HBM – Embouchure

Forming the embouchure correctly is the fourth part of warming up.

Patrick J. Lynch; illustrator; C. Carl Jaffe; MD; cardiologist, Yale University Center for Advanced Instructional Media Medical Illustrations, 1987-2000. CCA 2.5

As you can see the muscles of the face are complex! We don’t need to know a lot about them, but it is important to have a basic understanding of how things are supposed to work.

“Embouchure” is a French word and is usually understood to mean the muscles of the face used to play a wind instrument. There is a second meaning to this word: mouthpiece. In French, the mouthpiece and the face are called “embouchure” and this is important: you cannot have a brass embouchure without a mouthpiece. Let me explain.

The brain sends the signal for the lips to buzz through the seventh cranial nerve, and it goes to the entire lip, regardless of the size of the mouthpiece. This is not much of a problem for tuba players – the lips are almost entirely covered by the mouthpiece. This is not true, however, for the other brass instruments, especially trumpet and the horn. We only want the tissue inside the mouthpiece to respond to messages from the brain.

This isolation is created by the “bite” of the mouthpiece, the point where the rim drops into the cup (indicated by the red arrow):

Adapted from a drawing by David Bolton – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1657970

The bite only allows the lip inside the mouthpiece to respond to the brain. The rest of the lip ignores the nerve impulse. A sharper bite on a mouthpiece improves this isolation, along with improving articulation clarity. A more rounded bite is more comfortable, makes slurring easier, but it does not do as well isolating the tissue inside the rim.

Because of this, free buzzing (buzzing without a mouthpiece) is not the same process as buzzing the mouthpiece or playing a brass instrument. [Some brass players advocate free buzzing as a means of developing embouchure strength. Perhaps there is some truth to that, but it cannot replace mouthpiece buzzing — more on that later.]

A mustache can interfere with isolating the lip. Trumpeters often trim their mustache so that the mouthpiece rests directly on the skin. Trombonists often end up shaving the entire upper lip since their mouthpiece is so much bigger that little is left of the mustache.

The Mind/Body Interface

Watch this video and imagine trying to consciously control your lips to make this happen.

We learn how to move the muscles through trial and error; the subconscious part of the mind moves the muscles, not the intellect. Embouchure muscle movements are much too subtle to be controlled by the part of the mind we use to think.

We need to discuss the proper functioning of the mind, which has two parts: the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. The proper role of the consciousness is to set the goal (walk to the store, play a musical passage in a certain way, etc.); the subconscious moves the muscles to make the goals happen. We learn how to run the body when we are very small children. I don’t believe any of us remember learning how to walk, which is a good thing. If we remembered what we did to walk, we would have to think about how to walk. That’s not what we do — we decide to walk and the subconscious takes care of the muscle movements without any instructions from the consciousness.

Most people remember learning to ride a bicycle. You don’t read a book, you think very little about how the muscles move – you get on the bike and try to stay upright. The subconscious is frantically trying to figure things out; little by little, it works through this and you get the “hang” or the “knack” of riding a bicycle. This is the natural way the brain and body interface: you decide what to do and the subconscious makes it happen.

Unfortunately, we’re a bit older when we learn to play an instrument. It’s more complicated than a bicycle, so we feel the need to understand all the steps required to play it. We trust our body implicitly in everything we do…except play an instrument. The consciousness tells the subconscious how to do its job, and that’s where we get into trouble. “Where does my tongue go? How do I move my lips?” Etc., etc. You need to read The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey — he explains this concept in great detail. It’s a terrific book for learning to play an instrument: every time he mentions “tennis,” substitute “trumpet” or whatever instrument you’re learning.

FYI, you cannot play by feel; the 7th cranial nerve sends instructions to the lips, and the 5th cranial nerve reports how it feels AFTER the lips react to the signal from the brain, so it’s too late to do any good.

How the Embouchure Works

The embouchure reacts to air and to pitch. Hearing a specific pitch in the brain determines the needed muscle tension and the size of the aperture (the opening in the lips, which is similar to the end of an oboe or a bassoon reed). Lip movements are controlled by two small sets of muscles controlling the lips and movement of the jaw.

  • The protractors pull the lips together to make high pitches.
  • The retractors pull the lips apart to produce low notes.

These muscles must coordinate; if they “fight” each other, it becomes very difficult to change the size of the aperture. The subconscious learns how to move these muscles and the jaw through trial and error.

The lips must have some firmness in order to vibrate. A violin string will not vibrate until there is enough tension added to the string by tightening the tuning peg. The firmness of the lips is accomplished by isometric tension – the “pucker” muscles pull inwards while the “smile” muscles pull outward. This creates tension, firming the lips. How much they are firmed depends on the note being played and the volume.

The embouchure affects every aspect of playing: tone, endurance, range, and flexibility. (Pretty much the same things as air!) Because of this, it is critical that the embouchure is formed correctly:

  • the corners in the correct place
  • the lips have a forward focus
  • the lips are firm

Let’s talk about how to achieve this.



Also changed by the position of the jaw (AH, EE) – lip slurs

Note:  Leak around mouthpiece = tired or corners stretched

Note:  Jacobs – beginners’ embouchures move more; motion decreases with improvement; do NOT stop movement to stop it; look in a mirror while practicing – tends to decrease motion; (cart before the horse: decrease movement to improve playing); Doc = statue, but Herseth and Smith showed motion in their face

BUT – cheeks do NOT puff out – can use a mirror to call attention to this; practically fixes itself by simply watching

5. NIGHTMARE – embouchure change in students who have played for a while (Gartz vs. Anderson); must watch for YEARS – (BRASS PLAYER’S FACE handout)

Mouthpiece sirens and melodies

Farkas/Neisler – change embouchure 5 min/new, rest old; add 5 minutes each day after

6. Teaching Embouchure

a. Mouthpiece placement – centered side to side, ½ and ½ for trumpet, 2/3 and 1/3 for all others (horn above fleshy mound); “bite of white” if possible – lip is different tissue than the muscles around it

Position can float slightly to accommodate teeth; not determined by nose!

The embouchure starts out flexible, so it is important to monitor that it stays correct. It “hardens” over time through use, making change DIFFICULT.

b. Lips need to be wet:

1. So mouthpiece can slide into position
2. Can’t keep dry during marching band or hot auditoriums
3. More correct production of high range
4. So lips don’t tear when pulling mouthpiece away – perhaps most important?

Leak and Seal – Warmup Part 3 – achieves proper embouchure in the simplest manner (Farkas) – stretch corners and feel teeth through lips; pucker and feel teeth through lips