trumpet player’s face, indicating which muscles were activated after his warm up. The “U” shape begins at the area just under the mouth corners and connects at the chin. For effective brass playing it appears to be important that the mouth corners be locked in place (more or less where they are while at rest) and the chin be held flat so that it doesn’t bunch up towards the lower lip. As best as I can tell, these basic principles apply for all effective brass embouchures, regardless of the musician’s basic embouchure type or individual variations.

Other easily observable characteristics of a well functioning brass embouchure that Farkas, and many others, list as important are too variable to be considered universal. Features like a centered mouthpiece placement with 2/3 upper lip inside, jaw position, and horn angle are not universal among excellent brass players and it’s quite easy to find examples that contradict those traits.

On the other hand, I believe that we can say that a functional brass embouchure will have a consistent amount of mouthpiece pressure where the entire rim of the mouthpiece and lips have a firm foundation on the teeth and gums underneath. In other words, there isn’t too much or too little pressure on one side or on one lip or another. It’s probably best for all players to keep a little more mouthpiece pressure on the lower lip compared to the upper lip as the upper lip tends to be more sensitive and prone to swelling or injury. I also suggest keeping mouthpiece pressure somewhat consistent between registers. Many players will descend into their low register and allow their mouthpiece to back off a significant amount. This can be problematic and lead to the musician needing to reset before ascending from that position.

Speaking of the jaw position, there are players who will want to position the teeth so that they are more or less aligned and others who need to play with the jaw position receded. Some players with an underbite might even play best with the lower teeth in front of the upper teeth. While those features are more personal to the individual player, I feel that keeping the jaw position more or less in place is best for pretty much every player. While there can be a very slight protruding or receding of the jaw (as well as some side to side movement) when changing registers, I don’t recommend dropping the jaw to descend. I have gone into why I feel this way elsewhere, if you care to read more about that.

Downstream Embouchure

There are two very important characteristics that all well functioning brass embouchures also have, but these principles are variable from player to player. The first is that one lip or another must predominate inside the mouthpiece and the air stream should be consistently blown past the lips either in a downward direction or upward direction, not straight into the mouthpiece. When the upper lip predominates the air stream will get directed at a downward angle as it passes the lips. This embouchure can be said to belong to the more common “downstream” types.

When these players play higher the air stream is directed further downstream, closer to the lower mouthpiece rim. The air stream will be blown closer to straight the lower the brass musician plays. Notice the photo to the left, showing a trombonist playing a high Bb (Bb4).

Upstream Embouchure

Less common are players who place the mouthpiece correctly with more lower lip inside. Because the lower lip predominates the air stream gets blown up as it passes the lips. Like the downstream embouchure types, upstream players will blow the air stream closer to straight out the lower the pitch, but direct the air stream at a higher angle so that it strikes closer to the upper mouthpiece rim for the higher pitches. Look for the upstream position on the player in the photograph to the right, playing an F above high Bb (F5).

Players who place the mouthpiece close to half and half upper to lower lip inside the cup are quite uncommon. One lip or another will usually predominate inside the cup regardless of a 50/50 placement. Rarely is this placement the correct placement for the individual, it will usually function more efficiently if the placement is moved higher or lower on the lips, depending on whether the brass musician’s anatomy makes their embouchure function best as an upstream or downstream one. Often times players like this will flip the direction of the air stream at particular points in their range, causing issues right around where the embouchure changes from upstream to downstream. The tubist in the video below has this issue and at his transition point you can see and hear the lips fighting for predominance. The air stream should never be blown straight into the mouthpiece.

Whether a brass musician is upstream or downstream, I think it is best if the player keeps the mouthpiece placement consistently in the same spot on the lips over the entire range. Some brass players will set their mouthpiece with a placement that works well for the high register and then change to another placement to play in the low register. The obvious drawback to this approach is that they develop an embouchure “break” where they need to reset the mouthpiece in order to play across that transition point. It’s better to learn to play the entire range on one setting.

Whether or not they are aware of it, brass musicians will push and pull the mouthpiece and lips together along the teeth and gums while changing registers. Some players will push the mouthpiece and lips towards the nose to ascend and pull down towards the chin to descend. Other players will do the reverse, pull down to ascend and push up to descend. Watch the following video to see two different trumpet players playing octave slurs. Without instructing them to demonstrate this technique, both naturally played this way for this video recording.

Even considering the general direction of pushing or pulling the mouthpiece and lips, which I prefer to call an “embouchure motion,” there are variations. While the general direction is up and down, most players will have some angular deviations in that line, sometimes very much so. More universally, I believe it’s safe to say that the track of the embouchure motion should be in a straight line across the player’s entire range and not hook off at a different angle or change direction at a certain point in the player’s range. I also feel that it’s best to make the amount of motion that the player makes the same between octaves. For example, if the player pushes up and to the right to ascend from middle Bb to high Bb, the player should pull down and to the left to descend the same amount from middle Bb to low Bb. So it should be the same amount of embouchure motion, just in the opposite direction. See the diagram to the right that demonstrates this principal.

Another feature of the embouchure motion that can be both overlooked and over-emphasized is how the horn angle can change as the player makes the embouchure motion while changing ranges. For example, in our hypothetical player depicted in the diagram here pushes up and to the right to ascend. Because her teeth, gums, and jaw have some curvature to them, as she pushes to the right she will need to bring her horn angle slightly over to her right to maintain that consistent pressure or loose the foundation towards the right side of the mouthpiece rim. The reverse would be true for this hypothetical player for descending. She would want to bring the horn angle towards her left to descend. Horn angle can also move up and down to follow the shape of the players teeth and gums as well as whatever slight jaw protruding or receding that might be present. Much like the amount of embouchure motion, I feel it’s best to keep the amount of horn angle change consistent between octaves, just in the opposite direction when ascending/descending from the same pitch. The presence of crooked teeth or other anatomical features might make this suggestion different for certain players, but as a starting point I find it to be a good one.

The two characteristics of air stream direction and the general direction of the above embouchure motion are the main distinguishing features of the three basic embouchure types as Doug Elliott first described them to me. I won’t go into more detail about them here, since this post is supposed to be as general as possible, but I do want to point out that each of these basic embouchure types have their own idiosyncrasies that can provide models for effective embouchure principles within the context of each type. Follow the above link to learn more or read through my Embouchure 101 resource for a more complete discussion of each type.

One thought on “General Principles of Effective Brass Embouchure

  1. Excellent article! Thank you pu. I agree 200%. Crucial for me is Reinhardt’s “I’m” inhalation which sets the center for sound. The lips must touch and be gently blown apart as the “corners” and chin are set with the best tongue arch.., for example hoo, her, hoe.

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