When I was a music student mouthpiece buzzing didn’t seem so controversial as it seems to me today. Most of my teachers used it to a degree, but didn’t emphasize it too much. Today there are many books and routines for brass that incorporate or even focus on mouthpiece buzzing. There are also many teachers and players, some very prominent ones, who discourage any mouthpiece buzzing. Others swear by it.
When I see disagreements in brass pedagogy and practice I like to take a step back and look at the question as objectively as possible. What does mouthpiece buzzing practice do to our normal brass playing? What’s the relationship to normal brass playing and why does it have a positive or negative effect? Are there ways to maximize the benefit and reduce any drawbacks?
Mouthpiece buzzing requires the brass musician to focus the embouchure perfectly on pitch or else the note will be out of tune. On the instrument the player can get away with being a little off because the acoustics of the instrument will “slot” the note for you. However, if the embouchure still isn’t focused correctly on the instrument the tone won’t be as focused. I also suspect that playing a note with the embouchure not quite in focus is more tiring in the long term then working with the natural resonances of the instrument.
Even though buzzing on the mouthpiece doesn’t utilize the natural harmonic resonances of a brass instrument, it’s worth noting that a mouthpiece does have a harmonic frequency, It’s just a high one due to the very small resonance chamber that’s created. I’m not expert enough in the acoustic principles at play to know how this comes into play when mouthpiece buzzing, but I do know that many brass musicians find they have areas where they have issues when buzzing the mouthpiece.
Along with requiring the embouchure to focus correctly, mouthpiece buzzing also works the player’s breathing. If you buzz into the mouthpiece alone you’ll find that you exhale the air more quickly. One school of thought is that by buzzing into the mouthpiece alone you practice really moving a lot of air quickly. The idea is that by getting used to moving more air than usual the player will be better able to move a lesser amount air on the instrument.
Some teachers and players adjust the resistance while mouthpiece buzzing in some ways. There are devices that you can buy the allow you to fine tune the opening of at the shank end of the mouthpiece and simulate the back pressure of playing the instrument. A cheaper alternative is to put a bit of your finger up and block a bit of the hole at the shank of the mouthpiece.
Critics of mouthpiece buzzing offer that it’s different from playing the instrument. They argue, plausibly, that the technique you use for buzzing the mouthpiece well is going to be different from what you want to use while playing your instrument. I tend to agree that there probably other things that brass musicians can practice that will work better in the long term. If you’re too accomplished at buzzing the mouthpiece it risks getting in the way of playing the instrument well.
But there are situations where I think that mouthpiece buzzing can provide some benefits, with some caveats. I feel mouthpiece buzzing should be used sparingly and only for short times. When used, it’s best to immediately afterwards play something on the the instrument. Mouthpiece buzzing is different from playing the instrument, and if you are careful it’s possible to exploit that difference.
One of my mentors used mouthpiece buzzing mainly in the context for helping legato playing. He would have his studio play a phrase or three of a legato etude, then buzz it on the mouthpiece (only tonguing initial attacks after the breath, the rest no tongue). Immediately after buzzing, with as little time as possible, we were to pop the mouthpiece back into the instrument and start the etude over. Usually students would notice an improvement in tone and ease of playing.
For teachers, this mouthpiece buzzing exercise can give your student a quick and easy “win” in your lesson. While benefits of mouthpiece buzzing seem to be a little more short-term, sometimes it’s good to give a student a boost of confidence. There are also definitely musical techniques that mouthpiece buzzing works on outside of brass technique, such as ear training and even expressive playing.
I should also mention that mouthpiece buzzing is a great way to introduce beginners into how to form a brass embouchure. Free buzzing is usually pretty challenging for a beginner, at least while getting the embouchure form I want to encourage, but it’s much easier to do on a mouthpiece. Buzzing on the mouthpiece is often easier for a new player to get their first sound than trying it on the instrument.
All that said, I really haven’t used mouthpiece buzzing regularly in my own practice and teaching for a while. My preference is to work to address things in ways either directly on the instrument or in a way that is further removed from how normal brass playing works (i.e., through singing to develop ear training, free buzzing to develop embouchure strength, breathing exercises to develop good breath control).
My two cents – You probably can do just as well without mouthpiece buzzing in the long term, but if you don’t do more than a few minutes or so a day you should be OK if you feel it’s helpful. I would recommend you don’t use it as a warm up, always start your practice by playing your instrument. When you do buzz on the mouthpiece, always immediately return to playing the instrument and ensure that you’re developing your ability there, rather than getting better at being a mouthpiece buzzer.