Embouchure 101 Part 1 – Mouthpiece Placement and Air Stream Direction

In case you skipped the introduction, here is a video clip of a tubist with an embouchure issue. If you know what to look for, and maybe even if this is new to you, you will be able to both see and hear his embouchure problem. Take a look and see if you can spot it.

Watch the tubist’s lips carefully as he plays. Notice that in the lower part of his range his lower lip predominates. He’s directing his air stream towards the top of the mouthpiece cup for this range. But in his upper range the upper lip predominates and the air stream begins to be blown down towards the bottom part of the cup. Listen closely to what happens right at that transition point in the middle. Do you notice the notes often cracking at that point or when he crosses it? There’s also a change in timbre between the upstream and downstream lip position. 

What’s going on here? What does mouthpiece placement have to do with air stream direction? And what’s correct?

Sometimes brass players talk about air stream direction when referring to the horn angle. This (erroneous) idea is that if you tilt the instrument down while you’re playing you’re going to be blowing downstream or if you tilt the instrument up it’s upstream. Watching the tubist in the video above, you can see that his air stream is blown in both directions, but his horn angle doesn’t make any significant change to accomplish this.

You might be wondering what air stream direction has to do with mouthpiece placement. First, note that mouthpiece placement recommendations are all over the map. You’ll find some well-regarded resources suggest 2/3 top lip and 1/3 bottom. Others recommend 1/3 top lip and 2/3 bottom. Some musicians suggest perfectly centered placements. Others just leave that up to the individual and dismiss it as something that’s either too personal to judge or merely irrelevant. 

In order to really understand what’s going on we need to take a moment and look at a number of different brass players and see what we can discern about mouthpiece placement and air stream direction. Which recommendations match what we can actually see?

Here is a photograph of a trombonist playing a “middle Bb,” that is a Bb on the top of the bass clef staff. Take a close look at both his mouthpiece placement and the position of the lips inside the mouthpiece. 

Middle Bb

This is a pretty obvious example. You can see the mouthpiece placement is quite high and close to the nose. His embouchure aperture (the opening between the lips, which opens and closes very rapidly) is below the shank of the mouthpiece. The air stream passes the lips and is directed towards the bottom of the mouthpiece cup. 

Here’s the same player playing a “high Bb” an octave above.

High Bb

Now with these photographs you’ll want to keep in mind that they provide a snapshot into a single instance of the vibrating lips, so the aperture in the embouchure isn’t just frozen in these positions. But looking at the lip position inside the mouthpiece and comparing it to the middle Bb it looks as if the air stream might be directed even more downward. 

Let’s look at a “low Bb,” the Bb towards the bottom of the bass clef staff. In this photograph it looks like the air stream may being blown less downstream, closer towards the shank.

Low Bb

Now let’s compare that with a different trombonist playing the same three notes, middle Bb, high Bb, and then low Bb. 

Middle Bb
High Bb
Low Bb

This player’s mouthpiece position is completely opposite the first trombonist’s. He places the mouthpiece low, close to the chin. The aperture is well above the shank of the mouthpiece and his lips are aligned to blow the air stream up towards the top part of the mouthpiece cup. Opposite the first trombonist, the higher the pitch the more upstream the air stream appears to be blown and the lower the pitch the closer towards blowing down the shank it goes. 

Brass musicians who place the mouthpiece somewhere close to half and half will have one lip or the other that predominates. Sometimes the upper lip predominates and the air stream is blown downward.

Downstream Embouchure

And sometimes the lower lip predominates and the air stream is blown upward.

Upstream Embouchure

Let’s look at the tubist with the air stream direction flip again. Here is a clip of him where I asked him to play something that required him to play around and across that break.

Notice how his lips fight for predominance at that break point and his tone splits into a double buzz. This is one reason why half and half mouthpiece placement just won’t work so well for most brass players. One lip or another should predominate inside the mouthpiece and it should be the same for the entire register to avoid issues like this tubist has.

It might be useful to use a reed instrument as an analogy to better understand what’s going on inside the mouthpiece. While a double reed instrument will have both reeds vibrating at equal intensity, the lips for a brass embouchure function a little closer to a clarinet mouthpiece. The predominant lip inside the mouthpiece will serve more like the reed of a clarinet while the other lip is more like the hard surface of the mouthpiece against which the reed/predominant lip vibrates against. This is somewhat of an imperfect analogy because both lips do vibrate, so perhaps a better way to visualize this is to think of it as somewhere in between an oboe reed and a clarinet reed/mouthpiece.

