To Buzz or Not to Buzz

The practice of buzzing the lips (with just the mouthpiece, a mouthpiece visualizer, with just the mouthpiece and lead pipe, or “free buzzing” without the mouthpiece) has both its advocates and critics, with great players standing on opposite sides of the fence, often defending their viewpoints with the same fervor as seen in religious or political debates.  This can be quite confusing to a player looking for some direction!  Before passing judgement I think it’s healthy to question and at least consider any approach touted to improve one’s playing.  And if something works we should have a good idea of why it works, for if we understand why (or why it doesn’t work) then we are increasing our body of knowledge and sharpening our insight.  My thoughts here are meant not to convert you to my way of thinking, but to stimulate your own thinking. Don’t just take my word for it…instead, consider these ideas, try them out, and then decide for yourself.

One of my greatest objections when it comes to any playing exercise (whether it be buzzing, long tones, slurs, scales, tonguing, etc.) is that they are too often practiced without knowing their objective or purpose, and that these exercises are executed without being aware of the best technique and form to use.  Students who are told to buzz are usually not given enough guidance on how to buzz, but instead are instructed what to buzz (a note, a scale or slur, a melody, etc.).  Asking for such control without proper position and technique is a recipe for poor fundamentals and bad habits.

Think of a saxophone or clarinet player. Their job of sound production is already easier because many more of the needed parts are already supplied.  Even so, they must take special care in aligning their reed to the facing of the mouthpiece, and then maintaining that alignment as they tighten the ligature in order to hold the entire assembly in place.  I believe most trumpet players do not set their lips with the same degree of precision.  Because of this, these players will most often produce a buzz by either squeezing their lips together or letting them erupt out, or by using various combinations of squeezing and erupting.  The “squeezers” tend to also constrict their throat and buzz with a lot of tension in their body. The “erupters” lose embouchure focus and produce the buzz with flabby lips.  Either way, with all of the attention turned to the buzz, the airflow can suffer and the embouchure position can actually move further away from the ideal.

While the body may be somewhat intuitive about how to do something, its knee jerk solutions rarely find the most efficient way.  What’s interesting though, is that squeezing is the body’s attempt to improve the focus of the embouchure, and erupting is its way of achieving the element of flow while buzzing.  What we should be consciously looking for is a more relaxed and efficient way of achieving and balancing the focus and flow in our warmup.  If we can do this, then we have assembled the needed parts of our embouchure and breathing system, warmed up the correct muscles, and set the stage for good music making.

Proponents of buzzing often use the analogy of a batter warming up with two bats, or an athlete using ankle weights during their training.  The body must do the same motions with added resistance, so when that extra weight is removed the motions are so much easier.  Greg, (one of my students who competes regularly in several sports) quoted some research done on batters using this kind of warmup.  Although the batters enjoyed a greater ease of motion when returning to a single bat, the timing of their swing suffered.  I think this comparison relates to the trumpet player who buzzes.  After buzzing a note, a slur, etc., it may be easier to play that note or slur on the horn afterwards, but that should be expected since adding the horn will increase the efficiency of sound production. However, if the fundamentals haven’t improved during the buzzing then the time could have been better spent.

Although a sound can be produced on the instrument with the technique learned from buzzing, other research has proven that buzzing is not even necessary.  The great teacher Bill Adam believed that if the lips are set properly, one should not expect sound until the player had not only placed the mouthpiece to the embouchure, but had also attached the horn to the mouthpiece.  The closest he gets to buzzing is an exercise where the main tuning slide is removed and only the mouthpiece and lead pipe are played (see below).   An article, “Playing Without Buzzing:  Fact or Fiction?” in the June 2001 issue of the International Trumpet Guild Journal cited Adam’s concept, and also described how the buzz is produced at the lips after the standing (air) pressure wave in the horn is instantaneously reflected back from the bell.  In fact, this had been proven in the physics department at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida the year before using a mechanical trumpet player (with no agenda).

