Letters From New York: Buzz Off! (Or buzz on - they both work)

By Sam Burtis • October 17, 1999 • 15 min read

The first and most commonly asked question I get is: "Why buzz at all?" Here's a post I wrote which addresses the basic reasons why buzzing "works."

I've noticed a bunch of posts on the Trombone-L about mouthpiece size and difficult high range, with the 6 1/2 AL being mentioned as the culprit a few times. Although the 6 1/2 AL isn't a particularly large mouthpiece in the orchestral field, it is at about this size, and at about .525 bore trombone sizes as well, that the particular problems I wish to address in this article begin to appear for many players.

The real reason many people find the 6 1/2 AL (and other, larger mouthpieces with fairly large throats and backbores) difficult to play in high registers (or loud, for any length of time), is that they haven't developed their embouchures to the point where they're providing enough resistance AT THE LIPS, but rather are accustomed to using the horn and mouthpiece to produce that required resistance. (Some resistance is necessary, of course, or else the entire contents of your lungs would whoosh out at one time. That's why the call it an air stream.) Tighter, more resistant horns and mouthpieces don't require the same strength and balance of embouchure as less resistant setups.

As a beneficial side effect of buzzing (and this is very important, maybe more so than the embouchure work per se) it will enable you to find the NATURAL angle (or angles) at which you should hold the horn in different registers. Once you have a good, comfortable mouthpiece buzz, and whenever you insert the mouthpiece into the horn while buzzing, try to insert the shank so that its sides go into the receiver exactly parallel to the walls of the receiver.

This often results in different horn angles on your face than the ones to which you're accustomed. Learn to hold your horn at the angle your physiognomy requires, if at all possible. The arms and hands are MUCH stronger and more adaptable than the facial muscles, and a slightly new horn angle, although initially foreign feeling, often produces startlingly good results.

The trombone is an asymmetrical instrument that changes its fulcrum every time you move the slide. Try not to let this fact dictate your embouchure. The only things that can prevent you from holding the horn at the angles that most please your chops are either arm and shoulder weakness (light, high repetition weight training will solve that in three easy weeks) or the occasional big necked player playing a horn with a narrow slide.

Some of this also addresses a couple of recent posts. Someone suggested using a practice mute to play in the sub-pedal range, and someone else was talking about the relative dangers and benefits of buzzing without the mouthpiece. Both extremely low practice (long tones) and buzzing (with or without the mouthpiece) can be used to find and develop a strong point of resistance at the lips. Once this has been developed, one can play larger and less resistant equipment, if so desired, without losing range or endurance. Using a mute to produce those sub-pedals is counter-productive to this end (as is mouthpiece buzzing with a finger partially stopping up the end, or using one of the artificial B.E.R.P. type resistance providers, in my view). It's certainly easier to do these things with artificial resistances, but the benefits are much less.

One way to look at almost all long tone/embouchure building/buzzing practice is to consider it an attempt to find and balance a strong and consistent resistance at the lips; not before the lips, in the throat and oral cavity; not after the lips, in the mouthpiece and horn; but at the lips, where it can be controlled and used while still having the freest flow of air possible.

We brass players are lucky enough to have an infinitely adjustable sound producer/resistor (synonyms, really), made of flesh, a tool only singers share with us. Reed players have to find a reed that suits their purposes that day; stringed instrument players must change their strings or bow to modify their sound. All we have to do is learn how to control our lips. The various buzzing techniques are particularly helpful in this process.

The next topic to be examined, once we have some idea WHY buzzing is valuable (there are plenty of other reasons, as well, but they'll be mentioned as we go on), is how to buzz. (What approaches are valuable and safe, what approaches can be counterproductive.) Let's deal with mouthpiece buzzing first.

Here's a version of the most common mouthpiece buzzing question:

I just can't seem to play the horn the same way I buzz the mouthpiece. When I buzz the mouthpiece, buzzing seems free, easy and flexible. When I try to play exactly the way I buzz, my sound comes out thin and strained. Also, my embouchure is asymmetrical when I play the horn (right corner sags), but it is NOT so when I buzz. I buzz a half-hour each day with a B.E.R.P. in the car. Is there any help out there?

Yes. Please don't buzz when you don't have the horn handy for comparison (at least until you've become very proficient at matching how you buzz and how you play), and please don't use B.E.R.P. or any other resistance aid. (Yes, I know it's easier, it just isn't better.)

Loosen the mouthpiece so it's not stuck in the receiver and play an easy note on your horn. (Third partial F is usually a great place to start.) While playing the note, gradually remove the mouthpiece, sustaining the note (if possible). Note any changes in the angle of the mouthpiece to your face.

