I had previously posted Lloyd Leno’s film, “Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures” on YouTube and wrote about it here, but at the time YouTube was restricting the length of videos. I broke up the film into three parts in order to get it onto YouTube in its entirety.
I’ve finally gotten around to uploading the entire film in one part. Here it is.
Here’s a pretty neat short video of the Salaputia Brass Ensemble performing the movement “EWAME” from the new album “Sounds of Evolution.” They are all playing into mouthpieces that have cameras installed in them, so that you can see the view of their embouchure inside the mouthpiece while performing. Take a look at them and see if you can guess all of their embouchure types. My guesses will be after the break.
Because we’re only able to get an accurate look at which lip predominates, we’re not going to be able to note the musicians’ embouchure motion, but we can tell the player’s air stream direction. Starting from the upper left and moving across each row here are my guesses.
Hopefully this post will soon be obsolete. At the time that I’m writing this a large number of schools across the U.S. (and the world) are switching from in person classes to teaching online in order to stop the spread of covid-19. While it still remains up in the air whether or not my teaching will need to switch to online (hard to teach ensemble playing online), faculty at both at the college where I teach and the school system where MusicWorks is hosted have been asked to begin preparations to teach their courses online.
I’ve done a pretty fair amount of online teaching in the past, so it’s not something that intimidates me particularly. That said, Rebecca Barrett Fox has a counterintuitive suggestion. Do a “bad job.”
For my colleagues who are now being instructed to put some or all of the remainder of their semester online, now is a time to do a poor job of it. You are NOT building an online class. You are NOT teaching students who can be expected to be ready to learn online. And, most importantly, your class is NOT the highest priority of their OR your life right now. Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.
Her main point is that if your course was not initially designed to be taught online that your students’ circumstances may not be well suited to take online. Students may be living in homes that have poor online access. They may be sharing computers or be accessing course work on their phones. Some students may be also caring for children or sick family members.
The college ensemble I’m directing is really impossible to teach online. While I have ideas for how to keep my students engaged in playing their instruments online, they are really better geared towards one-on-one learning, rather than the group playing that we’ve been focusing on. Fortunately it’s a small group, so it won’t really be much of a drain on my time to do some one-on-one online teaching and there are all sorts of things I can help them with that will translate to better ensemble playing when we’re able to meet in person.
As I wrote above, my hope is that this post will soon be out of date. Everyone please stay healthy.
After over 10 years of blogging I figured that I had already covered this very common embouchure issue in its own post, but after wanting to help out a teacher with some questions about it I searched and realized that I’ve only discussed the smile embouchure in the context other topics. In this post I’m going to dig into the smile embouchure and go over some common suggestions for eliminating it that I think are inefficient before I go over what I’ve found to be the best approach. If you want to skip all that, check out this post on free buzzing.
Around the turn of the last century it was apparently common for brass teachers to actually instruct students to ascend by pulling the mouth corners back into a smile. It works, to a degree, similar to the way that stretching a rubber band while you pluck it will cause the band to vibrate faster and therefore sound a higher pitch. This technique has a characteristic look.
Today this technique is almost universally rejected by brass teachers. It tends to limit the upper register and endurance. Pulling the mouth corners back to ascend eventually reaches a limit to where the musician simply can’t smile even further to ascend, resulting in a range cap. Stretching the lips back also makes the lips more sensitive to mouthpiece pressure. This results in difficulty with endurance and also simply risks injury due to mouthpiece pressure.
While brass pedagogy seems to have come to a general consensus on avoiding the smile embouchure, we don’t have an agreement on the best way to help students make corrections to the smile embouchure. Part of this disagreement is due to every student being a little different and responding to instructions in their own ways, but a large part of the disparity in instruction seems to be due to a general lack of knowledge about what’s happening in the embouchure in the first place.
Awareness and Conscious Effort Is Inefficient
If you’ve never struggled with the smile embouchure yourself it might seem that the best way to eliminate the smile embouchure is to help your student become aware of the problem and ask him or her to consciously stop it. Mirror observation is often used for feedback and brass teachers will often prescribe exercises that start in the range where the corners are not pulling back and ascend gradually into the trouble range. The idea here is to start from a point of good technique (mouth corners in place) and strive to keep that technique the same while ascending.