I had not heard of any of this until reading that article, and yet had already been moving in that direction since my studies with Roy Stevens in New York years ago.  Roy had an exercise he called “Fighting Air,” that was done without the horn and involved no buzzing.  Briefly described, the teeth are set 1/4″ apart, with the lower jaw just slightly ahead of the top teeth (thereby aligning the lips in a vertical plane and helping distribute the weight of the mouthpiece to favor the bottom lip).  The lips are set at their natural width (no smile or pucker) in the middle of that 1/4″ teeth aperture with a simple, gentle “M” formation, evenly inverted from corner to corner, and using only a minimum amount of tension below the corners.  Next the air is added, blowing with the image of aiming the airstream up (to aid the slightly forward jaw position and to keep the muscles below the corners engaged).  The result is very much like what happens to water after passing through a nozzle at the end of a garden hose; the airstream becomes much more focused.  No squeezing is involved, rather the lips are just held in the closer proximity of the starting position (like the reed player’s reed and facing), which still allows for the flow of air.  See the earlier post on “Lip Alignment” for more details.

Words can have an impact on our perception, mental image and physical actions, and so my first attempts at Fighting Air were filled with tension.  I believed the unwanted motion of the embouchure that occurred when I blew was due to the force of the air and the lack of embouchure strength.  I eventually realized that it was my anticipation of the air (and grabbing the wrong muscles) that was the greater cause, and that if I held that formation in a more relaxed manner with the same muscles that made it (correctly) it was far easier to keep my embouchure stable, calm and focused (see the post on Taking the “Next Step”).  This approach is much more akin to Aikido, where the master does not resist the opposing force, but instead redirects it…using that energy for a different purpose.  After more reflection, Focusing Air, or Shaping Air seemed to be much better monikers for this exercise.

An interesting fact was that after practicing Fighting/Focusing Air, not only did my playing improve, so did my buzzing.  As I became more meticulous in setting up the initial Focusing Air starting position, staying relaxed, and then learning to hold the position more carefully as the air was added and then accelerated, aspects of performance like sound quality, range and endurance continued to improve.  I realized the reasons for my success were similar to why a top flight trumpet plays so much better than lesser equipment.  The master craftsmen (like Cliff Blackburn, shown above) take great care and pride in what they do, and they are working off of a superior blueprint as well.  By shifting my mental focus to making a better component of the instrument that contributes to making the sound (my human embouchure) rather than just trying to make a sound I was able to make another leap forward in my playing.  Isn’t that what a trumpet maker does?  They are not trying to play the instrument while they are building it, but instead concentrate on precisely making and assembling each part.

Over the years, every student of mine has improved with Focusing Air, and in much more dramatic fashion than with buzzing.  Students have no trouble making the conversion to braces when they know how to Focus Air, with some even having remarkable success. Focusing Air also makes it easier to see how the embouchure is reacting to air, and to rejuvenate tired chops (some say that buzzing for five minutes is the equivalent of playing for thirty minutes, and that a free buzz pitch will produce a note an octave higher when adding the horn, so it is not a good way to refresh the embouchure muscles).  A player can even try Focusing Air during a rehearsal break without disturbing anyone, or alternate with it when practicing a difficult passage of music (see previous posts on Weightless Practice and the Toy Trumpet analogy).

Beginners are often taught to buzz their mouthpiece when first learning to play (I mention beginners here, mainly because they more easily demonstrate the pitfalls associated with buzzing).  While this practice may make it easier to initially get the lips vibrating (or more likely, flabbing), it leaves the student with a compromised formation that can create more problems than it solves. Click on the picture on the left for a larger view and observe some problems in their beginning stages.  You can see that the lower jaw is slightly receded and the bottom lip has begun to tuck under the top lip.  The top lip has already begun to erupt out.  The mouthpiece placement is high (this is another subject that is greatly debated) and my guess (influenced by these observations) is that more of the pressure is on the top lip, which encourages the lower jaw to stay receded and the bottom lip to erupt.  Although the beginner will have a feel for making sound, it will most likely be a beginning trumpet player’s sound, and probably near the lower part of the instrument’s range.  While the new player may be “ready” to proceed to the band method book, there will be sound, range and endurance problems commonly associated with first year players.  Also, the arms are receiving no opportunity to practice the proper placement of the mouthpiece on the embouchure.

