by Peter Luff
Vice-President, International Horn Society
Dear fellow horn players,
When asked to give a short lesson on a topic that I think is very important, I immediately thought of embouchure stability. Having a stable, efficient embouchure is probably the most important contributing factor to a happy, consistent playing life. I tell my students … “you are only as good as your worst day” … by this, I mean that what we consider to be our worst playing day, must be acceptable to our colleagues and the audience. Therefore, consistency is of paramount importance.
I am a big fan of buzzing, both with and without the mouthpiece, and ensure my students do this as part of their practice routine. By tilting the mouthpiece down (pivoting whilst maintaining contact with the lower lip) and then away from the embouchure during the buzz (to a free buzz), a player can immediately feel which muscle groups are being employed to form the embouchure (usually by their activation in the absence of the mouthpiece). The muscles surrounding the mouthpiece (Orbicularis Oris) form the basis of your embouchure, and when formed correctly (firm corners, flat chin, alla Philip Farkas) will hold a good setup in place. These supporting muscles are naturally very strong, and when employed correctly will help to provide a solid platform to aid stamina. The key here is to develop an efficient default position for the lips so that less mouthpiece pressure is required for the production of the note, particularly in the high register.
We are all physiologically different and as such need to find a setup that works with our unique lip size and teeth/jaw position, but there are basic rules that must be adhered to. Firstly, your lips must act as a double reed would, working in synergy and vibrating against one another, not a single reed where the bottom lip folds over the bottom teeth leaving the top lip to do all of the work. Apart from the obvious visual indicators, a good setup will give you a bright, loud buzz on the mouthpiece, whereas a poor setup will produce a veiled, airy sound. Learning to free buzz, by employing the “mouthpiece tilting method” as discussed before, is an excellent means of getting the bottom lip to do its job. In the vast majority of cases I recommend two thirds of the mouthpiece on the top lip with the remaining one third on the bottom. This serves two purposes, it allows good transition between high and low registers using the same basic setup and provides a resonant, projecting sound.
The function of the mouthpiece of course is very important as it assists the buzz to provide stable vibration and a resonant tone quality across all registers, but anecdotal evidence (and my own experience) suggests that too much mouthpiece pressure impacts negatively on stamina and sound quality. To explain this further, it is widely thought that embouchure fatigue and damage is brought on by excessive mouthpiece pressure which limits blood flow. Without adequate blood flow to carry oxygen to the muscle, the lips will tire quickly leading to a feeling of embouchure weakness and collapse. I am by no means advocating zero mouthpiece pressure, as some pressure is required to provide a seal between the lips and the mouthpiece when producing a note, however I do support the use of “appropriate” amounts of pressure. This of course will vary from player to player, between registers, and dynamic extremes. The good news is, that with good technique and a mechanically efficient setup, excessive mouthpiece pressure can be minimised.
In order to help refine the mechanics of your embouchure, you can take this one step further by using the harmonics on the horn to help with some “no pressure” practice … For this exercise you will need a mirror, a nice firm chin and some patience! ... Stand In front of the mirror so you can observe your embouchure, keeping your lips in line with one another with your chin firm and pulling down (no smiling!) , and play a “C” major scale ascending and descending from the bottom of the stave for one octave. Now play the same scale with the mouthpiece barely touching the lips allowing as much air leakage as you like, in fact the more the better, as you are just barely allowing the horn to provide you with the harmonics. Then repeat the process, all the while slightly increasing the level of contact until the note has good clarity. You will probably notice that this is a lot less mouthpiece pressure than you would normally use to achieve the same result. In essence, the stronger outside muscles are working more efficiently to support the lip position, this is more desirable than using the mouthpiece to do the same job. This exercise, used in combination with your mouthpiece work and free buzzing will help to reinforce efficient, sustainable embouchure mechanics. As you get stronger, you will want to increase the range of the exercise.
And finally… Remember, what you hear when you play is very different for the objective listener. We are far more critical subjectively, because how we feel in regards to our embouchure, directly impacts on our interpretation of the sound. As every player knows, your playing can feel pretty average some days, but to your colleagues and others it will still sound fine. So long as you adhere to the tenants of good horn playing technique, such as good breathing and support, stable embouchure setup, good posture etc. combined with a consistent, efficient practice regime, you should be good to go! But above all else, remind yourself everyday why you love playing the horn and why you love music, and enjoy every moment of being a horn player.
Peter Luff is Vice President of the International Horn Society, Deputy Director Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, and Associate Principal Horn of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra