Lip tension + lip arrangement + mouthpiece placement + support + pressure = output.
The enemy of a good attack is a flabby, unarranged lip. The embouchure has to be good enough to turn on loud and full with control and also soft with control. If the embouchure can’t do those things, practicing becomes more detrimental than helpful. Building on no foundation gets one nowhere. Test early in each day’s practice to be sure the facial arrangement can do the demands of secure loud and soft over the range. Only this way is one building security.
Perhaps a better approach than saying that the embouchure produces a loud note is the right one is to play softly (or loudly) but with little air and good support and insist on immediate response.
The separate notes should anticipate the slur problem. Portamento tonguing is an excellent way and possibly the best way to practice everything. It keeps the embouchure just right.
One of the main reasons for my kind of embouchure (white on white with firm held corners) is that it gives a great feeling of security, of knowing what’s going to come out.
The shape the lips assume and the location of the mouthpiece on them is only the first stage. What counts, as far as the lips are concerned, is the directional effort made by lips and cheek muscles even during notes, like a hug. A good “hug” keeps up a slight pressure. The lips are different in the center, at the corners, and in the cheeks.
The “O” circumference of the mouthpiece is small and yet it must cover three things: two lips and a hole that becomes larger for low notes. There will obviously be too much lip for the mouthpiece, so we must get rid of some. We can get rid of the bottom half of the lower lip by playing einsetzen. Or we can get rid of the top half of the lower lip by covering the red part of the lower lip with the upper lip.
The lower lip turns in slightly towards the teeth. When the bottom teeth are lowered to enlarge the mouth cavity for low notes, the lower lip finds itself unsupported by the teeth and it falls back slightly into the mouth. This leaves the large hole required for low notes; it makes the mouth cavity larger as required for low notes. And because the lower lip has hidden most of itself in the mouth, it enables both lips and the large hole to fit within the rim of the mouthpiece.
As the jaw is raised for higher notes (to create a smaller mouth cavity) the lower lip must be rolled back out of the mouth or run the risk of being bitten. When the jaw has been raised again and the mouth cavity is smaller (and the lower lip is again all in front of the lower teeth), then probably again the lip will be too much for the mouthpiece.
At this point, the lower lip can (if it’s large and needs to) make itself smaller by rolling itself inward in front of the lower teeth. This again gets rid of some lower lip and enables us to cover both lips with the mouthpiece.
The idea is to bring in from the sides some of the flesh and muscle to a point where it acts as a supporter (a backstop) to the vibrating center flesh. When the side flesh gets used to staying in that supporting position, when it gets stronger and more sure of its meaning and importance of the sounds of the sounds produced, only then will the center begin to vibrate as freely as it should in an unpressured (mouthpiece) manner.
Collapsed lips means ignoring the side flesh. The side flesh and muscles have a slightly different feeling for each note, a different stress or pull on different muscles or parts of the same muscles.
The surest way of getting the mouthpiece to the mouth exactly as needed is to hold it in the hand. Putting it in the horn and holding both ends of the horn means a great loss of control over the placement and positioning. Holding the mouthpiece with the hand only can help one to find the right angle, position of mouthpiece on lips, body position, and head position. The mouthpiece should feel as though it is supported primarily by the lower lip but that it nevertheless covers a good deal of upper lip. Think of the mouthpiece needing to grab just the right piece of flesh.
The whites of the lips should be compressed horizontally. White on white is best if the structure of the lips allows. Also a feeling of dryness where the mouthpiece meets the white part of the lips is desirable. This way the red part of the lips can relax and allow the supported air to flow through. The movement of the air flowing through the red of the lips will produce the amount of moisture needed. Too much moisture on the mouthpiece rim will cause the mouthpiece to move around too much. If the mouthpiece is always in motion, the muscles of the face will always be in a constant struggle trying to figure out where to go. A stable working facial position is one where the air is leading the way and the lips are almost a secondary factor. This concept will help develop reliable endurance, accuracy, and a feeling of being in control of various playing situations.
Although it is true that the lip arrangement can be thought of as a function of the air (that is the act of blowing air), this cannot imply that any lip arrangement can be “brought to health” (corrected) merely by attempting to blow a good air stream.It is well worth it to spend a whole practice session doing little more than getting the lips ready to play: light pressure and free flow of air.
The correct lip and cheek tension is something that is difficult to teach. One reason is that the varying degrees of tension soon become so familiar as to be almost unnoticeable. At such a point, a critically listening ear is the prime way of correctly judging lip tension.
The player who is using the correct lip tension soon forgets he is doing just that and can concentrate on blowing only. This same player in a teaching situation can overlook telling students about lip tension. It is easy to forget about and overlook something that has become automatic.
With the beginner or with one who is too relaxed, it may help to try to get louder on a note without using more air. A recipe could be:
- Air support
- Tense the lips and face except at the center hole where the air is coming out
- Blow far like a bird flying over the music stand
- Listen hard and strive hard for pitch and volume consistency
To avoid over-relaxing or over-changing the lips and cheek muscles when going from note to note, the player should concentrate on the change in the size of the mouth cavity and attempt to keep muscle tension as before. It is logical to decide that the change from one note to another (especially for an interval larger than a third) is the result of a change in lips. Though this does take place, the change is very slight and does not mean a change in tension.
The danger lies in that if one decides to change notes by changing lips, then one will go too far and in fact collapse the embouchure. This must be avoided because loss of control comes with an over-relaxed lip. Commit the lips to a shape (neither over-relaxed nor over-tensed) and leave them that way, ready but quietly waiting. They are then activated by the supported thrust of the air stream.