Without removing the mouthpiece from your embouchure, buzz the same note. (Breathe through your nose or the corners of your mouth for this exercise.) While sustaining the buzz, replace the mouthpiece in the receiver, being very careful that the angle of the mouthpiece to your face doesn't change. It's likely that this will result in a horn angle to which you are not accustomed. This is not only okay, it's good.

Continued practice in this manner will probably change your horn angle to one that's more natural to your face. Experiment, learn what your face needs. If the angle is initially uncomfortable, persevere. Your arm and shoulder muscles are much stronger than your face muscles, and can sustain changes in weight and angle much better.

Do not use artificial resistance on the mouthpiece. Build your embouchure so that it provides the resistance.

Do not practice in the car, at least not at first. You need to find a compromise between your mouthpiece approach and your horn approach. (Also, it's a terrible excuse if you have an accident or get a traffic ticket, plus it messes up the windshield.)

Do not do it for one-half an hour a day...especially all at once. Start with only a few minutes a day, and work your way up gradually. Get a feeling for what's happening, then transfer it to the horn. Use this approach, once it begins to work, for ALL the things you practice. Rochut, scales, flexibility, whatever, throughout whatever ranges in which you can buzz.

The last question on mouthpiece buzzing has to do more with the problems one encounters when the buzz doesn't match the way you play.

I read with great interest Sam Burtis' erudite thesis on embouchure. I have one important question: Is the buzz on the mouthpiece always supposed to equal the note on the horn? This doesn't happen for me. Am I doing something wrong? I can get a clear buzz but the buzz note doesn't equal the note on the horn and vice-versa.

Yes, it is supposed to equal the note on the horn, and no, you're not necessarily doing anything "wrong."

If (big "if" here, there are other ways to go that work very well for many people) you wish to use buzzing as a technique to improve your playing, you should learn how to buzz with just the mouthpiece (no extra resistance), and further, you should learn to be able to insert the mouthpiece into the horn while buzzing without having the note, OR the feeling of PLAYING the note, change at all.

Conversely, you should be able to play any note on the horn, and while continuing to play that note, (These techniques involve some pretty fancy balancing tricks with the slide, as one hand has to hold the horn while the other holds the mouthpiece...I use a towel in my trombone case to rest the end of the slide), be able to withdraw the mouthpiece from the horn while continuing that note, again without any change of pitch or feeling. I have gotten to the point where I can do this through five octaves, more or less.

Start with your simplest middle range notes and exercises, and progress to more difficult areas of endeavor. ALWAYS relate the mouthpiece setting IMMEDIATELY to your horn (by inserting the mouthpiece without removing it from your mouth, and, if possible, continuing to play while you insert it), being very careful when you insert the mouthpiece to put it into the horn in such a way that the shank goes in parallel to the receiver, thus ensuring that your horn is at its most natural angle to your face when you play.

This approach has the triple advantages of:

  1. Taking the responsibility of focusing the note away from your hardware and putting it directly on your musculature and mind.
  2. Helping you to use an angle between your face and your horn that is more natural to your own particular physiognomy, less dictated by the weight of the horn.
  3. Putting the responsibility of producing the proper resistance on your physical set-up, your lips and air cavity, rather than on the mouthpiece and horn. YOU dictate what's happening, not your equipment.

(I have to emphasize here that if, on the other hand, you DON'T wish to approach the horn this way, it doesn't make a bit of difference whether you can or can't buzz, nor whether or not your buzz changes pitch in or out of the horn. Many very fine players absolutely can not buzz a note, and I've known a few people who were virtuoso buzzers but lousy brass players. This is just one approach among many, and the one that I have most successfully used and taught. "Y'pays yer money and y'takes yer chances" as the carnival barkers used to say.)

Are you closing off part of the shank, to simulate the resistance from the instrument?

No. That defeats one of the purposes of buzzing. It makes it easier, it's true, but with a bit of patient practice one can learn to play the mouthpiece without stopping the bottom at all. Closing off part of the shank simulates the resistance of the horn, which can be thought of in ONE approach to the horn (again, not the ONLY or even necessarily the most correct approach), as a crutch, used because the embouchure hasn't developed enough strength to provide that resistance for itself.

Now we come to the third (and most problematic) part of working on the horn/mouthpiece buzzing/free buzzing triumvirate, free buzzing (buzzing without the mouthpiece).

Free buzzing can be very destructive if done incorrectly, and equally constructive if done correctly. It should be approached with the utmost caution because a wrong approach or initial overuse can really screw up an embouchure.

I speak from direct experience here. Free buzzing always seemed like such an elegant IDEA to me that I kept on trying to use it for over 15 years, but every time I'd start I'd have to stop after a couple of days because my playing would begin to radically suffer. Eventually I believe I began to get the concept sorted out, and now I use it regularly to great advantage.

Here are some questions and answers regarding this topic:

Regarding free buzzing, some people have recommended buzzing my lips without a mouthpiece as a way of warming up, making my pitch more centered, etc., but others have claimed this will make my lips "too loose." The latter advice came after about a year of practicing and becoming rather accurate in buzzing pitches in tune and in a wider range, so I would question it.