If you’re having trouble visualizing this, here is a Lloyd Leno’s film, Lip Vibrations of Trombonists Using High Speed Photography. This video shows several different downstream and upstream trombone embouchures. Note that there is more upper lip inside the mouthpiece for downstream players. There is more rim contact on the lower lip, which helps to inhibit the vibrations on that lip. Both lips vibrate together, opening and closing at the same time, but you can see the wave patterns on the upper lip are larger than on the lower lip. 

Now compare the downstream examples in that film to the upstream players from the same film. The upstream trombonists have more lower lip inside the mouthpiece and less upper lip. The additional rim contact on the upper lip helps, in part, to limit the wave pattern on the upper lip while the lower lip vibrates with more intensity. Again, both lips are vibrating together, but in this case the lower lip has a larger pattern of vibrations. 

So what does this mean for the tubist flipping air stream directions? His placement is close enough to half and half that he can’t control which lip predominates and it flips around. He also struggles with his upper register and has a high range cap, no matter what he practices and how much. His mouthpiece placement needs adjustment, either to get more upper lip inside or more lower lip inside. Figuring out which is going to be correct took a little experimentation, but in the course of our video recording he gave me a pretty good clue which would work better for him.

Here is a clip where he was having trouble getting up to his highest notes. I asked him if there was something he could do to play higher. Notice his response. 

When I spoke to him further about this upstream embouchure he expressed that a previous teacher advised against it. According to his teacher (a well regarded one at a very respectable arts magnet school), this student’s embouchure muscles would “develop strength” with practice and it would fix his range cap. In the mean time, he could always play an Eb tuba if he needed higher notes for a solo (if you’re particularly observant or have perfect pitch you might have already noticed that he is already playing on a C tuba, rather than the more traditional Bb tuba). 

The advice he got is wrong, but quite common. It’s definitely true that upstream brass players are more rare than downstream players. But it’s important to understand that it isn’t a choice that a brass musician makes, it’s something that anatomy determines. A student’s mouthpiece placement should be where it works best, not where the teacher happens to place their mouthpiece. Forcing a student to play with a mouthpiece placement that doesn’t fit the student’s anatomy leads to less efficient embouchure technique at best, and often some pretty serious struggles. 

Many brass teachers make a big deal out of making their students’ embouchure work like their own, without consideration to upstream or downstream embouchures (or other embouchure characteristics that I’ll cover later). But if we consider that every player has different anatomical features, it stands to reason that everyone is going to have a different embouchure. Most brass musicians have the anatomical features that make a downstream embouchure work best for them. It is much more common to find brass players who place the mouthpiece with more upper lip inside. Because of this, many brass teachers assume that this is the “correct” mouthpiece placement and teach their students to play this way. When encountered with an upstream student they often advise that student to change their mouthpiece placement to have more upper lip inside. 

If a student has the anatomy to play best with an upstream embouchure the above advice will cause playing difficulties. Everything may look “correct” to the teacher, but an upstream brass musician playing with a downstream embouchure is not going to work as well. The student will almost always have a high range cap. His or her highest note may sound OK, but he or she will need to work very hard to play up there and getting above that note will be next to impossible. No matter how much practice time the student puts in, they won’t be able to extend their range any higher. Consider again the tubist example above trying to play in his upper register. Moving his placement lower on his lips to make his embouchure function entirely upstream allows him to play higher than before and with less effort. While there is initially a lack of control and accuracy playing his entire range with an upstream mouthpiece placement, it completely eliminates the break in the middle of his register as well.

Before I leave the subject of mouthpiece placement it’s also worth pointing out that off-center placements to one side are also not necessarily a bad thing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with placing the mouthpiece to one side, often very much off center. Sometimes obvious anatomical features, such as a protruding tooth, will make a placement to one side more comfortable. Other times the embouchure simply works better off center and there’s not obvious anatomical feature that one can see. 

Upstream Trombonist, F above high Bb

Often times players will naturally gravitate to their best mouthpiece placement, but sometimes they need some encouragement to experiment (particularly if they’ve been discouraged before). After you’ve spent enough time examining different brass embouchures you should be able to help guide students with their mouthpiece placement. You can try having students place their mouthpiece higher, lower, and off to both sides and see where their limits are. Frequently you’ll end up back where the student was already placing. Other times you will discover a different placement that sounds better and feels to them like less effort to play. Sometimes those placement might look odd, so instead listen for tone, intonation, and see what makes their high range feel easier.

Mouthpiece placement and air stream direction isn’t the sole embouchure characteristic that teachers will need to have a handle on. Here is a clip of a trumpet player who has some embouchure difficulties not directly related to his mouthpiece placement. Take a look and see if you can spot what’s causing his issues.

Did you spot it? Proceed to Part 2 and see if you’re right.

Questions, comments, and corrections to this resource can be posted here.