Most of the people reading this will already have developed a good embouchure or have been playing so long on a bad one that changing it would be a very painstaking and frustrating ordeal (although the benefits of change would probably turn out to be most worthwhile in the long run). The initial aim of this article, therefore, is to develop an understanding of the embouchure so that you will be able to deal with any problems as they may occur in a young player learning to play an instrument. Catching and correcting embouchure problems at an early stage can save many aspiring instrumentalists much frustration in future years.
What is a correct embouchure?
The term embouchure is used to define the setting up of the mouth area used to produce a sound on an instrument.
Because of many physical differences between players such as the shape of the teeth, jaw and lips, it is most difficult to assign one “correct embouchure” for all players. Simplistically speaking a desirable embouchure is formed by tightening the corners of the mouth while flattening the chin. It is not desirable to stretch the lips by smiling as this stretches the muscles so that they cannot be used to their maximum effectiveness, in order to affect the tone. Conversely, excessive pucker constricts the muscles and also affects the tone.
Care must be taken that the lower teeth are evenly aligned with the upper teeth with just a little separation between them. If this is not done the embouchure will not support the mouthpiece evenly, causing the instrument to point either excessively downward or upward.
To form a proper embouchure (example one), take a deep breath and exhale, letting the air escape only from the center of your lips. This area is known as the “aperture”. Pass your index finger back and forth in front of the air stream about one inch from your mouth. You should be able to hear when your finger contacts this air column. The air should come out straight, not pointing upward or downward.
Continue to do exercise one, but experiment with the size of the aperture. Form a large air stream and gradually make the aperture smaller, causing the air stream to get smaller and faster.
Adding the mouthpiece
Particular care must be given to the placement of the mouthpiece on the lips. Although, again because of physical considerations there will be exceptions to the ideal position, the mouthpiece should be placed on the center of the lips both vertically and horizontally (example one above). Our bodies are bilaterally symmetrical (the left side of our body is a duplicate of the right side), so that the muscles surrounding the embouchure will operate most efficiently when they are used equally. This will not happen if the mouthpiece is placed way off center. One side of the embouchure will be excessively strained while the other side will not be able to share the work load equally.
Another habit that will keep the muscles from performing effectively is allowing air pockets within the embouchure and cheeks. Such a habit will stretch out the muscles and make it much more difficult for them to do their job.
The following example shows a very common problem --- tucking the lower lip under the bottom one (example two). This creates only one vibrating surface (in this case the upper lip), affecting the tone. Also mouthpiece pressure will be applied unevenly, making endurance a major problem.
If the mouthpiece is excessively off center horizontally, restriction occurs in the vibration of one of the lips. In example six, the upper lip is being restricted.
Avoid at all costs changing the embouchure for different ranges. There should only be one embouchure, which should look the same in all registers and dynamic ranges.
The above information will, I hope, prove useful in diagnosing any defective embouchures. Once diagnosed the difficulty of changing the embouchure is directly proportional to the amount of time the bad embouchure has been employed, and the severity of the problem.
The best way to change is to start as a beginner with a proper embouchure. It will feel extremely uncomfortable at first. Range, endurance, and tone will probably be somewhat inferior. Don’t be discouraged. This is only natural, because new muscles that have been lying dormant will now be used and will have to be built up. The important thing is to start slowly and to practice for short periods of time. Don’t practice things that you could easily run through with your old embouchure. This approach will only frustrate you. Low melodies and easy slurring exercises will be most useful. From this you can gradually build up your range and practice time. You are progressing too quickly if your new embouchure keeps shifting back to the old one while you are playing.
It will require much discipline to practice in this way. However, eventually tone, range and endurance will return and far surpass their levels attained with the former embouchure.
If you believe you would benefit from an embouchure change, make very certain that such a change is necessary by consulting an expert first. The last thing we wish to happen is that people turn into embouchurial hypochondriacs.
Dizzy Gillespie (below), one of the best trumpet players of all time, has not needed to correct his embouchure. Please remember, though, that for someone to play this well with an incorrect embouchure is a rare exception to the rule. Warning: Do not try to make your cornet look like his trumpet!!
Many factors must be considered before you change, the most important of which are:
1) What goals do you wish to achieve as a player? A poorer embouchure might be able to help you reach your goal as a good first horn player in an average band, while a proper embouchure will help if wish to become a fine solo horn player.
2) How severe is your embouchure problem?
3) How much is the problem affecting your playing?
4) Is it physically possible to change your embouchure? A severe overbite or underbite or uneven front teeth might be the reason your embouchure is the way it is, and it may be the best one possible.
Making sure an embouchure is correct is extremely important. A good embouchure will ensure that the only limitation a player will have to face will be the amount of time he is able and willing to invest in his craft.
- written by Norman Garcia
Major Norman Garcia (picture at top) is a Canadian Salvationist currently serving as Corps Officer at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, alongside his wife Lois. He is known just as much for his humor as well as his musicianship. He served in The Canadian Staff Band for a number of years, as a soloist as well as a band member.