Author’s note: In the three years since this article was written, I’ve come up with some newer ideas on how to set the embouchure. The information in this older article that follows below still stands, but the new ideas offer an easier way for some players. So if you find any of the articles from the “Landing Series” interesting and helpful, be sure to also read “Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks (or How to Break Old Habits)”.
The trumpet is an incomplete instrument, which needs to interface with its human counterpart in order to have the ability to produce sound. For optimum performance, the human component of this hybrid instrument must be made with the same degree of precision as the design and manufacture of the trumpet and mouthpiece, otherwise the compromises that can occur (due to the player’s inherent physical structure, lack of knowledge and/or awareness) will most likely negatively impact the player’s ability to make music. Can you imagine the problems that could happen if the threads of two connecting water pipes were not of matching sizes, were stripped or misaligned, or if they were only loosely screwed together? Parts One, Two and Three of this “Landing” series discussed how to set the lower jaw, approach angle and landing of the incoming trumpet (with the ideal mouthpiece placement and the distribution of the mouthpiece weight) in order to best match the flat rim of the mouthpiece, and how to create the ideal underlying structure for airflow, lip vibration, embouchure focus and seal.
By then stopping the incoming mouthpiece weight when it first contacts this ideal preset of the embouchure, the player will have taken all of the steps to create the best possible seal before involving any action of the embouchure musculature. This extremely close proximity of the mouthpiece serves as a great reference…meaning it will clearly reveal what specific gaps still remain, and what exact shape the embouchure must assume to complete its interface with the mouthpiece. This embouchure “sandwich” (like the filling of the Oreo cookie) between the mouthpiece rim and teeth (with their irregularities) must fulfill much more than a role of a seal or gasket though, for it also functions as the instrument’s reed and facing (the top and bottom lips, respectively). That means the act of sealing the interface between mouthpiece and teeth formation must be done in a way that does not disrupt the vibration of the top lip, but that instead increases the efficiency of its vibration. This efficiency is achieved by also simultaneously focusing the size and shape of the lip aperture, all the while making sure the top lip is as relaxed as possible.
This is a tall order for the embouchure muscles, but even though everyone has a different facial structure, the same procedure can be taken by all to complete this final step of assembly. A useful image to hold in mind is the cutting action of a pair of scissors, or actually two identical pairs for our example (all of these images will open with a new window so you can refer to them at any time during the reading of this post). Most of the cutting energy is achieved by the four fingers gripping their handle, which is below the fulcrum (the screw) of this lever, on the opposite side of the screw from the moving top blade’s downward cutting action. The thumb, which is above the screw and controls the stationary, lower blade, is generally relaxed…which stabilizes the lower blade (and the scissors in general) for more precise cutting control. As the grip on the lower handle increases, the top blade comes down on the lower blade (action #1, felt most closest to the screw), while the contact point of the cutting action gradually moves towards the end of the blades (action #3). The last part of the blades to touch will be at their tips. The #2 action, which is related to the embouchure and not to this scissor analogy, will be discussed below.
This is no news to anyone who has used a pair of scissors, but it is a great analogy for the making and the holding of the embouchure. The picture here shows just one pair of scissors superimposed over an embouchure in the “M” formation, with the screw of the scissors directly over one corner of the lips. The right side is scissor-free in order to illustrate the 1/4″ teeth aperture (represented by the little boxes), centered lip line (where the lips meet in relationship to the teeth aperture), lip aperture (tiny blue slit) and mouthpiece placement (2/3 on bottom lip).
A look at the muscular structure of the face shows why the muscles above the corners must remain fully relaxed. If they are allowed to contract, the reed of the top lip would be pulled up and away from the facing of the bottom lip with a sneering action, and/or the lips (and the sound) would be thinned out with a smiling action…causing the corners to be stretched back…which would also raise the lip line, break any semblance of a seal, and destroy the lip alignment. These actions leave the lips weak (although tighter), unsupported with air, and prone to injury from mouthpiece pressure. There is only one case where a slight smiling action could be allowed, and that would be if the lip line is naturally too low. The thinning action could be used to raise the lip line (and the corners) to the place where they are centered between the teeth, but at that point the muscles below the corners must lock the embouchure into place. The “braced muscles” (labeled on the right) do not actually contract, but as the lateral walls of the oral cavity, their ability to channel the airstream also helps to provide a matching resistance to the intra oral air pressure, which is how the air supports the embouchure and efficiently governs the tension of the lips. The amount of intra oral pressure naturally increases as the embouchure becomes more focused and/or the airspeed is increased. You can also see how the lips are one round muscle, and that the bottom lip is supported below by much larger, thicker muscles than the muscles above the the top lip (proving that it really does take more muscle to frown than to smile!). This design makes the bottom lip an ideal facing, for it will not vibrate as easily as the top lip, and it is more suited to receive a little more than half of the playing weight of the mouthpiece (which also helps keep the top lip freer to vibrate). When both lips and corners (the “modius,” circled in red) are equally spaced between a 1/4″ teeth aperture, the corners (the fulcrum of the “scissors”) are situated in the perfect place to function as the anchor of the embouchure.