This usually doesn’t work, at least not very efficiently. It’s notoriously difficult for brass players to make this sort of adjustment for a couple of reason. First, these musicians have a “conditioned response” to ascending on their instrument. It’s simply too habitual for them to just stop. Secondly, and even more relevant, the muscles at and around the mouth corners are usually too weak to hold them in place while ascending.
It’s pretty well established now that the area around mouth corners are responsible for a lot of the muscular effort for a well-formed brass embouchure. There have been studies that empirically investigate which muscles in the embouchure are active while playing a brass instrument. The more advanced the player, the more focused the embouchure effort is on keeping the corners firm (and the chin flat). The advanced trumpet player in the image above (the top row) shows a much more focused muscular effort at the mouth corners (and chin) than the beginner (middle row) and trumpet student (bottom row).
One reason why it’s so difficult for brass students to eliminate the smile embouchure is because the muscles that should be holding the mouth corners in place are too weak. Just as you can’t expect someone to bench press 200 pounds without building up to it, a brass musician can’t hold their mouth corners in place without developing the strength to hold them in position.
Embouchure Problems Are Embouchure Problems – QED
One of the most common approaches I come across from teachers, who I feel should know better, promote the idea the all embouchure problems are really breathing problems. These teachers insist that the best way to help a student make corrections to a smile embouchure are to work on breathing. Many also emphasize assignments of music, rather than technical exercises.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong in teaching good breathing and musical expression, any smile embouchure correction that happens as a result here is largely going to be in spite of, rather than because of the focus on breathing. Don’t misunderstand what I’m pointing out. Excellent brass technique requires efficient breathing and musical expression, but embouchure problems are embouchure problems. Teachers who advocate for developing embouchure technique purely through good breathing and musical expression usually insist that it’s ultimately better to take a student’s attention away from their embouchure. That may be all well and good, depending on the student, but in the process they ignore what the real cause and effect of the smile embouchure actually is. In this case, I think advocating that the teacher have a good understanding of embouchure technique here is different from discussing how much of that to communicate to students and when.
In a little bit I’ll show you how you can get a student to stop pulling the mouth corners back into a smile while forming an embouchure almost immediately (with some qualifications). I have never seen working on breathing to help a student correct a smile embouchure as immediately. If fixing the breathing fixes any “embouchure problem” immediately then the original issue was misdiagnosed. Embouchure problems are embouchure problems – by definition.
Sure, working on breathing and musical expression can (eventually) result in a brass musician correcting the smile embouchure. However, this is because the student is developing embouchure strength and control over time from practicing the instrument, not because the breathing is better or the musician’s mental image of the music is in mind. Furthermore, some players who happen to be more prone to a smile embouchure appear to have difficulty building embouchure strength simply by playing a lot (see Low Placement embouchure type players), at least more so compared to peers who have different anatomical features.
In my experience, regular free buzzing practice is the fastest and most efficient route to eliminating the smile embouchure, for a number of reasons. While I go over my rational, it’s important that I specify how I teach free buzzing and address some common concerns about it.
There are many brass players and teachers who dismiss free buzzing because it doesn’t directly relate to how the instrument is played. This is true, but if you are careful and methodical about your approach you are actually exploiting this difference. Consider the “conditioned response” difficulties I mentioned above.
For advocates of fixing the smile embouchure with breathing and musical expression, my rational for addressing it instead with free buzzing should be already familiar to them.
For example, in order to change the preconditioned responses elicited in a student when playing his or her instrument, Mr. Jacobs will simply remove the musical instrument and have the student blow on the back of the hand, buzz on a mouthpiece, or breathe into a strange apparatus. By conditioning the correct response away from the horn, it is then transferable to the instrument. This offers the additional benefits of keeping exercises from dulling musical passion, enhancing strangeness, allowing a multi-sensoral approach, and avoiding previously conditioned baggage. Most importantly, this additive approach keeps players from having to go back to square one on their instruments-particularly valuable for professional players who must maintain a busy schedule. Thus instead of altering a bad behavior, Mr Jacobs advocates that one simply learn a new correct behavior to supplant it by changing stimuli and eventually transferring the response back to the horn. Meanwhile, the old, undesired behavior will extinguish itself from lack of use.
