From the Mailbag:”What Can I Do About Mouthpiece Pressure?”

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K. asks:

I have been working with my horn teacher over the last few months on changing my embouchure. The problem I had in the past was I used too much upper lip pressure. I have been trying to change it, but no matter how hard or long I work at it (hours, days, weeks, etc) I cannot get anything over a second space A without putting extra pressure on my upper lip.

Any tips or ideas on how to avoid that?

To begin I must mention my own personal bias, that I am skeptical about obsessions with excessive mouthpiece pressure. I would assert that many – if not most – of these concerns are unnecessary.

In my own years of experience as a private teacher, I have only had a small handful of students that in my observation appeared to be using too much pressure. That being said – and without the benefit of seeing in-person what the exact issue is with the questioner above – the tips below are given in very broad and general terms.

The variables

Mouthpiece pressure is relative to a number of factors, including:

  • facial anatomy
  • mouthpiece cup and rim type
  • mouthpiece angle
  • embouchure ratio
  • air stream direction

With so many factors at play there is plenty of wiggle room for variation.

Speaking in absolutes about embouchure  – that there is only one way to form the lips – falls short of reality and it overlooks the vast differences and variations of human anatomy from person-to-person.

Along this line of thought:

…there is nothing cosmically metaphysical or subconscious about learning to play the horn. We are not born with a natural capability to play the horn, one that only needs to be brought to the surface by a caring and attentive guru.

Until animals start buzzing their lips in the jungle, I don’t buy the ‘natural’ approach that some teachers tout as a selling point – along with its abstract, pop-psychology terminology. While it might work for some students with the right mindset and technical accomplishment, this approach to teaching the horn has virtually no established pedagogy to rely on. It is up to the individual teacher in this case to determine the method.

Playing any musical instrument requires technical knowledge, and mental and physical skill. For some that requires breaking things down and analyzing it to see how it works and all fits together. The pursuit of this knowledge isn’t always about solving problems. Sometimes it is the pursuit of an answer – or just raw knowledge.

(More.)

For the purposes of offering guidance on mouthpiece pressure specifically, I will focus briefly on just four details of the embouchure: mouthpiece placement, air stream direction, mouthpiece angle and muscle tension.

High, medium or low placement?

First, it is particularly helpful to understand what your embouchure placement type is and what its tendencies are.

In this pursuit I reference David Wilken’s excellent video on embouchure basics. In this video, Mr. Wilken divides embouchure types into three broad categories based on where the mouthpiece is placed on the lips: high, medium or low.

Many – if not most – horn players fall in between the high and medium placements, with an embouchure ratio ranging roughly between 2/3 upper lip and 1/3 lower, to 3/4 upper lip and 1/4 lower.

Of course there are exceptions, and with the Southwest Horn Conference coming up this weekend, I am particularly interested in checking out Bruno Schneider’s medium-low placement embouchure.

In Mr. Wilken’s video, there is also a close-up example and discussion of a horn player with a low-placement embouchure setting.

Air stream direction

Referencing both Mr. Wilken’s video and Philip Farkas’ A Photo Study of 40 Virtuoso Horn Players’ Embouchures there are two basic types of air stream direction:

  • an upwards air stream or,
  • a downwards air stream.

According to Mr. Wilken’s video, air stream direction is directly connected to mouthpiece placement. Since most horn players use a high or medium placement, the typical air flow for horn players is downwards. For low placement players, the opposite is true – the stream is typically targeted upwards.

(As an aside, the antiquated notion of “blowing the air down the center of the mouthpiece” is somewhat of a fallacy. While it sounds good to utter this phrase out loud for motivational purposes, the truth is that this turn of phrase is technically a myth – one that needs to be busted.)

Meet the mouthpiece

From “Mouthpiece Pressure and other Tall Tales

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.

With enough muscle tension and support, the lips can handle mouthpiece pressure in most cases.

Mouthpiece angle

Related to air stream direction and mouthpiece placement is the angle of the mouthpiece in relation to the lips. Typically – not always – players with a medium or high mouthpiece setting angle their horns either straight onto the lips, or at a slight angle downwards.

The angle of the mouthpiece then, is directly connected to the amount of pressure on the top lip. In short – the higher the mouthpiece angle, the greater the pressure on the top lip (and vice versa).

Answering the question

So to answer the main question that began this article, making a conscious effort to reduce pressure on the top lip involves lowering the angle of the mouthpiece in relation to the lip surface.

For all the reasons given above, this effort – to lessen pressure on the upper lip – can backfire; it can be antithetical towards that specific embouchure type, mouthpiece placement and air stream.

To wrap it up in one, short sentence, I would honestly not worry too much about mouthpiece pressure.

My advice? Focus your energies on other issues.

That being said, there are always exceptions to the rule and this advice should not be construed as something chiseled in stone.

University of Horn Matters