Embouchure 101 Part 2 – Embouchure Motion

This is part of a series of articles meant to be read in order. In order to understand this topic you’ll want to start at the beginning.

In Part 1 we looked at mouthpiece placement and compared different brass musician’s embouchures. Careful observation shows that one lip or another will predominate inside the mouthpiece and all brass embouchures will function as either a downstream embouchure (more common) or upstream embouchure (less common). When this technique isn’t working correctly for the individual player, playing difficulties result. 

In this part we’ll look at another important embouchure characteristic. It’s largely gone unnoticed by most brass players and teachers. Some parts of it have made their way into brass pedagogy, but like mouthpiece placement, it is not generally understood. Also like mouthpiece placement, this “embouchure motion” is personal to the individual player, although there are a couple of basic patterns you will see all players fitting into.

Let’s look again at the trumpet player I ended Part 1 with. He has an issue with what I prefer to call his “embouchure motion.” He is struggling with his upper register. Watch very closely at his embouchure while he plays and see if you can spot what he’s doing (or maybe, not doing) that is making him work harder than he needs to.

In order to fully understand what’s going on with this trumpet player you will first want to look more closely at players who aren’t having this issue. The following video clip shows two different trumpet players. Like the above trumpet player, they both have downstream embouchures, but they have the opposite direction of embouchure motion. Just by looking very closely, can you see the difference?

Both of these players are pushing and pulling their mouthpiece and lips together along the teeth and gums. They don’t change the mouthpiece placement on the lips, they’re moving the lips up and down with the mouthpiece. What’s interesting about comparing these two examples is that they are doing it in the opposite direction.

The first trumpet player in that clip is pushing his lips and mouthpiece together up towards the nose as he ascends. When he descends he makes the opposite embouchure motion by pulling the mouthpiece and lips down. The second trumpet player does the reverse, pulling down to ascend and pushing up to descend.

With that understanding, take another look at the trumpet player struggling to play in his upper register. Look for his embouchure motion.

His embouchure motion is inconsistent. Watching him slur from the middle C to the low C it looks like he’s pulling down to ascend. As he tries top slur up to the high C he doesn’t consistently push his mouthpiece and lips up. It looks like he’s either trying to hold the placement steady there or even reversing the direction of the embouchure motion.

As you can see, this embouchure motion is an essential part of good embouchure technique, which makes it all the more surprising that most brass players and teachers are generally unaware of it. Watch brass musicians closely enough while they make large interval changes and you will be able to spot this on all successful brass players. Some will do more than others and many brass players have the “track” of this embouchure motion moving off at one side or another. As the mouthpiece and lips are pushed in this general up and down motion the horn angle may change as the foundation of the teeth and gums underneath change. For example, a brass musician with some embouchure motion that moves significantly side to side may find that the curvature of the teeth underneath require the horn angle to move in order to keep even mouthpiece rim contact.

Let’s take a look at some other brass musicians’ embouchures as they play. Every one of them has an embouchure motion you can spot.

The above trumpet player has an embouchure motion pulling down and to his left to ascend. To descend he pushes up and to his right. His embouchure motion is working pretty well for him.

In the first part of the above video it shows a horn player slurring octaves without any instructions. Like most players, he is not aware of his embouchure motion, but he naturally pushes up and to his right to ascend and pulls down and to his left to descend. It’s working pretty well for him, but he rests the bell of his horn on his leg and his horn angle is pretty static (I typically advise all horn players to not rest the bell on their leg, even if that happens to be the general horn angle where they find it works best for them).

Normally I’d expect to see some (often slight) angle change of the instrument against the lips as a player makes large slurs. Sometimes this angle change is slightly up and down, but whether there’s an angular deviation in the track of the embouchure motion to the side the instrument angle should also probably change to the side in order to keep even mouthpiece pressure as the shape of the teeth and jaw changes under the lips and mouthpiece rim.

As an experiment, I asked this horn player to try out some different variations of his embouchure motion. I asked him to try pushing straight up and down. It works, but not as well as pushing up and to his right to ascend. I also asked him to try pushing up and to his left to ascend and bringing his horn angle over to his left while doing so, just to see what happened. It makes the higher pitch sound a bit flat and he acknowledged that it made him work harder.

Following those experiments I asked him to try what I suspected works best for him. He already naturally pushes up and to his right to ascend, so I asked him to go back to that but also bring his horn angle slightly to his right while doing so. The intonation and tone on the higher pitches sounds better to me, although he admitted that he didn’t feel much difference. When brass musicians are used to doing something in a particular way it can feel awfully strange or even uncomfortable to try something different, even if the results sound better. Sometimes it takes a little time before a student will find an adjustment really clicks.

