It’s a common enough experience. You’re happily playing away when suddenly your tone splits into two different pitches. Usually it’s only a simple missed attack and you can instantly correct and hold the pitch stable. Sometimes this happens around a particular note and starts to get impossible to hold the the pitch without the tone splitting. It might even get to the point where you’re so worried about this that every time you get to that pitch you mentally or even physically flinch, which just makes the problem worse.
Having had this problem myself a couple of different times I can really empathize with brass players who are having this trouble. Not understanding what exactly is going on can make it challenging to figure out what to do. Sometimes the solution that seems obvious only makes things worse and sometimes it goes away on its own, only to come back later.
While I’m sure there are many possible culprits, in my experience a double buzz is likely to be caused by one of the following scenarios.
1. The lips are fighting for predominance inside the mouthpiece.
This happens especially with players who place the mouthpiece close to 50% upper and 50% lower lip inside. One lip should predominate inside the mouthpiece and the embouchure must be either upstream or downstream. If the mouthpiece placement doesn’t have enough of one lip inside, the lips may begin to fight for predominance at a particular point in the player’s range. Sometimes these players are downstream for part of their range and upstream for another. Their double buzz happens in the range where the lips flip position from downstream to upstream or vice versa.In this case I would recommend the player move the mouthpiece placement either higher or lower on the lips, and even off to the side if it helps. Depending on the player, this might result in a different embouchure type than the player is used to playing with.
The above embedded video shows one example of one way this issue can manifest. The tubist in it places his mouthpiece close to half and half and unconsciously flips the direction of the air stream around the same pitch (concert C) every time. Because his lips fight for predominance at this pitch he has trouble controlling it. It’s often out of tune, he splits the attacks, and it sometimes develops into a double buzz.
For this particular player, I recommended moving his mouthpiece placement lower and playing his whole range on a Low Placement embouchure type. Other players will want to do the opposite, move the placement higher and play the whole range as a Medium High or even Very High placement embouchure type. The embouchure type that works best depends on the player’s anatomy, not what the player wants to do.
2. The lower lip is too weak to hold firmly enough.
The lower lip serves different roles for a downstream and upstream embouchure, but a weak lower lip is often the culprit with a double buzz for players of all three basic embouchure types. Players experiencing a double buzz caused by a weak lower lip usually find the problem only manifests or gets worse when they’re tired.
Sometimes a brass embouchure is compared with a vibrating double reed, since both lips vibrate in tandem. However, functioning brass embouchures are similar in some ways to a clarinet mouthpiece, where one lip vibrates most and serves more like the reed and the other lip vibrates with less intensity and acts more like the clarinet mouthpiece. See the above video for clips from Lloyd Leno’s film, Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures, which demonstrate these vibration patterns in slow motion.
With players belonging to one of the two downstream embouchure types, the lower lip serves more like a clarinet mouthpiece while the upper lip is the clarinet reed. When the lower lip on a downstream embouchure gets too loose it can sometimes begin to interfere with the vibration of the upper lip. This seems to happen most frequently to downstream trombone players right around middle B flat, for some reason.
With players belonging to the upstream embouchure type the roles of the lips are reversed. The lower lip vibrates with more intensity and the upper lip with less. A loose lower lip on an upstream embouchure gets blown out too far and it starts vibrating with more intensity than it should. With upstream trombonists this seems to often happen right around a G in the middle of the bass clef staff. Personally, I used to get a double buzz on the F# just below. Donald Reinhardt noted this common problem with upstream players and called it the “Type IV Rattle” (Type IV being his term for one of his upstream embouchure types).
Strengthening the embouchure through some light free buzzing can really help in this case. Both downstream and upstream players should free buzz with a downstream lip position and buzz softly and in the higher free buzzing range.
3. The embouchure motion isn’t working correctly for the player.
Most players are completely unaware of their embouchure motion, but it is an important part of brass technique. Even when you understand how your embouchure motion functions, it’s easy to unconsciously develop inconsistencies.
My own embouchure serves as an example of this in the above video. Like many players, I used to have a tendency to use too much embouchure motion in my low register. Slurring from middle B flat up to high B flat, my embouchure motion worked pretty consistently, but when I slurred from middle B flat down to low B flat I used way more embouchure motion than I needed to. In order to slur from low B flat to pedal B flat I had to reverse the direction of the embouchure motion to bring it back in line with where it should be. When I played a low B flat my embouchure motion aligned my lips for a pedal B flat but I had to muscle the pitch to the low B flat. When I got fatigued and overdid the embouchure motion for the low B flat sometimes the pedal B flat rattled around in there too.
