Out of the Case: An Alternate Approach to Embouchure Development, Part 2

By Sam Burtis • September 01, 1997 • 12 min read

As I promised in my previous Online Trombone Journal article, I am now going to suggest some approaches that will help you to use the knowledge about your own personal embouchure setup that I hope you have gained using the experiments I set out at the beginning of the summer. (If you haven't read my previous column, and applied some of the ideas that can be found in it to your own playing, this column isn't going to help you much. Look up Part 1 in the Online Trombone Journal archives, try what's put forward there for a couple of weeks, and then come back to this one.) I just want to reiterate, for those who are prone to rash actions, IF IT AIN'T BROKE, DON'T FIX IT. Messing with your embouchure can be dangerous. If you do it right, you should be O.K. If you DON'T do it, and you're happy with the way you play, you're SURE to be O.K.

Defining the Ranges

Let's assume that you've identified several ranges, using my previous column's mouthpiece experiments, and you've decided to try to blend two of them together, with the aim of creating what the Bel Canto singing teachers called (not entirely accurately) a "mixed" range. (I say "not entirely accurately" because most often the result of these exercises, at least at first, is not an entirely new or mixed setting, but rather an area within your range where you can move more or less seamlessly between two slightly different settings.)

For the sake of continuity we'll use the general ranges I used in my previous article. (These approaches can be used anywhere on the horn...from sub-pedals to double Bb and beyond. I only use mid-range here because it's common ground for all trombonists.) Let us say a player has found that, on playing a third-partial F on the mouthpiece and gently glissing up and down from there, that there is a fairly consistent break or point of turbulence around second-partial G or Gb, and another one somewhere around fifth-partial B. (For an explanation of how I identify pitches using partials and such, look up the first Out Of The Case article in the archives.)

That range, from approximately second-partial G to fourth-partial Bb, can be considered for our purposes one embouchure setting; it generally changes very little (or not at all) as this imaginary player plays the horn in that range. (Remember...this is NOT necessarily, or even probably, the same range that you personally will find as you examine how you play. Find your own break points...everybody's different.)

The setting above that range may, when explored from a mouthpiece buzzed fifth-partial D, produce break points at or around fourth-partial Ab below, and seventh-partial F# above. Now we have identified two contiguous, slightly overlapping range/ embouchure setting areas, going from second-partial G up almost two octaves to seventh-partial F#...a very heavily traveled part of the horn, by the way, and one to which many players pay very little attention in terms of embouchure development, taking it for granted as an "easy" range. 'Tain't necessarily so.

Connecting, Analyzing, Balancing and Overlapping: Tactics

What we've discovered in this example are two slightly different embouchures or settings, and what we want to do is extend each in the direction of the other, creating a (larger) overlapping range where both settings (or another, resultant setting) will work. This is the point at which my approach differs radically from most other methods. Many teachers will either try to eliminate one embouchure, or get involved in analyzing where the mouthpiece meets your face, with the aim of "improving" your setting(s). I believe that the embouchure is too complicated to be analyzed, that there are too many possible mouthpiece placements, too many angles of mouthpiece placement in regard to the face and teeth, too many different possible degrees of upper and lower lip roll, too many jaw placement possibilities (in, out, to the left or right), and WAY too many COMBINATIONS of those variables for ANYONE to figure out "logically", whether it's the player or a teacher doing the figuring. However, there IS a way to find the right settings, and it is to let the BODY decide with as little interference from the mind as possible. The rest of this article is my best take on how to approach this.

Find a comfortable note near the middle of one of the ranges. (In the mid-range, both areas are probably going to be fairly equally secure, but as you progress up or down on the horn, the range nearer the center of the horn will likely be the best one from which to start.) Play the note, with the mouthpiece slightly loosened in the receiver and while continuing to play it, withdraw the mouthpiece from the horn. (If you don't hold the horn in a fairly parallel position normally, and you have trouble with the slide slipping around while you remove the mouthpiece, rest the end of the slide on something soft. I use a towel in my trombone case, set on a table or a piece of furniture.)

When you've managed to be fairly successful at this, repeat the note on the mouthpiece alone, and while continuing it, replace the mouthpiece in the horn, being VERY CAREFUL that you don't change the angle of the mouthpiece on your chops in order to accommodate the way you normally hold your horn. (In other words, try to make the shank of the mouthpiece enter the receiver straight and parallel to the receiver's sides.) The object of this, and it is possibly the most important part of this whole approach, is to let the mouthpiece angles that are NATURAL TO YOU AND YOUR PHYSICAL MAKEUP dictate how you hold the horn, instead of vice-versa. The trombone is a very heavy, asymmetrical instrument, and if you don't pay attention, it will distort your (natural) embouchure in a thousand different ways. If the horn angles (they may be slightly different in different ranges) that result from this exercise are initially uncomfortable for you, give your body time to adjust. If they remain hard to hold, consider doing some weight training for your left arm, or maybe using different balancing weights on your horn. (If you come up with angles that simply can't be accommodated between you and your horn [narrow slides and/or big necks or jaws will sometimes do this, but very rarely], either consider a horn with wider slides or forget this approach.)

