Embouchure 101 Part 6 – Embouchure Firmness

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 the earlier sections I’ve been covering embouchure patterns that contrast for different players. In the next three parts I’ll cover some embouchure characteristics that I believe are (or at least, should be) typical for players belonging to all three basic embouchure types. Many of the suggestions that I’m covering in this part will be more familiar to many brass teachers and players. Other recommendations may be different from what other resources suggest, but I’ll try to explain my logic so that you can make an informed decision about how you teach your students. I’ll be drawing from research and writing by other authors, but will try to keep this discussion from getting too deep in the weeds of academia and research methodology.

When we play a brass instrument we want to strive for a relaxed feeling with as little tension as possible. This leads many teachers and players to recommend keeping the embouchure formation “as loose as possible.” On the other hand, we do know that playing the full range of a brass instrument with endurance does require a degree of muscular strength and control. How firm is firm enough? How loose is too loose? Where should the effort in the embouchure muscles be concentrated and what muscle groups should be relaxed?

These are complex questions to answer, although many teachers have tried. One of the main difficulties is that an activity that feels like a lot of effort to one person can feel quite easy to another. For example, for one person lifting a 200 pound weight would be easy, but for another it’s hard work. This is also true of brass embouchure firmness. For an advanced player it can feel relatively easy to play a high C, but for a beginner who hasn’t yet developed the embouchure strength she will strain to reach the same high C. It’s just not possible to accurately depict how much effort is being used by describing one’s playing sensations.

In order to more objectively describe embouchure firmness let’s first take a look at some research conducted by Matthias Bertsch and Thomas Maca, Visualization of Trumpet Players’ Warm Up by Infrared Thermography (2001). In this research Bertsch and Maca uses infrared cameras to look at the temperature of trumpet players’ faces before and after warming up to see what facial muscles were being used. Let’s look at one image from their paper.

The top images (example 1) are before and after the warm up of a professional trumpet player. The middle images are from a beginning trumpet player and example 3 on the bottom are from a more experienced trumpet student. In particular I would like to look closely at the areas of muscular activity that we see with the professional trumpet player, who presumably plays with better embouchure technique than the beginner or student player.

Note that the muscular activity (indicated by the red color in the thermographic images) for the professional player is concentrated largely at the area at and just under the mouth corners, as well as area around the chin. For our purposes, it’s not really necessary to get into the specific names of the muscles here, but instead note the regions on the player’s face that is responsible for the embouchure.

If you firm your lips into buzzing firmness and touch the area at and under your mouth corners you should be able to feel a small knot of muscles. These muscles are, in my opinion, where the bulk of the embouchure effort should be concentrated. The mouth corners on successful brass players are more or less locked into place and neither pull back into a smile or come forward into an exaggerated pucker at any point in the player’s range.

The other area where the professional player above shows muscular activity is the region below the lower lip. You can see something similar with the student trumpet player, but there isn’t any muscular activity happening in the same place with the beginner. Since the paper didn’t show or describe what his chin looked like while playing, I’ll extrapolate and guess that the professional performer’s chin was kept flat and firm, with little or no bunching of the chin (it would also be very interesting if they would have organized the players according to embouchure type to see if there were different patterns).

Looking closely at successful brass musician’s faces while playing I think we’ll find that these two features, firm mouth corners held in place and a firm, flat chin are typical. We can also note that when these features are not present, the brass musician will typically have embouchure issues that can be heard and seen. Let’s look at some examples.

Medium High Placement, F above high Bb, high Bb, middle Bb, low Bb, pedal Bb

Look at the animated photos of the above Medium High Placement embouchure type trombonist playing an F above high Bb, high Bb, middle Bb, low Bb, and then finally pausing on pedal Bb before the GIF cycles again. Note the position of her mouth corners. They are very much locked in place at all ranges. It’s not unusual for trombonists to resort to some collapse of the mouth corner position in the pedal range, but this trombonist keeps the mouth corners pretty firm all the way down to the pedal Bb. Also note that her chin is also being held flat and isn’t bunching up towards the mouthpiece in the higher range. You can more easily see this trombonist’s chin in this view from the side.

Medium High Placement, F above high Bb

Now let’s take a look at a Low Placement embouchure type trombonist playing the same sequence of notes.

Low Placement, F above high Bb, high Bb, middle Bb, low Bb, pedal Bb

The above low placement embouchure type trombonist has a very narrow mouth. There is so much rim contact near the mouth corners they almost can’t help but stay locked in place. You can see how his mouth corners are very stable for his whole range. You can also see a better look at his chin in the photograph below, which shows him playing an F above high Bb. His chis is held firm and in a flattened position.

Low Placement, F above high Bb

Let’s now look at a Very High Placement embouchure type player and note his mouth corners and chin position.

Very High Placement, F above high Bb, high Bb, middle Bb, low Bb, pedal Bb

I misplaced or never got a good photo of that very high placement embouchure type trombonist playing a pedal Bb from the front, so that pitch switches to a side view. His mouth corners and chin are consistently held in position throughout his range.

Now let’s compare those photos to some different trombonists who have some obvious inconsistencies with their embouchure form.

Low Placement, F above high Bb, high Bb, middle Bb, low Bb, pedal Bb

The above Low Placement embouchure type photographs show an extreme amount of loosening of the mouth corners as he descends, as well as a hint of a smile embouchure on the F above high Bb. While his mouthpiece placement is quite low and off to his left side, he does play a wide range on this setting. Rather than suggest any changes to his mouthpiece placement he would probably do better by strengthening up his overall embouchure form and keep his mouth corners more firm throughout his entire range.

Low Placement, pedal Bb, low Bb, middle Bb, high Bb, D above high Bb

Above is another example of a Low Placement embouchure type trombonist. In this animated GIF you can see his embouchure starting with a pedal Bb, to low Bb, to middle Bb, to high Bb, and ending on a D above high Bb before the cycle repeats. The pedal Bb shows signs of a collapsed embouchure formation (although not quite as severe as the previous example). His embouchure formation looks pretty good on the low Bb and middle Bb, however on the high Bb and D above that you can see how his mouth corners come back into a smiling position.

For some reason, a smile embouchure seems more common with Low Placement brass players. Pulling the mouth corners back to ascend does work, to a degree, by stretching the lips out sort of like stretching a rubber band will make it vibrate at a higher frequency when plucked, but there are limits to how far the lips can be pulled back. Furthermore, stretching out the lips like this makes them more prone to a high range cap and to endurance issues. Free buzzing exercises seems to be a pretty good way to help players of all embouchure types develop the strength and control to hold their mouth corners in place while ascending, where simply trying to hold them in place while playing the instrument isn’t usually as successful.

Let’s take a look at a fairly extreme example of a trombonist with general embouchure form that is too loose and with an uncontrollable tremor.

I’ll come back later to this particular example, but for now I want to point out how his mouth corners change positions as he changes pitches as well as his chin. His mouth corners come forward, up, and down as he changes pitches and even on the same pitch they wiggle uncontrollably. Also notice how his chin is disengaged from the position of his jaw. On lower pitches his chin flattens out and looks more typical, but as he ascends he bunches his chin up towards the mouthpiece. He’s not getting the muscular effort concentrated in the same areas of activity that the infrared thermography photos show with the professional trumpet player above.

In the next part I’ll discuss one of the main reasons why I feel it’s best to keep the lips firmed at all times.

Proceed to Part 7.

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