When a student has developed a habitual way of playing the instrument that is getting in their way, it’s very difficult to approach it from what they are doing wrong. Instead, it’s more effective to go after what to do correctly. Furthermore, crafty teachers like Arnold Jacobs used ways to remove the trigger for the conditioned response (the instrument) and make corrections where those bad habits didn’t come into play. As the proper technique became learned, the instrument was gradually added to the mix.
Free buzzing does exactly this, with the added benefit of actually building strength in the muscles that hold the mouth corners in place. Furthermore, free buzzing higher pitches softly and with a mosquito-like sound makes it virtually impossible to pull the mouth corners back into a smile. Instead of helping to raise the pitch, it hinders it. While free buzzing the brass musician has to keep the corners locked in place.
So to return to what I wrote above, it instantly fixes the smile embouchure, albeit in a different context. It introduces “strangeness” removing the conditioned response. Even better, where playing the instrument allows the student to pull the corners back to ascend before the range caps, free buzzing only reinforces the correct mouth corner position. For these reasons, I feel that using free buzzing to eliminate a student’s smile embouchure is superior to addressing it directly while playing or through breathing and musical expression.
How to Free Buzz
My personal favorite free buzzing exercise to teach is from Donald Reinhardt. He prescribed slightly rolling in the lower lip inward and just over the lower teeth while bringing the top lip down to lightly touching the lower lip.
Without any assistance from the mouthpiece or the instrument, form the lips in the prescribed manner and sustain a buzz on middle concert B flat to the fullest extent of a normal playing breath. . . Buzz and inhale three times in the prescribed manner and strive to make each buzz a higher pitch than the previous one – then rest.
Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, p. 169, by Donald Reinhardt
That’s it. Maybe 3-5 minutes at most. Done as described and with just a little bit of work daily spread out over several weeks it should make for noticeable improvements without the risk of feeling “muscle bound” or otherwise screwing up a brass musician’s chops.
As an aside, I edited out the part where Reinhardt instructs holding your finger over your lips when inhaling and breathing in through the mouth corners for clarity here, but I do teach and recommend that in my more detailed discussion and video of this exercise. I also want to point out that the free buzz should be soft and thin sounding. Try to make it sound like a mosquito buzz.
That one exercise done daily for a few weeks or so should translate into a reduction of the smile embouchure at least, and over time can even eliminate it by itself. If your student needs some more help, there are two additional ideas you can try with free buzzing. One can be helpful for pretty much all players, others require you to know and understand the student’s basic embouchure type. These are also based on (if not outright taken from) exercises I picked up from Reinhardt’s writings.
Using Reinhardt’s description of a free buzz above, instruct your student to free buzz a pitch that is at least F below middle C (concert pitch, in other words F3 or F inside the bass clef). Keep the free buzzing tone soft and mosquito-like. After free buzzing that pitch, have the student play the pitch on their instrument as a long tone, then stop and rest. Then buzz pitches up a scale and repeat this exercise until they start feeling fatigued. Observe how the mouth corners look, but it’s not necessary to have the student watch in a mirror unless it helps then to see it (another option is to have the student watch in the mirror every other pitch). This exercise, which I feel is good for any brass player, can help eliminate the smile embouchure by helping the student to experience the correct mouth corner position while free buzzing and then quickly try to translate that to the instrument.
If the student is one of the downstream embouchure types, particularly the Very High Placement type, you can take the above exercise but instead of free buzzing and then playing the pitch on the instrument next, have him or her free buzz into the instrument. For some downstream embouchure type players this can be an excellent way to fine tune other elements of embouchure form as well as the mouth corner position. Low Placement/upstream type brass player will not want to practice buzzing into the instrument, since their mouthpiece placement too drastically changes certain elements of their embouchure form while playing compared to free buzzing.
Free buzzing ticks off all the boxes that we know is effective for correcting instrumental technique. It specifically strengthens the muscles we want. It forces the brass musician’s mouth corner form towards the habit we’re trying to develop while also removing the trigger for the habit we’re trying to eliminate. Lastly, it’s effective over time, but it’s probably more efficient than any other common approach to correcting the smile embouchure.
