Breaking the Embouchure

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A topic I recently promised to return to and expand upon was that of breaking the embouchure. It is another of those hot topics of horn playing. There are two overall trains of thought on this in the horn playing community. I am not going to quote it all out today but Frøydis Ree Wekre in Thoughts on Playing the Horn Well has a very good discussion on this general topic and presents very apt names for each approach. One approach is the “poker-face-concept” and the other is the “rubber-face-concept.”

As for me, as I noted in a comment to a recent article I find that low horn embouchure set ups can be quite individualistic but dropping the jaw is a very common element of the picture as is jaw movement in general. This movement is in common practice referred to as “the break.” What seems to not work for most advanced players is an approach to low range production that includes the lips being loose with the jaw in the same position in the low range as it was in the mid and high range. Usually the set up of this type will sound fine above written middle C but descending from there the tone will get smaller and the low range may totally fade out around written low C. In response to this problem many players employ a break of some sort which may be flexible or fixed at a particular pitch (commonly written middle C), perhaps incorporating multiple flexible/fixed breaks to obtain this more open and relatively firm low embouchure that allows power in the low range.

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At this point I would like to move to “Exhibit A,” the above video. These X-Ray videos of trumpet and horn players have been on the Internet for a few years now and this particular one was just featured in an article by David Wilken which he titled “X-Ray Videos of Brass Players.” As I had been planning an article on the break his article was quite timely.

Before turning to his comments on the video which relate to the horn in the lower range, I was curious, what is the actual source of these videos? With a bit of online research I found that they are part of the Ph.D. dissertation of Joseph A. Meidt, A Cinefluorographic Investigation of Oral Adjustments for Various Aspects of Brass Instrument Performance (University of Iowa, 1967). The beginning of an article that summarizes this research may be found here.

On this particular video Wilken commented,

The horn player is up first. Today it’s generally acknowledged that the level of the tongue arch should change according to the register being played so that the higher the pitch the closer the tongue position will be as if saying “ee” and the lower the closer to “oh.” Curiously, this isn’t so apparent watching the horn player. Instead, he seems to be achieving a similar shaping of the air stream inside the oral cavity by changing the position of the jaw. While this is encouraged by some brass players (drop the jaw to descend), I don’t think this is as efficient as keeping the jaw more or less the same distance (it shouldn’t be static, but the up/down motion should probably be minimized). Notice how the horn player’s lower teeth will move below the lower edge of the mouthpiece rim for the very low notes. I feel that this results in an unstable embouchure formation and makes for an inconsistent embouchure feel overall as the support structure behind the mouthpiece and lips is constantly changing. Listening closely to the quality of sound in the low register, the tone is different in the low register. I prefer the more focused quality the horn player gets when he has his jaw positioned so that the lower teeth support the lower end of the mouthpiece rim.

As to me, I will focus today on the break range. Quite a bit of jaw movement is visible in the video and I would simply comment that

  • the jaw movement looks exactly like what I perceive mine to be with the teeth going below the lower edge of the mouthpiece for the lowest notes,
  • it feels pretty stable to me this way, but it has been my normal approach to the low range for years and years hammered out with many repetitions,
  • a firm lower lip is a key to making this work, this is what supports the embouchure and prevents collapse, and
  • the tone quality may change a bit but certainly less so than if the jaw did not drop at all.

Again, this is a huge topic and one that begins to border on being a religious discussion in the horn world. There are multiple approaches to the low range of the horn out there and some strong opinions among horn teachers but solutions will be individualized. If you have low range problems, a very common complaint, think about the jaw motion seen in the video above as it is in fact typical of players who adopt the rubber face approach, such as myself. Wilken in his commentary (please check his entire article) is more aligned with what Wekre describes as the poker face approach. I will let Wekre, speaking of the rubber face approach, have the final word for today, as she describes how a lot of horn players ultimately feel about their low range.

A quote from Dale Clevenger, principal horn of the Chicago Symphony, illustrates this more pragmatic view: “Just do what you have to do.”

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