Starting the “beginner” (or any player new to this approach) with the “M” position and Focusing Air produces entirely different results.  Without the need to make a sound at first, their attention can be focused on these more fundamental steps, which they can therefore do with more success.  Then, when the horn is first added there is still no urgency to make sound, but rather the priority is to maintain the “M” position while continuing to Focus Air (see the post on Taking the “Next Step”).  The first notes that do play can be surprising…most often there is a greater ease in playing, a clearer,  fuller, (“non-beginner”) sound, usually near the top of the staff (which is closer to the middle of the trumpet’s range).  This strictness of form may sound a little demanding and dry for a young player looking to play as soon as possible, but even my youngest students (in the first grade) can  follow these directions and achieve rewarding results.  For them it’s quite obvious how much easier this way of playing is, and they are excited to hear a much better sound and have an improved range.  After that, they don’t want to return to the “other” way of playing.

The challenges inherent with this approach are related to breath control (which is something most players need to work on anyway), and can be addressed separately (see the post, “Breathing is like a Bowling Swing”).  With the Focusing Air position more of the “slots” of the instrument’s overtone series are available (compared to other beginners who are playing on what is essentially a low note formation), and so it may take a little longer to recognize all of the pitches they are playing.  Also, the lower notes may at first be harder to start in correct form, but as the player learns to release the tension rather than the position the low register will play, and with a much better sound. This process is much easier to learn than trying to play higher notes on a low register position (it can’t be done efficiently or correctly), which is what most players start their careers with.  To take Focusing Air into the realm of sound production, the landing of the mouthpiece on the embouchure, the proper (mouthpiece) weight distribution and seal must also be addressed with care (see the earlier post,  “Refining the New Embouchure.”).

Some say that the feedback effect lessens in the extreme upper register, so the ability to free buzz is needed, but I believe more results can be had by refining the starting position and weight distribution, and maintaining the relaxation and balance in the entire playing system while ascending.  Most problems with range (in either direction) originate well in advance of the ceiling (or basement) limits.  For those that advocate buzzing scales and melodies on the mouthpiece alone, the skill set necessary to do this well (with good intonation and a full resonant sound) can be developed instead by singing the same material (which is much more analogous to playing) and with Weightless Practice.  This way the same benefits can be achieved without developing the bad habits that can occur with mouthpiece buzzing.  There are great players who advocate buzzing (like Bobby Shew, on the left), and who buzz with a much higher degree of focus and flow than most players can achieve.  By clicking on his picture for a larger view you can see he has the ideal lower jaw position (slightly forward) and a mouthpiece placed 2/3 on the bottom lip.  Also (thanks to the clear plastic mouthpiece), you can see a very small lip aperture.  Practicing buzzing (without knowledge of this formation) rarely brings about the kind of results he can demonstrate. Experience has shown me it’s easier to learn this position by taking the time to make it (without the horn first), then hold it, and then continue to maintain it while practicing the Focusing Air exercise.

Bill Adam was an advocate for leadpipe buzzing, where one “plays” with the tuning slide removed from the main instrument (the picture on the right is flipped horizontally, but still works).  There is enough length with the leadpipe to make the standing air pressure wave and its accompanying feedback loop, so the sound is more efficiently produced than with other kinds of buzzing.  As with normal playing, the arms are required to properly “land” the instrument on the embouchure with the correct placement, horn angle and weight distribution, and for the best results the same rules of Focusing Air should still apply. Because of the short length of tubing the first note that will play with the correct embouchure and airflow is most often the fundamental pitch of that modified instrument, our first space F.  But again, for this to have any value as an exercise, the focus of the embouchure and the flow of the air must be correct.  The next note of this instrument’s slightly skewed overtone series is the G above the staff, but there is a lot of “wiggle room” with the pitch, making it easier to consciously bend notes (or be able to produce sound and a variety of pitches with poor fundamentals).  What I like about this exercise is that the arms have the same exact role and position as normal playing, and that good fundamentals are needed in order to play the F and G with a full, centered and resonant leadpipe sound.  Again, what’s more important here is how you are playing. The better your form and air, the more you will get out of leadpipe buzzing.