Remember, keep your student’s free buzzing light, soft, and somewhat airy sounding. A little bit every day spread out over time is much better than a lot at once.
One final idea for those teachers who insist that everything their student works on should have musical value. Use the same described procedure for free buzzing (soft and thin sounding, keep it above F3, etc.) but free buzz simple tunes. Personally, I think it’s fine to work on instrumental technique by removing it from a musical context at times, but if your student has difficulty switching focus back on the music or slips too easily into trying to multitask while playing, free buzzing melodies has the same benefits.
I’ve blogged about this topic before, but it has been almost 8 years. One of the individuals I mentioned in there was Matty Shiner, a trombonist and teacher who had some strong ideas on tooth structure and what he considered ideal for brass playing. Matty Shiner’s brother, Eddie, was a trumpet teacher who shared Matty’s views. In an interview with one of Shiner’s former students, Jim Pugh, Matty was asked about tooth structure and embouchure.
JP: Explain your views on the teeth and how they relate to playing.
MS: If you notice your better players, nobody seems to have teeth like this (demonstrating, he shows an inverted point with his hands) or laterals sticking out like this. The teeth are like a bridge on a violin. There’s a certain curvature and the height has to be right. When a violinist takes an instrument for a new bridge, they measure it down to the thousandths of an inch. It has to be just right. And you have a notch for each string. Now suppose I took a knife and made the bridge a little shorter, that would be like somebody with a closed bite. If I made that bridge a half or quarter of an inch too high, it would be like somebody who has an overbite. There would be a lot of distance between the teeth, then all of the pressure is on the upper lip. It has to be pretty close. I did a clinic at the international trombone conference in Nashville on teeth alignment. After the seminar, I received bags of mail from all over the world.
JP: Do you see this as the way for the mouthpiece to sit in the proper place, using a high point as the center or is it more a means of shaping the air stream as it enters the mouthpiece?
MS: A little of both. You have to have a decent alignment of those teeth. We have a couple of boys here whose teeth are very flat. They get a good sound but their flexibility isn’t what it should be. After they have been playing a while, with their teeth being so flat, it cuts off the circulation and they have some problems. That needs to be corrected. There is a new system now called bonding. Before that, the only way you could make a change was by putting braces on the person’s teeth. It’s a long procedure and it takes a lot of time to align the teeth properly. But now with this bonding technique, if the dentist is shown where to put the bonding and understand the problem, within a short period of time, you can hear an improvement. Nobody can ever tell me that the teeth don’t mean anything.
The only other primary reference I can find about Shiner’s ideas comes from a 1972 dissertation by Charles Isley, A Theory of Brasswind Embouchure Based Upon Facial Anatomy, Electromyographic Kinesiology, and Brasswind Embouchure Pedagogy. While conducting research, Isley interviewed Shiner (but didn’t transcribe the interview for his paper). According to Isley, Shiner was actually recommending dental reconstruction for his students who didn’t have what Shiner considered “ideal.”
Shiner . . . recommend that the upper two central incisors form a slight outward V, or wedge shape, so that the greater amount of mouthpiece weight will ben in the center of the upper lip. According to this theory, the player would be able to avoid pinning the lips at the lateral points of mouthpiece contact, creating better muscular control of the lips inside the mouthpiece. Students whose natural front teeth arch depart from this wedge shape are advised to undergo orthodontic treatment. Results in such cases have been dramatic, offering strong support for the V shape in the upper central incisors. As to the lower teeth, a slightly rounded arch is considered desirable.
Charles Isely, p. 124
The bold emphasis is mine. If you didn’t have the tooth structure that Shiner felt was ideal he actually recommended an orthodontic procedure. This is highly problematic for a number of reasons, but most importantly – MUSIC TEACHERS DO NOT HAVE THE QUALIFICATIONS OR TRAINING TO RECOMMEND ANY MEDICAL PROCEDURE.
