Ten Questions with Doug Elliott

By Doug Elliott • September 01, 1998 • 13 min read

Doug Elliott is a mouthpiece maker, brass teacher and clinician, and works as a professional free-lance tenor and alto trombonist in the Washington DC area. He was solo jazz trombonist with the US Air Force "Airmen of Note" from 1989 to 1996. Doug has studied trombone with Gordon Hallberg, Tom Crowe, Bill Richardson, John Marcellus and Don Reinhardt, and jazz with Mark Copeland.

Doug can be heard on recordings by the Airmen of Note, Bill Potts Big Band, Bruce Gates Jazz Consortium Big Band, and Chuck Brown & Eva Cassidy, among others. He has performed with numerous entertainers and jazz artists all over the US, and in Europe, South America, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. He has recorded many TV specials taped in Washington, and has also toured with the Artie Shaw Orchestra.

Doug Elliott Mouthpieces are used in major orchestras around the world. Doug has designed and manufactured his line of mouthpieces for trombone, euphonium, and tuba since 1981. As a clinician and specialist in the study of the embouchure, he presented his film, "The Brass Player's Embouchure" at the International Trombone Workshop and at the Australian Trombone Symposium, and has presented clinics at many schools and festivals.

Why did you go into music?

From the time I was six years old I knew I would be a trombone player. I grew up in the Washington DC area, and my parents used to take my brother and me to hear the Marine Band, the Army Band, the Navy Band, the Air Force Band, and even the Airmen of Note! I remember thinking how hard it must be to remember all those fingerings for piano, woodwinds, or even trumpet, so the only alternative for me was to play the instrument that didn't have any fingerings. Plus I thought the slide looked really cool. A child's logic I suppose, but it made sense to me then and it makes sense to me now! I feel very fortunate to have had parents who were so supportive of my early musical aspirations.

Having played with the Airmen of Note for almost eight years, what are some of the skills necessary coming into a job such as that, and what are some of the things you learned while performing with such a prestigious ensemble? What was the audition process like for the Airmen of Note? What advice could you give to a performer considering a job or career in one of the military musical ensembles?

I played 2nd trombone in the Airmen of Note from 1989 until 1996. The trombone section consisted of Rick Lillard on lead, Gary Hall on 3rd, and Dudley Hinote on bass trombone. The current section is Joe Jackson on lead, Jeff Martin on 2nd, Ben Patterson on 3rd, and Dudley Hinote. I feel really honored to have been given the opportunity to perform with such a musically excellent group. I stayed in for two enlistments and decided not to re-enlist because I needed to spend more time running my mouthpiece business, and I was eager to get back to free-lancing.

My audition experience with the "Note" was not typical. The auditions had already happened, the top two choices had both changed their minds about taking the gig, and they were holding a few last minute auditions. I had sort of been thinking about auditioning, but I didn't really want to join the military because I was already a successful free-lance player and mouthpiece maker. I called the band one morning and they said, "Can you be here at one o'clock?" Since I live in the D.C. area, I went that day and played my best. I wasn't nervous at all, because I wasn't specifically there to "get the gig." I auditioned to show them how I play, and to see whether they wanted me. I really enjoyed playing with the band at the audition, and that is why I took the gig when they offered it to me.

An audition for the Airmen of Note is a very thorough test of musicianship, trombone playing, sight-reading, and experience. You are required to sight-read several charts with the band in styles ranging from Glenn Miller to contemporary arrangers such as Mike Crotty, Bob Mintzer, and John Fedchock. They want to hear your sound, sense of time, ability to adapt to different styles, ability to match articulation, ballad playing, and jazz playing in different styles (all sight-reading!). You really can't hide any weak areas, nor do any major last-minute preparatory work. The people who win these auditions are generally the ones who are always prepared because that's the way they always play - and that is not something you can "get ready" for.

How do you categorize different embouchure types? What are the performance characteristics of these embouchure types? Do certain embouchures tend to have certain facial characteristics?

