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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