I also want to make note that I didn’t remove any citation for the final two sentences in the above quote about Shiner’s hypothesis and there should be one there. As far as I can tell, Shiner never published any papers or articles that discussed his methodology or statistical results. While it’s possible that one of the Shiner brothers actually did so, I suspect that I would have found it when conducting research on my own dissertation (which also happens to be on the topic of how anatomy influences trombone embouchures). The lack of publications on Shiner’s ideas doesn’t mean that he didn’t apply solid methodology and undergo some informal peer review, but it is a red flag to take the hypothesis with a grain of salt.
Another (major) red flag is that I highly doubt that any university Internal Review Board would grant approval to use human test subjects in such a way as to advise someone get dental reconstruction to test the hypothesis that there is an ideal tooth structure for brass embouchure. If you’re conducting research involving medical interventions you’d better believe that they will require you to make your methodology publicly available. If Shiner was conducting research without IRB approval this would be getting into both ethical and legal issues (at least today, maybe IRB protocols were looser back when the Shiner brothers were actively teaching). This means we should supplement with quite a few more grains of salt.
The most charitable conclusion I can draw from the above concerns is that Shiner was using a working hypothesis in his studio and informally conducting “research” to test his ideas. They appear to be based on “armchair speculation” about how brass embouchures supposedly function rather than objective data. Any results obtained from such an informal process is really suspect. Any data is anecdotal at best and researcher bias is almost certainly influencing Shiner’s conclusions. There really isn’t any solid evidence published on this topic in the literature to start with and also conflicting ideas with equal or more validity. Pass the salt.
Based on the above, my assumption is that Shiner was recommending an expensive and not completely risk free dental procedure based on dubious evidence. While the Shiner brothers may have had a lot going for their teaching and playing, I think we can safely ignore their advice. In fact, I think it’s fair to call it out as outright flawed.
Don’t get your medical/dental advice from me, Shiner, or any other music teacher. If you want to adjust your teeth, consult with your dentist or orthodontist and get a second opinion if you feel it’s appropriate.
I was cleaning out some broken bookmarks on my browser and found a (now dark) blog called Lip Rip Blues by trumpet player Jonathan Vieker. In 2011 he severely injured his lip, had surgery, and blogged about his rehabilitation process. Vieker wrote posts covering how he injured himself in the first place, dealing with the psychological repercussions, his setbacks and success, and more.
The morning after I got hurt, as I made a cup of coffee and sat down at the computer to figure out what was wrong with the muscle in my lip, I discovered quickly that there just wasn’t enough information available about embouchure injuries.
This site is my attempt to do something about that.
My interest in lip injuries is peripheral to the research I’ve done on brass embouchure technique. While some brass musicians ask me for help when they have a lip injury, I haven’t personally injured my lip beyond the point where more than a couple of days off would be enough. Players like Vieker help me better understand both the physical and mental issues that brass musicians go through after a severe lip injury.
A while back I blogged about memorizing tunes you will improvise over. The consensus (which I agree with) is that it’s better to have the tunes memorized, because it helps free up your improvisations. I also pointed out that sight reading (or rather, “sight improvising”) skills are also important and so it’s worth being able to look at changes for the first time and improvise over them.
Organist Jonathan Dimmock discusses a similar topic in his article, The Folly of Memorization. In addition to discussing his thoughts on memorizing music he also brings in some historical context. Did you know that Clara Schumann was largely responsible for the trend for pianists to memorize their music? As a woman musician in the 1850s she struggled to be noticed, so she decided to do something that was unprecedented at the time – perform by memory.
The critics were outraged! That she, a woman!, would have the audacity to do something as bold as that was surely to be condemned. But the male pianists of the day saw it differently. They knew that their prowess, even their male virility, was at stake; they could not allow a female to show them up! And so the cult of piano memorization was born. In short order, this would also penetrate the world of concerto performances on every instrument.
According to Dimmock, the changing relationship of musicians to audience that occurred during the Industrial Revolution also made this trend go “viral.” It was during this time that the idea of a “genius artist” became mainstream. This concept is so pervasive today that it’s hard to imagine how musicians were perceived differently today. Prior to the Classical Period in music history musicians were seen more as skilled labor rather than artists. After Schumann’s influence, musicians strove to impress and communicate artistic goals, in part through performing demanding music by memory.
It’s after Dimmock’s description of the historical influences where I feel he goes off the rails. He appears to believe that either you’re going to be skilled at memorization or skilled at improvisation, but not both (or, for that matter, neither).
