In this guide, I going to take a look at 10 commonly held myths, misconceptions and problems about brass embouchures.
If you look around at number of different resources for brass players, you will notice that while there is a general consensus on topics such as breathing there is a lot of contradictoty advice on brass embouchures.
Let’s dive right in.
The 5 trumpet embouchures problems you need to avoid
This are not hard-and-fast rules or catastrophic bluders by any measure. But I think if you try to steer clear from these problems, as much as you can, life as a brass player might be way be easier for you.
Problem #1 — Puffing your cheeks
I know what you’re thinking…
What about Dizzie Gillespie?
And my answer for that is quite simple actually — If you sound like Dizzy Gillespie, don’t change a thing. That’s fantastic!
The air pockets you want to avoid are the ones between your lips and the front of your teeth. Sometimes you get air there. You can feel when your lips start to bulge as you’re playing.
Air pockets start to form, sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other, sometimes everywhere.
The reason you don’t want the air pockets is because these changes your embouchure setup, and consequently, your sound [with and without the air pockets]. These can either be a good or bad thing.
Problem #2 — Playing with your mouthpiece too high / low
Anatomically, everybody’s different is some way or the other.
Generally, there is such a thing as too high or too low when it comes to mouthpiece position. You don’t want either. Trying to play somewhere in the middle is, for most people, a good rule of thumb.
But again, everybody’s different — teeth, lips, tongue, jaw position etc. — that’s why it’s a really good idea to experiment (and self-analysis can be difficult sometimes).
Problem #3 — Playing with your mouthpiece too far left / right
Same as above, anatomy varies.
Generally, you want to try not to play too far on either side of your mouth.
Some people find that a little bit left or right works better for them, and that’s fine. If you can play way over to the left or right and sound great, comfortably through all the registers of your horn, go for it.
Problem #4 — Closing your throat / “grunting” while playing
There is almost no middle ground with this one.
This is very common with beginner players, especially when they are tounging.
Try not to ever close your throat when playing the trumpet. The throat needs to be completely open and relaxed the whole time.
If it helps, think of blowing hot air.
But even then, if you are forcing your throat open [it’s not relaxed], that creates tension related problems.
I went into more detail on this in how to relieve neck, throat tension when playing the trumpet. Have a look if you haven’t to fix tension related problems in your playing.
The idea is to play as tension free as possible.
Problem #5 — Too much embouchure pressure
It’s not possible to play without any pressure, we all know that.
The idea is to try to play with as little pressure as possible. The best way to go about this is to practice playing with only as little pressure as is needed to get the notes out.
You must use some pressure because you must create a seal, but as you ascend, you’ll often notice that maybe you’re grabbing the ring and the third valve and starting to increase the pressure.
You have to train yourself out of this tendency.
You start by being aware of it and then work towards trying to do it less and hopefully, your playing starts to improve.
The 5 common myths and misconceptions about trumpet embouchures
Myth #1 — Don’t place the mouthpiece on the red of the upper lip
You’ll often hear that the best mouthpiece placement is centered on the lips, with more top lip inside the mouthpiece, and that you shouldn’t place the rim of the mouthpiece on the red of the upper lip.
This is perhaps the most pervasive trumpet embouchure myth. It is also one of the most common cause of embouchure troubles for many brass players.
It is true that a lot of brass players will find that placing more top lip inside the mouthpiece works best, but equally as many players play much better with more bottom lip inside.
This is not as rare as many people are taught.
Take a closer look and you’ll see a lot of famous players place the mouthpiece lower on the lip, some right on the red of the upper lip.
Wynton Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard, Dennis Brain, Miles Davis, Kai Winding, Phil Meyers, Jon Faddis, Bobby Burgess, J.P. Torres, Dick Nash and many other brass players all do this.
Myth #2 — If you want to sound like a famous player, you should use the same embouchure as them
You’ve probably heard this one.
You’ve probably even had teachers that believed that if they wanted their students to have a well functioning embouchure, they had to use the same embouchure as them.
Most teachers seem to feel that the embouchure that works well for them personally must be the correct one. So they instruct others to play similarly.
Sometimes the students who emulate a famous player believe the key to sound that good is to adopt the same embouchure as them.
The trouble with this logic is that everyone has a different face. What works well for one player doesn’t for another.
There are examples of different brass players with very different looking embouchures.
A one-size-fits-all approach to embouchure development will only be successful if you and your student have the anatomy suited to that setup. Others will fail.
Brass teachers and players should understand no matter how conventional or unconventional looking an embouchure is, it is always one of a kind.
Myth #3 — Embouchures are too complex to analyze properly. Trying to do so will lead to paraysis by analysis
On this problem, I’ll just briefly comment here that while all brass embouchures are unique, there are some basic patterns that anyone can learn to spot with a little background experience.
In fact, in how to form a brass embouchure, I do just that in an easy 4-step blueprint. Have a look at that of you haven’t already.
Using successful players of each different pattern as a guide, it is possible to learn what practice methods are more successful and which instructions should be avoided for each particular embouchure type.
Brass players who find that embouchure analysis is hindering their playing should consider that, either their analysis is faulty to begin with, or they are simply trying to do too much at once before they are ready to move on.
Furthermore, it is difficult to analyze anything you are doing when you are in the act of doing it. There is a time and place to take a closer look at your embouchure.
Myth #4 — There are no embouchures problems. Only breathing problems
While most teachers and players would probably qualify this somewhat, the opinion that breathing is the single most important area for brass technique development is almost universally believed.
It is very common for teachers to address embouchure issues purely through breath work.
To be sure, it is absolutely true that good breath support is extremely important for good brass technique because our embouchure depends on air being blown past to work, the dependence between these two [embouchure and breath support] is mutual, functionally.
Improving breath support will help a player’s embouchure function more efficiently. Conversely, throwing lots of good air against a poorly setup embouchure doesn’t work.
Brass players must train themselves to use their embouchure and breath support together, in a way that not only sounds good, but also doesn’t risk long term injury.
Myth #5 — The best way to develop a good embouchure is through emphasis on musical expression, just like learning to speak
The idea that you develop a good embouchure with imitation and unconscious trial and error, just like speaking is misguided.
True. Musicians are musical communicators and that is our #1 goal. We absolutely need to spend a lot of time developing musical expression, and this often helps technique fall into into place.
Brass musicians benefit greatly from training the physical act of playing their instruments out of musical context. This holds true for all aspects of brass technique not just the embouchure.