Concepts of Brass Embouchure Development

by John Swallow
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Ever since I heard a leading European brass player quoted as saying that embouchure problems are just ‘American claptrap;’ I have approached the discussion of embouchure with some trepidation. Unfortunately, we do tend to equate not knowing how to do something with “having a problem about it:’ In any case, we cannot say we have an embouchure problem until we have looked diligently and unsuccessfully for a solution to it.

A common agreement on semantics is important, and I will attempt to either define or avoid terminology that allows subjective interpretation. There is a temptation to use words such as “focus;’ “project;’ “dark;’ “core;’ and so on, on the unspoken assumption that there is some mutual agreement as to their meaning. Objective as well as subjective aspects exist in any analysis of embouchure: “How I do it” is really “how I think I do it:’ How one actually “does it” is elusive. Most of what we accomplish as performers is done instinctively and imitatively. After the fact we arrive at conclusions as to how we think we did it. This “leapfrog” of accomplishment followed by evaluation, analysis, and ultimately instruction is really a reversal of the creative process.

Performing and teaching under a wide variety of circumstances have necessitated for me a conceptual approach to embouchure use and development that is practical, teachable, and allows for change. A career of some 30-40 years is not unusual for the 20th-century brass player, and the varying musical styles, trends, and opportunities that can arise in this future shock world force us to adapt our performance practices.

First, it should be noted that the upper jaw is fixed and the lower jaw movable: it can go up and down, in and out, and move laterally. It cannot turn on a radius, but it does offer the player a great deal of choice. One can look to one school of thought or another as to what one should do with the lower jaw, but telling someone else exactly what he or she should do is problematic. Regardless of what anyone says one “should” do, the choice cannot be the same for all players. What one decides to do is absolutely crucial.

Firmness in the cheeks and mouth corners is vital to establishing, manipulating, and controlling an even tone. One of my principles is that for each note at a given dynamic, there is an optimum firmness of the facial muscles and an optimum forward position of the lower jaw. These two together enable us to produce the best sound with accompanying endurance and flexibility. I refer to these two optimums as the “set:

If one then firms up one’s facial muscles throughout the register, pivoting or changing the position of the jaws becomes essential if we are to accomplish a full range of register and dynamics. Assuming the jaw set and facial firmness as givens, the position of the lower jaw that will achieve optimum sonority is determined to a great extent by the degree of firmness in the face. This being the case, we have started down a road that dictates certain procedures and to some degree, discounts or negates others. Adjusting only the firmness of our cheeks or only the position of our jaw to change pitch or overtone is only part of the procedure.

In order to develop an embouchure that works, it is also important that the player maintain a seal around the mouthpiece rim. Movement of the lower jaw should be limited to be certain that the player retains the seal without leaks. The muscles of the lips should be held so as to retain this seal between the planes of the teeth and gums and the mouthpiece rim. This establishes some confines as to the highness or lowness of the mouthpiece set. The question of whether it is 2/3 upper lip and 1/3 lower lip or 50150 is dictated more by the differences in the individual’s anatomy than by any ideal placement.

I have developed an abstract concept that I call a “diamond of options:· These options are the various choices of set that will produce good sound. I picture the register as within the confines of a diamond standing on point, with the mid­ register placed at the widest part of the diamond. Our low options are represented by the left side of the diamond and the high options, the right side. Registrationally speaking, the brass player has his greatest options of set for a given note in the easiest part of the middle register and increasingly less option at the extreme edges of his high and low range.

Remaining on the low side of the options as one proceeds toward the high register allows for greater leverage at the top. By “leverage” I mean the amount of jaw movement available to us from any given point in the register. The greatest amount of movement or shift should be brought into play at the top and bottom of the register, not necessarily at an ever­ increasing rate. The player should aim to achieve a set that will allow for a minimum of movement over the widest amount of register. Thus when we reach the most extreme (and theoretically the most difficult) ends of the register, we still have available to us the widest range of jaw movement to help us accomplish these extremes.

In addition I use a concept that I call the “capo;’ related to the device that guitarists place over the frets to raise the pitch of the strings, changing key but retaining the same fingerings. For me every passage suggests a capo of embouchure compati­bility that may be stretched to its limits by a section such as the two-and-a-half octave phrase in the first trombone part of Strauss’ Also Spmch Ztlrathustm. It might also suggest separate capos for the first and second sections of the trombone solo in Ravel’s Bolero. As he finishes the first (high register) section, the player can shift to a lower position of embouchure compatibility in order to proceed with optimum sonority.

Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony is another example of how one might use this capo of leverage. Even though the first trom­bone part of the chorale only covers an octave and a fourth, the opening middle B-fat is the lowest note in the passage. We should begin the choral at our lowest option on the diamond and remain there as we ascend so as to have as much leverage as possible for the high E-flat. Playing high notes is not a maHer of overcoming gravity, but of developing good habits and skills, not just strength.

One of the ways to produce vibrato on a brass instrument is by moving the lower jaw and facial muscles. This relates to embouchure in that the player manipulates the same elements he is trying to stabilize. As long as the player remembers to retain control of the two set components, the cheeks and jaws, any one or combination of the above methods is a legitimate means of producing vibrato. Using a lip or jaw vibrato in the extreme high register can be fatiguing; and in the very low register, where the embouchure is least firm, this type of vibrato is difficult to control. For these reasons it is important to keep jaw vibrato at a minimum in these extremes of range.

