Embouchure 101 Part 9 – Embouchure Analysis and Troubleshooting

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.

Why Analyze the Embouchure?

By and large, brass pedagogy traditionally ignores the embouchure characteristics I’ve discussed here, but hopefully by this point it should be both understandable to you and their value to pedagogy apparent. Just in case you’re still either skeptical of its value or confused by its relevance, let me reiterate that embouchure analysis in and of itself isn’t meant to replace any other useful pedagogical technique, it’s another tool for the brass teacher to add to the tool box. While I personally prefer to teach my students to be aware of their embouchure form and function and how to make it work correctly, that’s not the only way to get to the goal of good brass performing. Some of my students will go on to become teachers (or already are music educators), and I want them to have the tools to better help their future students. Others come to me just wanting to fix playing problems and don’t really care to communicate it to others. Sometimes making an adjustment to something else (breathing, tonguing, where they are putting their focus while playing, etc.) can correct an embouchure issue without directly instructing the student on how to play. My point, however, is that the teacher, at least, should have a clear, objective goal in mind for the student and that this target should be informed by how their students’ embouchures really function (or are malfunctioning). I don’t think that educators should be modeling willful ignorance to students, so I prefer to not be dismissive about analysis of any kind, but rather advocate that it happen at the proper time and place.

With that point out of the way, let’s take a look at some suggestions to how you can analyze and troubleshoot your students’ embouchure technique.

Theory of Embouchure Analysis

I wish I could create something like a flow chart that would describe exactly what to look for and how to make corrections, but I think that it is too complex a methodology to be that specific. Instead, I’m going to explain my working theory on embouchure analysis and then offer some examples to show how I might apply it to pedagogy.

  1. Different anatomical differences between brass musicians mean that different players will have different embouchure technique. One way of conceptually understanding these differences is through the three basic embouchure types as described by Doug Elliott.
  2. All players will play best long term on one embouchure type. Playing with an embouchure type that is not compatible for the brass musician’s anatomy will make the embouchure work harder than it needs to and cause noticeable playing problems.
  3. Efficient embouchure technique correlates with consistent embouchure form, which can vary from player to player. A general rule of thumb leading to efficient embouchure technique is to make all mechanical changes function consistently between octave changes. In other words, the technique used to slur up an octave from a given pitch are the same used to slur down one octave from the given pitch, just in the exact opposite direction.
  4. Deviations from what constitutes good embouchure form for the individual player can make the embouchure work harder than it needs to and cause noticeable playing problems.
  5. Embouchure corrections should address noticeable inconsistencies in embouchure form and function, rather than work to disguise or cover up the aural results.

So on a very basic level, the way I prefer to analyze and make corrections to embouchure technique is to watch how a student is currently playing and look for deviations or reversals in embouchure form. Then I will experiment and test to see what seems to be the correct embouchure form for the individual’s anatomy and guide the student to playing in that way.

Point number 3 above may require a little more explaining for clarity. In earlier parts of Embouchure 101 I have mentioned the embouchure motion. It seems to generally work best when the distance between octaves (or any interval) is the same between any two given pitches. We’ve seen examples of players who change this around in parts of their range and also noted how it can make for noticeable playing difficulties. The same seems to be generally true for other mechanical changes. If a player’s horn angle works best to change it in one direction to ascend, it seems to work best going in the opposite direction to descend. If a player’s jaw comes slightly forward to ascend, then it should probably come slightly back to descend. All these things work together.

Of course, it’s not a perfect science. Sometimes it’s easy to spot the trouble and easy for the student to fix. Sometimes it’s really hard to figure out what’s going on. If a student has been playing incorrectly for a long time it can take months or even years to make the correct embouchure form their habitual way to play. How much the student practices in general, their equipment, musical preferences, state of mind, receptiveness to certain ideas, and lots of other factors come into play in a lesson. The dynamics of working one-on-one with a brass student is impossible to generalize.

So with the above theory and caveat in mind, the pages that follow are some different examples that demonstrate my embouchure analysis process. Please keep in mind that the research I was conducting when I collected these examples was not a longitudinal study. In other words, I usually just have video recordings from a single session. I still keep in touch with some of these musicians and might be able to describe what’s going on with them now. However, for most of these examples I’ll only be able to offer my best guess and reasoning based on a single session. More examples will be added at a later date, if you want to check back.

Proceed to Part 9A.

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