~Jason Byrnes, Associate Editor (email@example.com)
How healthy is YOUR embouchure?
By Jason Byrnes
Having problems in your high register? Is your sound lacking consistency from register to register? After playing, do you have a red ring around your lips? As tuba and euphonium players, we historically place a great deal of pedagogical emphasis on the use of flow or “wind,” and this is a great place to start when addressing playing problems (1). But in our pursuit of maximizing our use of airflow, we might overlook another important component of efficient playing: the embouchure. It is true that many successful professional tubists have what is perhaps considered a less than ideal embouchure setup, but to what lengths must they go to make it all work? Don’t we all want to expend less energy in order to be consistent and maximize our potential for expression?
Focusing only on the breath to fix our playing problems is much like taking your malfunctioning car to the mechanic and receiving only recommendations to use fuel octane boosters or other additives. Bad fuel might be the problem with your car, but it might also be the physical structures that make the car function. In brass playing, the “motor” is the embouchure, and it works in tandem with the breath in creating the effects that musicians want. Want to play higher? A player could move the air faster (breathing), close the aperture more (embouchure), or a combination. Want to play softer? Slowing down the air works (breathing) but will be inconsistent and limited in scope without an adjustment in the aperture size (embouchure).
Embouchure “fixes” are notorious for creating “paralysis by analysis,” as Arnold Jacobs would call the dysfunction created by trying to control muscles too small and specialized to consciously control. This does not mean that we should avoid understanding how our embouchure works, but perhaps temper our interest in how it physically functions with the pursuit of musical results. A good introduction to embouchure function is the analogy to a string instrument, adapted freely from the teachings of Arnold Jacobs and Phillip Farkas (3). If we think of how a string instrument creates sound, we could imagine a stretched string that vibrates as a motor force (the bow) is drawn across it. If the string is not stretched, of course it will not vibrate, but simply be pulled along by the rosin and horsehair. The brass embouchure functions analogously, with the breath acting as the motor force and the tissues of the embouchure functioning in the role of the vibrating string. The biggest question with the embouchure is how do we create the “tension” or firmness in the embouchure so it will act as a “stretched string” instead of a “loose string.”
Arguably the most natural way to create this firmness in a brass embouchure is to engage the smile muscles, as this stretches the lips over the teeth, and provides the firmness to create a buzz. Although the most natural (and most common among young players), the smile embouchure has a number of disadvantages. First, one can only smile so much, and then how do we get the embouchure firmer? The most common reaction is to use more pressure on the lips, which can eventually result in “satchmo syndrome,” a rupture in the obicularis oris (the “pucker” or “pouting” muscle). This is named for Louis Armstrong, who in 1935 experienced the symptoms of the syndrome bearing his nickname, a decline in the strength and agility of the lip musculature and an inability to maintain high notes, resulting in a yearlong hiatus (3). Another compensatory technique used with the smile embouchure is arching the tongue excessively in the upper register. This can result in the sound becoming more pinched in the upper register, and combined with the tendency to puff cheeks in the low register, results in inconsistency of sound and intonation throughout all registers. Another tactic commonly used to compensate for the inadequacies of the smile embouchure is rolling the lower lip when ascending, or blowing down into the mouthpiece for the high register, and blowing up for the low register. Because so many factors are in effect at once (smiling, pressure, arching tongue, and rolling lips, not to mention variations in airflow), it becomes difficult to coordinate them all, and lack of consistency results.
An alternative to the smile approach is through engaging opposing muscle groups to create firmness in the embouchure. In the case of the embouchure, the opposing muscle groups are the muscles we use when puckering or whistling and the muscles we use when smiling. Because it is more common to have a tendency to smile more when forming an embouchure, it often works best to learn this modification by first whistling (or puckering), and then while keeping those muscles engaged, try to smile. You should feel a firmness in the corners of the mouth when doing this, and the width of the embouchure should be about the same size as when the lips are held in repose.