This is such a complex topic, with so many variables, that I will only be able to speak about it in a very general way in this format. The embouchure of every brass player is as individual as his/her own combination of facial characteristics. A person's embouchure is influenced by how the lips and teeth line up, jaw length, amount of overbite or underbite, lip texture, size and shape of the oral cavity, size and shape of the tongue, and muscular structure. Many of these facial characteristics will change during adolescence, with varying results depending on how well the player adapts to the changes that are taking place. Braces and the resulting changes in tooth alignment will inevitably require some embouchure adjustment. Older players are sometimes faced with these same types of changes.

When I use the word "embouchure," I am referring not only to the lips, but also how the entire facial structure contributes to the playing process. This can be rather technical, but it is important to find the easiest and most efficient physical approach, working with your correct "form", to help you get where you want to be musically.

Some initial things that are useful to be aware of are mouthpiece placement and airstream direction ("upstream" or "downstream"). When the placement is more on the top lip, the top lip will predominate into the mouthpiece, and the air will blow down. When the placement is more on the bottom lip, that lip predominates, and the air blows up. If the placement is close to half-and-half, one lip or the other will inevitably predominate, so the airstream will go either up or down.

There exists a phenomenon that I call "embouchure motion" When playing into the high range the mouthpiece will appear to move either toward the nose or away from it, and into the low range it will move in the opposite direction. This motion keeps the alignment between the lips and teeth ideal for each part of the range and is a very important adjustment. It cannot be described as a "shift" because the mouthpiece should not really slide on the lips - the lips actually slide on the teeth. This phenomenon occurs in all brass players (whether they are aware of it or not) and the exact nature of this motion is different for every player.

All brass players fall into one of three general embouchure types. They are listed and described below:


Very High Placement: 70% to 90% top lip (downstream)
  • Horn angle is close to straight out, or slightly down.
  • Embouchure motion: moves up towards the nose for high range.
  • Bright clear sound, easy high range.
  • Examples: John Marcellus, Joe Alessi, Bill Watrous, Conrad Herwig
Medium-High Placement: 50% to 70% top lip (downstream)
  • Horn angle is usually more downward
  • Embouchure motion: moves down away from the nose for high range.
  • Darker fuller sound, good flexibility.
  • Examples: Jay Friedman, Christian Lindberg, J.J. Johnson
Low Placement: 50% to 90% bottom lip (upstream)
  • Horn angle can be down, straight out, or up.... wherever it works.
  • Embouchure motion: moves down away from the nose for high range.
  • Bright sound, everything is easy when it's working right and a nightmare when it's not!
  • Examples: Kai Winding, Rob McConnell, Dick Nash (studio player in LA), Russell McKinney (Utah Symphony), J.P. Torres (Cuban jazz player, NY), Bobby Burgess (see picture, p.48, fall 97 ITA Journal), Larry Wehe (former soloist, USAF and U.S. Navy bands; see ITA pictures)

Your best embouchure type is determined by your facial structure, and not by what type of player you would like to be, or by what type of embouchure your teacher has. It is important to develop the embouchure that will ultimately work best for you, in order to attain your maximum level of playing efficiency.

There is not one "right" or "wrong" way to play because each individual is different. These ideas continue to be very controversial among brass teachers, but I believe that knowing how your particular embouchure works best, and practicing it that way, can give you a tremendous physical advantage.

When did you start making mouthpieces? Where or how did you get your training as a machinist? How did you originally arrive at the concept of a three-piece system?

In 1981 I went to LeRoy Green in Baltimore to have a custom mouthpiece made. He was 87 years old at the time, with thick glasses due to cataract surgery and he had no voice because of his throat cancer surgery. LeRoy had been a mouthpiece maker for Holton, and was a tool and die maker for Westinghouse for 30 years. He was an amazing old man. He could look at a mouthpiece and "see" the dimensions within a couple thousandths of an inch. When LeRoy saw how interested I was, he offered to teach me the art of mouthpiece making. He showed me the basics of lathe work, tool making, and mouthpiece design, and encouraged me to work on my own designs. I then bought a lathe and whole bunch of useless tools, read about metalworking, and experimented for several years before settling on my current designs. My idea for a three-piece system came from a combination of Giardinelli's screw rim and LeRoy Green's screw shank. Later on I found out that Charles E. George had originally patented this idea around 1916. I now own five lathes and manufacture all of the mouthpiece parts myself.

