Out of the Case: An Alternate Approach to Embouchure Development, Part 1

By Sam Burtis • June 01, 1997 • 10 min read

This is my fifth article for the Online Trombone Journal. In the previous four I covered various subjects that relate to the process of creating a technique that would allow a certain elegance of playing and freedom of motion on the slide trombone. We come now to a more dangerous topic: embouchure.

I use the word "dangerous" here because ill-considered dabbling with "embouchure" has ruined more good brass players than you can possibly imagine. This is the reason I've been reluctant to write about embouchure, and I want to emphasize this point as strongly as I can before going any further: if it ain't broke, don't fix it! Work on your embouchure is necessary only if you're having serious range, sound, pitch, or endurance problems, or if you've reached a point in your development where no matter what you do, how hard you practice, you're not getting any better.

The first approach you should try to take is to continue practicing the way you play at the present time, at least up to a point where you're really convinced you can go no further. Inevitably, when you begin considering embouchure "changes", your playing will take a certain backward step. If you approach these changes internally, that is, not from a theoretical or external position (externally, that is, as in when someone tells you "Move your jaw to the right when playing above high X, and always put the mouthpiece 2/3 on your top lip, 1/3 on your left ear"), but instead approach them from the position of what works and what doesn't (no matter HOW unorthodox what "works" might be), your adjustment time and the dues you have to pay should be minor. Get obsessive about it, however, at your own peril.

A good corollary to the above "If it works..." statement could be, "If it doesn't work, don't continue doing it." I have a three week rule for equipment, technical considerations, new exercises, whatever. I never do or change anything unless it feels better immediately. (Fairly radical embouchure experiments are generally an exception to that rule. They most often DON'T sound good immediately, but if they give you more range or strength or endurance, persevere for a while and see if you don't begin to sound better over the course of a few weeks.) Usually, soon after, no matter what change I've made; a new mouthpiece, a new approach to tonguing; it will begin to feel TERRIBLE. I consider that an adjustment period, the time it takes my body to become reflexively used to the new variable. If it continues to feel bad after about three weeks of regular work, then I stop doing it, because if it hasn't started to feel good by then, it's not going to.

What is "GOOD" embouchure?

Without a "good" embouchure, without a "good" sound, without range and endurance, none of the things I've covered in the last few months are really very useful, and WITH a "good" sound, extreme mobility is almost unnecessary.

Easily ninety-five percent of the work I've done in my career as a free-lance trombonist has required very little technique in terms of speed, and most successful trombonists that I've known haven't really developed their "speed" chops to any great degree. The characteristics they almost all HAVE shared have been good sound, pitch, range, endurance, consistency and musicality.

The one aspect of trombone playing necessary for all those above mentioned qualities is a "good" embouchure. You'll notice I keep putting quotation marks around the word "good". That's because there are as many "good" embouchures as there are "good" players. Dizzy Gillespie had a "good" embouchure that broke every rule in the book, but it worked well for him, thus it was "good". Dave Taylor's embouchure wouldn't be very useful for someone who wanted to play like Frank Rosolino, and Rosolino's approach wouldn't work very well in the Chicago Symphony or playing with Eddie Palmieri. Every different jaw and tooth formation, every different body type, every different horn, every mouthpiece, every different set of musical requirements impacts on what is or isn't a "good" embouchure. In my opinion no hard and fast set of rules and no survey of all the "right" and "wrong" ways one can form an embouchure can help an individual player find an effective approach for the requirements of his particular musical needs at any particular time.

So what do you do if you've not been gifted with a "naturally good" embouchure? (i.e., an embouchure that does the job you ask of it.) I wasn't given that gift. I switched with no guidance from tuba to trombone in my teens. Although what I was doing "worked" to some degree, it left much to be desired. I was told by several well known teachers early in my career to "Just keep playing; it'll all work out." It didn't. After several years of fair success, as I was asked to perform more and more challenging music, my inefficient and badly formed embouchure simply stopped working well enough for me to play professionally. I had to rebuild it from the ground up. It was not a fun couple of years, I assure you, but I learned a lot.

I developed my way of playing under the influence of a remarkable teacher, Carmine Caruso. Although much of what I say in the rest of this article bears little or no superficial resemblance to those exercises popularly known as "The Caruso Technique", they are largely inspired by his approaches to brass playing.

Bel Canto Singing and the Trombone

In the operatic style of singing known as "Bel Canto"(meaning "pretty singing") that developed in Italy in the 19th century, the cornerstone of voice development was the theory of "three voices" (or registers), which were labeled "head" (high) voice, "chest"(low) voice, and "mixed" (middle) voice. In an untrained voice, one usually finds only two voices, chest and head, and there's a "break" between the two voices. Many folk forms of singing, like yodeling, use this break as a musical device.