Two contrasting feelings: One, the lips are very relaxed, grabbed and held by the mouthpiece, and vibrating as the air is expelled through them. Two, the lips are more actively involved in the concept of blowing the air, more intelligently changing and shaping to direct the air. Even then, the buzz of the lips alone can reflect the different degrees of lip muscle participation.
The corner control should be maintained. We make both the mouth cavity small and the lips small for higher notes. Going toward the low is a feeling of the lower lip coming upward (and inward) and of the lower teeth going downward. Coming down can be helped if the corners don’t over-relax. If they do, the lips immediately follow suit and find no need of rolling up the lower lip over the dropping lower teeth.
Study not only the lip feeling and tension during each note but also the feeling between each note. In other words, don’t collapse and lose watchful control between. Practicing any other way is too careless and too wasteful of time. Try to make each note uninfluenced by the others near it or far. This may be best accomplished not by taking the horn away from the lips quite so much, but by passing between each note with the mouthpiece on, and carefully arranging the next note.
Rolling the lips out of the mouthpiece for lower notes seems a bit dangerous because it feels like letting go, like a cat able to climb a tree but unable to come back down. But it can be carefully practiced until it is done with control and great security. The muscles surrounding the vibrating hole must be regularly strengthened and made responsive and flexible to the commands. This is the chief purpose of practice and warm-up.
Mouthpiece practice by itself may be as valuable as it is because the teeth and lip adjustments must be made on it if the corners don’t collapse. When playing on the horn, the horn sounds even if the lips over-relax, in which case the lips are forced to make their changes inside the mouthpiece.
Central to the whole question of how to learn to play a brass instrument is the problem of pressure of the mouthpiece on the lips. Why is it bad? Is some pressure necessary? How can one change from much to less pressure? What are its harmful effects?
And yet this central problem is usually skirted, approached indirectly and in an indefinite manner. Students are told “don’t press,” but a fantastic fortissimo should be possible, a test of a good, correct lip use (embouchure) with corners are locked.
Compressed air is an important concept. We must understand:
- Why the air must be compressed
- The ways in which to compress the air
This understanding should be thought of as being almost a prerequisite to discussion of all the other factors in the playing process; namely, lips, attack, legato, and mouthpiece pressure. On teaching a beginner, one might therefore attempt to initiate the student into feeling the sensations of correct compression; i.e., glottal resistance, which does not even use the instrument or mouthpiece at all. Compression can also be achieved by means of lip and tongue resistance (especially the back of the tongue) to the flow of air.
Compression of some sort is always used by every player, beginner or advanced. No one plays totally without it; no one plays with totally flaccid, uncompressed air. Such normal air is simply not capable of delivering power, of acting as a form of energy.
Compression achieved by means of lip resistance does not immediately give the player the feeling of having gained control of the situation. To start with, he literally feels that his air (at the mouth) is transformed into a usable controllable thing, which he can release at will, and with some control of its speed and its volume. If the lips’ resistance efforts are carried just a bit further, another benefit is achieved; i.e., the player produces a “buzz.” This greatly increases the player’s feeling that he has gained more control because the buzz is immediately usable as a means of making a sound on the instrument. The buzzing system has no more an advocate than myself.
The main hurdle to overcome at the outset (when teaching a relaxed lip, glottal compression approach) is to get the student to proceed without using the familiar and reassuring lip and tongue means of achieving compression.
The buzzing system of playing uses the lips to do two jobs at the same time.
- As a means of achieving air compression
- As vibrators to produce sound that is capable of changing pitches
The relaxed lip approach uses the lips only as vibrators.
Practicing should include timed breaths and entrances on short and long notes to encourage deep, full breathing. Intentional glottal constriction during the long tones so as to ensure that the full length of the note is nourished and supported by compressed air. One technique for doing this is to pulsate rhythmically with the glottis.
The air should be kept in a state of mild compression by the action of the muscles (which can apply pressure to force air from the lungs) and by the action of the glottis (which can resist and control the flow of air).
The lips should be relaxed; they should start relaxed and remain relaxed in all registers and when moving from one note to another as well as for holding any sustained note or notes. This rule applies equally to loud notes, soft notes, to crescendo and diminuendo, and to legato and non- legato. In short, the lips should stay relaxed for all playing. The lips act as a reed, passive and pliant, following rather than leading.
The air should be released at the glottis. Changes in the amount of air, and in the speed of air are also essentially controlled by the glottis. Using the syllable “K” formed at the back of the tongue is essential to this approach. The air itself should be kept in a state of mild compression, which results on the one hand from the action of muscles that apply pressure to force the air from the lungs and on the other hand from the action of the glottis, which can resist the release and flow of the air. Without this mild compression, there can be no control of the air.
The tongue has a subordinate but necessary role in the release of air that is used for attacks and non-legato notes. That role is somewhat difficult to describe explicitly.
Summary of relaxed lips approach:
- Lips do not tighten or loosen to produce different notes.
- Mouthpiece pressure is necessary.
- Tongue release of air replaced by glottal releases.
- Jaw movements are minimal.
- Glottis functions as compressor of air.
Using buzzed lips:
- Lips tightened to resist air, change pitches, and create compression.
- Minimum mouthpiece pressure.
- Tongue assumes important role as compressor and releaser of air.
- Jaw changes highly likely.
- Glottis hardly used; so called “open throat.”
It is obviously more important that a player be doing the correct things physically than that he is doing a certain routine or etude that one can only wonder at how often this fact is ignored. Another way of saying it is that it is more important how we play than what we play.