Which of your mouthpieces do you recommend for a Shires bass trombone? Also, please explain the relative advantages/disadvantages of mouthpieces plated with silver, gold, or other materials, including plastic.

Many players feel that they don't know where to begin in choosing a mouthpiece. Whatever mouthpiece you are currently using was hopefully chosen by you after comparing it with a few others, so you do have some idea about what works for you and what doesn't. I need this information before I can begin to recommend appropriate sizes within my system. It is useful to know what kind of playing you do, how much playing you do, and what equipment you use. It really helps to know all of the mouthpieces and instruments you play in order to get a real perspective. It is also helpful to know what your embouchure is like and your what your strengths and weaknesses are. No mouthpiece will fix mechanical problems that need to be addressed.

The advantages or disadvantages of silver, gold, plastic, and other finishes are mostly a matter of personal preference. Silver plating has been the traditional finish for a very long time. It is readily available, holds up well, and is repairable - scratches can be burnished or polished easily. Gold works well as plating over silver, but it is softer and wears more. It has a lower coefficient of friction, so it is also more slippery than silver. Some players like that, but others find that it detracts from endurance, especially in hot weather when sweating increases the "slippery factor." The plastics commonly used are acrylic, delrin, and polycarbonate, and they all feel completely different. Acrylic breaks easily, is very sticky, and reflects heat so it feels hot. Delrin is quite slippery and very soft. Polycarbonate, which I prefer, is somewhat sticky, but never feels hot or cold and it is very durable. Plastic rims are the only choice for those who are allergic to silver and gold. In all choices of material or finish for mouthpieces or horns, we must consider availability, machinability, and reparability, and there are only a few materials that fit all of these requirements. The small differences in sound quality that some players' experience from different mouthpiece finishes are primarily a result of the differences in slipperiness.

We are looking for a reasonably good quality trombone for our son who has been playing for about six years. In the last couple of years he has gotten very involved with the school concert and jazz band as well as an outside Dixieland band. He has been playing on a student trombone, and we think he is ready for something better. We had in mind spending around $1000-1500. Is that reasonable and can you recommend a few brands and models? There are no large music stores in our area and no one seems to have any advice. If you don't feel comfortable recommending a particular trombone, can you suggest some sources of information?

There are many excellent horns on the market and it would be difficult for me to make specific recommendations. It is far more important to learn how to play and to be versatile. I think that the trend towards "upgrading" to bigger and heavier equipment is not necessarily beneficial to all players. When I auditioned for the Airmen of Note, I was playing on a Yamaha student model YSL 354 (because I liked it!) It is a fine .500 bore horn and is reasonably priced. A Bach 42B served me well through high school and college, and I still use it for gigs that require a large bore horn. Try a variety of instruments, with the help of a professional player if possible. Be open-minded, and choose a versatile horn that allows you to change your sound to fit different situations. I would stay away from equipment that tends to lock you into a particular sound. The ideal place to find a horn would be at one of the trombone workshops, but if you have limited access, the Woodwind and Brasswind is a mail-order company that has an excellent selection of new and used horns and very knowledgeable salespeople, some of whom are trombonists.

I'm wishing to pursue a career as a studio trombone performer for commercials, movies, etc. To be qualified for such a thing, do you think it would be better to get a degree in concert performance or jazz? I've also heard that having a strong background in both would also work.

If you are considering a career as a trombonist, the first thing you should practice is not eating! Seriously though, it is very difficult to make a living as a trombonist. You should get whichever degree is more helpful to your overall playing, but realize that the degree itself is not going to help you get the gig. To get the kind of work that you are interested in, you will need to be as versatile and experienced as possible. That has always been my approach. As a professional free-lance player, I am able to walk into any situation - jazz, rock, Latin, big band, small band, brass quintet, orchestra, or studio recording, and instantly fit in. I read all the necessary clefs - bass, tenor, alto, treble, and mezzo-soprano (for F horn transposition), and I play small and large tenor trombones, alto trombone in Eb or F, and I also occasionally double on euphonium. It takes a huge amount of effort to become good at orchestral playing or to learn to play jazz, or to learn to read Latin rhythms. Most players tend to specialize in one area or another, but to be a working studio musician, you need to be able to do it all.