In spite of the case I have made against buzzing, I still do occasionally have a student try to free buzz in correct form during a lesson, making sure the buzz begins with a free flowing, relaxed airstream, and a closer proximity between the lips…focusing towards the center, not closing at the center.  Nothing fancy… waiting to see what pitch will play in form and then sustaining it.  Being able to see how the embouchure muscles are trying to increase their focus (correctly or incorrectly), or what is happening to the breathing can be very enlightening to them. Even if they are not successful in getting the lips to buzz, often the memory of that brief moment of gentle contact (without squeezing the lips together) is enough to bring in the sound when the horn is added.  Also, if a student is too tight in the center of their embouchure and consequently cannot get a note to speak in the lower register with the horn in place they may briefly buzz into the mouthpiece.  The small amount of eruption that may occur helps loosen that excess tension, and then when returning to the correct formation the notes begin to play.  A brief buzz can also reveal the buzz point (or buzz points, which are common with a center squeeze).

There is much more that could be said about this topic, but I believe there is enough here to help you become more conscious when you practice.  The more aware you become, the more that is revealed, and the more dynamic and productive your practice sessions will be.  Remember, Knowledge, Awareness and Time are the “Three Keys to Success.”

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10 Responses to To Buzz or Not to Buzz

  1. Brian Hayes says:

    Raphael Mendez and Doc Severinsen both advocated mouthpiece buzzing. It is said Doc will buzz on his mouthpiece for up to 2 hours before a performance.

    Mendez made it a mandatory practice for any of his beginning students to play on only the mouthpiece for a full month before touching the horn.

    You cover many good points in your article.

    My only comment is it’s definitely horses for courses – there is no ONE way to play the trumpet well.

    I doubt the world will ever see two finer trumpet players than Raphael Mendez and Doc Severinsen – neither were ‘Stevens’ style players…. which just points again to so many different ways to achieve greatness.

    Dizzy Gillespie broke every embochure rule in the book – but at his best, also broke new ground in the history of what can be achieved on a trumpet.

    • bobgillis says:

      Hi Brian,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to share your ideas. I find they represent much of the collective thought coming from proponents of buzzing, and from those who don’t fully understand Roy Stevens. I would whole heartedly agree with your statement, that there is definitely more than one way to play the horn well. The evidence is there, fully supported by great players on either side of a variety of fences…all with their own ideas on mouthpiece buzzing, mouthpiece placement, jaw position, pedal tones, breathing, etc. We could each present examples of great players who support our own views, but at the end of the day, how do we (or our students) find our own way to personal success amidst so many, often seemingly conflicting opinions coming from those we admire?

      Here are some important questions I feel we should know the answers to. Why does a method (like buzzing) work for some players, and not for others? Are there other (and easier) ways to achieve those benefits? Are there certain fundamentals that all successful players share in common?…and would there be ways for the great players to improve even more? How well do we understand the reasons for our own limitations of range, endurance, flexibility, sound quality, etc., and how clear are we as to the best path to successfully overcome those limitations?

      Roy Stevens didn’t invent a “style,” (just as Newton didn’t invent gravity), but I believe that he examined, understood, and could convey the underlying physics in greater detail than any other teacher I have known or investigated. His book only scratched the surface (there was even more presented in his teaching studio), and yet it contains much more enlightened information then any other text I have read. Whether they have heard of Roy or not, great players (like Severinson and Mendez) adhere to more of the physical laws Roy has described than the average player. Dizzy did not “break all of the rules”…his great successes were achieved because much of his approach was aligned with solid fundamentals. It was where he deviated (in the extreme) from the Ideal that produced his trademark look (eventually leading to much more response problems in his later years). He was a great example of why we must be careful of what we try to emulate in our heroes.

      Every day (and for quite a few years now) I see solid evidence to support the ideas that Roy shared with the world. Anyone from beginner to pro can show marked, predictable improvement when they better align themselves with his “blueprint.” There may be more than one way to play, but every player is subject to the same physical laws. I’m not trying to convert anyone who is satisfied with their level of playing, but if we want to improve, we will have a better chance of success the more we understand how things work.

      Best regards,
      Bob

  2. Steve J says:

    Hi Bob! It has been interesting reading your articles. I attended Berklee on a trumpet scholarship in the early 80’s, played for a few more years then entered the business world, Fast forward 25 years, and I am playing again. However, now it seems like my lower jaw recedes and the lower lip rolls in over my lower teeth when ascending, which limits my range to an e or f above high c. When I try to push my jaw forward the sound is just terrible, Any suggestions?

