The Stevens-Costello Embouchure Technique – A Review

I was lurking on a brass forum and came across some discussion of the Stevens-Costello book, Embouchure Self-Analysis: The Stevens-Costello Embouchure Technique, by trumpet teacher Roy Stevens. It had been probably 15 years since I read this book, so I got a hold of a copy, reread it, and have started practicing out of this book. It’s an interesting book, filled with a lot of advice that I find very good, but also some inaccurate statements about brass embouchures and a lot of advice that is probably only relevant to a smaller portion of brass players.

Embouchure Self-Analysis was first self-published in 1971 and until Stevens’s death in 1988 remained in print. Afterwards, this text was harder to find until Bill Moriarity spearheaded an effort to get it reprinted in 2006. The copy I have lists a copyright for 2012 by David Hay. I ordered it here.

There are two main sections in this book. The first part is text and includes Stevens’s descriptions and suggestions for a well-functioning embouchure. I have mixed feelings about all this text, for a variety of reasons. My first complaint is that Stevens does what so many other brass teachers do, he assumes that how he plays must be “correct” for everyone. Stevens advised all players to play with an upstream setting and even instructs certain characteristics that won’t work for a certain minority of upstream players too. Brass musicians who aren’t suited for an upstream embouchure are who take Stevens’s instructions too far will struggle, but if you’re in the minority of players who have a Low Placement embouchure type and fit squarely into the variation of this type that Reinhardt classified as a Type IV embouchure the text describes very closely the mechanics of how this embouchure type tends to function at its best.

My own embouchure type is upstream, but I play with my jaw somewhat receded and have a lower horn angle. Reinhardt tabled this as a Type IVA. I just consider it to be a “Low Placement” embouchure type, since the same basic principals of playing correctly seem to apply to this variation. This is important, because a lot of the text discourages a receded jaw while playing, which is the best position for my anatomy. I can protrude my jaw into the position that Stevens recommends and I can make sounds that way, but it doesn’t work very well.

This is an important point and is my main criticism of this book. Roy Stevens essentially is advocating everyone play with the same embouchure type that worked for him. This flaw is very common in almost any brass resource that describes embouchure technique, so it’s not unique to Stevens. It’s ironic what Stevens’s student wrote in the appendix.

At the age of eighteen, I studied with a teacher who was credited with 50 years experience. After spending five years with this man I discovered the only theory his teachings were based upon was the altogether too common one of “I play the horn this way and so should you.”

Embouchure Self-Analysis, Stevens/Costello, p. 103

The key to working out of any method book is to understand that it’s not exactly what you practice, but how you practice that’s important. Anyone working out of this book will need to take at least some of Stevens’s descriptions of functioning embouchures with a grain of salt.

As I mentioned above, some of it is accurate for only one less common embouchure type.

The concept of aiming the air up for all notes or tones must be upheld. It is this formation of the embouchure musculature that will prevent slack or collapse of the surface tension in both lips.

Embouchure Self-Analysis, Stevens/Costello, p. 13

(This advice is great if you happen to have the anatomy that makes an upstream embouchure work best for you.)

Some of it is good general advice that will apply to most players.

Mouthpiece distribution of weight should be 40-45% top, 60-55% bottom.

Embouchure Self-Analysis, Stevens/Costello, p. 8

(The lower lip is usually a bit “meatier” than the upper lip and can take more mouthpiece pressure than the top lip. I feel it’s good advice for all players to keep a little more mouthpiece weight on the lower lip.)

And some of it I find questionable for almost all players.

I am vehemently opposed to the “common ground argument” of the (EEE) action of the tongue for the upper register combined with the relative jaw action. . .

Embouchure Self-Analysis, Stevens/Costello, p. 15-16

(It’s been pretty well established today that brass musicians alter the position of their tongue, generally raising it to ascend. For some players it can be more than others and for some players it can feel like they are keeping their tongue in position, but the reality is that tongue position while slurring and sustaining should move towards a higher position to ascend, just not too high.)