We now know that the brain is organized in a manner that performers are either adept at memorization or improvisation. Yes, these two things are hard-wired into brain functioning and almost mutually exclusive. Show me a brilliant improviser and I would be willing to bet that they struggle to memorize music. One is not better than the other; they are different and of equal merit.
Without going through and picking apart his evidence and logic, I feel Dimmock is missing some important information regarding how we learn and retain skills, including memorization and improvisation. Contrary to Dimmock’s opinion, I think it’s clear that with practice musicians can learn to excel at both. In fact, as my blog post from earlier discusses, I think skills like reading, memorization, and improvisation are all part of the overall big picture in what I’m interested in while performing music. Sure, some people will have more aptitude in one or another (or both or neither), but we’re not really “hard wired” to only be good in one and never become successful in another.
Why memorize your concert music? Personally, when I’ve gotten ready for a solo performance (particularly as a featured soloist on a concert with only one piece to perform) I tend to have the music mostly memorized merely out of the repetition from practicing the piece a lot. Taking the extra step to prepare to perform it by memory isn’t usually a lot of work beyond. Many soloists feel that not having to watch the music helps them to play more expressively.
The strongest argument I can think of for memorizing music is the it simply looks better on stage. We know that even highly experienced musicians will rate the exact same performance differently depending on the attire that the performer wears. It may not be “fair,” but it’s something that musicians use to their advantage (dress up for your gig and your audience will like your performance better). Performing on stage from memory is just one more thing that can push a good performance into a great on in the minds of your audience.
While your musical goals may not align with mine, when I perform I’m trying to make a connection with my audience. Getting rid of the sheet music while soloing may only be a subtle difference, but it’s the aggregate of the small details that make for the overall musical effect.
That said, I think Dimmock has some valid points.
I believe that the cult of memorization is now coming into its sunset, led on by the sunrise of the Technological Age. It’s computers that memorize! Humans give something else to art, we give soul. It’s time to stop insisting humans need to act like computers. Let’s let computers do the memorizing, and allow people to do the soulful communication. It is only through the latter that transformation of the listener is possible.
What do you think? Is memorizing music bad, good, or neither? Do you feel that you have the ability to improvise, memorize, but not do both well? What experiences have you had that are different from mine and Dimmock’s? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.
I recently came across Tartellog, the trumpet blog of Joey Tartell. I forget how I happened across this post by him, but I really enjoyed reading his discussion of brass pedagogy that emphasizes critical thinking about how we teach.
With so many resources available today, it can be difficult to separate what may help you from what is just garbage from what could actually harm you. To aid you in your search for good pedagogy, I’ve put together a list of five warning signs. If you encounter any of these, think hard before proceeding.
His list of five warning signs are:
Gadgets and Equipment
His last warning sign, teachers who identify as belonging to a particular “school” of trumpet playing is one of the few I’ve come across that mirrors my own concerns about this trend. Like Tartell clarifies in his post, many teachers and students get wrapped up in self-identifying with a particularly influential pedagogue to the exclusion of any other approach or method. This stifles improving our teaching and doesn’t often serve the student well either.
What I mean by “schools” is the rigidity of basing all pedagogy from the mouth of one person.
. . .
My problem comes from thinking that any one of them was the only person who could teach. This leads to thinking that your “school” holds the secret, and no one else really understands.
And like Tartell, I’ve also found that when I’ve pointed this out as a problem, it often gets interpreted as me attacking a famous teacher.
If you studied with one of these teachers and are thinking: “Hey, wait a minute, my teacher was great. Why is Joey attacking my teacher?”‘ I’m not. It is likely that I really like your teacher. The point I’m trying to make is that just because your teacher was great doesn’t mean others weren’t. If you think that only one person could teach, and that person is now dead, that means that your pedagogy is now dead too. This is unacceptable. Pedagogy should be an ever-evolving process, growing as needed with each generation. We take what our teachers gave to us and, combined with our experiences, pass on what we know to our students.
I’m going to have to look through more of Joey Tartell’s Tartellog. Scanning through his other posts it looks like he has a lot of interesting things to say about brass playing and teaching there. Go check it out!