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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