In contrast to the smile embouchure, the “whistle-smile” embouchure brings more lip into the mouthpiece when ascending, as the aperture of the lips close. This quantity of firm muscle provides more cushion and protection to the lip tissues sandwiched between the teeth and the mouthpiece rim than the smile embouchure, resulting in increased endurance and embouchure health. This larger quantity of tissue in the mouthpiece also results in a bigger sound as the vibrating surface is increased.
Additionally, the whistle-smile embouchure is effective in all registers, resulting in greater consistency in tone and intonation throughout registers. Have you ever heard that you should not puff your cheeks when playing? Try to puff your cheeks when forming a whistle-smile embouchure–if it is a true whistle-smile, then you will be unable to puff, as your cheek muscles are engaged. When your embouchure gets tired from playing extended loud or high passages, where do you feel it? If soreness develops below the nose, you are likely using excessive pressure, resulting in tissue damage; your endurance will continue to decrease as you add injury to this area. However, if your lips feel sore at the corners of your mouth, this is likely a sign of muscular fatigue, and much like the soreness after working out in the gym, will result in greater strength, endurance and range, given sufficient recovery time between “work-outs.” Perhaps the greatest advantage of using the whistle-smile approach is that all changes in register can be effectively accomplished through only two factors: air speed and aperture size, which determines “firmness” of the embouchure.
Modifying an embouchure is usually a difficult process but can be successful with patience and careful practice. It is ideal to make such a modification when no large playing pressures are eminent for at least a few months. Practicing the new “habit” for short periods each day can make the transition easier. Also, the level of music played should be substantially lower than normally played, as one must increase awareness of how the embouchure looks, feels, and sounds during the process. The new technique will probably feel and sound worse than the old setup initially, as the body adjusts. As long as one keeps in mind musical results with the new technique, progress will be quick, and old abilities will be regained and surpassed.
One of the best exercises to begin the transition is very slow lip slurs (for instance, in half notes, with the quarter note at 60 beats per minute) as then it is more obvious if the lips are moving into the mouthpiece (whistle-smile embouchure) or out of the mouthpiece (smile embouchure) while ascending in pitch. When using the whistle-smile approach, one may also notice that in general, more airflow is required initially. This will improve as the body adjusts, and efficiency is improved by more effectively buzzing on pitch. As the whistle-smile approach becomes a habit, less attention is required to maintain and develop the approach, and the student’s attention can then be more clearly focused on achieving the musical goals made possible by increased range, endurance, and consistency of sound.
1. Frederikson, Brian & John Taylor, ed. Arnold Jacobs: Song and wind. Chicago, IL: Windsong Press, 1996.
2. Farkas, Philip. The art of brass playing. Rochester, NY: Wind Music, 1989.
3. Liu, Steven, M.D. & Gregory F. Hayden, M.D. Maladies in musicians. Southern Medical Journal 95, no. 7: 727-734, 2002.
Jason Byrnes is Assistant Professor of Tuba and Music Education at the University of Northern Colorado. In addition to teaching in the applied tuba and music education areas, he is director of the Brass Choir and
Tuba-Euphonium ensemble, and performs as tubist with the Rocky Mountain Brass Quintet, the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra, the Rough Riders Dixieland Band, and the 101st Army Band. As a winner of numerous concerto competitions, Byrnes is in demand as a soloist and clinician. He has also performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra low brass section and has been a member of many orchestras and bands in the Midwest and eastern United States. Before coming to UNC, Byrnes taught at the State University of New York-Potsdam, Murray State University, and in the public schools of Indianapolis. Byrnes earned Music Education and Performance degrees from Tennessee Technological University and Pennsylvania State University, and is currently a doctoral candidate at Indiana University in Brass Pedagogy. His teachers include R. Winston Morris, Daniel Perantoni, and Marty Erickson.
©2005 International Tuba Euphonium Association
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