The sound on brass instruments starts with the vibration of the lips, which is commonly referred to as buzzing. The mouthpiece serves to focus the buzz and transfer the vibration into the instrument itself. The body of the instrument continues to focus the buzz and amplify its volume. Anything with a mouthpiece, body of tubing, and a flair bell can fundamentally serve as a brass instrument. While the details differ from brass instrument to brass instrument the underlying fundamentals of how tone is produced remain the same:
- Firmer lips and smaller oral cavity create a higher pitch and a brighter tone.
- More relaxed lips and more open oral cavity create a lower pitch and a darker tone.
The other variable that impacts brass instrument pitch and tone is air. Air can be thought of in many different ways, including quantity and speed.
- More air or faster air passing through the aperture results in a higher pitch and a fuller tone.
- Less air or slower air passing through the aperture results in a lower pitch and a softer tone.
This returns to the principle addressed on the first page of this text:
MORE AIR, LESS TENSION
For all brass instruments, there needs to be ongoing attention to reducing tension. Most importantly, the embouchure should be as relaxed as possible, with control of the embouchure being derived primarily from the corners of the mouth. To aid in reducing tension, students should be regularly reminded to keep the jaw and oral cavity relaxed (think the consonant “Ahhhh”), the throat should remain open (focus on yawn breathing), and the arms and torso should be relaxed. Importantly, the mouthpiece should be set upon the embouchure and not pushed into the lip.
X-ray cineflourography provides a way to see inside the mouth as brass musicians play. In this video clip from the 1968 dissertation by Joseph A. Meidt, you can see how the tongue adjusts the amount of space in the oral cavity and how the tip of the tongue is used for articulation.
Similarly, using a mouthpiece with a camera attached inside, you can see how the embouchure vibrates differently in different registers. The aperture becomes smaller in high registers and at soft dynamics, and broader in low registers and fuller dynamics.
While different instructors feel differently about the role of mouthpiece buzzing (particularly for larger brass instruments), the position of this text is that mouthpiece work is imperative to developing and maintaining good fundamentals of brass playing.
The mouthpiece is an important tool for brass instruction for a few reasons:
- The mouthpiece is simple. For young players, it also removes the complexity of handling and manipulating the instrument itself.
- The mouthpiece is diagnostic. The mouthpiece presents the purest presentation of the tone that is being created by the buzzing of the lips. By removing the rest of the instrument that serves to clarify brass tone, you can diagnose tone quality and consistency issues much more readily.
- The mouthpiece is task-independent. Mouthpiece exercises are removed from literature being studied, thereby giving more focus to fundamentals of good performance.
- The mouthpiece is portable. By developing a range of exercises for the mouthpiece, brass players can more easily prepare themselves for performance through fundamentals of good warm up and warm down. It is quiet enough to be played in a hotel room, small enough to be pulled out in a car commute, and quick enough to allow for first thing in the morning warm up and end of day warm down.
To set the embouchure for the initial sound, follow the following steps:
- Say the syllable, “Hmmmmpf,” starting with the mouth open and closing the lips just to the point of having them touch.
- With the shank held between the thumb and first finger, set the mouthpiece gently on the lips.
- Relax the corners of the mouth to breath in with a full breath. (For the first time, students can breathe through their nose to make sure that the embouchure does not shift, but this should not be made a habit as it fails to fully fill the lungs.)
- While articulating “Pffff” or thinking about spitting peas, blow steady, full air through the aperture of the lips.
- Misplaced mouthpiece position—The mouthpiece should gently rest on the center of the embouchure. If the mouthpiece is not centered or if it is pushed heavily into the lips, a buzz may not freely occur with air leaking around the edges of the embouchure.
- Over-engagement of the center of the embouchure—Most of the control for brass playing takes place from the corners of the mouth. Students will tend to pucker or pinch the center of their embouchure, making it so that air cannot move freely through the embouchure. An effective way to address this is to have students envision a balloon. When the corners of the balloon are pulled, the balloon squeals. If the same balloon was pinched in the middle, it would produce no sound. Students can place one finger on each corner of the mouth and practice pulling the embouchure from the corners of the mouth while keeping the center soft and fleshy.
- Weak control of the embouchure—Students will often buff their cheeks or have no control of their embouchure, leading to air leaking around the mouthpiece. Reinforce the same balloon exercise listed above to encourage control from the corners of the mouth.
- Lack of air support—Students tend to underestimate how much air is required for effective tone control. If they breathe as they do normally, their sound will be very weak and inconsistent. This is particularly true for students on low brass instruments. Exercises such as “Paper Airplane” and “Santa” will help to develop the required air support.
The mouthpiece can be used for several different purposes as a pedagogical tool. Since the mouthpiece lacks the body of the brass instrument to refine the tone quality, it is very sensitive to small differences in embouchure, air, and technique. Because of this sensitivity, the mouthpiece allows the student to hear the impact of small changes and develop greater awareness of both audio and kinesthetic feedback. The following is a suggested sequence of activities that build embouchure strength and flexibility.
For all brass players and particularly beginner students, it is critically important that there is as much time off the face as there is playing. Mouthpiece work for brass players can be viewed in a similar way to weight training for athletes; it simultaneously builds strength and endurance. And just like weight training, too much-too fast can cause excessive fatigue, development of bad habits, or injury. This sequence can be used as a regular part of the warm up cycle for musicians at all levels.
4 on, 4 off-On a comfortable pitch, sustain a mouthpiece buzz for 4 counts and rest for 4 counts. Continue to repeat this activity through multiple cycles. When playing long tones, the student should pay attention to consistency of both pitch and tone with a full-bodied buzz at all times. Additionally, attention should be given to clean attacks and releases (especially once articulation is taught).
