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Tongue, Teeth and Lips: Embouchure for Brass Instruments
Embouchure is the term used to describe using the lips and mouth to play brass and wind instruments. Originating from the French language, embouchure enables full musical tone without straining mouth muscles. Executed correctly, embouchure is activated by free-flowing release of breath. When learning how to play a brass instrument, it is necessary to adapt depending on individual jaw and lip shape and size, as well as structure of the teeth. Once you learn how to adjust your technique for your unique anatomy, your embouchure should function correctly.
The Anatomy of Air
Breathing happens automatically. Surrounded by ribs, the lungs have a limit for expansion horizontally. A transverse muscle plate separates the lungs from the diaphragm immediately below. Thus, the lungs can expand downward when necessary. Learning how to consciously control the diaphragm when expelling air can enable a musician to improve tones. It’s also helpful to control the amount of air and the speed with which it’s expelled. Relaxing the neck muscles and larynx also helps when playing an instrument. With regular practice and attention to these anatomical details, musicians can notice marked improvement in skills.
Playing Brass Instruments
Brass instruments are the only ones that involve the player generating the tones. Originating in the diaphragm, air is expelled in a controlled fashion to produce tones. The lips are also intricately involved. Sound is produced by “buzzing” the lips into the instrument mouthpiece. To adjust the pitch, it’s just a matter of changing the level of muscular contraction in the lips. Embouchure is an involved process of tightening cheek and jaw muscles, adjusting tongue position, and expelling air in a controlled fashion.
Philip Farkas was a gifted brass musician who shared his expertise regarding embouchure. According to Farkas, brass musicians should direct the air stream straight down the shank of the brass mouthpiece. He also recommended that musicians protrude the lower jaw to make both the upper and lower teeth align. The direction of the air stream has been found to be a personalized process, as some musicians prefer to direct it downstream, while others direct it upstream.
Another brass embouchure technique involves the musician moving the lips and mouthpiece along the teeth, both upward and downward. Pitch can go up and down by moving the lips and mouthpiece upward or downward slightly. Every performer’s unique anatomical features will determine the degree of motion. Mouthpiece pressure toward the lips is another factor that affects pitch. Some instructors believe that musicians should develop embouchure naturally as they play. Others think that brass musicians should develop embouchure by engaging in drills and coordination exercises.
The Farkas technique involves placing the lips into a puckered smile position as if trying to cool soup. Placing the lips in the position needed to say the letter “M” will hold the skin under the lower lip taut, not overlapping or rolling in or out. With the mouth corners in place, the tongue can arch as needed. Farkas instructed that the mouthpiece should be placed two-thirds on the upper lip and one-third on the lower lip for the French horn. For trumpets and cornets, place the mouthpiece two-thirds on the lower lip and one-third on the upper lip. When playing the lower brass instruments, more latitude was permissible. Farkas also instructed musicians to moisten the outside of the lips, position them to form the embouchure, and then position the mouthpiece. Optimally, there should be a gap of one-third inch between the teeth to allow air to flow.
Every beginning musician needs to learn embouchure to produce musical tones. To begin, place the inside rim of the mouthpiece at the top of the upper lip. Tip the mouthpiece upward toward the nose and form the lips in the position to say the letter “M.” Tip the mouthpiece back downward and hold the embouchure in place. Breathe through the nose at this point. With the lips held tautly and together, blow out to create a vibration. Once the embouchure is formed and comfortable, it’s possible to breathe through the mouth. If problems persist, see a dentist or other health care professional for assistance.
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