The Embouchure Motion

I made the above video about a year ago to demonstrate and explain a phenomenon that is quite difficult to describe verbally or even using images, the “embouchure motion.”  Most brass players are completely unaware of their embouchure motion, or they may be peripherally aware of it but have an incomplete understanding of it.  Even among people whose expertise I trust in this matter seem do disagree on some of the finer points of it.  It’s a very complex topic and our understanding of it is superficial.

To summarize my points in the video, when changing registers brass players will slide the lips and mouthpiece together up or down along the teeth behind them.  Some players will push the lips and mouthpiece together up towards the nose to ascend and others will pull down towards the chin.  Although the general motion is up and down, most players have some angular deviation in the imaginary line that their mouthpiece moves along.  Some players look almost as if they are making an embouchure motion that is closer to side to side than up and down.

Here are two photographs of the same trombonist playing a low B flat (a major 9th below middle C) and a B flat two octaves higher (a minor 7th above middle C).

If you look very closely you should be able to see that in the photograph on the top there appears to be a greater distance between the mouthpiece and nose compared to the bottom photo, which is the high B flat.  This particular player pushes his lips with the mouthpiece closer towards the nose as he ascends.

Now let’s look at a different player also playing the same two pitches.

This player does the exact opposite, he pulls his lips and mouthpiece down to ascend, opposite of the first player.

If you’re already aware of brass embouchure air stream direction you might have noticed that first example is an downstream embouchure and the second is upstream (meaning one lip or another predominates inside the cup).  While the direction of the embouchure motion seems to have some relationship to the player’s air stream direction, there are downstream performers who, like upstream players, also pull the mouthpiece and lips together down to ascend, such as the below player.

To reiterate, all brass players use an embouchure motion to some degree or another.  Each player’s embouchure motion will be unique to the player in terms of the direction and amount of motion used, but the general direction is up and down.  Upstream players seem to always pull the mouthpiece and lips together downward to ascend and push up to descend.  Some downstream players do the same, where other do the opposite, pushing the mouthpiece and lips up to ascend and pulling down to descend.

As I mentioned above, many players aren’t aware of their embouchure motion or have a somewhat incomplete understanding of it.  Some players have a playing sensation that feels more like changing their horn angles rather than moving the mouthpiece and lips together along the teeth.  The horn angle is an important part of a player’s embouchure and some players very correctly alter their horn angle along with their embouchure motion.

One area that isn’t really understood that I’m curious about is why players make this motion at all and why it the general direction is different for different players.  I have considered these questions for a while, and all I have come up with is speculation.

Let’s first consider both an upstream player and a downstream player who both place the mouthpiece very high on the lips or very low.

With both these examples one lip gets a great deal more contact with the mouthpiece rim than the other lip.  With upstream players, who pull the mouthpiece and lips down to ascend, the rim is placed more on the upper lip.  Pulling the upper lip down with the mouthpiece may be assisting the player increase compression and make the higher register easier.  When the upstream player pushes the lips and mouthpiece up to descend it relaxes some of the lip compression.  Now consider a downstream performer who places the mouthpiece with much more rim contact on the lower lip.  The embouchure motion of pushing up to ascend would be opposite, bringing the lower lip up into the upper lips and aiding in the lip compression for high notes.  Pulling down would be opposite, easing off on the some of the lip compression.

I suspect that the amount of rim contact makes a difference for the general direction of the embouchure motion. Exploring further, what do we see if we compare downstream players who push up to ascend with downstream players who pull down?

The trombonist on the top pushes up to ascend, while the one bellow pulls down.  Notice also how there is less rim contact on the lower lip for the player who pulls down to ascend.  Both players place the mouthpiece so that there is more upper lip and the upper lip predominates (downstream), but there is something that makes these two players’ embouchure function differently.  Looking at a large number of downstream players shows that players with a great deal of rim contact on the lower lip almost always will have an embouchure motion pushing up to ascend, while downstream players that place closer to half and half will almost always pull down.  I ran some statistics on this phenomenon for my doctoral dissertation (The correlation between Doug Elliott’s embouchure types and selected physical and playing characteristics) and found a significant relationship (p < .01 at the .777 level, for those of you understand a Pearson Correlation).  In other words, players who place the mouthpiece close to the nose push up to ascend while players who place somewhat lower pull down.

There is some difference in the embouchure form and function for downstream players who have an embouchure motion to pull down to ascend, but I can’t come up with any reason why this would be so.  Doug Elliott (one of my teachers and whose embouchure type classifications I used for my dissertation) speculated that this embouchure type gets its lip compression more from a forward/backward pinching together of the two lips rather than an up/down sort of pinching.   If that’s the case, then perhaps pulling the upper lip down is keeping the upper lip in the proper position while the forward compression of the lower lip might be pushing the upper lip up and out.  Some players of this embouchure type have told me they don’t have the playing sensation of pinching their lips forward and backward like this, but playing sensations are pretty unreliable.  When I’ve looked at these players in a transparent mouthpiece I sometimes see a lip position that does look like compression is derived from pinching the lips forward and backward, but often times they don’t.  There are some other embouchure characteristics that can be different for players of this embouchure type, so perhaps there are other factors at work that make these players function similarly, but for different reasons.

This is a pretty complicated topic, and I’m going to try to address this in more detail in the near future.  I’ve recently collected some new video footage of some different players with interesting things going on in their embouchure motion and I’d like to make that available for people to check out.  In another week or so my teaching schedule should settle down a bit for the new semester and I’ll have the time to put together a new presentation.