Horn Pedagogy Week 4: Embouchure Overview


The embouchure is a big topic and one that will require not just reading but critical thinking to understand on any high level. And it is an evolving topic, our understanding of the embouchure has actually grown quite a bit in recent years.

How has it grown? One critical way to note this will be seen in 2016 and later updates to this course related to the recent (and ongoing) MRI studies. If you want to start out with a bit of a fresh perspective (and you should!), start here:

Before getting to readings from classic method books I would offer the following as well. Occasionally I have mentioned in this website a large book project. It has been through several drafts and honestly, I may never publish it but it has helped organize my thoughts at least. The text below is from the most recent draft of this book, and lays out a couple critical, needed pieces of the puzzle toward making the readings that follow make sense.

If you remember nothing else from this chapter remember this underlying point: neither of two major systems concerning formation of horn embouchure is right or wrong. Regardless of how expertly and convincingly your teachers may have presented their types of horn embouchure, at the extreme ends of the two possible systems only a limited number of players can achieve success on the horn. It is important to have a clear understanding of both systems and to realize that somewhere within the range of possible variants is where most hornists find success….

So, what exactly are these two systems that I speak of? You might guess from reading older sources that they might be “smiling” and “puckering.” Incorrect. Although many teachers caution at least in print against a smiling embouchure, the fact is that hardly any players actually smile excessively. Maybe it was a big problem among players back in the day, but my observation is that players don’t tend to smile too much because it does not work and they do not tend to pucker excessively either as it also does not work. There is a very different element of the geometry of the embouchure that defines the two systems.

To describe the different approaches I am going to use two terms: one system I will call the “square” system and the other the “downstream” system. Of the two, I believe many horn players think that they are aligned more toward the square system because Farkas was a big proponent of it in his publications. But, if most proponents of the square system could step back and see how they themselves have actually positioned their faces and jaws, they would notice that they as a group tend to play more toward the downstream system, which in reality is the more correct of the two. The term downstream is an accepted term used to describe this type of embouchure in other brass instruments. The term “upstream” is also used in other brass teaching, but it refers to a type of embouchure generated by playing 2/3 lower lip, an approach we do not often see in the horn world, especially among players who perform at a high level.

The more upper lip you have in the mouthpiece the more that the upper lip vibrates relative to the lower lip. High speed video of the embouchure in motion confirms that those vibrations are based on a flapping motion dominated by the upper lip. With the larger upper lip effectively hinged at the top, the motion of the lips directs the airstream downward. This stands contrary to one traditional understanding of the flow of air through the lips, which proposes that the air flows straight through the lips, which in reality could only occur with a true 50/50 setup which is very rarely seen in horn playing. The effect of the downward flow or deflection of the airstream is more pronounced the higher you are in the range of the instrument and is certainly driven not only by mouthpiece placement but also by jaw position.

Farkas laid out one approach to the embouchure but as you will see it was not the only one.

With that perspective established, we have a group of readings from the Hornmasters series.

For a bit more perspective, these two articles below introduce one more topic, that of an embouchure concept called the balanced embouchure.

This week we have one more required reading and a video to at least watch the first half of, found here:

[The image at right is from the video linked above.]

And while an officially an optional reading for students in the course (too many readings this week! Sorry), I would also offer this article for context on Farkas and brass pedagogy outside the horn world:

Embouchure remains a big topic, big enough to easily spend weeks on, but to leave with one final thought as we start the discussion, above all you want how you think of the embouchure to be rooted in physiological reality such as seen in the  video or the MRI studies, not in visualizations and one-size-fits-all concepts.

Continue to Week 5

This is week 4 of a fourteen week course in horn pedagogy. The introductory article is here, and the series is presented for the educational purposes of our readers. 

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