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How We Mess Brass Players Up

I’ve been wanting to write a blog post on this topic for many years, but I was never sure exactly how I wanted to frame it. I didn’t want to come across as a pompous know-it-all on a lot of controversial topics. That said, after many years of developing as a trombonist and teaching brass players of all levels I felt like I had some valuable insights to share.

Ever since I was a high school student I’ve been extremely curious about brass pedagogy. However, it always seemed and felt a bit like a Medieval dark art. There were so many different “schools” of thought, particularly on embouchure and embouchure development. Brass instruments are referred to most precisely as “lip-reed instruments” because our lips function essentially as reeds. Since we are each born with lips that are unique sizes, thicknesses, elasticities, and densities we all end up adapting unique embouchure formations to accommodate these differences. This is what fundamentally makes the teaching of brass embouchure more challenging than that of other wind instruments.

There are many teachers and pedagogues who believe in what many call “paralysis by analysis.” This school of thought argues that there are so many movements and muscle coordinations that we cannot fully comprehend in the moment as we play these instruments. The more we try to analyze what is happening, the further we get from what our bodies already have the capacity to figure out all on their own. They argued that developing the technique to play a brass instrument at a high level should be mostly an intuitive matter. We should put our musicianship first, focus mainly on our breathing, and just let the rest take care of itself.

There is most definitely a lot of merit to this approach. There is a tendency within brass teaching to become fixated on something that looks different or unusual. Successful highly efficient embouchures can look strikingly different. It is much easier to judge how an embouchure looks than it is to evaluate how an embouchure functions. Choosing to not fixate on embouchure can indeed be very helpful advice for a majority of students probably most of the time.

That said, the frustratingly obvious problem many students encounter at one time or another with this approach is whenever something physically just isn’t working. Maybe they can’t play a certain note in their range or are having trouble slurring a certain interval. Perhaps they just can’t get their lips to respond on a certain note at a certain dynamic. Maybe it is something more catastrophic like a persistent double buzz or an inability to make sound at all. Maybe they experience a great deal of pain in their embouchure when they play. In these moments we have not choice other than to dive into that scary world of embouchure mechanics.

What many students don’t realize is that most brass teachers also fear these moments with their students. It is embarrassing to admit to our students that many times with these sorts of embouchure dilemmas we are ultimately just guessing and hoping for the best. After all, the advice a teacher gives a student is only ever based on one of three things: 1) something someone else said, 2) something we experienced personally, or 3) something we just made up that seems to make sense on some level but have no way of knowing for sure. When it comes to advice about brass embouchure, a great deal of what students are often told originates from #3.

I believe that most teachers give advice in good faith. Unfortunately, we live in a sea of contradictory information when it comes to teaching brass instruments. We often lack the resources and means to know if a particular piece of advice will be helpful for a particular student dealing with a particular problem. Without coming across as a pompous know-it-all, I would like to discuss some of the most common ways I’ve observed that teachers of brass instruments mess their students up. I also openly admit that I have been guilty of these offenses myself.

If you are reading this article as a frustrated student, I hope what you take away from this is the understanding that we as teachers are human and often make mistakes. Please take the more extreme things you are told by us with a grain of salt and a healthy dose of skepticism. Don’t ever let something someone told you that is clearly not working completely ruin your playing.

I discuss these topics in no particular order:

1) Embouchure changes. There are perhaps no two scarier words for a student who has been playing for many years to hear than “embouchure change.” In both my experience and from my reading, the vast majority of attempts by most students to significantly “change” their embouchure are unsuccessful. Either they end up unable to play much at all or have a diminished ability to play at their former skill level. Rarely do teachers want to admit that they made a bad suggestion to a student and allow them to return to an older way of playing. Teachers can become especially belligerent if a particular change was successful for either themselves or a previous student. From a student’s perspective, going through an unsuccessful embouchure change is an incredibly frustrating experience—one that more times than not leads to quitting playing altogether.

