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Good Sound Begins With a Proper Embouchure

by James Ketch

The embouchure involves putting together everything we have – the mouthpiece, lips, the facial muscles, oral cavity and the air stream to produce a sound. When you’re talking about a correct embouchure, however, the most important consideration is: What does it sound like?

As a teacher, I am directly responsible for developing an embouchure with a young player. It may take me the first few lessons just to get a student to play a few notes while we work on getting the embouchure right. This is very important. The student has six days a week without your instruction, so you must provide them with a good foundation.

The ideal embouchure would be as follows: If you were to draw a picture of a face and a trumpet on a piece of paper, there would be perfectly equal distribution in all four quadrants. In many people, however, subtle variations may need to occur. For instance, I play off center because of the structure of my teeth. That’s why it can take weeks to get an embouchure started. Still, the first thing I say to a student is, “Let’s put the mouthpiece against the lip and center it. Bring it directly down from the nose.”

With a young student, I might go to a sound at this point, playing a note on the horn – probably a G – and asking them to reproduce it. Then I’ll switch to the low C, but the G must be first. It forces you to use your facial and cheek muscles. Then I take the mouthpiece out and ask the student to try to buzz the same pitch. If the embouchure is too loose, you get a fluffy, airy sound. With the lips stretched tight, you get a tight sound because the lips are fighting the air. The idea is to get the student into the habit of being his own teacher, and learning to ask, “How do I sound?”

An embouchure isn’t really an embouchure until it resists an air stream. It is in the resistance to that air stream that we will be able to produce a good tone and play loudly or softly – all the things we expect our embouchure to do for us. The goal of the embouchure is to vibrate, to change an air column into a vibrating air column. This becomes an excellent yardstick for mouthpiece placement. If you set it too low, the amount of tissue that vibrates is greatly reduced. You can experience that by putting your fingers against the red part of the lip and trying to make a buzzing sound.

In the formation of the embouchure, one of the more important aspects is the position of the lower jaw. Most of us have an overbite. The air stream comes up from the lungs, through to the lips, ready to enter the horn. Then the lower lip recedes and deflects the air stream down rather than straight through. I realize that the overbite is usually the natural position of the teeth, but brass players should develop an “at rest” position with the teeth aligned. You need to provide an even platform with the top lip directly over the bottom.

As far as the oral cavity is concerned, try to keep the tongue from impeding the air stream. I advocate a low tongue position – try saying “Aaaah” or “Oooh” – so that the air continues to the lips unimpeded.

There are greater numbers of trumpet players working on pedal tones and lip bends. Here’s a simple but demanding exercise: Start on G in the staff, slur down to F#, and then back up to G. Do this without changing the valve combination. Play whole notes at forte (with the metronome at 72 or so). Rest for the same amount of time you played. Then repeat. Then do F; then E; then Eb. The player is forced to move the lower jaw out and flatten the chin, and use all the muscles around the chin area. Of course, this is more calisthenics than it is music. Think of it as power lifting – you’re playing at loud dynamic levels, and you want fewer reps with greater weight.

Finally, most textbooks talk about the dual tension in the formation of the embouchure. Twenty or thirty years ago, players were taught to smile if they wanted to play higher. Now it’s a combination of half smile, half pucker, each keeping the other from dominating. That tension between the two will best respond to a sustained air stream. It’s difficult to go into the low register with a smile, and the pucker is an airy, fluffy sound. Al Rizzouti has an exercise in which he asks the player to buzz, in siren fashion, in a slow, chromatic glissando from G to G above to G below, with no break in the sound. Try that with a smile or with too much pucker. It’s almost impossible.

From the Beginning is an excerpt from Selected Trumpet Masterclasses, from the editors of Windplayer. This excerpt is included in Keynotes Magazine by permission of Windplayer Publications, Copies of Selected Trumpet Masterclasses (AV4751TR) may be obtained through your Conn-Selmer school music dealer.

James Ketch is currently Professor of Music and Chair at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he serves as Instructor of Trumpet and Director of Jazz Studies.