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.
Consistency of mouthpiece placement and lip position is a topic not as often discussed as embouchure firmness or mouthpiece pressure. While it is possible to find players who change mouthpiece placements to switch registers, most successful brass musicians seem to keep their placement pretty consistent. It is clearly best for a brass player to be able to play their entire range on a single placement or lip position inside the mouthpiece and not have to set the mouthpiece to a different position every time they need to play in a different range.
Very High Placement and Low Placement embouchure types seem to be more prone to change the mouthpiece placements to descend. Here’s an example of a low placement/upstream embouchure trombonist who sets his mouthpiece very low for his highest notes, and as he plays into his middle and lower register needs to reset his mouthpiece closer to the nose.
His high D and high Bb look pretty typical for a Low Placement embouchure type, but on the middle Bb and low Bb he sets his mouthpiece closer to half and half. In order to play the pedal Bb he moves his mouthpiece placement up to just under his nose.
Let’s also take another look at a Very High Placement trombonist who I used as an example earlier. Watch his mouthpiece placement and note how he brings his placement up higher (closer to his nose) as he ascends and brings his placement lower to descend. You will also be able to see him struggle as he is asked to slur the large intervals on one mouthpiece setting. He is used to a lower mouthpiece setting in the lower part of his range and he compensates by pulling his upper lip up out from under the mouthpiece while slurring down. A couple of times he will take his mouthpiece off his lips and reset to a slightly different position.
In cases similar to the two trombonists above, I would usually recommend that they learn to play their entire range with the setting they use for the upper register. Players who place the mouthpiece extremely high or low for their upper range usually find that it this high register placement works best in the long term over their entire range. Tone can be difficult for them at first, particularly in their low register, but it’s definitely possible to develop a good sound with their more high register setting. Getting into their upper register with a closer to centered placement, however, isn’t usually possible for players like this.
While the above two examples above are obvious cases of inconsistent mouthpiece placement, there are some other ways that players can develop some instability in their mouthpiece formation. Take a look at the below trombonist and look for embouchure consistency. Can you see any changes in her overall embouchure firmness or mouthpiece pressure?
Her embouchure is a good example of a Very High Placement embouchure type. Almost everything looks good on the legato music she’s playing above. On the staccato excerpts, however, you can see that she has a tendency to move her jaw with every articulation. It’s probably better to keep the jaw from moving around so much. Often when brass students do this you can hear a characteristic “twa” sound in their attacks. It’s probably best to keep the jaw as still as possible while attacking pitches.
There is something else I’d like to point out in her embouchure form that perhaps isn’t so obvious to you. Watch what happens every time she takes a breath. She both pulls her lower jaw back to open her mouth and lightens up a great deal on the mouthpiece pressure. On the attack that follows her lips have to get back into position and firm up while at the same time she brings the mouthpiece back into its playing pressure against the lips.
One brass author, Donald Reinhardt, wrote about this phenomenon. He reasoned that the sudden and frequent “crashing” of the mouthpiece back up against the lips would cause playing difficulties and make the brass musician more prone to lip injuries. At the same time, pulling the jaw back and opening the mouth while breathing not only makes it harder to get the lips back into buzzing firmness, but also can create small inconsistencies in exactly how the mouthpiece is set on the lips. Here’s an example of a trumpet player who is doing this.
The trumpet player in the video above is attacking pitches after breathing in a very similar way to the trombonist above. She firms her lips and brings the mouthpiece into playing position and pressure simultaneously. It’s easy to pin the lips into their wrong playing position or otherwise twist or wind up the lips with the mouthpiece this way, particularly if the brass musician plays with dry lips. If the mouthpiece rim and lips are wet enough then it’s easy for the mouthpiece to slip on the lips to a slightly different position on the lips. Brass musicians can get quite used to playing this way.
Her mouthpiece placement is fine where it is, off center and with the rim right on the red of her upper lip. Her vermillion is large enough that I think regardless of how high or low it gets placed there’s going to be significant rim contact on her lip vermillion. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as where the mouthpiece is placed is the most efficient one for the player. In her case, I think it looks too close to half and half (which I think makes it harder for her in her upper register). It might work better slightly higher to make her embouchure work as a Medium High Placement embouchure type, but it could work better even lower as a Low Placement type.
Compare the embouchure consistency of the above players with a different look at this musician playing both trumpet and bass trumpet.
He sets his lips into a firmed up position before the mouthpiece gets placed on the lips. In most of this video (all the octave slurs) he even breathes through his nose while keeping his lips firm and the mouthpiece pressure already set for playing. When he is noodling around on the bass trumpet you can see him breath through the mouth corners, but the mouthpiece remains pressed against the lips and doesn’t slam back against the lips on the attacks. When he went back to the octave slurs on bass trumpet he went back to breathing through his nose.
Many brass pedagogues have come up with exercises where the student is instructed to breathe through the nose. In the case of the musician above, you can see how it makes it easier to maintain embouchure consistency compared with the other brass players above. When he needed to take more air in quickly, he kept his mouthpiece set on the lips and took air in from outside the mouthpiece.
In the above video I try to demonstrate mouth corner inhalations, first on a trumpet rim visualizer, then on a trombone rim visualizer, and lastly on a trombone with a transparent mouthpiece (sorry it’s so cloudy, they get that way after a while and need replacing). Let me break down how I’m taking the inhalations in such a way as to keep my embouchure formation as consistent as possible every time I breathe.
Before even placing the mouthpiece I get my lips firmed up to where I feel they are when playing, then I place the mouthpiece on my lips (as opposed to placing the mouthpiece on the lips and then firming). When I inhale, I work on keeping the lips inside the mouthpiece just touching while breathing through the mouth corners only. I try to maintain the mouthpiece pressure while inhaling so that when I snap the mouth corners into place and begin blowing that there is little or no sudden banging of the mouthpiece against the lips. By the way, there’s a little more hesitation on some of the attacks than I think is good. It’s better when the blowing commences immediately after the inhalation.
Breathing in this way to maintain embouchure consistency is obviously a trade off. Take a look again at this Low Placement embouchure type trombonist. He barely has any room outside the mouthpiece to inhale through the mouth corners. If he played tuba the mouthpiece would probably cover his entire mouth. And frankly, if a brass musician needs to take a full breath in quickly it is easier by opening the mouth. Maintaining as much rim contact with the lips as possible, however, can help mitigate any inconsistencies from opening the lip formation. Whenever possible (e.g., when warming up or practicing technical studies) it can be useful for students to use a mouth corner inhalation or even nose inhalation to become familiar with how to maintain embouchure consistency.
Maintaining consistent mouthpiece placement and pressure against the lips is, I suspect, a good long term goal to work towards. It is easy to find great brass musicians who don’t firm the lips before setting the mouthpiece or who open their mouthes wide to breath and simultaneously firm the lips and apply mouthpiece pressure. However, I believe that years or even decades of repeatedly smashing the rim against the lips risks injury. Simply having those slight inconsistencies in mouthpiece placement or lip position also makes things just a bit harder to play as there’s always a slightly different feel. It might not be causing problems with a student’s embouchure technique immediately, but if a particularly demanding performing situation comes up there is potential for it to cause playing problems. The more consistent the embouchure form, the less risk. Personally, I think the additional embouchure consistency that results also is beneficial for overall technique.
Continue to Part 9, Embouchure Analysis and Troubleshooting.
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