I certainly don’t mean to imply that students shouldn’t work on refining their embouchures. At times that can even mean making rather significant adjustments. I wish rather to emphasize that any and all embouchure adjustments need to be undertaken with some healthy skepticism and the fundamental understanding that all brass embouchures will end up looking somewhat unique. Some successful brass embouchures will be 2/3rds upper lip and 1/3 lower lip. Despite what many brass methods textbooks state, many embouchures will be equally successful with 2/3rds lower lip and 1/3 upper lip (and other ratios too!). Some embouchures will work best when mouthpieces are set slightly to the left or right of center. There are long lists of famous professional brass players who have made each of these embouchures work extremely well. If a student is placing their mouthpiece in a place that seems unusual but everything is working well, there is no good reason to change it.

What determines a successful embouchure is its function, not its appearance. The lips should be able to vibrate easily in any range and at any dynamic without excessive mouthpiece pressure, muscle tension, excessive blowing, or other forms of strain. Students should be encouraged to experiment with mouthpiece placement until they find an ideal placement that makes producing a clear focused sound as easy as possible. Mouthpiece placement will need to shift somewhat from low to high to produce the full playing range of the instrument. Trying to hold the mouthpiece in one location will necessitate excessive mouthpiece pressure and limit range development. Instead of trying to eliminate movement, it’s often better to encourage students to try to move more smoothly and gradually and less suddenly or abruptly.

As a low brass player, the necessary movements an embouchure must make to navigate the full playing range of the instrument are very easy to feel and see (because for us they are larger). High brass players are sometimes more easily convinced that embouchures shouldn’t move from low to high (because the movements are so small), but evidence from mouthpiece cameras and high speed photography proves otherwise. Even though these movements can be very small, they are still important. Brass players need to set up their embouchures so that they can easily accommodate these movements.

When it comes to helping a student refine their embouchure, I prefer to use the term adjustment rather than change. To me, an embouchure adjustment is an experiment. It is an attempt to improve in a non-permanent way that allows us the ability to thoroughly test the change before deciding to permanently implement it. This gives us the ability to reverse course whenever something does not appear to be working. All embouchure adjustments should be approached with caution, skepticism, a mind willing to learn and adapt, and a sense of adventure. Don’t be discouraged if an adjustment doesn’t work. A student can always go back to whatever they were doing before and then try something else. It’s also better to apply the embouchure adjustment to a familiar warm-up exercise than immediately to a piece of repertoire. This reinforces the idea of the adjustment being an experiment rather than a prescription. Don’t ever assume that just because a particular adjustment worked well for one or even many others students that it will work the same for everyone.

2) Too much tension/relaxation. An embouchure that is either too firm or too relaxed will not produce sound easily. I often make the analogy of a brass embouchure to a stretched rubber band. If the rubber band is stretched gently between the fingers, we can produce a clear tone by merely plucking it. If there isn’t enough tension in the band, it won’t vibrate. If there is too much tension, it will break. Brass embouchures function exactly the same way. They require just the right amount of firmness in all the right places in order for the lips to vibrate when air passes through them.

In my experience, most brass players tend to harbor too much tension in their breathing and too little firmness in their embouchure. Telling brass players to tighten up to play higher usually results in tighter strained exhalations, not firmer corners in the embouchure. This often inhibits range development. Consequently, telling brass players to relax too often usually yields an embouchure that lacks the firmness it needs to resist and compress the air enough to produce sound—especially in the upper register. Students are usually too embarrassed to ask the most obvious questions. “But if everything is as relaxed as possible, how do I make sound?” “If I tighten to play higher, it seems to cut off my sound.”

In my experience it is best to avoid using words like “tension” and “relaxation” altogether because neither are physically accurate in terms of what is actually happening in the embouchure or breathing. I have found a lot of luck describing the embouchure as “firm” rather than “tight.” Instead of telling a student to relax, I tell them to avoid straining. I might say something like “keep the embouchure firm and move the air faster without straining.” This is a much more specific and physically accurate statement. It implicitly tells a student to use just enough tension in the embouchure to resist the air and that the overall goal is a faster airstream while also cautioning them against overexertion and doing anything that feels painful.