Sprinkled throughout the text are some unusual exercises or demonstrations. The most famous example is his “palm exercise.”

. . . [L]ay the instrument flat upon the palm of the left hand with the fingers extended in such way that with any excessive pressure, it will slide off.

Embouchure Self-Analysis, Stevens/Costello, p. 40

If you’re not already familiar with this exercise, here is a former student of Roy Stevens, Larry Meregillano, demonstrating and describing the exercise.

I’ve written about this idea before (Brass Myths – Hanging the Trumpet From the Ceiling, No Pressure Brass Embouchure – Fact or Urban Legend?, Trumpet on a String Legend Part 2 – Rafael Méndez). There may very well be something useful we can learn from trying this exercise out, but Stevens instructs us to, “Practice in this fashion at least a half hour a day, total playing time.” I can’t speak for you, but I’ve got too many other things to work on to spend 30 minutes with the instrument in my palm, even spread out over the day. It’s not the way I’m going to perform and the left hand grip is an important part of a trumpet or trombone musician’s embouchure mechanics. Frankly, I don’t find the palm exercise useful enough to practice it any more or recommend it to others. There are other, better ways to get at what you need.

The bulk of the book, however, are exercises that will be familiar to most brass musicians. The exercises tend to be organized around chord arpeggios playing along the overtone series. Stevens suggests playing each exercise set slurred and tongued. The ranges expand from the lower end of the trumpet range all the way up to the extreme upper register. There are dynamics indicated that get you playing soft and loud. There are exercises similar to ones you might find in Arbans that work on tonguing and fingering patterns. So you’re going to find that this book addresses a pretty complete list of brass playing technique.

A lot of space is saved in the book by not writing out complete exercises, but by writing out a single variation, say a rhythmic pattern, and asking you to play the previous exercise fully with that variation. I think this is good both for making the book a little more manageable to read, but also because I think it’s good to learn to play things without reading music.

There are a handful of exercises that can be played with 2 or 3 players, which would be useful for teachers who are warming students up or helping them with scales in different keys while in lessons.

I haven’t spent time working out of the back half of the book, but I have been using the exercises in the early part as part of my morning practice routine for a couple of months now. Since I’m aware enough how my chops work there are several instructions on how to practice them that I’ve ignored, but overall I feel that the time spent has been helpful. One of the flaws in the book, I feel, is that there’s little attention given to what order to practice the materials in and there’s simply too much in there to use all in one day, so you’ll need to skip around. I took the approach to play through everything up to a point and then picked and chose some things to focus on daily. I also have been doing fewer sets of most of the exercises. For example, rather than go up an exercise by half steps I go up by whole steps and get through the exercise faster. You’ll need to try the material out for yourself and see how you respond to them.

So overall my personal experience working out of Embouchure Self-Analysis has been positive, but your milage may vary. If you are definitely a “Low Placement” embouchure type and have the more common characteristic of aligning the teeth while playing then you’ll probably do pretty well following most of Stevens’s advice. If you’re not, you’ll need to work out which parts you need to ignore, such as a placement with more lower lip inside the mouthpiece or a horn angle close to straight out. The exercises themselves are pretty good and most brass players will find working on them to be a pretty good embouchure workout. Just practice them carefully and don’t overdo it.

Have you read this book and tried out the exercises for yourself? Did you study with Roy Stevens and have something to add or a correction to make? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section. I’d love to hear the opinion of others about it.

Greg Campbell

Hi Dave – this obsession with reducing mouthpiece pressure has caused me a lot of damage over the years that I’m only now getting over. You are correct that left hand technique is an important aspect of playing and moderate pressure is used by successful players as evidenced by witness marks on their lips when they remove their horns. Two examples that come to mind are Joe Alessi and Paul the Trombonist. Regards, Greg

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