Watching other players is important in learning to distinguish approaches to playing. It is easy for the teacher to observe varieties of embouchure and different degrees of success. Players move {heir heads, jaws, or instruments to varying degrees to obtain a full range. As a teacher, try to find the thread of universality in the embouchures you observe. Mentally catalog your observations so as to better explore your options without disrupting your current efforts. This is a discipline that the sophisticated brass player should strive for. For the ever-developing performer, teaching can afford a vantage point of on­ the-spot evaluation, and given an opportunity to observe growth and change over a long period of time.

Each player’s expectation is important in the development of his embouchure skills. Whether he wants to be a soloist, chamber music player, or all of the above, the type of playing will dictate embouchure practice. Every player needs a consistent yet flexible approach that will accommodate the varied demands placed on him. I have had little control over many of the professional opportunities that have come my way. I feel that one should be prepared for all of the above.

Keep in mind that as much as em­bouchure skills can determine initial success, it is the attitude of each player that determines the degree and length of his success. When you observe seeming contradictions in the procedures of others, avoid the simplistic conclusion that their success is an accident or luck. It is the ultimate result of what they have seen, heard , and experienced. Those who empathize. observe, and copy effectively are most apt to reach their goals; in the final analysis, this is the best instruction of all.

I don’t think that there is an embouchure that one shouldn’t or couldn’t change, and one often sees an embouchure procedure that seems questionable. Whether it is the result of a physical, musical, or attitudinal problem, it is up to the player to question the procedure that seems functionally essential at the moment. I wouldn’t recom­mend an abrupt embouchure change unless the player sounds at least as good during the change as he did previously.

I am reluctant to encourage change that temporarily produces a lesser quality of sound or facility, unless the player has been observed over a period of time and has reached a plateau. I much prefer making embouchure changes in students who are removed from the necessity of earning a living with their instruments and have the time necessary for a gradual approach to instruction and growth, personally as well as musically. Most important of all, whatever the recommendation one makes to a student, it should be presented positively. It is extremely difficult to establish new procedures or even implement old ones by “not” doing something. When trying to build new habits think of things that one can do, rather than avoid doing. Instead of saying “don’t puff your cheeks,” for example, the teacher might tell the student to concentrate on making the comers of his mouth firm.

Identification with a fine performer and teacher is an important part of a player’s development. This places a large burden of responsibility on the instructor to encourage the player whenever recommending a change. A player who realizes that a performer he respects has benefited from making a change will likely be receptive to the alterations that his mentor recommends. Remember that a student may be in such need that he is incapable of an objective evaluation. The intuitive, sensitive teacher can help a student circumvent any possible demoralization that might result from a radical change in procedure.

The embouchure is a highly sophisticated mechanism and our performing efforts and instruction should treat it as such . The term “chops” has negative connotations for me. The complexity of the link between the music-making parts of the anatomy and the brain deserves more serious attention. Sports medicine has contributed a great deal in the study of the attitudinal and physical aspects of building and accomplishing skills. I feel we should look there for support in our pursuit of new skills and concepts.

In his book The Brain, Richard Restak points out that, “When we remember things, all we need is one image to reference the entire memory. In sports this is what imaging is all about–creating vivid and accessible memories through physical and mental training and then using one shard of memory to reconstr uct the total movement in a flash:’ Instituting healthy playing habits works exactly the same way for the brass player. Skills a re developed at times of study and relaxation and then instituted by key words or concepts at performance time. Just as the diver accomplishes a perfect dive by thinking only the word “dive;’ the brass player accomplishes his feats by the cuing of his skills with key words or concepts.

My playing procedures have developed over a number of years. They are the result of a variety of instructions and their relevance to the music I’ve had to perform, and the circumstances under which I have had to perform it. These range from the traditional styles and repertoire to the endlessly varied expectations of contemporary composers.

We need to be prepared as well for the unpleasant and intimidating situation. Playing should have the feeling of ease; it shouldn’t be viewed as something that is accomplished with great effort, nor should it always seem easy as we develop it. We need to remember that it should be effort­ less and that our goal is to find this feeling of physical ease.

Copyright 1987 by The lnstrumentlist Company. Reprinted by permission from Tht l rt slnmwttalisl, August, 1987. n,, bulturntntalisl is published twe1ve times per year. One year sub­scriptions are iVa ila ble for $20 from t he lnstrum ntalist Company. 200 Northf i el d Road , Northfield, Illinois


John Swallow is widely regarded as one of the most important trombonists and teachers in the United States. He began his career after World War II with the Utah Symphony under Maurice Abravanel. Since that time he has developed a n!puluiion as a soloist, orchestml performer, chamber music player, teacher, and clinician.

As a member of the New York Brass Quintet for 2 5 years he participated in numerous premieres of contemporary brass repertory. He was also a member of Gunther Schuller’s Twentieth Century Innovations Ensemble and Arthur Weisberg’s Contem porary Chamber Ensemble. He is principal trombonist with the American Composer’s Orchestm and the New York City Ballet Orchestm.

John Swallow is professor of trombone at the Yale School of Music and recently retired as instructor of trombone and euphonium at the New England Conservatory. For the pas/three years he has served as a member of the Chamber Music arzd New Music Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. This past season he served as a panelist a/ both the Concert Artists Guild and Fischoff competitions.

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