An aircraft’s landing is one of the most critical stages of its flight. The airspeed is usually too slow and the proximity of the ground too close to make any major adjustments, and bad weather conditions can only add to the potential dangers. “Landing” the mouthpiece on the embouchure is just as critical for a trumpet player, yet that act does not receive the same kind of attention that pilots give to their landings. Because of this lack of oversight, trumpeters can unknowingly cause structural problems that are the underlying cause of many of the common limitations players experience.
Trumpet players and mouthpiece makers talk about how wide or narrow, or how flat, round or sharp the contact area of the rim is, and the performance characteristics associated with those variations. That is not the scope of this post. Here I’m discussing something even more basic: the way in which the mouthpiece makes contact with the embouchure, and where it should touch for optimum performance. A pilot’s landing skill is not a random act, but is acquired through careful training. In the same way a trumpeter must learn the precise skills for “landing” his mouthpiece. And just like a pilot wants an ideal landing strip, it’s important for the trumpeter to have the best kind of a surface to interface with that flat portion of the mouthpiece rim. And what is that ideal surface? Just put your mouthpiece rim down on any flat surface and you’ll see it pointing straight up, perpendicular with the plane of the resting surface, and with no wobble, since it’s weight is equally distributed around its rim. There are no high points or pockets which would break that even contact with the rim. This would be the ideal surface for the mouthpiece to rest on, but does anyone have a face that flat?
Try bringing the horn up to your embouchure in the same way you do when playing, only STOP as soon as you feel the mouthpiece first make first contact with the embouchure. What I mean by first contact is the moment you feel the slightest touch of the mouthpiece on your lip(s). By stopping at that point you reveal the approach angle at which you are bringing in the horn, and where the point of greatest resistance to air and vibration will be. For most players, the mouthpiece will touch the top lip first, somewhere near the center (or possibly at the location of a protruding tooth). And why is this? It’s what most players do instinctively for control…to keep the top lip down below the top teeth (and exposed to air), and to keep the lips in contact with each other (in an attempt to control the size of the lip aperture). When mouthpiece placement is unconscious, the top lip/teeth become the natural “choice,” for the reasons above, and because the top lip is a much more stable platform than the moveable lower jaw. Also, because most people have overbites, the lower jaw’s state of rest position is naturally receded, which will leave the top lip more exposed to the initial mouthpiece placement. And finally, many players (especially beginners) just don’t bring their arms up high enough, and instead drop their head to meet the horn without any thought as to how the mouthpiece weight is being distributed.
The problem at this point is that now the top lip will carry the majority of the mouthpiece pressure, for the mouthpiece will usually continue to come in at that same vector (increasing the mouthpiece pressure at that point of first contact) until there is contact with the embouchure all around the rim. The resultant seal is necessary for sound and control, but the unbalanced way in which that seal is achieved sets up some inherent, predictable problems. Since the top lip is the reed (and the bottom lip is the facing), if it is not allowed to freely vibrate it will seek to escape that position which has it pinned. Actions like sneering, stretching, and smiling are all reactions to this imbalance, as is receding the lower jaw and/or releasing the proper “M” formation of the embouchure (where the bottom lip erupts out). Once any of those reactive compromises occur the lip aperture will lose focus and the two lips will be less aligned, prompting other knee jerk corrective measures like increased mouthpiece pressure, tight throat and/or upper body, bottom lip squeezing up, closed teeth, etc. In the extremes, the sound will be strained, dull and airy, notes and their attacks will sound cracked, and there will be issues with range.
There are many great players who play with more mouthpiece pressure on their top lip, which is more of a testament to their musicianship than the efficiency of their set up (and if they are great players, the reactive countermeasures to that weight distribution are usually much less severe). If someone is happy with their playing and they fall into this category, there would be no reason to make any changes. But if they would like to improve, being cognizant and in control of the landing is an avenue towards that improvement. Louis Armstrong was an amazing jazz trumpet player, and had one legendary improvised solo where he played over one hundred high C’s. As impressive as this was, he also eventually severely damaged his top lip (a rupture of the orbicularis oris, also known in the medical community as “Satchmo’s syndrome”), to the point he had to take a year off from playing. If you click on the picture above you be be able to more clearly see the scar tissue on the top lip.
- it helps to take pressure off of the top lip (55-60% of the mouthpiece weight should be on the bottom lip)
- it gives better leverage to the muscles below the corners, which control the embouchure
- it slightly increases the size of the oral cavity (for a more resonant sound)
- it helps to create a more natural seal by aligning the now more vertical plane of the teeth and lips with the vertical plane of the mouthpiece
- it better aligns the top and bottom lips (the reed and facing) and sets them closer together, helping to focus the embouchure
Note: there are some people who cannot bring their lower jaw that far forward. For them the solution would be to first relax the jaw and facial muscles (good advice for everyone), then bring the lower jaw as far forward as comfortable, and then adjust the horn angle so that the mouthpiece weight still favors the bottom lip. They still must make sure that their lower jaw is stable…that it does not recede back to its state of rest position.
The second step would be to bring the horn straight in, more parallel to the ground, so that at first contact, the mouthpiece rim just touches (simultaneously) as much of the embouchure as possible. Then, freeze that position and just observe the qualities of your landing.
Even with this improved jaw position and a more deliberate, careful landing, at this point most players will still not find an even, complete contact with the mouthpiece rim. Performance demands not only an even better seal, but a seal that surrounds a well focused yet free center. If all of these elements are not in place, the landing was not complete and the body must find another way to finish the job. Rather than let the body unconsciously find a random solution (my experience shows the odds do not favor that approach), implementing a specific design with specific techniques will produce much better results. There is much more to to this topic. Part Two and Part Three are now posted, along with The Landing: The Final Focus and Seal.