Most instrumental music educators are familiar with The Instrumentalist magazine, a national publication geared primarily towards band and orchestra directors. In addition to monthly issues, The Instrumentalist also publishes collections of previous articles in anthologies: brass, string, woodwind, and percussion. According to their website, the most recent edition of the Brass Anthology “includes over 500 articles collected from 54 years of The Instrumentalist. Leading brass players and teachers share the secrets of warm-ups, breathing, articulation, embouchure, equipment, and literature.” And at a price of $23.00 for this huge volume, you can’t go wrong. One of my favorite ways to use this anthology is to read the articles from the earliest days of The Instrumentalist. It’s quite interesting to follow the trends in pedagogy and see which topics continue to be discussed. For example, “Selecting the Right French Horn,” an article by Max Pottag from November-December 1946, presents what seems to me a very progressive philosophy for the time regarding the use of the F and B-flat sides of the horn.
The professional player of the double horn is well aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each horn, as he is able to use either desired. He does not use the B-flat horn for the notes written second line G and lower, and yet, at times, he does use the B-flat horn for the notes around the E below middle C. Why? The B-flat horn is not as well in tune as the F for the tones from G and lower; on the other hand, the tones around low E (written) are surer and better in tune on the B-flat than on the F. The F horn has a more desirable tonal quality than the B-flat in the range below second line G. Somewhere between second line G and fourth line D (written) the professional player of the double horn changes to the B-flat horn by pushing down the thumb valve. Why? Because in this range and higher the B-flat horn has a distinct advantage over the F in ease of execution and intonation.
This is the complete picture. It is sound because the professional double horn player has no prejudices in favor of one or the other horn. He uses the one which suits him best and which will produce superior results. There are a few first chair professional players who use the single B-flat horn and a few others who prefer the single F horn; but by and large, most of them use the double horn. (Brass Anthology, Evanston, IL: The Instrumentalist Company, 1980, p. 4-5)
Another very nice article by Pottag appeared in the January-February 1947 issue. This one (“The Beginning French Horn Player”) discusses in a progressive way a topic which is still considered controversial amongst some teachers – mouthpiece placement. Though Pottag is clear about his personal preference, he indicates that it is possible to play the horn on a high level with different mouthpiece placements.
Placing of Mouthpiece
The placement of the mouthpiece on the lips deserves some attention. A majority of the players place two-thirds of the mouthpiece on the upper lip and one-third on the lower, some prefer to place it in the exact center, while still others prefer two-thirds on the lower lip. The writer prefers the first of these three. With advanced students who have developed an excellent embouchure using either the second or the third type, it is advisable not to change. It is always an excellent rule to encourage the student to experiment somewhat in the early stages in finding the best placement of the mouthpiece. It may be found that an off-center placement, either to the right or to the left of center, may prove advantageous. Though the appearance of an off-center placement is not desirable, the most important thing is not the appearance but the way the horn will sound. (Brass Anthology, Evanston, IL: The Instrumentalist Company, 1980, p. 9)
Also in the January-February 1947 issue is an article by Bernard Fitzgerald, “Criteria for Selecting Students Adapted to Brass Instruments.” Except in extreme cases, the topic of lip and jaw formation doesn’t really come up that much any more when deciding which students are good candidates for the horn – there are far too many professional players and teachers today with a variety of lip and jaw shapes to make any sweeping generalizations. However, Fitzgerald does bring up the concept of lip “texture and flexibility,” something I haven’t really encountered that much in modern pedagogical writing.
Although the shape, width, and thickness of the lips are factors which are frequently considered as a primary basis for selecting students for brass instrument study, the texture and muscular flexibility of the lips are of much greater importance. A firm, muscular lip formation is preferable for students who are to play the cornet, trumpet or French horn, since these instruments sound in a tonal register which requires higher vibrations than the trombone, baritone, or tuba. Loosely formed or flabby lip formations are not desirable for best results on any of the brass instruments. The only satisfactory method of testing lip texture and flexibility is through actual experience in producing lip vibrations either with or without the mouthpiece and through adaptability tests with the instruments. Statistics based upon some research studies indicate that tooth evenness and lip thickness have very little correlation to successful performance on brass instruments, while lip texture and muscular flexibility are much more significant considerations in making a selection. (Brass Anthology, Evanston, IL: The Instrumentalist Company, 1980, p. 10)
Fitzgerald makes some interesting points, but I’m a bit skeptical about how effectively these recommendations could be implemented. For example, how would one define a “flabby lip formation?” And even if this formation could be defined, I am sure there are students out there with those formations who could produce good buzzes on the mouthpiece and get decent sounds out of the horn. I’m also curious if and how consistent practice on a brass instrument affects the texture of the lips. It seems very plausible to me that players with “flabby” lips could improve their condition by practicing, thereby eliminating the criteria which might have prevented them from being allowed to play the instrument.
Good advice on placing the mouthpiece, I think. Like you, I’m not sure I agree with the recommendations for selecting students for brass instruments. I think actual interest in playing the given instrument is more important for success (just like choosing an activity that you enjoy is the best predictor of whether you’ll stick with regular exercise).
I’ve also heard lip density discussed in relation to choosing a brass instrument, but again the issues are finding a reliable way to measure the characteristic and whether that characteristic actually has anything to do with a student’s ability to play the chosen instrument.