Mouthpiece Pressure and other Tall Tales


I have argued that when mixing vague religiosity, sports metaphors and loose technical knowledge into a brass teaching method, there can be hidden dangers. The end result can look more like science fiction than logical pedagogy.

Occasionally too a popular teaching anecdote – such as paralysis by analysis – loses its original meaning as it gets mixed into our conversations about brass technique. Context becomes less clear as it passes from person to person, generation to generation, and in some circles this phrase has become somewhat of a rallying cry to denounce critical thinking in brass techniques.

Along this line of thought is “Mouthpiece Pressure Myths” by David Wilken. In this article David presents some fascinating highlights from research published in 1986 from the New Scientist.

In terms of the big picture I think it illustrates one thing quite clearly. Brass players are fairly flawed in their ability to gauge and interpret mouthpiece pressure.

Going further, David Wilken suggests that this

…is yet another reminder that I need to be careful about proclaiming judgments that I “know” to be true. Even experts in their fields are guilty of accepting certain false statements as true simply because they are commonly believed.

The results are fascinating and I highly suggest reading David’s article for an overview.

Mouthpiece pressure

On this particular topic, John Ericson has written a few articles of interest:

I echo John’s sentiments and encourage readers not familiar with these articles to give them a read.

I would only add that in my experiences with teaching large band programs at elementary and middle schools, I saw a number of beginning and intermediate brass students using intense pressure – without putting any facial muscle support behind it – in order to get high notes.

Points and counterpoints

A teacher of mine once said that heavy mouthpiece pressure was nothing to be concerned about as long as one “meets the mouthpiece.”

In illustrating this he would make two fists with his hands, touch them together at the knuckles and then push them against one another. With his hands, he was illustrating the concept that force and counter-force can balance one another.

A different teacher advised that I only use enough pressure to make a hermetic seal with the rim of the mouthpiece. At the time it made great sense and I made progress.

Another teacher suggested that I “blow the mouthpiece off the face.”

Yet another said that I should always buzz intensely loud on the mouthpiece; another suggested that this was harmful and something to be avoided.

All of this advice – in its time and place – meant something to me in my life as a horn player.

The rim as isolator

These days the pendulum swings in another direction.

My attention is focused on the mouthpiece rim as an isolator. In this role, I would argue that it helps to lock-down the vibrating area of the embouchure and separate it from the non-vibrating, supporting musculature outside of the mouthpiece.

With high and loud notes in particular, something much more than an airtight seal is required.

This is of course speculation based purely on personal observation. So, when conveying a concept like this to another person it generally comes with the dutiful and honest disclaimer of it works for me, and it has worked for some of my students in varying degrees.

Tell it on a mountain

Anecdotes and stories can without a doubt broaden the mind and inspire changes. They have purpose and value in music education.

As a classroom teacher for example, I maintained a vast arsenal of jokes, stories and activities. Sometimes the right story at the right time can ignite a spark inside of a student’s head.

However under the auspices of instrumental pedagogy and brass methods it is a good idea to back up the stories with sound technical knowledge, or at the very least with working hypotheses that lead towards tangible solutions and goals.


Beyond the horn-related humor there was an underlying theme to my horn brain cartoon posted a few days ago. With even the strongest and greatest minds in the world there is no immunity from stray thoughts and delusion.

This is something too that the research published in the New Scientist really shows.

As humans we are all somewhat flawed.

University of Horn Matters