Is Playing the Horn Natural?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading a series of posts by Bruce Hembd at Horn Matters on his own personal study of embouchure function.  You can read all the posts by following the links below.

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

As an analyzer myself I found Bruce’s posts insightful and logical. Although I may not think about my own embouchure function in exactly the same terms as he describes, as a teacher I am always interested in different approaches to the instrument.  Recently the brass blogging world has been buzzing with numerous comments regarding the topics covered in these posts, including a related post by Julia Rose (Associate Principal Horn of the Columbus Symphony), and multiple comments on Part IV of Bruce’s series.  To wrap up this summary – I feel a bit like a sports reporter giving the “blow-by-blow” details – Bruce has posted a follow-up article addressing, among other things, the concept of horn playing being a “natural” act.   In true blogging fashion, reading and attempting to digest these various points of view has encouraged me to focus my own thoughts, and attempt to get at least some of them down in writing.  The following are some of the main points that came to mind for me as I read (and re-read) this material.

I think that one can consider horn playing a “natural” act, but only up to a certain point. After all, our muscles are designed to contract, our lungs to inhale and exhale air, and our lips and oral cavities to form various shapes.  Beyond that point, however,  I think the instinctual side of things has to be refined through training and at least some analysis. Of course the balance between instinctual and analytical playing will vary from player to player, teacher to teacher, and situation to situation.  In short, I think there is a place for both paradigms, and honestly I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.

Dr. John Ericson (and I’m sure others as well) have written about this issue – but I think it bears repeating as it seems to come up inevitably in any discussion of brass pedagogy.  As teachers we often come up with little phrases to prompt students, often substituting a few words for what is in reality a series of complex physical and mental processes.  For instance, one might tell students “when playing in the low range, think x, and when playing in the high range think y,” and so on.  Many prominent teachers use these types of phrases, and they have been proven to be very effective for a large number of students.  However, they may not in fact accurately describe what is happening with the embouchure/airstream/throat, or whatever.  Now, the real question is – does it matter?  If thinking x in the low range (for example) works, is it really necessary to understand in detail exactly what is going on to produce a strong, reliable, and in-tune low register?  For day-to-day playing and teaching, maybe not, but I think this kind of research, if you will, is important to our field, and helps drive future developments in pedagogy, like new method books, etude collections, etc.  Without experimentation and trial and error, we risk stagnation as performers and teachers.

Does this mean we should change mouthpieces once a month, or try different techniques just for the sake of it when our current practices have already proven successful?  Absolutely not – but I do think it is important to constantly evaluate our current methods and paradigms, if for no other reason than to reinforce our own ideas about what works for us and our students.

Why More Upper Lip in the Mouthpiece

David Wilken of Wilktone and I have been having a great conversation about horn embouchures, specifically the ratio of top to bottom lip in the mouthpiece.  He has raised some interesting points, and this kind of informed debate is one reason why I love what I do.  Dr. Wilken has done extensive research into the function of brass embouchures, with lots of great videos, articles, and commentary – be sure to check out his blog!  For the full story, check out my post, and David’s reply.  In short, I do agree with Dr. Wilken that the horn, along with the other brass instruments, can be played proficiently with more lower than upper lip in the mouthpiece, but I maintain that for a majority of horn players, more upper lip in the mouthpiece seems to work better.  That being said, I think Dr. Wilken and I are in agreement that it is the individual player’s lip, jaw, and teeth structure that ultimately determines the finer points of mouthpiece placement. What works for other players or teachers might not necessarily work for someone else, and we should approach the study of the brass embouchure with an open mind and careful analysis.  Our discussion also raised the question of why so many horn players use more upper lip in the mouthpiece, a question I don’t think I sufficiently answered in my previous post. So, I started looking back through the literature, and have got a few more (I think) answers.  In terms of my own teaching, I don’t think of these quotations as representing hard and fast rules, but rather guidelines developed over many years of teaching and playing.

Philip Farkas, The Art of Brass Playing, Rochester, NY: Wind Music, Inc., 1962, p. 32-33.

Let me sum up the evidence which leads me to conclude that two-thirds upper and one-third lower lip in the mouthpiece are a prerequisite for the French horn player who wishes to attain his maximum ability.

First, most of the fine French horn teachers of the past two hundred years have advocated this position. Many of these teachers have written instruction books which substantiate this statement.  Second, all of the many fine horn players that I know personally (perhaps one hundred or more) use this predominantly upper lip setting…Third, believing and preaching this theory for years has resulted in a number of my students becoming professional players in many of our finest symphony orchestras.