Once you can do this well on the chosen (normally a fairly easy, secure) note, put the mouthpiece on your chops, play that this case, we'll start with third-partial F...for two beats (fairly slow...MM quarter note = about 70) while tapping your foot in good, accurate time (I'll explain the foot part later), and, without using any tongue, make a clean slur up (or down) to a note just past the break you identified earlier. (In this instance the break was around Bb/B-natural above third-partial F, so you might slur up to a C.[While you're at it, choose a major scale that includes both these notes. You could choose F major in this case, but just to make things more interesting, let's use Db major.]) Continue playing that note for two beats, then slur back down to the F and hold it for four beats. (Now comes the tricky part.) While you're holding that note, replace the mouthpiece in the receiver and continue playing the note for another four beats. (Remember to try to keep the same mouthpiece angle IN the horn you were using OUTSIDE the horn.)

Now, with the mouthpiece IN the horn, and without ever moving your mouth away from the mouthpiece, take a breath through your nose for four beats or so ...longer, if you need it. (I'd like to add here that almost ALL of these embouchure finding/mixing/strengthening exercises are better if you can breathe through your nose. Some people can't, and must find a way to breathe through the corners of their mouths for these exercises, but however you end up breathing, try not to dislodge your embouchure's major contact points from the mouthpiece or slip and slide around too much on it.) Your first interval was a fifth (it might have been a second, or a tenth, or whatever interval the areas of your horn on which you were working dictated at the time), so play another (diatonic) fifth up, with the mouthpiece IN the horn...this time, in this key (Db major), you'd play Gb-Db-Gb, 2 beats, 2 beats, and 4 beats, no tongue, just as before, and then, while continuing the Gb, rest the slide somewhere, take the mouthpiece out, and play the Gb for another 4 beats.

Example of the Exercise

Then, after another non-dislodging breath of some kind, Ab-Eb-Ab with the mouthpiece out, replacing it in the horn and continuing the Ab for four more beats, then the same routine with Bb-F-Bb, one set in the horn, the next set out, until one or the other of the notes no longer sound when you try to play it. At that point, stop. You may have gone two octaves, you may only be able initially to go a third or a sixth, no matter either way. At that point, rest for a couple of minutes, and then repeat the routine in the other direction from a relatively secure note in the other setting range.

In this instance, we might choose sixth-partial Eb, and slur down a diatonic sixth to Gb (just below the previously ascertained break), then back up. Same routine, mouthpiece in the horn one set, out the next, only this time going down from the upper setting to (and through, if possible) the lower in diatonic sixths (or fourths, or twelfths, whatever interval you decide to do). Again, go down as far as you can, trying not to dislodge your chops from the mouthpiece as you go.

This routine can be applied to ANY point of turbulence or note-producing difficulty on the horn with good results. Don't overdo it...maybe 10% or 20% of my practice time is devoted to this and related exercises, no more.

Remember, the potential range of the trombone never really ends in either direction, it just begins to thin out a little...(another little half-a-joke). I've played with trombonists who played in the Bb-D above the treble clef range very musically, with fine projection, strength and control (screeching's easy...MUSIC is hard), and with bass trombonists who played down through pedal B (two octaves below the bass clef) with astonishing accuracy and power. It's all in how hard you want to work to get it.

P.S. I promised I'd explain the foot tapping...when you tap your foot, you give your thousands of muscle combinations and millions of nerves something consistent to which they can relate. There are too many parts of your body to "think" about, but (like a well trained dog) those many parts will produce the desired results on command, ONLY IF THE COMMANDS ARE CONSISTENT, AND CONSISTENTLY DELIVERED. Good time will do that. Not external time, not a metronome or another musician or conductor, but INNER time. Subdivide. Give your body a well defined point in time at which it must perform a given task, do it repeatedly, and the body will learn.

Here's a short teaching story from Carmine Caruso...Once, when he was a schoolkid, he was taken on a tour of the Ford plant in Detroit...this must have been in the mid-1920s or so. All throughout the tour, at a regular interval, he kept hearing and feeling a gigantic SLAM sound that shook the entire plant, and he wondered what was making that sound the entire time he was there. As the finale of the tour, the guide took them outside, where a very tall, multi-ton steam press operated by a man in a booth up at the top of the machine was pressing metal on various molds which would be placed underneath the press by workers...fenders, hoods, etc. The operator would release the press, and it would come crashing down, forming the part. The guide told them that each part needed a different amount of power to come out right, and that the man controlling it was the only one in the world who could do it correctly, having operated that particular machine for many years. As a demonstration of the man's expertise and control, the guide put an inexpensive watch on the base of the machine, and the operator dropped his press with such accuracy that he cracked the crystal w/out harming the rest of watch at all.

Carmine, whose whole family was in music one way or another, realized at that moment that the man's perception of time, his ability to subdivide the second or two it took the press to fall, must be so accurate that he had total control over his machine...his instrument, if looked at in a different way...and further, that time...good time, really accurate, sub-divided time...was the secret to developing technique and control over the body and by extension, any machines one wanted to control with the body.

So...tap your feet; subdivide; use your OWN time. Carmine used this concept not just with musicians, he also helped some people on whom physical therapists had given up to walk and use their limbs. I personally have used it with great success not only as a musician, but in martial arts and other sports, and have taught kids how to hit a baseball...a VERY difficult activity, maybe the single most challenging action in sports...using it as well. Check it out. Try subdividing in sixteenth notes while you're walking, see if you don't walk more efficiently and with better balance after 15 minutes or so. Interesting idea.