The tubist in the above video pushes his mouthpiece and lips together up towards the nose to ascend and pulls down to the chin to descend. Tubists, euphonium players, and baritone horn players also use an embouchure motion to change registers. Because their instrument (usually) rests on their lap they aren’t as easily able to move the instrument around on their lips. They still are able to move their bodies around in relation to the instrument and make their correct embouchure motion.

In general, it seems that making the amount of embouchure motion and its “track” along the teeth and gums work consistently is most efficient for all brass musicians. Let’s consider a hypothetical embouchure motion here.

Hypothetical Embouchure Motion Track

In the hypothetical example above the amount of motion to slur from middle Bb to high Bb is the same as slurring from middle Bb to low Bb, just in the exact opposite direction. The track of the embouchure motion is also a straight line, not hooking off in a slightly different angle or reversing direction at a particular point. Inconsistencies in the embouchure motion usually correlate with a technique problem and are often found in the extreme ranges, either very high, very low, or both.

The above trombonist has some inconsistencies with the amount of embouchure motion he makes between octaves, particularly on the very highest pitch. Between the middle Bb and high Bb there’s a certain amount of embouchure motion, but between high Bb and the “double high” Bb you won’t see much embouchure motion at all. Also note how he reverses the direction of his embouchure motion in order to slur from the low Bb to the pedal Bb. Particularly in the first attempt you can hear and see the difficulties this causes. It would be better for him to keep the amount and direction of his embouchure motion the same between octaves. Rather than reversing the direction of his embouchure motion for the pedal Bb, for example, it might work better for him to not push up so far for the low Bb.

Most brass players will intuitively learn their basic embouchure motion without any instruction, but unconscious experimentation very frequently leads to these sort of inconsistencies in a musician’s embouchure motion. Figuring out how to make those corrections can be easy or hard, but what follows is one way to approach it.

In the above video listen for the sound and intonation as I move this trombonist’s mouthpiece and lips up and down as well as see what happens when I change the horn angle up, down, and side to side. This clip is edited quite a bit so that you can get an idea of what this sort of experimentation looks like, but the goal here is to find exactly where along the embouchure motion track a particular note sounds best and what accompanying horn angle makes each note sound best.

Often times students will be so used to playing in a particular way that they have trouble doing something different. You can ask them to play a note and physically move their mouthpiece and lips in the direction you want to check as I did for the trombonist above. At the same time, you can move around their horn angle as well and see what happens if you change the way the mouthpiece/lips are pressed against the teeth and gums. Again, listen for tone and intonation and see if there are any changes. If moving the embouchure motion and horn angle in a particular direction opens up the tone, then try experimenting with that. If a particular embouchure motion/horn angle makes the pitch go flat, then it’s probably correct motion to descend. If the pitch goes sharp, then try out that motion to ascend.

Let’s look back at the trumpet player struggling with his upper register from the beginning of this part. In this clip I asked him to experiment with the directions of his embouchure motion and also try out some different horn angle changes. In order to test what I thought he should be doing I asked him to play ascending slurs as well as descending slurs in different parts of his range to see what worked best for him. In this clip watch for the different embouchure motions I asked him to try and listen to how the tone and intonation sounds. Depending on the direction of his embouchure motion you can hear the tone open up or get more covered sounding. The second note of the slur could sound sharp, flat, or in tune. 

You’ll see in the video that I had him experiment with both slurs that take him into the upper register as well as slurring down to the low register. Sometimes it’s not very obvious what is working in one particular range, so checking things in the opposite range while moving in the opposite direction can help you determine what a student’s embouchure motion should be to work most efficiently.

Based on the results of those experiments I suspected that this trumpet player should be pushing his mouthpiece and lips together up and slightly to his right side to ascend. To descend he should be pulling them down and slightly to his left to descend. Here’s a video clip of him trying this out and finally experiencing his embouchure motion working efficiently in his upper register on his own.

Before moving on to the next part you might be curious to know if there is any relationship between the direction of the embouchure motion and the air stream direction. Earlier in this part above I showed the two downstream trumpet players who made the opposite embouchure motions. There were also some upstream embouchure examples above. While downstream brass musicians can use either of the two general types of embouchure motion, upstream players seem to always pull down to ascend and push up to descend.

Using the variables of mouthpiece placement/air stream direction and the general direction of the embouchure motion (up or down to ascend) we can now identify three basic embouchure patterns that work successfully, even though the embouchure technique is different between these types. All brass musicians’ embouchures will fit within one of these basic patterns (or sometimes more than one, if the musician is type switching, which I don’t recommend).

The basic patterns you’ll note are the following:

  1. Downstream with embouchure motion up to ascend
  2. Downstream with embouchure motion down to ascend
  3. Upstream with embouchure motion down to ascend

In the next three parts we’ll be taking closer looks at these three basic embouchure types. In addition to the distinguishing features of air stream direction and embouchure motion direction I’ll also point out some typical playing characteristics these players have, some problems common to each embouchure type, and show examples.

Continue to Part 3.

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