There is good reason why the successful French horn player finds it necessary to adopt this two-thirds upper, one-third lower lip position. Of all the brass instrument embouchures, the horn player’s is probably the softest, most relaxed and most puckered. This tends to emphasize the heavy, fleshy mound in the center of the upper lip. With this mound as pronounced as it is, it is logical for the French horn player to place the mouthpiece above it rather than try to perch the rim precariously upon it. The thicker condition of the upper lip, when it is the dominating lip in the mouthpiece, seems to give the tone a more mellow, less strident quality. And, of course, this velvety quality is much to be desired in the French horn tone.

Regarding the above passage, although Philip Farkas continues to hold a revered place in the world of horn playing and teaching, the art has continued to develop over the years, with many other valid ideas coming to the fore.  For more information, check out Dr. John Ericson’s excellent post on the subject at Horn Matters.  However, on this particular subject, other more recent books on horn performance and pedagogy continue to advocate a similar idea as Farkas.

Randy C. Gardner, Mastering the Horn’s Low Register, Richmond, VA: International Opus, 2002, p. 17.

Many people are taught to anchor their mouthpiece into the bottom lip and lighten pressure on the top lip when playing in the high register. This is essential in the upper tessitura to ensure that the top lip remains free to vibrate.

Wendell Rider, Real World Horn Playing, San Jose, CA: Wendell Rider Publications, 2006, p. 16.

Although it is possible to play with the mouthpiece digging into the upper lip, it is not desirable for a number of reasons. If nothing else, it will decrease your potential endurance. The red part of the lip is just not meant for that kind of punishment. As you get older, serious injury is possible. “Setting in” also tends to pin the upper lip muscles, forcing the use of pressure to compensate for the fact that you can’t work these muscles to help you move around on the horn, especially in the upper register and when doing lip trills. The upper lip muscles must be free to move. These are the “finesse” muscles of your embouchure. Many people with thicker lips who try to play on small or seemingly “normal” inside diameter mouthpieces will end up with the rim digging into their upper lip. They will try to play on these mouthpieces, thinking that everyone else can or some great player is able to do it, and will experience much pain and frustration. I know this because I was one of those people. When you take your mouthpiece off after playing, look to see where the “mark” is on your upper lip. It should be up on the skin part.

In this passage Mr. Rider brings up the very important issue of equipment choice (mouthpiece inner diameter), and how it can affect the ratio of upper to lower lip.  Many players simply play on a mouthpiece which is not suited to their lips, whether that means one that is too wide/too narrow, too shallow/too deep, etc.

John Ericson, Introducing the Horn: Essentials for New Hornists and their Teachers, Tempe, AZ: Horn Notes Edition, 2007, p. 4.

For as long as horn method books have been written –300 years!–horn teachers have advocated a mouthpiece placement of 2/3 upper lip and 1/3 lower lip. Examination of the embouchures of professional hornists will quickly confirm that this general rule is the standard, with only slight variation.

The horn embouchure is the most relaxed and puckered of all the brass embouchures. This fact tends to emphasize the fleshy mound at the center of the lip, and this in turn favors a higher mouthpiece placement. A higher proportion of upper lip is also beneficial in playing the entire range of the horn, which is almost four octaves. Too little upper lip will not allow for production of the lowest notes of the horn. While it is possible to perform the horn on a fairly high level with a 50/50 or lower embouchure, a basic placement of more upper lip than lower is generally recommended.

Richard Deane, The Efficient Approach: Accelerated Development for the Horn, Atlanta, GA: Atlanta Brass Society Press, 2009, p. 10-11.

Finally, the setup that is the most viable and flexible for many players could be described as a hybrid of the above two setups. With our goal of achieving the best possible resonance, sound quality and intonation in all ranges, it seems clear that with normal sized lips, in order to allow our aperture to be the “correct” size for a given note, the lower lip will need to be partially outside the mouthpiece in the low range (einsetzen) and tucked into the cup in the high range (ansetzen). Most of the time, that is to say in the middle part of the range, the mouthpiece will be placed with 2/3 upper-1/3 lower ratio (einsetzen). As we move from here to the low range, it will be necessary to enlarge the aperture by moving the jaw and its concurrent muscles down and forward slightly. When we go into the upper range, it will be necessary to tuck the lower lip completely into the cup.

Let me take this opportunity to restate an unwavering fact: the upper lip, being the primary vibrating surface of the embouchure, should never be constricted by placing the rim of the mouthpiece directly on it. The flesh of the upper lip should always be completely inside the cup, except for extremely rare cases where the rim is set “into” the upper lip for the low range. Never, never for the high range!

As you can see, professional horn players and teachers from several generations seem to believe that in general, more upper than lower lip is best.  But, I want to stress again that this doesn’t necessarily mean this prescription will work for everyone all of the time.  There are always exceptions to any principle, and it is up to the individual students, under the guidance of a knowledgeable and understanding teacher, to find what will suit them best.

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