    • bobgillis says:

      Hi Steve,

      It really helped to hear your description of what’s happening as you ascend, which are all classic symptoms that show the body trying to adjust to an imbalance that most likely began with the original weight distribution of the mouthpiece. Most players place the mouthpiece in a way that immediately compromises their embouchure…with the weight of the mouthpiece favoring the top and middle of the lips. Since the majority of the vibration occurs at that point (center of top lip), that vibration will be stopped, or at least inhibited to some degree. The body will immediately sense this and then instantaneously react with knee jerk corrective measures, like receding the jaw, and opening the lip aperture in various ways to try and get the lip aperture unplugged and the air flowing more freely. Those reactive measures are usually overdone, so now the mouthpiece pressure will increase, and the body will tighten up in a misguided attempt at regaining focus, causing another wave of instant reactions to correct what is now a greater version of the original problem.

      Players don’t usually notice the problem until it is more obvious…like at the top of their range, but it’s origin can be traced all the way back to that initial set up…if you are aware and know what you’re looking for. The problem is easiest to solve before it begins. When you tried to correct your jaw position you most likely only added to the resistance, which would cause the lips to freak out even more. When you make a correction like that, the amount of mouthpiece pressure must at first start at the very minimum level, with the weight distribution corrected as well. Trying to fix symptoms like the receding jaw or rolling lower lip will yield poor results. It is the cause that must be addressed.

      I would set your embouchure first, while looking in the mirror…checking jaw position, matching “M” inversion between the lips, centered lip line between a 1/4″ teeth aperture, and a small point of least resistance at or near the center (I’ve described this in more detail in the blog’s four part “Landing series”). If everything looks good I try blowing the air gently (still without the horn and with the mirror), to see if you can maintain the formation. If you cannot, then I’ll bet that the mouthpiece pressure will be needed to some degree, which will only add to the problems. If you are successful, I would then try some very careful “landings” with the mouthpiece, adhering to the rules of weight distribution very carefully. I wouldn’t even try to make a note play, but instead just blow and maintain the balance until the body can remain balanced, focused and relaxed. The notes will play when everything is in position and the air is flowing…if not, something was missed. Even if you can’t get a sound at first the body will begin to gravitate more to this way of playing, which should have a positive impact on your performing (even when everything is not perfect).

      One can make music and have relative success performing when the fundamentals are not fully in place, but eventually we realize that something is amiss. Scores of great players have discovered this even after they were well known in their field, and decided to address those problems head on. If they saw the wisdom in that course of action, the rest of us should consider it is well. I hope that helps!

  3. Robert John says:

    Bob
    Thank you for this very thoughtful and well written blog.

    I am on day three of ” fighting air” with some very encouraging results already realized on some challenging pic trumpet parts.

    You have a gift for clear communication.

    I look forward to spending more time reading here.

    I also am planning, thanks to reading your blog, on ordering the Roy Stevens embouchure book on Amazon.

    Sincerely
    Robert John
    Greater Boston, MA

    • bobgillis says:

      Hi Robert,

      I was happy to hear that you enjoyed the article, and that you are already seeing some good results! I wish you all of the best, especially with those pic parts!

      Take care,

      Bob

  4. I would love to see a video demo of focusing air.

    • bobgillis says:

      Someday, Russ…I’ll add it to the long list of things I wished there was time for. There’s not much to see though. Ideally the lips stay in the “Gentle M” position, remaining calm yet focused at the center, as the unstoppable momentum of the airspeed’s quality changes in support of the musical demands…neither squeezing shut or releasing to the shape of “ooh.”

  5. Bob, that’s my picture up there! Cropped from an old youtube video it seems. Ha! That was years ago now. Great article, it turns out I don’t actually buzz the lead pipe anymore, but some of my students do with very good results. Thanks for sharing your ideas! -Estela Aragon, http://www.musicfitacademy.com

    • bobgillis says:

      Hi Estela! What a wonderful surprise to hear from you! It was also great to see your website, and learn how you continue to make a life for yourself in music. Bravo! Bob

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