Many male voices are used entirely in the head range, in what's known as falsetto. What the Bel Canto singers discovered was a way to bring the lower voice up as far as it would go, bring the upper voice down as far as it would go, strengthen both of them, and gradually create a "mixed" voice where each of the "natural" voices blended imperceptibly into the other (depending on volume and the direction of the melodic line), thus effectively eliminating any "break" in the voice whatsoever.

At this point you might well be saying "OK, but what's this got to do with playing a brass instrument?" Do an experiment for me now, please. Get your horn, partially loosen the mouthpiece (just so it's not stuck into the receiver),and play a mezzo-forte third partial F. While playing that F, slowly withdraw the mouthpiece from the receiver. (If you can't sustain the note, practice it a little. It should be pretty easy. Try playing the note OUT of the horn, and then putting the mouthpiece back in. If you still can't keep the note happening while extracting the mouthpiece from the horn after a few minutes, then just play the F on the mouthpiece alone, for the sake of this experiment.)

However you've arrived at it, play a third partial F with the mouthpiece alone, as much as possible using the same embouchure and feeling as you use when you play the note IN the horn. Now slowly, and with no big shifts, gliss up, carefully listening and paying attention to how it feels. Somewhere above the original note you will probably find a change in resistance, maybe just a radical change in timbre, or possibly a complete stop of the buzz...a break of some kind. It could be a fourth or fifth away, maybe on octave, maybe more, maybe less. Keep trying and paying attention until you find it.

Now do the same gliss DOWN from the same third partial F. Again you'll probably find a change in resistance, a change in timbre, or a complete stop of your buzz at some point below the original F. With this exercise, you will have delineated the upper and lower limits of ONE of YOUR several "voices" or "registers", on YOUR mouthpiece, with YOUR lips, on the particular day you're trying this technique.

Unlike singers, our vibrating surfaces (our lips, as opposed to their vocal cords) are not irremediably anchored to the sides of our primary resonating cavity (our mouthpieces, their throats). By subtly repositioning our embouchures on the mouthpiece, it is possible for us to have more than two "natural" voices or registers. Nevertheless, the process of "mixing" registers is the same for us as it is for them. By identifying for yourself your own "natural" registers using mouthpiece buzzing techniques similar to what I just described, and then by both strengthening and expanding those "registers" into the ranges that are normally the locale of the next highest or lowest "register", you can create "mixed" registers that can eventually make for a relatively seamless four or five octaves of consistent sound.

Now that you've found a resistance point, either above or below that F, try playing a note a major second to a minor third beyond that note. For example, if you felt a break of some kind around Bb or C a perfect fourth or fifth above the third partial F, try playing a fifth partial D in the horn and then taking the mouthpiece out, again sustaining the buzz. (Work on it the same way as before if you have trouble doing it.) Now gliss DOWN from that note w/just the mouthpiece, trying to identify the first place below that D where there's a break. Do the same going UP from the fifth partial D.

Where those two breaks are is the rough boundaries of THAT "register" ("voice", "embouchure", "setting", "tendency", call it what you will.). After a period of a few weeks of consistent exploration of all your ranges using this method, you will be able to fairly accurately identify those several areas where your "natural" registers exist. By that time it'll be September and I'll write another column about what to DO with them.

Spend ten-twenty minutes a day trying to figure out what YOUR set of embouchures is like NOW, even if you don't want to make any changes. Remember...knowledge is power, as long as it doesn't get in the way of your playing. (I think that's at least half a joke, but re-reading it, I'm not so sure.)

By way of a conclusion, I want to point out that, taken to extremes, NO ONE keeps the "same" embouchure throughout the entire range of the horn. In microcosm, every change in pitch, timbre or volume is created by SOME "change" in the embouchure, no matter HOW small. In macrocosm, there's no player in the world whose embouchure on a fortississimo pedal G is even remotely similar to how he plays a pianississimo C above the treble clef. Every person has a different SET of "embouchures". Some have more, some less; some are "correct" according to common practice, some NOT so "correct". If you can identify the way you "naturally" play certain registers on the horn, and blend them into the ways that you "naturally" play areas above and below them, then however small or large the ranges covered by each setting. Incidentally, I've found most of mine are about an octave wide and however "normal" or "odd" those settings are in relation to the way everyone else plays, your embouchure(s) are going to be "CORRECT". (And they'll work well, too.)

Have fun checking this stuff out.