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Suggested Reading

1. Rehearsal Rooms

Struggling to improve the acoustics in your band room? Check out how the Medan Band did it.

2. Concerned about playing swing music properly?

Check out my guidelines

3. Ear training exercises for bands

Unlike piano players, ear training is essential for wind band performers. But how many band directors bother to give their bands suitable exercises?

4. Intonation problems

While tuning is simple act of adjusting a length of tubing on a wind instrument (often by reference to a single note), intonation is an ongoing process in which a player strives to match the pitch of others in the ensemble during performance. 

5. “Blowing” a wind instrument

A common misconception among wind players is to believe that the air moves through the instrument in order to produce the sound. This is simply not true. 

6. Conducting – suggestions for home practice

The best way for a conductor to improve is in front of a live ensemble. The unfortunate reality, however, is that this is not always possible. Aspiring conductors therefore have little choice but to find other ways of honing their skills.

 

Common Embouchure Problems

Introduction
Excessive Pressure
Bunched Chin
Smile Embouchure
Lip Protrusion
Orthodontic Braces


Introduction

This section takes a look at a few of the more common embouchure faults and suggests ways to correct them.  The discussion, however, is not meant to be comprehensive.  Inevitably, band directors will need to make analyses of embouchure problems themselves and engage in a good deal of experimentation in order to find a solution.  This is not as forbidding as it sounds.  Most embouchure problems can be identified by careful reference to the standard embouchure described in the section on the player.  As for solutions, they often amount to little more than commonsense procedures.

The visualiser is particularly useful in studying mouthpiece placement.
Two aids may also prove useful.  A mouthpiece visualizer consists of a mouthpiece rim (without the cup or shank) attached to a long handle.  By looking into a mirror when the visualizer is placed on the embouchure, it is possible to detect a number of embouchure errors. The visualizer is particularly helpful in studying mouthpiece placement and determining the size and shape of the lip aperture. The illustration here shows the visualizer illustrating the correct position of the mouthpiece for trombone or euphonium.

Yet another – more recent – invention is the transparent mouthpiece.  This enables the embouchure to be observed in action.  Unfortunately, even well stocked retailers rarely sell such products in Asia.  The resourceful band director, however, can have a substitute visualizer manufactured almost anywhere by supplying a local machine shop with an old mouthpiece.


Excessive Pressure

This is perhaps the most common embouchure fault found among young players.  It is certainly the one that is most well known. The problem usually develops early on when the performer, anxious to hit a note he or she finds particularly high, discovers that increasing mouthpiece pressure seems to produce the desired result. The short-term advantage, however, is more than outweighed by the long-term damage.  Excessive pressure adversely affects tone quality, flexibility and even range. 

There is no such thing as a "no pressure" system.
Note the use of the word “excessive”.  Even the very best players exert some mouthpiece pressure on the lips, but only enough to ensure that a good seal is maintained between the lips and the mouthpiece such that air does not escape from the sides.  This is the reason why workable “no pressure” systems do not really exist.  It is true that some famous players have been known to hit very high notes by suspending their instruments from the ceiling and avoiding all contact with them except at the lips. Such demonstrations can be impressive, but they rarely result in the production of a good sound. 

Heavy mouthpiece pressure restricts the flow of blood to the lips, causing them to tire quickly.  Moreover, players who employ excessive pressure will not improve their endurance no matter how frequently they practice.  This is because the muscles at the corners of the lips (which determine lip tension in good embouchures) are hardly being used at all and therefore do not get the opportunity to experience a good workout.

One or two comments at the wrong time may take years to correct.
Many band directors do not appreciate the extent to which they may inadvertently contribute to this problem.  One or two comments at the wrong moment can make a lasting impression on young minds, leading to the formation of bad habits that take months or even years to correct.  When students ask about how they should approach the high register, avoid using negative words such as pinch, tighten, press or strain.  Instead, emphasize the need to support the high tones with air while locking the corners of the lips. 

Band directors can also become the source of the problem by pushing students to play in the high register too soon, or simply trying to scare the notes out of the players by making threats.  Comments such as “I don’t care how you do it, but play that high C properly at the concert or you will shame the band and the entire school” are potentially very destructive because they encourage a student to tense up. 

Symptoms of excessive lip pressure include the following:

 
  • A “pressure ring” that remains visible on the lips for more than 20 minutes after the student has finished playing.
 
  • A bruised or swollen upper lip.
 
  • The player has much less endurance than his classmates do at approximately the same level of development.
 
  • Thin tone in the upper register.

