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.
The Low Placement brass embouchure type is the only upstream type of the three basic types. These players place the mouthpiece with more lower lip inside the cup. The embouchure motion for these players is to pull down to ascend and push up to descend.
Notice how the lip ratio and lip position inside the mouthpiece are basically reversed compared to a Very High Placement embouchure type. Where a Very High Placement player blows the air stream further downward while ascending, a Low Placement player will appear to be blowing further upstream the higher he or she plays. Like most players belonging to this embouchure type, the above trombonist has the teeth more or less aligned and a horn angle that is close to straight out (don’t confuse his head tilt for a lowered horn angle).
Let’s take a closer look at a few other players belonging to the Low Placement embouchure type.
This trumpet student is a good Low Placement embouchure type example. His mouthpiece placement has much more lower lip inside, which is clear even without the transparent mouthpiece. His embouchure motion of pulling the mouthpiece and lips together down to ascend and pushing up to descend is also quite easy to spot. He has the typical close to straight out horn angle for this embouchure type (again, don’t let his slightly tilted head fool you in this video).
He also has a characteristic tone for the Low Placement type, which is often brighter than brass musicians of other embouchure types. Low Placement type players often find the upper register to be one of their strengths and it’s common to find upstream trumpet players playing lead trumpet in big bands, as this student did in his college jazz ensemble.
Here is another example of a Low Placement embouchure type trumpet player. His mouthpiece placement is quite low, with the upper rim placed directly on his upper lip. While many “experts” will claim that this is detrimental to good embouchure technique, it’s clearly working very well for this upstream player. There is no anatomical reason why rim contact on the lip vermilion is harmful, so the only limiting factor for where to place the mouthpiece is where it sounds and works best.
His embouchure motion is easy to spot. He pulls down and to his right side to ascend and pushes up and to his left to descend. Unlike most other brass musicians belonging to the Low Placement embouchure type, his lower teeth are slightly receded and the horn angle is tilted slightly down (not so apparent from the video footage from the front).
You can also find Low Placement embouchure types among low brass musicians as well, although the larger size of the mouthpiece can sometimes limit how low the mouthpiece can be placed. The tuba student above has a mouthpiece placement that has just a bit more lower lip inside and you can see how the air stream is blown upwards as he plays, even though the placement from the outside looks pretty close to half and half. He does have more room on his chin to lower the mouthpiece placement more, which I suspect would help his tone from splitting on the higher notes. Again, placement close to half and half almost always has some issues that may be eliminated by moving the placement lower or higher on the lips, depending on the correct embouchure type for the musician.
Note his lip position as he changes register. Because of the larger size of a tuba mouthpiece it makes it much easier to see how the air stream is directed further upstream the hight this tubist players. The lower he plays his lip formation indicates he is blowing the air stream closer towards the mouthpiece shank.
Because of the size of the tuba and the nature of holding the instrument while playing tubists will make the embouchure motion by changing the position of their bodies slightly in relation to the instrument, rather than moving the instrument up and down. Watching closely, you can still see how he pulls the mouthpiece and lips together down to ascend and pushes them up to descend.
Here is video of the same brass musician playing trombone.
Similar to his tuba embouchure, his trombone mouthpiece placement is still quite close to half and half and it appears to be limiting his upper range a bit. Right at the beginning of the video he sets up to play a high Bb, but doesn’t quite get his lips into position and he chips the note. Below the high Bb his embouchure looks clearly upstream and while he doesn’t’ quite flip the direction of the air stream to downstream in the upper register, his mouthpiece placement isn’t low enough for his anatomy for it to work very efficiently above high Bb.
On trombone you can also see this brass musician’s embouchure motion, down to ascend and up to descend. His horn angle is typical for the Low Placement type, closer to straight out and with his teeth more or less aligned.
Provided that the embouchure type fits the player’s anatomy, Low Placement type brass musicians can work successfully on all brass instruments. It’s been particularly difficult to convince horn teachers of this, even though there are plenty of examples of excellent upstream horn players (look for videos of Dennis Brain, for one example). The above horn student is a good example of what a Low Placement type looks like on French horn. Her mouthpiece placement has more lower lip inside and the air stream get’s blown upwards. Her embouchure motion of pulling down to ascend and pushing up to descend is easy to spot.
She also has a common Low Placement embouchure type problem, she brings her mouth corners back into a smile as ascending. While you can sometimes find this problem with brass students of all embouchure types, there’s something about the Low Placement type that makes this a more common issue. It works, to a degree, by stretching the lips and reducing the amount of surface area that vibrates inside the cup, but it also makes the lip more sensitive to mouthpiece pressure and can limit high range and endurance quite a bit. Brass musicians with a smile embouchure will want to work on developing embouchure strength to hold the mouth corners more or less locked in place where they are at rest, although that can be difficult for upstream embouchure players to do simply by playing a lot. Instead, some light and airy free buzzing on higher pitches will often help the brass student develop the strength at the mouth corners and keep them locked in place.
I intentionally left in the video her telling her story about auditioning to become a music major. Unfortunately, this story is quite common for players belonging to the Low Placement embouchure type (especially horn). Assuming a student is really best suited to play with an upstream embouchure the worst thing for a Low Placement embouchure type player to do is to move the mouthpiece placement higher on the lips. The above horn student decided to major in something other than music, but continued to play in college for fun.
The Low Placement embouchure type trombonist above may not be the best player of all my examples, but he is definitely the most handsome (yes, it’s me, how’d you guess?). But seriously, my embouchure in the video above is both a good example of a Low Placement embouchure type and also shows some issues that players of all embouchure types can have.