You'd do well to question it. If it works, use it.

If you always relate your buzz to your mouthpiece and/or rim in increments of only a few seconds, you will neither stiffen nor loosen your lips any more than they NEED to be stiffened or loosened. Buzz off the mouthpiece (which can either be in or out of the horn, I use both), then, while continuing the buzz, place the mouthpiece on your embouchure. Next, with out taking the mouthpiece off your lips, do the opposite: buzz a note ON the mouthpiece (and/or on the horn) and then, while continuing the note, take the mouthpiece off your lips. You can then progress to simple exercises or etudes using the same approach, and ultimately to studies that travel through all the technical demands of making music.

These exercises will be much more difficult in some ranges than in others, and free buzzing in some registers (different ones for different people) will often result in extremely unfamiliar and seemingly "wrong" lip settings.

These "wrong" settings are in fact a direction toward which your "normal" setting could probably profitably travel, and the ultimate playing settings that will result from continued pursuit of these techniques will be compromises between the way(s) your lips most naturally play different registers without the mouthpiece and the demands put upon you by the mouthpiece, the horn, and real performance.

There are myriad ways to buzz your lips. Many are radically different from anything you'd want to do to play a brass instrument, so your first task is to be sure that what you're doing functions with the mouthpiece and with the horn.

Regarding free buzzing, you can most simply envision the rim as a fence, beyond which the aperture should not extend. If you buzz a note with an aperture of 3/4", but your rim is only 1/2" wide, that embouchure, no matter how strong the buzz, won't function when placed in that mouthpiece. The rim will stop the vibration, just like a finger will stop a vibrating string.

Another thing to think about is that at the upper and lower extremes of range, volume, and endurance, the embouchure, no matter how strong, needs the rim as a surrogate ring of muscle for definition and restraint. You can extend the upper and lower limits of where that need will begin to occur, but inevitably, at any and all extremes of playing, it will appear.

You can very profitably discover new approaches to playing, and develop muscles that you never would have known existed, by buzzing without the mouthpiece, but you can also destabilize your embouchure to the point where you can create serious playing problems as well.

Only do this buzzing outside the rim or mouthpiece for a few minutes a day at first, constantly checking back to see if your buzz will function in the mouthpiece, and if over a few days or weeks you begin to see detrimental results in your playing, stop, at least until you've regained your normal balance.

I can buzz with the mouthpiece alone, but not without the mouthpiece, and if I do succeed in buzzing without the mouthpiece, it has nothing to do with how I play. Is it the free buzzing technique that's at fault, or am I doing something wrong?

Buzzing without the mouthpiece is not the problem. Buzzing incorrectly without the mouthpiece is the problem.

If you buzz for long periods of time, and by a "long" time I mean over 30 seconds, without relating what your lips are doing to the limitations necessarily produced by the rim, your lips will assume positions that are not effective on the mouthpiece. Usually the embouchure will spread beyond the confines of the rim, or one (or both) lips will roll under too much, the equivalent of a woodwind player playing on too thin or flimsy a reed. Both of these tendencies can be highly counterproductive.

If, however, you constantly relate what you're doing to the mouthpiece, everything will eventually sort itself out. Play a note on the mouthpiece (or a cutoff rim, or on your horn), then, while continuing the note, take the rim away. Free buzz a note, then add the mouthpiece while still buzzing. If it doesn't work both ways, figure out WHY, and experiment with it until it does. It can do nothing but help. It will produce great balance and strength, and help you to understand what's happening when you play a note.

I've been practicing free buzzing (buzzing the lips without the mouthpiece or horn) in an attempt to supplement my daily mouthpiece exercises. I have found that I can free buzz up to a high B natural (in the octave above middle C), but can't even approach that using my mouthpiece or my horn. Does you have any ideas why this is happening?

I know I've said this earlier in this article, but I'm going to reiterate it, because it's so important when using these approaches.

Whether you're buzzing on the mouthpiece OR free buzzing...always relate what you are doing to the horn. Do it every 5 or 10 seconds - every few minutes at the most.

The idea is, that the embouchure is a compromise between what your body (lips, mouth, teeth, oral cavity, facial musculature), mouthpiece, and horn want to do naturally. Most people just play the horn, and never explore what the other compromising systems really tend to need.

Some people over practice one or the other form of buzzing, and can't bring it back to the horn. Free buzzing can infom your trombone playing. If you patiently and consistently relate it to real playing, eventually your embouchure on the horn will change to include some part of that approach - whatever really works.

This takes time. It took me several years (once I discovered how to do it well) to integrate free buzzing into my playing and practice/maintenance routine, but the rewards were more than worth the time and effort, in my opinion.