The lips play a vital role in so many of our daily functions (speech, eating, communicative facial expressions, etc.), so they are packed with blood vessels (hence their deeper color) and nerve endings (a large part of the brain’s surface area is devoted to the lips). This is one of the reasons that kissing is so pleasurable, but it also means that a trumpet player can feel the smallest changes in tension and areas of contact. Lucky for us! The muscles below the corners are the ones left with the multi tasked role of shaping the lips into an embouchure design that both seals and focuses. However, just flexing these muscles alone does not guarantee that all of the necessary details will be addressed. A clear image of those details, monitored by a mirror and a keen sense of feel will direct the proper muscles into a very refined grip. If we make sure the muscles above the corners do not come into play, and that the jaw remains stable while setting the embouchure, the correct musculature will learn to master not only the fine degree of coordination needed for correctly setting the embouchure, but also for playing….they are the same complex action.
To set the embouchure, start with the lips parted, so you can see both the top and bottom teeth edges, and then set the lower jaw so that it is slightly ahead of the top teeth (see Part Two of this series for more details). Next set the teeth aperture so that there is a 1/4″ gap between them (about the diameter of a standard wooden pencil, which can be used as a gauge). You may notice that the corners of the mouth are already (or close to being) centered between this teeth aperture, which is exactly where the lips should meet when they come into contact with each other. This jaw position can be locked with a tongue stop (seen at the right, where the tip of the tongue touches where the bottom teeth meet the gums) in order to learn how to keep the jaw stationary when setting the embouchure. Now let’s examine each of the three simultaneous “scissor” actions of the embouchure, governed by those muscles below the corners.
Top Lip Down (Action #1)- This should always begin with the act of relaxation. By releasing any tension in the top lip it will naturally drop down and be in an ideal state for vibration. The top lip must come down until it occupies 1/2 of the 1/4″ teeth aperture, from corner to corner (also illustrated in Part Two), keeping it exposed to the optimum amount of air. The muscles below the corners are used to bring the top lip down any remaining distance to this position, 1/8″ below the top teeth edges, and should never cease with that act during playing in order to hold that position, otherwise the body will look for other ways to maintain lip contact (like mouthpiece pressure or squeezing the bottom lip up). I have a saying: “Never give up on top down,” which rates right up there with “Never let go of your trumpet while playing.” Note: some players drop only the center of the top lip (which is contrary to Action #3, described below), which makes the center (instead of the corners) the point of greatest resistance…not a good idea. Bringing the top lip down in a way that is felt at the corners first is the Scissor Action (#3), which is the best way to decrease the size of the lip aperture while still allowing the center to be free. Keeping the top lip down is the best way to keep the lips in contact with each other.
Bottom Lip Hugs (Action # 2)- The “hugging” action evenly inverts and aligns both lips from corner to corner (see the picture with the single pair of blue scissors above) and is again accomplished using the muscles below the corners. This happens in front of the teeth (rather than “sucking” the lips into the mouth between the teeth, which is usually accompanied by a “smiling” action of the corners) and essentially hides the red part of the lips completely. It is also important to achieve this inverted position without squeezing the bottom lip up, for that action tends to close the center…making it, rather than the corners the point of greatest resistance. This also pushes the top lip up past the top teeth edges, effectively starving it from the supporting airflow. The bottom lip’s hugging action makes the bottom lip a stable foundation for the top lip’s downward force.
These crude diagrams of the side views of a pair of pinkish lips (and generic caucasian skin) show various degrees of contact (in red). Diagram”A” represents the lips touching in front of aligned teeth with a 1/4″ aperture (none of these are accurate in scale). “B” show the lips “chasing” the airstream…which enlarges the ideal paper thin lip aperture, decreasing its efficiency and contributing to an airy, flabby and/or distorted sound. Because this shape protrudes into the mouthpiece cup, one of the instrument’s resonant chambers becomes smaller, which means the overall sound is also smaller and less resonant. “C” shows the correct hugging action’s larger area of contact, where the lips are still in front of the teeth, and the lip line is centered between the teeth aperture. “D” shows the bottom lip squeezing up, which results in the high lip line described above, and a much smaller area of contact. Compared to “C,” you can see the upward motion of the bottom lip is not equipped to hold against the vector of the incoming airstream.
When done correctly, the hugging action fulfills many vital embouchure functions. Inverting the lips from corner to corner against the teeth (the modius should be felt hugging against the 1/4″ teeth aperture) is much like the way a sail catches the wind and converts it into useful energy. If either the sail or the mast (which the lower jaw functions as) are not held in place the energy of the wind cannot be harnessed (lips that are allowed to “chase” the air, like Diagragm B above, are more like the flag flapping in the wind at the top of the mast). This analogy also underscores why it is so vital that the bottom lip is exposed to air from corner to corner within the 1/4″ teeth aperture, and why the jaw should remain stable.