There are other types of inconsistencies in the embouchure motion that can similarly relate to a double buzz. It’s usually best for the embouchure motion to work in a straight line. Many players have an embouchure motion that moves correctly from side to side as well as up and down, it just needs to be consistently straight. It also works best when the same amount of motion is used to slur up and down the same interval, just in the opposite direction.
4. Not keeping consistent rim feel with the lips and teeth behind them.
Different players will feel the sort of sensation I’m talking about differently, but you want to have some feeling of the mouthpiece rim and lips together against the teeth. One analogy I like is Donald Reinhardt’s “legs” concept. He compared this feeling with the legs on a table. Downstream players will tend to feel two legs on the top lip and two legs on the bottom. Upstream players will sometimes get the same feeling, but sometimes they will feel it’s more like a tripod, with one leg on the top lip and
one two on the bottom. Personally, when I get this is working well for me it sort of feels to me like my mouthpiece placement comes to my embouchure formation like a cup fits into a saucer, but when it’s off it’s like I’m leaning the cup off the saucer on one side.
Whichever way of thinking works for you, you don’t want your “table” to wobble on its legs. Some players have to adjust their horn angle up, down, or to one side as they make the embouchure motion to follow the shape of their teeth and gums, as well as any jaw manipulation. A double buzz may happen when players are losing some of the support structure of their teeth behind the lips and allow the lips to rattle at two different frequencies.
5. Twisting the lips up with the mouthpiece when setting or breathing.
For some reason this causes more troubles with upstream players, but it can happen to the downstream embouchure types too. It’s usually best to firm your lips into buzzing position before setting the mouthpiece. When breathing, try keeping the lips just touching each other inside the mouthpiece and take in your air from your mouth corners. This will not only help keep you from distorting your embouchure formation by winding it up with the mouthpiece rim, but it will also make for a more consistent feel overall.
This takes a little time to get used to, and is harder for low brass players who don’t have as much space outside the mouthpiece. I use nose inhalations for practice getting used to keeping the embouchure formation stable while breathing. When that feels comfortable you can move on to keeping the lip center lightly touching while you breath through the mouth corners. Over time, it becomes easier to breath efficiently without resetting the mouthpiece every time and without twisting the lips while setting it.
6. Two apertures are forming.
This issue seems to be less common than the other causes of the double buzz I’ve mentioned, but it can happen. I’m mostly speculating now because I haven’t had a chance to personally observe this up close before, but I am able to recreate Stewart Dempster’s intentional double buzz, shown in slow motion in the above video. In order to do so I have to think of squeezing my lip center tight while letting my mouth corners go loose. I suspect also that a protruding tooth or other unique anatomical feature may cause a double buzz for some players unless they adjust the mouthpiece placement to one side or another.
Some Final Thoughts
There are certainly some other factors that relate to the double buzz with some players, and there are some other practice solutions that work in addition to the ones I mentioned above. However, there are a few common ideas about the double buzz that I think are inaccurate and are worth avoiding.
First, don’t try to fix a double buzz by working on your breathing. In fact, when a player suddenly begins to breathe more efficiently the embouchure sometimes isn’t going to be quite strong enough yet to hold the lips in place. Building embouchure strength is the key here, not better breathing. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t practice breath control, just that it’s not a solution to a double buzz.
Long tones in the trouble range can work against a player. Sometimes by practicing long tones in the trouble range you end up reinforcing the lower lip position you want to correct. Fatigue will definitely make a double buzz harder to control. If you start to get the double buzz, stop playing and rest.
Lastly, it’s generally not useful to practice approaching the trouble range from above and below unless you know exactly what’s causing the double buzz and how to keep that from happening while doing so. If your double buzz is being caused by an embouchure shift, such as the tuba student in the video above, you’ll only reinforce playing with multiple embouchures this way. Even if you manage to disguise the shift and overlap those embouchures, you’ve still got a trouble range which will require constant practice to work around. It’s better in the long term to work out what exactly is causing your double buzz and make those physical corrections.
Have you had issues with a double buzz before? How did you eventually correct the problem? Do you know exactly what you were doing when it happened or did it go away on its own?