3) Mouthpieces that are too big/small. At some point in the development of every brass player they become aware that there are different mouthpiece sizes. It is always tempting to want to experiment with this, especially when some aspect of their playing isn’t working as well as they would like. A student who is desperate to develop their upper register, play louder, or get more depth in their sound will pursue equipment that compensates for these shortcomings in their playing. There is always psychology involved in making a purchasing decision. We all want to believe that the money we just spent was worthwhile even when all the evidence points to the contrary. Teachers and directors frequently fall victim to this way of thinking too. Addressing the individual playing needs of many students is difficult. It is much easier to get everyone new mouthpieces.

I don’t want to imply that equipment changes are never necessary. In my own experience, making necessary equipment changes (especially with mouthpieces) can be incredibly helpful for our long term development as brass players. I’m just begging us all to approach these decisions with the individual needs of our students in mind. If you aren’t sure what to do, stick to standard mouthpiece sizes. Standard mouthpiece sizes exist because they are tried and true and have been tested over the course of decades by large numbers of brass players at all levels. The list of high level professional brass players playing on standard mouthpiece sizes has always been extremely long. Professionals use them because they work well for a wide variety of situations.

If you want to have a student try something bigger or smaller, have them move up or down one standard size at a time. If it seems to help, have them stick with it for a few weeks. After a few weeks compare it to their old mouthpiece (please, never get rid of the old mouthpiece!). If it still seems to be better, then have them stick with the change for even longer. If further adjustments are needed, those changes can be made gradually and thoughtfully as well. There is no perfect mouthpiece, only mouthpieces that work better or worse for a particular student at a particular time in their development.

Until a student is at a very advanced level (or unless they have a special accommodation need), they should be discouraged from trying customized or otherwise non-standard equipment. Not only are customized mouthpieces expensive, most students will merely choose whichever mouthpiece design best compensates for the current deficiencies in their playing often at the expense of a lot else. Even worse for a student with a developing embouchure, radically and frequently switching mouthpiece sizes can be incredibly disorienting. Developing embouchures need consistency more than anything else.

Please stop switching entire sections to a particular mouthpiece size. While that can at first appear to darken/brighten up everyone’s sound, it can be detrimental to the long term development of many students for whom that size is not ideal or appropriate. It also doesn’t help students blend better because their embouchures are all different. Different embouchures function differently with with the same size mouthpiece. Not every student needs to play something bigger to get a darker sound. Not every student needs to play something smaller to have a more secure high register. Some of the biggest sounds I’ve ever heard come from players using small and medium sized mouthpieces. Some of the brightest and most powerful high registers I’ve ever heard come from players using larger and deeper mouthpieces. Forcing everyone to use the same size mouthpiece is akin to forcing everyone on a sports team to wear the same size shoes.

4) Excessive loudness. Playing excessively loudly is the fastest way to wear out a brass player. Most student brass players are unaware of this because playing loud is easy (and fun). We know from physics just how damaging high amplitudes can be to anything that is vibrating. The famous example is the collapse of the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Playing loudly on a brass instrument is very hard on our lip tissues, even if we are extremely efficient. However, this damage is often not noticed because we can still play quite loudly even with fatigued or damaged lips.

The first thing most brass players notice when they get tired is increased difficulty producing the highest notes in their playing range (usually due to swelling and muscle fatigue). This often leads students to think that playing high notes is what wears them out. Rather than encouraging students to conserve their high range, we should be encouraging them to conserve their louder dynamics. Even though no one ever seems to believe this initially, playing quietly in the upper register is not particularly taxing. That’s usually the best way to approach, develop, and practice passages in the upper register. Once a student discovers how to efficiently produce higher notes, it is much easier to increase their volume without excessive strain.

The key to playing loud efficiently on a brass instrument is to figure out how to play efficiently first, and this is almost always best achieved at lower dynamic levels. A student needs to figure out how precisely to position their lips so that they most easily vibrate with the slightest amount of airflow. Once that is discovered, increasing the airflow just slightly will dramatically increase the overall volume. The best analogy I can make is with talking. When we talk loudly, we don’t feel the sensation of air being forced through our larynx. We only feel that sensation when we start to yell. I once heard an actor explain that the key to vocal projection is to learn to talk as loudly as possible without yelling. I like to use that analogy for learning how to play loudly as efficiently as possible without strain or force.

