Old Photos: An Early Embouchure Change

Going through a box of old photos recently, I came across a few pictures showing my embouchure setup from my early high school days. These photos were taken during the summer of 1996, and beginning that fall I made a pretty big adjustment to my mouthpiece placement. In the long run it was definitely the right choice, but I remember having to work for quite a while before things felt consistent again. At the time, I didn’t have access to an embouchure visualizer or clear plastic mouthpiece, but based on these photos (and my memory), my old setup looks like 1/2 top lip and 1/2 bottom lip, or possibly 1/3 top lip and 2/3 bottom, with a more or less straight lead pipe angle. One very clear memory I have from those days is that when ascending, the lead pipe angled up, resulting in more pressure on the top lip. Surprisingly, this did not seem to affect my high range, as I was able to play up to a high C regularly. embouchure1-1 Looking closely at the first photo, you can see a slight amount of “setting in” on the bottom lip, while in the second photo you can see that the corners of my mouth turn up noticeably. embouchure2-2 Though I had a good high range and pretty good endurance – I still have some practice recordings from those days – my low range and overall flexibility suffered, and I also had trouble producing a characteristic sound in both the high and low ranges. For these reasons, my private teacher (Dr. Karen Robertson of Appalachian State University) and I decided to make the switch to 2/3 top lip and 1/3 bottom lip, setting the mouthpiece against the bottom lip, rather than setting into it. This setup also seemed to fit my natural jaw structure, which has a slight overbite. Remembering back to the days just after making the switch, my tone and articulations improved, but my high range suffered some big setbacks. It took a long time to get it back, but in the end I still feel it was the right move to make. In the 19 years since then, I’ve made numerous minor adjustments and tweaks, all with the aim of playing more efficiently and effortlessly. My placement these days favors the top lip, probably closer to 3/4 top and 1/4 bottom. Here’s a short video showing how things look and sound now.

Though not to be taken lightly, I think that embouchure changes and mouthpiece adjustments are a normal, natural part of brass playing, especially as one ages and the lips change. For any students considering mouthpiece placement and/or embouchure changes, my advice is to consult with a knowledgeable teacher (possibly more than one), take things slowly, and persevere!

Articles from the Brass Anthology

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.

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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