My mouthpiece placement is quite low. I place the rim of the mouthpiece directly on my upper lip. As I mentioned above and in the section on very high placement types, mouthpiece contact on the vermillion (red) of the lips is completely arbitrary and just depends on the individual’s anatomy. It doesn’t hurt at all for me to place the mouthpiece on the red. In fact, it is less effort and I use less mouthpiece pressure to play when I do so (I used to play, less efficiently, as a medium high placement embouchure type).
My embouchure motion is to pull the mouthpiece and lips together down and to my left to ascend and push up and to my right to descend. You’ll also notice that I have a fairly common embouchure motion issue in the very low register. When I play the pedal Bb I am reversing the direction of the embouchure motion. Instead of continuing to push up to descend from low Bb to pedal Bb I’m pulling back down (probably because I was too far in that direction for the low Bb and needed to come back to where the pedal Bb was). You can also see a shift that happens when I slur back up (partly due to collapsing my embouchure formation to get the pedal out).
I play with my lower jaw slightly receded and the horn angle is tilted down. Even though my horn angle is down, my air stream is still directed upstream while playing, which is pretty apparent in this photograph of me playing a middle Bb. Most Low Placement players keep their horn angle close to straight out, but bringing my jaw forward to align my teeth and play with a straight out horn angle doesn’t work well for me, for some reason.
In many ways the Low Placement brass embouchure type is similar to the Very High Placement embouchure type, just upside down. These players will want to get the mouthpiece low enough on the lips that their embouchure is consistently upstream. As I mentioned above, very often you will find players of this embouchure type have been instructed by teachers to bring their mouthpiece placement high on the lips, however they often do better with a placement much lower. Like Very High Placement embouchure types they tend to have a brighter sound and (when things are working correctly) they usually have a strong upper register. Lip flexibility is also usually easy, when things are working efficiently for the Low Placement embouchure type player.
Most Low Placement embouchure type players will play with their teeth aligned and the horn angle close to straight out, however there are some upstream players who play with a receded jaw position and a lowered horn angle.
Low register can be more difficult for upstream embouchure players. It’s usually best for these players to start their warm up in the upper register and practice descending with their correct embouchure motion and minimizing or eliminating loosening the embouchure formation and any jaw drop (dropping the jaw to descend as a Low Placement type risks pulling the mouthpiece completely off the top lip). Like Very High Placement players, a larger rim size can be helpful for Low Placement brass embouchure type musicians. The larger rim contact can help these players play in the low range in a way that is correct for their embouchure type and they usually can play just as well in the upper register with the larger rim size.
A focused tone can also be more challenging for Low Placement players. They typically feel like they warm up quickly, but often need to spend more time practicing to open up their sound. Often the key for a more focused sound can be found in making sure they are playing each note in the correct spot along the track of their embouchure motion and playing with the correct horn angle for each particular note.
Strength and endurance can also be difficult for Low Placement type players to develop, especially if they have a smile embouchure. There’s something about this embouchure type that makes it harder for these musicians to build embouchure strength and endurance simply by playing a lot, so these players may find a little light and airy free buzzing practice to be very helpful. Upstream brass musicians should not try to free buzz into their instrument the way downstream types can. Free buzzing into the instrument encourages a downstream lip position and mouthpiece setting, which is opposite of what Low Placement players want to do. What simple free buzzing does do well for Low Placement embouchure type players is strengthen the muscles at and around the mouth corners.
Low Placement embouchure types also seem to be more sensitive to excessive movement in their embouchures than the other embouchure types. An inconsistent embouchure motion and altering the mouthpiece placement on their lips for different registers can really mess things up for them. Similarly to Medium High Placement players, they can sometimes put too much pressure on the upper lip as they make their ascending embouchure motion (pulling down to ascend). It’s best to think of keeping a little more mouthpiece weight on the lower lip, particularly when playing in the upper register.
When everything is working properly for Low Placement embouchure types their playing can sound great and feel easy. When just a little bit is off, it can sometimes spiral out of control and feel awful.
Before I move on, I want to bring up some important points regarding the Low Placement embouchure type. Because this type is less common than the two basic downstream embouchure types (perhaps 10%-15% of all brass players) you are going to find fewer successful Low Placement embouchure type players. This is simply because players who have the combination of anatomical features that makes this embouchure type correct are less common and isn’t because there is something inherently wrong about this embouchure type. There are examples of excellent brass musicians of all instruments and in all genres that belong to the Low Placement embouchure type, just not as many as the other embouchure types.
As I noted above, Low Placement players have certain quirks that the downstream players tend to not have and the corrections can be exactly opposite of what you might prescribe for a downstream embouchure type player. When well meaning (but ignorant) teachers try to “fix” an upstream player with recommendations to move the mouthpiece placement higher on the lips they are unintentionally making it harder for their students in the long term. Moving the mouthpiece higher on the lips of a Low Placement student may cover up some of the issues upstream players need to deal with, but it’s not the best long term fix. For example, moving an upstream player’s mouthpiece placement closer to half and half may actually help a student achieve a darker tone and an easier low register, but at the expense of long term high range, endurance and flexibility. Instead of moving the placement higher, teachers will want to help Low Placement players learn to open their sound and develop their low register through correct embouchure motion and good breath control.
You can read more about the Low Placement embouchure type here or proceed to Part 6.
Questions, comments, and corrections to this resource can be posted here.