The Landing- A Critical Step for Trumpet Players: Part Three

While still in college I was introduced to an idea that said a trumpeter’s teeth formation had an influence on the ease of playing (or lack thereof) in the upper register.  At that time I was still struggling with my range (after eliminating the heavy mouthpiece pressure I had been using), and was told that the ideal mouthpiece placement would be off of a point (protrusion) of the top teeth, and that if there was not one, a protrusion of the bottom teeth (if there was one) could be used instead, as long as the lower jaw was brought forward. The same concept also said that placing the mouthpiece on a non-protuding, collapsed teeth formation like mine (seen at left) would produce the worst results with range, endurance, sound quality, etc.  After beginning to notice that some great players had that “ideal” teeth formation (and tiring of the poor results I had been getting from my practice), I made the suggested embouchure change and finished my college career playing with my mouthpiece in that new position.  The resulting performance characteristics were slightly better, but still not what I was hoping for.

As described in the post, “The Importance of a Clear Mental Image,” I had a breakthrough when exposed to the ideas of Roy Stevens.  Most of the concepts in Part One and Part Two of this series come from his teachings.  In addition to bringing my lower jaw slightly ahead of the top teeth and making an inverted “M” formation with my lips, the mouthpiece placement now was equally distributed on the two forward most points of the bottom jaw, which then determined both the embouchure’s center and the left-right angle of the horn.  Although I was no longer playing off of that protrusion (and was again playing in what had been described as the worst position) I still experienced a dramatic, positive change in both my range and endurance.  How was that possible?

The improvements were partially due to the improved jaw position, which took the majority of the mouthpiece pressure off of the top lip (55-60% of that weight was now on the bottom lip).  That simple act also better aligned the top and bottom lips (the reed and facing), which increased both the focus of the lip aperture and the freedom of the top lip’s vibration.  Equally distributing the mouthpiece weight on the two most forward points of the lower jaw helped to create the abutments of a mini-bridge (to be spanned by the mouthpiece rim’s flat surface), and also helped to ensure there would be no cuts in the the inner part of the bottom lip if the weight became heavy.  Also, the inverted “M” formation helped to focus the lip aperture and prepare my embouchure for the airstream, rather than having my lips adjusting to the mouthpiece (which is an act that destroys the focus).  Eventually though, as the thrill of this sudden progress wore off, I began to realize that besides this top-bottom distribution of weight, the relationship between the mouthpiece weight at the middle of the embouchure compared to the sides had to be considered as well.

At the end of Part One I suggested stopping at the precise moment the mouthpiece touched the lip(s) during the initial mouthpiece placement, in order to judge the efficiency of this landing.  Even with an improved jaw position and mouthpiece placement, most players will find that the sides of the mouthpiece are not in full contact with lips…meaning there is not an adequate seal for playing.  The pictures on the left show two players in that situation.  The player on the far left has not formed his embouchure yet, and has a much larger gap.  The player on the right has set his embouchure and brought the lower jaw slightly forward so that gap is much smaller, but you can still see the seal is not complete at the sides.  As I had also mentioned in Part One, the tendency players have is to bring in the mouthpiece pressure until there is a seal all the way around the rim, but that extra weight then becomes heaviest at the center (where the mouthpiece first touches), making the center the point of greatest resistance.  Even with a well focused embouchure, its center needs to be the point of least resistance, for this is where the air flows and where the vibration takes place.

Center (and top) heavy weight distribution will inhibit the vibration of the top lip, causing the embouchure to react to that pinned feeling with various forms of escape…eruption of the lips, smiling or stretching back of the corners, receding the lower jaw, etc., all leading to a loss of focus at the embouchure’s center.  At that point the dependency on weight increases even more, and the vibrating area of the top lip is then more determined by the teeth formation or the inner rim of the mouthpiece.  This is similar to the way the vibrating length of a guitar string is set between the bridge of the instrument and the fret the guitarist holds the string against.  And like the guitarist, the trumpeter must remove that defining weight (or never apply an excessive weight in the first place) in order to more efficiently change the vibrating area of the top lip.

This is where I believe those who advocate playing off of a protrusion may have a point (no pun intended), and that a trumpet player (like me) with protrusions further from the center of the mouthpiece placement can have trouble if the distribution of the mouthpiece weight favors the center.  Figure A at the left shows possible vibration boundaries defined by the inner cup of the mouthpiece and two widely dispersed protrusions of the top teeth.  Neither of those boundaries would constitute a fully focused lip aperture, even with proper top-bottom distribution of the mouthpiece weight and a slightly forward lower jaw position.  If the mouthpiece weight is defining the vibrating area of the top lip, a player would have problems relying on such a setup, especially as the music became more demanding.  Figure B shows both a smaller diameter mouthpiece cup (which is known to aid with the upper register) and an “ideal” teeth formation.  Both of the possible vibration boundaries shown here are considerably smaller than Figure A’s, but if the distribution of the mouthpiece weight favors the top lip over the bottom lip there will still be problems (you can see the mouthpiece will tend to contact the center of the embouchure first).  Initial performance may be OK to begin with, but endurance and other aspects of performance will still be affected unless the mouthpiece weight can be distributed in a way that favors the sides and bottom of the mouthpiece rim (which will protect the vibrating area of the top lip).  In both cases the player may not realize there is a problem until he has progressed far enough where the limitations become more obvious to him.

A properly formed embouchure should define a much smaller (including a more narrow) lip aperture before the addition of the playing weight of the mouthpiece.  This formation should provide an optimum seal around the rim while still being focused and free, which will take the top teeth formation (good or bad) out of the playing equation.  This very important step is discussed in the final post of this “Landing” series.

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