From the Files: Mouthpiece Pressure in Horn Playing

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With this article I begin a new series of articles for Horn Matters featuring quotes from print articles from not that long ago really. It is striking though how if it is not on the Internet it seems like it does not exist anymore; people just don’t dig around in back issues.

One resource to use to find those articles is the Brass Bibliography by Mark Fasman. Published in 1990, inside you will find listings of well over 6,000 publications (articles and books) related to brass instruments! It is a must use reference resource for the brass researcher.

As comprehensive as the Brass Bibliography is, the fact is that some articles fell through the cracks. One example will be the first article I would like to highlight in this series. It was published in the Brass Bulletin, a magazine published in three languages which ceased publication in 2003. There is no date on my copy of the article, which I inherited in files from my predecessor at ASU Ralph Lockwood, but with a bit of searching I was able to determine it was published in issue No. 40 in 1982. It is still available as a back issue, in fact.

bb040The article, “Über den Anpressdruck des Mundstückes auf die Lippen des Hornbläsers” (mouthpiece pressure in horn playing) is one very much deserving of highlighting. The article begins,

In the autumn of 1977, when I started to study horn at music college in Augsburg, a number of rumors were circulating about “miracle horn players” (particularly in the United States) who were said to be able to play without any mouthpiece pressure…. My teacher at the time, Georg Schmiedt from Augsburg, always said he could not believe this and that every players needed a certain amount of pressure, at least enough to provide a seal between the mouthpiece and lips.

What Buerger did was make a device that fit between the horn and the mouthpiece that measured mouthpiece pressure. The concluding observations tell the tale.

When I started this work, I expected to come up with measurements which would constitute a terrible warning along the lines of “good player – little pressure; bad player – heavy pressure.” This is just not the case. On the contrary I tested very good, indeed first class horn players who pressed their mouthpieces very hard against their lips, at least in the octave up to high C. On the other hand many half-formed players got by with very little pressure.

More detailed measurements are in the article but all of the players tested used some mouthpiece pressure and all also used more pressure in relation to louder volumes and also to playing in the higher range. In particular note this observation in relation to the low register.

There is a point in the horn compass referred to (as with singers) as the “break.” On the horn this generally lies around G below the stave. The note speaks badly in F and FF because it is the transition from the middle to the lower register. Faultless articulation here requires the lower jaw to be pushed well forward and increased mouthpiece pressure on the lower lip is the consequence. This can be seen clearly in several curves where this G receives more pressure than the C above it.

This article is worth searching out in full. There are many gems out there, and it is my hope every few weeks to dig in the files and pull out another to highlight.

University of Horn Matters