Refining the New Embouchure

Jordan (who was first mentioned in the earlier post “First Sounds with the New Embouchure“) enjoyed a couple of breakthroughs in his last lesson.  He had been setting up his new embouchure consistently for a few weeks, but was still getting mostly a sputtering, airy sound, with some fluctuating between the “slots” of the horn’s overtone series.  To his credit, he was not reverting to his old, erupted set up, and instead of trying to make a sound, he was concentrating on making (the human part  of) the instrument that makes sound.

And so we began the detective work, looking for clues for the cause of the problem.  He first improved the “swing” of his air, but even with the better airflow the symptoms still remained.  Increasing the speed of the air any more would have led to an inefficient solution at best.  However, that increase in airspeed did give him a clue (which he noticed), as it magnified his tendency to squeeze the bottom lip up in response to the air.  That bottom squeeze is very common when players first begin to invert their lips, and is also one of the ways the body tries to keep the position together when the player begins to remove the mouthpiece pressure that has been relied upon in the past.  The remedy, and the better way to keep the lips in contact is to bring the top lip down, felt at the corners of the embouchure first.  This should begin with the act of relaxing the top lip, which also allows it (the reed) to vibrate more freely…aiding both the upper and lower register.  Less tension also means a darker, warmer sound.

There is a delicate balance of mouthpiece weight distribution that must be set and maintained in order for the embouchure to stabilize and function freely.  There must also be a balance between the elements of focus and flow for optimal sound pro-duction.  Jordan also noticed he was leaking air on the right side of his mouthpiece, which suggested an imbalance. He said the distribution of his mouthpiece weight was correctly favoring the bottom lip (many players’ weight favors the top lip as another poor solution for keeping that lip down, which inhibits its vibration and provokes the bottom lip to release).  Because Jordan could hold the “M” position very well when blowing air without the horn I knew his embouchure was not losing form because of any lack of embouchure strength, so we checked the distribution of the mouthpiece weight again, and found more weight at the center rather than the sides of the mouthpiece.  This upsets the balance by plugging the embouchure’s center, and provoking a release of the position, which led to the symptoms he was experiencing.

As Jordan experimented with the muscles below his corners he was able to alter the weight distribution so that his embouchure felt more contact with the sides of the mouthpiece rim, creating a cushion that the mouthpiece could then sit on.  That (along with the top/bottom weight distribution favoring the bottom lip) “protected” the center of the top lip.  There was an immediate and dramatic change in the sound quality.  It became very clear and focused, it was more efficiently responding to an even a smaller amount of air, and the pitch was completely stable.  Also, the matching inversion of the lips was retained, even though he was now playing in the staff, meaning he had removed excess tension (in the form of mouthpiece weight and muscular tension) from the embouchure’s center without losing its focus.   

Besides removing the excess tension, Jordan found a better, more controlled way to set his embouchure, which eliminated the body’s inferior knee jerk solutions, which then eliminated the symptomatic problems with sound production and quality.  There are three key components (which all happen simultaneously) to that embouchure set up, which has in more simple terms been described as the “M” formation.  Imagine a pair of scissors in front of the embouchure, where their center screws line up with the corners of the mouth (see my crude diagram above, and click on it for a larger view).  1) The top lip comes down, but the contact (not squeeze) is felt more at the corners, which leaves the center free, and the lips meeting midway between a 1/4″ teeth aperture (with the lower jaw slightly forward).  2) The bottom lip is “hugging” the bottom teeth (and not going over them into the mouth), inverting both lips equally, and increasing their ability to “catch” rather than “chase” the air.  The #2 arrows are implying this “hugging” action, not an upward motion (those bottom blades remain stationary).  3) the width of the lip aperture is decreased (the “scissor” action towards the center), which not only focuses the lip aperture, but keeps the center as the point of least resistance.  This narrowing of the lip aperture is a byproduct of actions #1 and #2, meaning the lips remain evenly aligned and inverted, and the corners stay at their natural width.  There is NO pooching or kissing action.  

There is a balance to this coordinated action as well, much like securing a wheel to a car with lug bolts.  Those bolts must be screwed down in a way that does not favor one over the other.  If only one lug bolt was screwed all the way down first the wheel would be askew and the other bolts would not be able to move into their positions.  If all of the bolts are not in place the wheel will wobble and be unsafe.  An alternating “star” or crisscross pattern of tightening the bolts (the practical alternative to the ideal yet impractical method of screwing down all the bolts simultaneously) must be followed to insure the best seal and best performance.

Jordan’s base of knowledge has increased substantially, in that he knows the details of the blueprint much better, and he also has a much better idea how well he is following that ideal, because his awareness has also improved, and he has been investing the time towards the realization of his goals.  Sounds a lot like the “Three Keys to Success”   to me. Great work, Jordan!

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