Embouchure Type Switching For Pedals

A recent discussion on TromboneChat discussed playing pedal tones and whether or not it is appropriate to switch embouchure types for playing the pedals. Specifically, whether it’s helpful for a downstream player to change to upstream or vice versa. One participant wrote:

If you are a high placement downstream player, reverse your playing to upstream for pedals. I don’t know how you would do it if you are an upstream player already. 

Basically, the airstream needs to aim more or less right at the mouthpiece throat.

First, it’s important to understand and define what upstream and downstream embouchures actually are. Follow the above link to read and watch some details, but to summarize when a brass musician places the mouthpiece with more upper lip inside the mouthpiece the air gets blown in a downward direction. When the mouthpiece is placed with more lower lip inside the air stream direction is blown up. This embouchure characteristic can be found on all functioning brass embouchures, regardless of how the musicians feels is what is happening. It’s not directly related to the position or the jaw, it’s the mouthpiece placement that makes the air stream blown up or down.

It is definitely true that as a brass musician plays lower the air stream will be blown closer towards the shank of the mouthpiece. But I don’t feel it should switch air stream direction. In fact, I don’t buy that this is actually happening with the examples shown or discussed in the Trombone Chat topic. For example, one participant feels that this film of George Roberts playing a pedal F demonstrates a switch from upstream to downstream.

Notice that in this video that Roberts places the mouthpiece so that there’s more upper lip inside. The upper lip predominates and overlaps the lower lip. The film maker, Lloyd Leno, even classifies Roberts as playing with a downstream embouchure. I don’t see anything in this film clip that would indicate Roberts flips his air stream from downstream to upstream for this pedal F. Certainly the air stream is directed closer to blowing straight into the shank, but I don’t think it’s reversing and blowing upstream.

If you’re not convinced, let’s take a look at a bunch of different trombonists playing a pedal Bb. First, let’s look at the more common downstream types.

Downstream Pedal Bb

The above photo captures the aperture close to its most open position and the air stream does look like it might be being blown straight into the shank. Note the slight overlap of the upper lip over the lower.

This player shows a similar lip position as the player above. Both players place their mouthpiece quite close to half and half, perhaps too much so. Again, notice how the lips are lining up. In this case the upper lip doesn’t look like it overlaps quite as much over the lower.

This one doesn’t have the best angle, but you can see the upper lip overlapping the lower lip slightly. Here’s several more.

You get the idea. In the above examples there is more upper lip inside the mouthpiece and the upper lip slightly overlaps the lower. This upper lip overlap is easier to see in higher register notes because the air stream is blown more sharply downward, but the same general lip position is present on the pedals too.

I want to point out that some of the above players reset their mouthpiece placement to a more centered placement to play pedals. This is something I advise against, but it’s important to notice this fact because it is something that happens with upstream trombonists as well.

Let’s compare the downstream players with some photos of upstream trombonists playing a pedal Bb and see if there’s an obvious difference.

Upstream Pedal Bb

The glare off the flash on the mouthpiece along with the position the lip aperture happened to be in makes it a little harder to see, but notice the mouthpiece placement allows for more lower lip inside. This trombonist resets the mouthpiece to a position closer to half and half for pedal range – and example of “shifting” to play pedals that I advise against. If you rely on resetting the mouthpiece for pedals you’re always going to have trouble getting in and out of the pedal register. It’s best to learn to play pedals in a way that matches your embouchure form for the normal playing range.

This upstream trombonist also resets the mouthpiece to a more centered position. You can see the loose right mouth corner. Collapsing the embouchure formation to descend is a common issue. Those features aside, notice the lower lip is overlapping the upper lip slightly. There is a distinctly different lip position compared with the downstream embouchures.

This upstream trombonist has a placement close to half and half for his entire range. I didn’t capture the aperture in a very open position for the above photo, but that is a pedal Bb. Photos of this musician playing higher notes shows it much more clearly as an upstream embouchure. Again, notice the lip position and compare to the downstream players.

This photo got the aperture in a position that makes it easier to note the upstream air direction for a pedal Bb. Notice how the lower lip predominates and overlaps slightly.

Here’s another example. The glare of the flash again gets in the way a bit, but you can see the predominance of the lower lip inside the mouthpiece and the lower lip is slightly in front of the upper. This is opposite of all the downstream examples.

The above photo is me playing a pedal Bb. My friend didn’t quite get the side angle I had with the other photos, so it’s harder to see the lower lip coming out in front of the upper, but you can clearly see how much more lower lip is inside the mouthpiece.

There is a general type of lip position you can see inside the mouthpiece that is different between downstream and upstream brass musicians. If you take the time to look closely at a number of different brass embouchures like this you’ll become adept at spotting the difference. Look closely at the above photographs and also the entire Leno film I embedded above and look for which lip tends to overlap the other. With downstream players the upper lip will be slightly in front of the lower while with upstream embouchures you’ll see the lower lip slightly in front of the upper. It doesn’t matter what the horn angle is or jaw position, the mouthpiece placement makes the embouchure upstream or downstream. Notice in the above photo examples that you can find players with receded or aligned jaw positions playing upstream and downstream.

One thing that you won’t be able to see in just the isolated photographs is that there is a gradual adjustment of the air stream direction from high to low. When a downstream embouchure brass musician plays in the upper register the air stream is blown more sharply downstream and when that musician plays in the lower register the air stream will be blown at a smaller angle downward. This is reversed for upstream embouchures. The Lloyd Leno film I embedded above shows this pretty clearly in slow motion.

So the question is whether or not it’s appropriate to change embouchure types for pedals. As a tenor trombonist, I don’t need to perform pedals very frequently and generally the context in the tenor literature for pedal tones are such that if I did need to reset or make a radical shift in my embouchure to get pedal tones out I probably could. So you could make an argument that as long as this shift doesn’t happen in the normal playing range it’s no big deal.

That said, I think it’s best to avoid any embouchure type switching or radical shifts in embouchure, regardless of what range it’s in. For one thing, shifting back and forth will cause a noticeable break in the embouchure and right at that switch you’ll be able to see and hear something happen. Here is an example of this happening in the normal playing register on a tubist.

Notice the lip position inside the mouthpiece. For his lower register his lower lip predominates and the embouchure is upstream. In the middle of his register he flips lip position and the upper lip begins to predominate and the air will be blown downstream. He’s quite adept at going back and forth, but you’ll hear that he almost always cracks the notes around the break. When asked to play something that happens right at this switch things can easily break down.

This tubist happens to have a mouthpiece placement too close to half and half, so he is unable to keep the embouchure functioning for the entire range as either upstream or downstream. Notice that his type switching happens without a radical change in jaw position or other shift that might be noticeable if you don’t know what to look and listen for.

Something similar can happen for trombonists when they play pedal tones, but the same disadvantages that the above tubist is dealing with apply. Again, you could make the argument that a tenor trombonist who plays pedals infrequently shouldn’t worry too much about playing the pedal range differently, but if that embouchure type switching creeps into the normal playing range it will be more problematic. Regardless, I feel that spending time in the practice room to minimize or eliminate any unnecessary or drastic shifts in embouchure technique is better – even for the pedal register.

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