Embouchure 101 Part 7 – Mouthpiece Pressure

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.

Another important point of overall embouchure form is how much mouthpiece pressure is used. Enough mouthpiece pressure to at least create a seal so air leaks out is necessary. Higher notes and louder notes use more mouthpiece pressure and brass musicians are familiar with the experience of needing more mouthpiece pressure at the end of a long performance or rehearsal compared with how they started the night. Embouchure firmness is required to protect the lips from damage that can result from mouthpiece pressure. Excessive pressure should be avoided.

While there is a popular idea that mouthpiece pressure should be as minimal as possible (and we certainly don’t want too much mouthpiece pressure), too little mouthpiece pressure also has its pitfalls. Take another look again at the below video and in particular what this trombonist does on the low Bb and pedal Bb. How much mouthpiece pressure does it seem like he’s using? Does he use a lot more or a lot less in a particular range?

Compare that with this bass trumpet player below and note the difference.

The trombonist on the top brings his lips forward to descend to the low Bb and pedal Bb. Especially from the side view, you can also see how his mouthpiece backs off as his lips move forward. In contrast, the bass trumpet player just above looks like he’s keeping a more consistent amount of mouthpiece pressure in all registers. His mouth corners are firmed and locked in place in all registers, which allows his lips to take the mouthpiece pressure he uses.

It’s important to point out now that it’s pretty difficult, if not impossible, to accurately depict exactly how much mouthpiece pressure a brass musician is using against the lips without using a device that objectively measures it. A number of studies have done this, however, and they seem to all confirm that the higher or louder the pitch the more mouthpiece pressure tends to be used. One write up I found particularly interesting was conducted by Joe Barbenel, John Booth Davies and Patrick Kenny. Barbenel, Davies, and Kenny are amateur trumpet players, but professional researchers in the fields of bioengineering and psychology. Curious about the validity of some of the things they were being taught by their trumpet teachers, they decided to look into the area of mouthpiece pressure. They specifically asked three questions; how much mouthpiece pressure trumpet players use, how well they could judge the amount of mouthpiece pressure their students use, and how much mouthpiece pressure each trumpet player thought he or she used. It turned out that professional trumpet players and teachers were not able to accurately assess from photographs which players were using more mouthpiece pressure (they were instead noting how “relaxed” each player’s face looked). They also all had a very inaccurate idea of how much mouthpiece pressure they were using while playing. In fact, the amount of actual mouthpiece pressure used by professionals was so much the researches first thought their equipment was malfunctioning!

One of the big takeaways I get from the studies like this on mouthpiece pressure is that brass musicians use more mouthpiece pressure than we realize. This is in contrast to some of the more popular pedagogical concepts in brass which recommend to keep the mouthpiece pressure minimal. There are even advocates for a so-called “no pressure” approach to playing a brass instrument. Taken to an extreme, keeping mouthpiece pressure minimal may not be very helpful for brass students.

There are some different analogies that I’ve come across that describe a good general amount of mouthpiece pressure and how to distribute it across the lips. What I think they all have in common is that they strive to get the brass student to feel the foundation of the teeth and gums under the lips/mouthpiece rim. Some teachers describe it like a cross, with the main sensation of contact being one on the top lip, one on the bottom lip, and two on either side. Others have described it as analogous to legs on a table, with two on the top lip and two on the bottom lip. Low placement types may feel it more like a tripod, with one main point of contact on the top lip and two on the bottom. Sometimes when I play I think of it like a tea cup resting onto a saucer, with even contact all around.

Remember, our teeth and gums aren’t perfectly flat. The jaw position can vary from player to player and move slightly according to the range being played. On any given pitch the sensation of keeping the stable foundation under the mouthpiece rim and lips will require a certain adjustment of the horn angle as the embouchure motion moves the mouthpiece and lips along the teeth and gums. Considering how different every brass player’s anatomy is, this explains why brass musicians may tilt their horn around a lot or a little, and in different directions. It’s unique to the individual.

That said, I think it’s helpful to think about keeping a little more pressure on the lower lip than the upper lip for players of all embouchure types. The upper lip (I mean the entire lip, not just the vermillion of the lip) seems to be more prone to swelling and some embouchure types are more prone “digging into” the upper lip with the mouthpiece in the upper register.

I also want to mention again that rim contact on the vermillion of the lips is fine and there’s really no reason to discourage it. Look at the muscle labeled Orbicularis oris in the image here. This is the muscles that surrounds the mouth. Notice that there is no muscle line or point of where this muscle ends and the lip vermillion begins. The red of the lips is pretty arbitrary from an anatomical feature and I’ve found no evidence that it’s more prone to injury than the lip area with normal skin. We’ve also already seen a few examples in this series of good brass players who place the mouthpiece rim so that it is set on the red of the lips, so we know that it can work well (provided that this is the best placement for the player’s anatomy). I’ve done my homework on this topic, if you still need convincing.

Overall embouchure firmness, I believe, is pretty important considering the amount of mouthpiece pressure it takes to play a brass instrument. Having your lips firmed while playing helps to protect them from the forces of the mouthpiece pressing up against them. While injuries do happen to the lips due to excessive mouthpiece pressure, the lips are quite capable of dealing with a normal amount of pressure involved in playing a brass instrument, provided care is taken. Excessive mouthpiece pressure may happen mostly when there is already an underlying issue with the player’s embouchure form or function. Reducing the amount of mouthpiece pressure may be necessary, but also consider having a student firm the embouchure more and look for corrections in other areas of embouchure form or function. If you can correct the embouchure issue, the excessive mouthpiece pressure may go away on its own.

In the next section I’ll cover a topic also related to embouchure firmness and mouthpiece pressure, embouchure consistency.

Click here to go on to Part 8.

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