Long tone-Similar to 4 on, 4 off, students will sustain a single comfortable pitch on the mouthpiece. The goal with long tones is to extend the duration of the sustain at a soft dynamic. This exercise promotes muscle and air control and endurance. After each long tone, the student should take the mouthpiece off the face to rest for the same amount of time that the mouthpiece was on this face. Similar to 4 on, 4 off, attention should be given to consistency of pitch and tone with a vivacious buzz at all times.
Mouthpiece Sirens-As air is blown more quickly, the corners of the embouchure naturally firm up, pulling the center of the embouchure tighter. When performing sirens, the student should start at a low note and use gradually faster air to allow the pitch to glissando up. They should then slow down the air, causing the pitch to drop back to the start pitch. The focus in this activity is on pitch control and maintain a full bodied buzz at all times. The center of the embouchure should remain soft and fleshy, and the aperture should remain the same size, allowing air to change the pitch.
Melody playing-Since the mouthpiece is a fully chromatic brass instrument, all pitches can be played on it. Students should select simple melodies of limited range to play on the mouthpiece. Initially, the melodies should be made of up of steps and slow rhythms to facilitate easier technical execution, but gradually can become more complex. This activity also makes a great group exercise as students then need to match pitch and timbre with other students. Attention should be given to making sure that the pitches are immediately centered and that tone is consistent and full voiced.
Inconsistent pitch and/or tone-Instability in pitch or tone is typically caused by one of two issues. First, the embouchure can lack stability. Watch for frequent movement in the lower jaw or constant fidgeting with the embouchure. This is particularly the case early in sustained playing as students try to make the mouthpiece “fit” right on their embouchure. Second, air support can be inconsistent. Students can play with huffs of air rather than a steady air stream or squirm while they play causing the air flow from lungs to the embouchure to be inconsistent. Long tones are important exercises for these students with a focus on maintaining steady pitch and tone. Watching themselves in a mirror can help as well as they can visually see additional movement that may inhibit smooth sound.
Weak buzz (or no buzz)-The sound when buzzing on the mouthpiece should be a rich sound full of many overtones. When playing with under-supported air, the mouthpiece will sound, but the buzz will be fuzzy and lack richness. This is caused by only one lip vibrating or a very weak vibration from both lips. This can also occur if students heavily press the mouthpiece into one lip (typically the bottom lip), causing only one lip to fully buzz. Breathing exercises are critical for this student (especially “Sizzle” and “Santa”) to ensure that they have enough air on their exhale to support a full sound. Limiting pressure and keeping a soft fleshy cushion in the middle the of the embouchure also helps to allow the air to interact with the lips.
Leaking air-Many students will experience air leaking around the sides of the mouthpiece. This can be indicative of either overly relaxed corners or pinching in the middle of the embouchure (or often times both). “Sirens” are a good exercise for developing corner strength while paying attention to keeping the center of the lips soft and cushioned.
Experimentation with the Mouthpiece
This section is derived from the work of Laura Hicken at Towson University.
For students first learning how to play brass instruments, establishing clear understanding of how the instrument produces sound in relationship to embouchure and air manipulation can be difficult. The concept of correctness can also create issues, as students can inherently feel that making mistakes is not permissible.
By bringing intentional experimentation into the beginning lesson, students can experience the ways that they can alter tone and pitch while also establishing what relaxed embouchure and open breath support feels like. When doing experimentation, students can take themselves to extremes that help them become more aware of how tension and lack of control feel, thereby better enabling them to develop habits for healthy playing and proper tone. It also develops kinesthetic awareness as they play that will be used as they mature as players to control pitch and timbre.
While these activities can be done on the full instruments, the differences in tone and pitch production are more apparent on the mouthpiece alone.
|Variable||How to Manipulate||Effect on Tone/Pitch|
|Vertical Mouthpiece Placement||Move up or down millimeters at a time||Changes the clarity of the buzz/tone|
|Horizontal Mouthpiece Placement||Move left or right millimeters at a time||Changes the clarity of the buzz/tone|
|Mouthpiece Angle||Angle the shank of the mouthpiece (not your head) up or down millimeters at a time||Changes the clarity of the buzz/tone|
|Air Direction||Using your lips, angle the air up or down||Changes the clarity of the buzz/tone
Can change the pitch (Angling air DOWN makes pitch go up. Angling air UP makes pitch go up)
|Air Speed||Speed your air stream up (cold air) or slow it down (warm air)||Changes the clarity of the buzz/tone
Can change the tone itself (too much fast air=blasty/harsh sounds; too little air=weak/airy sounds)
Can change the pitch (Speeding air up makes the pitch go up/Slowing the air down makes the pitch go down)
|Firmness of Corners of the Lips||Tense or loosen the corners of your lips (Reminder that the center of your lips still need to vibrate)||Changes the clarity of the buzz/tone
Can change the pitch (Firmer corners make the pitch go up. Looser corners are the pitch go down)
|Lip Firmness||Make your lips thinner/flatter (by pulling them toward your teeth) or fuller/puffier (by pushing your corners forward)||Changes the clarity of the buzz/tone|
|Aperture Size||Make the hole between your lips bigger or smaller||Changes the clarity of the buzz/tone
Can change the pitch (Smaller aperture makes the pitch go up. Bigger aperture makes the pitch go down.)
|Jaw/Teeth Openness||Open or close your teeth millimeters at a time||Changes the clarity of the buzz/tone
Can change the pitch (Closer teeth/Closed jaw makes the pitch go up. Open teeth/Open jaw makes the pitch go down)
|Tongue Position||Raise (like you’re saying “eeee”) or lower (like you’re saying “oooo”) the back of your tongue||Changes the clarity of the buzz/tone
Can change the pitch (Higher tongue position makes the pitch go up. Lower tongue position makes the pitch go down.)