The greater area of contact area between the top and bottom lips shown in Diagram C produces a much “thicker” sound. Could you imagine what a viola would sound like if its bow only had one horse hair? The sound would still be there, but because the contact area would not be as great, the vibration of the string would not be as robust. Note: the lips are very pliable, so even very large, full lips can be inverted, which is one of the easiest ways to instantly improve the sound.
The hug also helps to align the lips…not just the vertical alignment stemming from the matching inversion of the lips and the forward lower jaw position (like Diagrams A and C above), but also the horizontal alignment, which influences the size, shape and location of the lip aperture. The picture above shows a common, naturally occurring lip shape at the center of the top lip called a Cupid’s Bow (circled in blue) which could lead to two apertures (the small yellow ovals), as the lips come in contact with each other. However, mastery of the hug will produce precise, even, and gentle contact from corner to corner, and (along with Action #3, described below) a small, centered, paper thin lip aperture.
Scissoring in from the Corners (Action #3)- this occurs naturally as a result of combining Actions #1 and #2, which focuses the lip aperture towards the center rather than squeezing and/or closing the aperture at the center, all the while keeping the corners at their natural width. In this way the lip aperture can be very small and yet still be very free as the embouchure’s point of least resistance. Because the muscles (below the corners) that govern this small focused area are relatively farther away, the tension is also farther away from the point of vibration. This also helps the lower register’s form and sound, since the lips can still retain their proper position. The player should be able to feel the width…the outside edges of the lip aperture (described by some as the “artificial corners”), well within the inner rim of the mouthpiece.
Assembling the embouchure in the way described above can cause the muscles below the corners to flex in a way that actually begins to change the shape of the facial platform the mouthpiece rests on (the way any muscle can change shape when it is flexed). This means that there is one more function of the muscles below the corners! This diagram can be misleading though, for there is no “pooching” out (I hate terms like this) of the lips at the points of contact with the sides of the mouthpiece rim. Underneath those contact points both the top and bottom lips are still engaged in the scissor action. While the proper jaw position and horn angle can minimize the amount of mouthpiece pressure needed for a good seal, the muscles below the corners and the bracing muscles of the lateral walls of the oral cavity can take the minimal pressure concept even farther…protecting the center of the top lip from any remaining weight needed for the final seal, or from careless mouthpiece pressure arising from an uninformed “landing,” lack of air support or poor posture.
A common problem players have when learning to make this set is using far too much tension, especially at the center of the embouchure (in the form of squeezing the bottom lip up when inverting the lips, or pancaking/flattening the bottom lip and chin muscles). Also, the tongue should remain relaxed and low (unless using the tongue stop, described above), as should the upper body, and throat. Noticeable improvements can be experienced even before this setup is perfect. Any practice that brings the embouchure closer to this position will produce predictable improvements in sound quality and performance. I see this every day with my own playing, and with my students….with beginners and with those who have been playing for a long time.
For most players it will take a while to assemble their embouchure with the degree of precision that honors all of the points discussed here, but when this blueprint is the basis of a clear mental image that oversees the setting of the embouchure, the player can progress much faster than more traditional ways of learning how to play the trumpet that prioritize “what you play” over “how you play.” There are no playing exercises that can bring an embouchure to this degree of refinement if they are performed with an uninformed mouthpiece placement (especially if done before setting the embouchure), or if played with poor weight distribution, and without an awareness of this ideal. However, with a good starting position established first, those more traditional playing exercises take on a new life, as the player learns to maintain this form (with the same coordinated muscles that made the position) while practicing long tones, slurs, scales, arpeggios, tonguing exercises, etc. Then those exercises can reveal what might have been missed during the initial setup, and/or when, where and why there may have first been a departure from form. Practicing in this way takes the player to the heart of any fundamental problem and provides a clear path to the solution.
There are some who say you should never change a student’s embouchure, but most original embouchures were arrived at by beginners, and in my case, I would not want to put my career in the hands of an eleven year old. There are others who say that the student should find what works best for them…what feels most “natural” and comfortable, but those feelings are usually based on a limited experience, and usually involve unfocused embouchures. I can’t imagine any setup more comfortable than the air cushion created by a well aligned, well sealed embouchure with good air support.
For those interested in further reading on these topics, here’s a list of the blog’s related posts:
- The Landing- A Critical Step for Trumpet Players: Part One
- The Landing- A Critical Step for Trumpet Players: Part Two
- The Landing- A Critical Step for Trumpet Players: Part Three
- First Sounds with the New Embouchure
- Refining the New Embouchure
- The Importance of a Clear Mental Image
- Lip Alignment
- Holding “The Position” for 30 Minutes
- The No Respect Range
- A Common Pitfall When Taking the “Next Step”
- To Buzz or Not to Buzz
- Support from the Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy Fields
- It’s Not What You Think!