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.”