More on Dennis Brain’s Embouchure

Departing from the normal Monday Kopprasch Project post, I wanted to share an interesting description of Dennis Brain’s embouchure quoted in the new biography Dennis Brain: A Life in Music, by Stephen Gamble and William Lynch. Stepping back for a second, I want to congratulate the authors on their fine work.   The book is well-researched, easy to read, and full of interesting details concerning Brain’s life and career. Even those familiar with Stephen Pettitt’s Dennis Brain: A Biography will find plenty of new information in this volume. It is a must have book for any serious horn player – period.  As I was on vacation this past week I had plenty of time to work my way through the entire book, and in fact had a difficult time deciding what to write about in this mini review. John Ericson had already posted some excellent stuff (“Dennis Brain in Chicago…”) at HornMatters.com, so I wanted to avoid any duplication there.  Thinking back over the various chapters, one of the most interesting for me was “Horns, Mouthpieces, and Embouchures.”  Having already posted on the subject of Dennis Brain’s embouchure here, I was intrigued by the following passage the authors quoted from On Playing the Horn, by Farquharson Cousins. The concept of “concave” and “convex” embouchures was new to me, as were the details of Brain’s facial muscles.

Dennis Brain’s mouth was concave. That is, his teeth were small and set well back into his head.  His lips were nonetheless “full” and obviously sensitive. When Dennis laughed, which he did often, his lips would appear to take up his playing position. Certainly his face in repose and when playing were unrecognisably different. Dennis’s concave embouchure made him appear to play much more on the edge of his top lip than in fact was the case. His lower lip position was more “einsetzen” than “ansetzen.” One could say that his was definitely an “inset” embouchure…He used considerable pressure, but this was supported by tremendous muscular contraction emanating from the whorls at the corner of the mouth. These whorls were above the line of the mouth.  In fact, Dennis Brain could be said to have had a “smiling embouchure,” and there was none of the “pursing” which is sometimes (and probably rightly, for some embouchures) recommended today (quoted on p. 207).

There is plenty to think about in this passage, but what struck me most is that according to this description, one of the premiere horn soloists of the 20th century played on what would likely be considered an unconventional embouchure setup today.  As a teacher and performer, this reinforces the idea that we all need to find an embouchure that works for us, rather than forcing ourselves or our students to play on a “textbook” embouchure.  Though the traditional setup often works, there are certainly other possibilities that can and do get results.

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Looking at videos of Dennis Brain playing, he also seems to hold the horn up very high as compared to how most players hold the instrument. he looks almost to be in a “bells up” position compared to most people.

I think the lesson to take from this is that unconventional embouchures can work well, and unless you see a specific reason why an embouchure is going to cause a student problems in future, leave well alone if it is working OK now.

Agreed! On the topic of how Brain held the horn, this elevated position is cited I believe as one of the factors contributing to his ability to project his sound through an ensemble, while retaining a pure and characteristic tone.

Thank you very much for your review of “Dennis Brain: A Life In Music” which has taken us the past nine years to research and write. Regarding Dennis’s position of holding the instrument with bell raised to shoulder height, this is briefly mentioned on pages 114 to 115 of the new biography. In his horn articles, reproduced in full in Appendix D, pages 288-296, Dennis writes about the position of the horn in relation to the body, objecting to the practice of placing the horn on the knee. I think (and I am sure my co-author will agree with me) that the high bell position has much to do with the projection of sound that Dennis wanted, seated (usually but not exclusively) at the right end of the section. Also, the relation of bell to the angle of the mouthpipe might also have made this position the most comfortable. We did actually have some discussion on this subject in Chapter 9 but it was decided to leave it out.

James,

Thanks very much and by all means pass along the Aubrey Brain link. I have an enormous amount of material about Aubrey Brain’s career that is not mentioned on those web pages, including original documents, most of which were actually once in his possession and given to me by a member of the family. I intend to publish a biography (possibly an ebook) some time in the future on Aubrey Brain but can’t give a date for that yet. There’s a lot more to learn about his career but it’s unlikely much personal information will come to light at this distance in time.
I recommend your readers to look through the Dennis Brain website as well!

http://www.dennisbrain.net

Best wishes
Stephen

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