For band directors craving more power and projection from their brass players (especially low brass players), spending more time working on balance, blend, and intonation at quieter and middle dynamics often yields the best results for louder playing as well. When everyone’s sounds are adding together positively, the end result will sound much louder and fuller than it actually is or needs to be. This will also ensure that you get better endurance from your brass players.

5) Not enough rest. I am reminded of something I once learned from a friend of mind who was very involved with weight training. According to them, exercise is the repeated alternation of stressing and relaxing a muscle. The more we stress a muscle without relaxing or resting it, the more we damage it rather than build it up. We need relaxation and rest in order to build strength and endurance, not just continual stress.

Brass players at all levels need healthy amounts of rest when they play—a lot more so than other instrument groups. If healthy amounts of rest are mixed in, brass players can play for hours. However, pushing everyone through a long rehearsal of constant playing does not build them up. It wears them out. Writing arrangements where the brass never get an opportunity to rest will also wear everyone out.

What most people don’t understand about fatigue on a brass instrument is that once it fully sets in, it can take days or even in some cases weeks to fully recover from it. I describe this to my students as “going into the red”—making the analogy with maxing out the RPMs on a car engine. If we push ourselves that hard, we will wear ourselves out extremely quickly. However, if we play just below that threshold we can play for indefinite amounts of time without too much strain.

We might even think of it like managing a bank account. If we push ourselves very hard, it is like withdrawing a large sum of money. When we rest it puts a little money back into the account. Once we withdraw everything that’s there, we will need to wait a long time to regenerate the money we’ve lost. The best strategy is to learn how to play without withdrawing so much from our embouchures and mix it in with frequent rest. If we get that balance right, we can play all day long without tiring.

6) Horn angles. I am saving what is perhaps the most controversial topic for last. This one is especially relevant for marching band season. Every brass embouchure functions best with a particular mouthpiece placement and angle. The majority of brass players have facial structures best served by downward mouthpiece angles. This runs up against the desire by many marching band directors to raise horn angles so that everyone’s sound projects and carries up toward the football stands.

While a minority of students have embouchures which function well with higher horn angles, the majority do not. Instead of trying to change everyone’s embouchure to something that will almost certainly fail them, I found it helpful to encourage them to bend gently from the back and the neck to avoid disrupting the mouthpiece angle on their face. That said, for some students extremely high horn angles will not be possible without doing intense harm to their embouchure.

When I was in high school marching band, I found myself completely unable to play with a very high horn angle unless I used a lot of mouthpiece pressure to the extent that it hurt my teeth and drew blood. From my teaching experience and talking to fellow brass players, I learned that this is unfortunately a very common experience for brass players in marching bands. The compromise I found at the time was to bend as much as I could from my back and neck. When we were asked to “horn pop” to a very high angle, I just stopped playing. I have for years been helping brass players recover from injuries they sustained from playing excessively loudly at very high horn angles in marching band settings. I usually solved the problem by helping them rediscover their natural embouchure and learn how to play efficiently again.

It is not in my value system as a private teacher to directly contradict something a student’s director has asked them to do. However, I will always do whatever is in my power to help a student best manage and be successful in a situation in which they find themselves. I have spent entire lessons trying to help a student play at a higher horn angle without disrupting their natural playing embouchure. When this balance is found, it lets the student play at higher angles while still having access to their full playing range, dynamics, and endurance. It is usually possible to reach a good compromise as long as the desired horn angles are not too extreme.

I hope everyone finds something thought provoking from this article. I realize that I dove into some fairly controversial topics. My intent isn’t to start arguments or accuse anyone of teaching in bad faith. Rather, it is to share my experiences with those who find them most helpful in their teaching and/or playing. I’m sure everyone will find something they intensely disagree with in my article. My hope is that a lot of readers will find something useful, practical, and helpful to their playing and/or teaching of brass instruments.

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