New Blog and Dennis Brain’s Embouchure

One great brass resource I only recently became aware of is Wilktone, the blog of Dr. David Wilken.  According to his bio, “David Wilken is a trombonist, composer, and music educator living in western North Carolina.  He earned a B.M in Composition from Illinois Wesleyan University, a M.M. in Jazz Studies from DePaul University and a D.A. in Trombone Performance from Ball State University.  He has taught music at Indiana Wesleyan University, Adams State College, and the University of North Carolina at Asheville.  Dr. Wilken currently teaches music at Western Carolina University.”

Dr. Wilken’s blog is full of great essays and videos on brass playing, with a particular focus on embouchure function.   His most recent video is titled “Embouchure Misconceptions: Five Myths About Brass Embouchures,” and it has got some really intriguing points.  The entire video is definitely worth watching, but I was particularly interested in Misconception No. 5, “The best mouthpiece placement is centered on the lips, with more top lip inside the mouthpiece. You shouldn’t place the mouthpiece rim on the red of the upper lip.”  This particular part of the video begins at 6:06.  Dr. Wilken goes on to explain that although a good many brass players do play with more top than bottom lip in the mouthpiece, there are plenty of others who actually play better with more bottom lip inside the mouthpiece.  He backs this up with video footage of a number of famous brass players, among them Dennis Brain, who “seem to place the mouthpiece lower on the lips, some right on the red of the upper lip.”  While I don’t necessarily disagree completely with this statement, I think in the case of the horn, the tolerances in terms of mouthpiece placement are much smaller due to the small size of the mouthpiece and the length of the instrument.  It is true that the horn can be played – and played quite well – with more lower than upper lip in the mouthpiece, but I think for a majority of horn players (more so than the other brass instruments), more top lip in the mouthpiece is necessary.  That being said, I never encourage students to change mouthpiece placement if their current setup allows them to negotiate the full range of the instrument with characteristic tone and articulation.  Regardless of my own personal views, videos and studies such as these are wonderful teaching tools, and I thank Dr. Wilken for his hard work and scholarship in this area.

One thing this video did for me was raise the question of Dennis Brain’s embouchure and how it differs from the more often used setup of more upper than lower lip in the mouthpiece.  Looking at my own resources, one of the few descriptions of Brain’s embouchure in the literature that I could find is in Milan Yancich‘s An Orchestra Musician’s Odyssey. His autobiography is full of practical and anecdotal information, including this brief description of meeting Dennis Brain and exchanging horns for a few minutes.

When I first held his horn in my hands it was of feather weight compared to my own Geyer horn. The horn was very easy to play; it responded quickly and the high register was superb in its response. When Brain played on my Geyer, he struggled to attain the high C. He had an embouchure where he set his mouthpiece into the lip (einsetzt embouchure) rather than the customary on the lip setting (annsetzt embouchure).  The rim of his mouthpiece was quite thin. He stated that the placement and setting of his embouchure was almost the exact opposite of his father’s and that when he articulated it was different from the customary technique of most horn players. [p. 208]

Another great resource we have for studying Dennis Brain’s embouchure is the video footage of the Beethoven Sonata, Op. 17 with Denis Matthews, originally produced by Anvil Film in 1952.  This video has recently been converted to DVD format by Hans Pizka Edition, and is available in the U.S. from Pope Instrument Repair.  In the following still images from the video, you can see Dennis Brain’s embouchure while playing first a low c, then b’ in the staff, and then g” above the staff.  These images are all Copyright 2007 by Hans Pizka Edition, and are reproduced here for educational purposes under the auspices of Fair Use.

In the last image especially you can see that Brain’s embouchure is one in which the mouthpiece is set into the top lip (einsetzen), rather than against it (ansetzen).  It is difficult to tell exactly the proportion of upper to lower lip, but it does look like there is more lower lip in the mouthpiece.  Needless to say, this setup worked fabulously for Dennis Brain – but that is no guarantee that it would (or wouldn’t) work for someone else.

For students I think the main thing to take away from all this is that everyone’s embouchure is unique in terms of form and function.  There are definitely principles of embouchure formation and mouthpiece placement which need to be seriously considered, but when it comes down to it what really matters is the result.  The most beautiful-looking embouchure in the world doesn’t really mean that much if it can’t produce the characteristic sound and range required by the instrument.  Likewise, there are other less conventional setups out there which get the job done.

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Hey, thanks for the plug! I just discovered your blog myself and am looking forward to exploring it more.

While I think you may still be underestimating how many upstream players there actually are, there are indeed fewer among horn players. I don’t really think it has anything to do with the nature of the instrument, but more to do with how much more traditional horn teachers tend to be with regards to embouchure. You’re a little uncommon in that you’re willing to let a student play with a low placement, provided it works for the particular student.

Ultimately, I believe the embouchure type comes down to a factor of the player’s anatomy, not instrument choice, practice method, how your favorite player plays, or how your teacher plays.

Thanks,
Dave

Great points Dave, and you’re very welcome! One thing I’m curious about is whether the upstream embouchure always needs to be combined with a lower mouthpiece placement. I’ve seen a fair number of horn players – almost always those with even bites or under bites – who play with an upwardly directed air stream, but again in my experience even those players generally have tended towards more top lip in the mouthpiece.

Oops, I wasn’t thinking about the context of my post and should have defined my terms or written about it differently.

Upstream=more lower lip inside mouthpiece, low placement (like Brain)
Downstream=more upper lip inside mouthpiece, high placement (like Farkas)
1/2 and 1/2=one lip or another predominating and air stream goes up or down, I’ve never seen anyone blow straight through the mouthpiece like Farkas speculates in “Art of Brass Playing.”

The horn angle is an important part of a player’s embouchure, but doesn’t change the air stream direction. I’ve got some photos and videos up online that show this, if anyone is curious to see what it looks like. For example, my own embouchure is as low as Brain’s, but I have a receded jaw position and a slightly lowered horn angle.

This is absolutely fascinating. Inspired by a recent discussion with my sixth-grade horn student about what her “face should do” at different times, I’ve been doing a lot of research on embouchures, pedagogy, and what/when to discuss physiology in relatively detailed terms. I’ve personally been taught along the Arnold Jacobs “Song and Wind” style, but find a lot of value in more technically-oriented discussion. Thanks for having this discussion!

-Andy Hamilton

You’re so right, Andy. There’s no need to separate things into a false dichotomy. Embouchure analysis, for example, is simply another tool for a teacher to use. It shouldn’t replace instruction on music or breathing, it’s should enhance it.

@Dave Thanks for the clarification. I will definitely check out those videos! On another note, although it is true that many horn teachers/players can be pretty traditional about embouchure and related concerns, I think there are more and more of us out there who take a pragmatic, “whatever works” approach. To paraphrase something a former teacher of mine used to say, we have to learn to play with our own face, and find something that works for our own lip/jaw/facial structure. To try to force one particular paradigm on a student when it clearly isn’t working is a mistake in my opinion.

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