Once the habit of using too much pressure has been formed it can be a difficult one to break.  Even so, it can be done provided the student is sufficiently determined.  I have found the following to be particularly helpful:

 
  • Try buzzing tones and intervals without the instrument or the mouthpiece.  This will help strengthen the facial muscles and make the use of increased pressure on high notes seem less necessary.
 
  • Place the instrument on a table or desk and try playing long tones in the low and middle register without holding the instrument.  This works particularly well with trumpets and cornets.  The surface of the table should provide sufficient resistance to make possible a minimum seal between the lips and the mouthpiece.
 
  • Hold the corners of the mouth firm and try pulling the mouthpiece away from the embouchure when playing. 




Bunched Chin

In the case of a good embouchure, the chin remains flat or arched down.  Some students, however, thrust their chins upward instead, creating a bunched chin.  This can affect flexibility and cause upper register notes to sound thin.  The following can help resolve the problem:

 
  • Buzz on the lips without the mouthpiece.  This is almost impossible to do with a bunched chin.
 
  • While buzzing as above and looking into a mirror, add the mouthpiece.  Watch carefully to ensure that the bunched chin does not return. 





Smile Embouchure

Once regarded as a legitimate means of sound production for brass instruments, the smile embouchure has few adherents these days. This is because the stretched lips tend to produce a thin, hard tone.  Endurance also suffers.  Such an embouchure places the chin muscles in a relaxed state.  The tissue inside the mouthpiece, however, becomes tense and the lip aperture tends to close, thus reducing control and flexibility.  In resolving the problem, the trick is to find the proper balance between the smile and pucker.

 
  • Look into a mirror.  With the use of the mouthpiece, adopt the regular (incorrect) embouchure.  Then modify this by producing a slight pucker while holding the corners of the mouth tight. 
 
  • Practice buzzing on the mouthpiece while maintaining this modified embouchure setting.





Lip Protrusion

In this case the student adopts an excessively puckered embouchure such that the lips tend to sag into the mouthpiece.  The resulting widening of the lip aperture produces a thick, airy sound that is without resonance.  The suggested solution is almost the opposite of that recommended for the smile embouchure:

 
  • Look into a mirror.  With the use of the mouthpiece, adopt the regular (incorrect) embouchure.  Then modify this by tightening the corners of the mouth into a slight smile.
 
  • Practice buzzing on the mouthpiece while maintaining this modified embouchure setting.

A word of warning.  Take care not to pull the lips back over the teeth like an oboe player.  This will result in even more serious embouchure problems.


Orthodontic Braces

A brass player undergoing orthodontic therapy often has brackets and wires attached to his teeth that can seriously impair his ability to play properly.  Orthodontic appliances disturb the delicate balance of the embouchure by changing the contours of the hard structures over which the soft muscle tissues lie.  Playing often causes pain in the high register – particularly for trumpet players -- when mouthpiece pressure increases.  Forced to concentrate on adjusting his embouchure, the young trumpeter tends to neglect other aspects of performance such as breath support.  As a result, tone production suffers along with range and flexibility. In my experience, the lips of such players are often found to be protruding into the mouthpiece as well, producing the airy sound described earlier.  Because such braces tend to dig into the soft flesh of the lips, players try to avoid the resulting discomfort by relaxing their cheek muscles.  In such cases, removing the braces would obviously be the best solution. 

Some short-term remedies may help minimize the problem.
Assuming that this cannot be done, however, there are a number of short-term remedies that may help minimize the problem.  Soft dental wax applied to the braces before practicing, for example, can reduce the irritation.  The problem with such wax, however, is that the resulting configuration is different each time the wax is applied, forcing the player to make slightly different embouchure adjustments.  Merrill Wilson has suggested the use of a custom lip protective device.  Such a device is relatively simple for a dentist to construct using standard orthodontic materials. A cheaper alternative is for the player to apply Teflon tape – the kind plumbers use for wrapping pipes -- each time he performs. Failing this, the student should probably be encouraged to consider a temporary shift to another brass instrument, such as the euphonium, which has a significantly wider mouthpiece diameter and requires less lip tension.

No mouthpiece has yet been devised that will eliminate the pain of playing with braces.  Vincent Bach has pointed out that any mouthpiece radical enough in design to minimize the problem also tends to inhibit the development of important technical skills.  His advice to a young person facing the problem is that it is “better to concentrate for two or three years on aspects of technique that require minimum lip pressure than to develop habits that may never be corrected" [Vincent Bach "The Search for the Perfect Mouthpiece" in Embouchure and Mouthpiece Manual, The Selmer Company, Elkhar, Indiana, 1979 page 11].

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