The many slow-motion films and photo stills of brass player embouchures that have appeared online in the past few years illustrate for us the tremendous value in looking inside the mouthpiece to see what is really going on.
Thanks to people like David Wilken we have a wide variety of embouchure videos to watch and study online.
I only wish that there were more French horn embouchure videos to be studied. I remain convinced that horn players do some unique things in order to negotiate the full range of the instrument, its conical shape and moreover, the unique shape of the typical French horn mouthpiece when compared to other brass mouthpieces.
Without the benefit of a scientific studio equipped with state-of-the-art video equipment, lip buzz study at home for most brass players translates into working with an embouchure visualizer and a mirror.
When using an embouchure visualizer to buzz, the goals are very simple at first: watch and observe.
Ask yourself very basic questions such as:
- Does my airstream go up or down?
- What does my upper/lower lip ratio and placement look like?
- What does my buzz sound like?
I personally believe that a strong correlation exists between an efficient lip buzz and a good tone, however the actual sound that this ideal buzz makes can vary from person-to-person.
A few candid tips
An exposed lip buzz is raw and therefore reflects the unique anatomy and setup of that player. There really is no uniform, Holy Grail of buzz-tone-quality or technique to aim for. Just find out what you are really doing inside the mouthpiece and explore simple ways to make it sound, look or perform better.
Some people may not be able to buzz many notes – or none – at first. I would include myself in this camp. My range at first was no bigger than a perfect fifth.
It might take some time to figure it out. Start with only a few minutes and a few notes. Be patient and persistent. Build it up over time. Using the sounding electronic pitches on a tuner as reference tones – the tonic or dominant in a scale – can help to keep you in line and in tune.
In pursuit of that buzzy sweet spot, air attacks and nose-breathing can simplify and concentrate the process. Breathe through the nose and hold/freeze the embouchure formation in place while gently blowing a slow succession of well-spaced notes into place.
Since there is no horn involved, feel free to improvise and blur the lines. Myself, I am a big fan of slow glissando and bending exercises, similar to these.
Finding that sweet spot should be a primary goal.
Getting the hang of it
Once lip buzzing becomes more manageable, deeper questions – the good, bad and ugly – may rise to the surface:
- How does my embouchure change over a range of notes?
- Does this change sound smooth and fluid?
- Do my lips roll or curl?
- How does it look when comparing the muscles inside and outside the visualizer rim?
- Is my lip buzzing matching what I am doing in the mouthpiece and vice-versa?
For people prone to over-thinking, extreme caution should be taken towards getting lost in the woods. A good mindset to aim for is to remain objective yet dispassionate, without getting too conclusive or judgmental. This being said, I think that it is important for all horn players to at least touch on questions like these from time-to-time. Reflection is a good thing.
Matching the buzz
For myself, the final bullet point listed above has been the most productive exploration.
The closer my embouchure-form practice matches – all the way from lip buzzing, to the mouthpiece and then to the horn – the better and easier things seem to get. The embouchure and air control gained through this concentrated study has cascaded into stronger chops, more confidence and better performances.
Making a visualizer
The visualizer pictured here is a homemade device made with a plastic coffee bean scoop, a mouthpiece rim, a serrated blade and some medium-grade sandpaper.
- Place the mouthpiece rim on the cone-end of the coffee bean scoop.
- Draw a line below the rim.
- With a serrated blade, carefully saw and make the cut.
- With sandpaper, incrementally even out and fine-tune the scoop’s cut and fit for the rim.
There are a few things that I like about this cone-shaped visualizer over the traditional visualizer that has only a rim.
- The flared cone focuses the field of vision towards the inside of the mouthpiece.
- The cone makes the buzz a little louder.
- The cone offers an alternative gripping method.
- Gripping the cone itself – like a mouthpiece – allows for more evenly distributed mouthpiece pressure.
One technique I use is to hold my free hand over the open end, play a sustained note, then slowly remove the hand to reveal what is going on inside.
The purpose of this peek-a-boo exercise is to get a good-sounding buzz first, then reveal the form behind it – in that order. For myself, this method helps to keep the horse before the cart.
A nice byproduct of this technique too is that the closed end of the scoop adds resistance. This helps to make lip buzzing a little easier and with the warm, moist air circulating inside the closed visualizer it feels much more like a mouthpiece on the embouchure.
What are you experiences or thoughts on embouchure visualizers?