This is my fifth article for the Online Trombone Journal. In the
previous four I covered various subjects that relate to the process of
creating a technique that would allow a certain elegance of playing and
freedom of motion on the slide trombone. We come now to a more dangerous
I use the word "dangerous" here because ill-considered dabbling with
"embouchure" has ruined more good brass players than you can possibly
imagine. This is the reason I've been reluctant to write
about embouchure, and I want to emphasize this point as strongly as I can before going any
further: if it ain't broke, don't fix it! Work on your embouchure is
necessary only if you're having serious range, sound, pitch, or endurance
problems, or if you've reached a point in your development where no matter
what you do, how hard you practice, you're not getting any better.
The first approach you should try to take is to continue practicing the
way you play at the present time, at least up to a point where you're
really convinced you can go no further. Inevitably, when you begin
considering embouchure "changes", your playing will take a certain backward
step. If you approach these changes internally, that is, not from a
theoretical or external position (externally, that is, as in when someone tells you "Move your jaw to the right when playing above high X, and always put the mouthpiece 2/3 on your top lip, 1/3 on your left ear"), but instead approach them from the position of what works and what doesn't (no matter HOW unorthodox what "works" might be), your adjustment time and the dues you have to pay should be minor. Get obsessive about it, however, at your own peril.
A good corollary to the above "If it works..." statement could be, "If
it doesn't work, don't continue doing it." I have a three week
rule for equipment, technical considerations, new exercises, whatever. I
never do or change anything unless it feels better immediately. (Fairly
radical embouchure experiments are generally an exception to that
rule. They most often DON'T sound good immediately, but if they give you
more range or strength or endurance, persevere for a while and see if you
don't begin to sound better over the course of a few weeks.) Usually, soon
after, no matter what change I've made; a new mouthpiece, a new approach to
tonguing; it will begin to feel TERRIBLE. I consider that an adjustment
period, the time it takes my body to become reflexively used to the new
variable. If it continues to feel bad after about three weeks of regular
work, then I stop doing it, because if it hasn't started to feel good by
then, it's not going to.
WHAT IS A "GOOD" EMBOUCHURE?
Without a "good" embouchure, without a "good" sound, without range and
endurance, none of the things I've covered in the last few months are really very useful, and WITH a "good" sound, extreme mobility is almost
Easily ninety-five percent of the work I've done in my career as a free-lance trombonist has required very little technique in terms of speed, and most
successful trombonists that I've known haven't really developed their
"speed" chops to any great degree.
The characteristics they almost all HAVE
shared have been good sound, pitch, range, endurance, consistency and
The one aspect of trombone playing necessary for all those above
mentioned qualities is a "good" embouchure. You'll notice I keep putting
quotation marks around the word "good". That's because there are as many
"good" embouchures as there are "good" players. Dizzy Gillespie had a
"good" embouchure that broke every rule in the book, but it worked well for
him, thus it was "good". Dave Taylor's embouchure wouldn't be very useful
for someone who wanted to play like Frank Rosolino, and Rosolino's approach
wouldn't work very well in the Chicago Symphony or playing with Eddie
Palmieri. Every different jaw and tooth formation, every different body
type, every different horn, every mouthpiece, every different set of
musical requirements impacts on what is or isn't a "good" embouchure. In my opinion no hard and fast set of rules and no survey of all the "right"
and "wrong" ways one can form an embouchure can help an individual player
find an effective approach for the requirements of his particular musical
needs at any particular time.
So what do you do if you've not been gifted with a "naturally good"
embouchure? (i.e., an embouchure that does the job you ask of it.) I wasn't
given that gift. I switched with no guidance from tuba to trombone in my
teens. Although what I was doing "worked" to some degree, it left much
to be desired. I was told by several well known teachers early in my career
to "Just keep playing; it'll all work out." It didn't. After several
years of fair success, as I was asked to perform more and more challenging
music, my inefficient and badly formed embouchure simply stopped working
well enough for me to play professionally. I had to rebuild it from the
ground up. It was not a fun couple of years, I assure you, but I learned a lot.
I developed my way of playing under the influence of a remarkable
teacher, Carmine Caruso. Although much of what I say in the rest of
this article bears little or no superficial resemblance to those exercises
popularly known as "The Caruso Technique", they are largely inspired by his
approaches to brass playing.
BEL CANTO SINGING and TROMBONE
In the operatic style of singing known as "Bel Canto"(meaning
"pretty singing") that developed in Italy in the 19th century, the
cornerstone of voice development was the theory of "three voices" (or
registers), which were labeled "head"
(high) voice, "chest"(low) voice, and "mixed" (middle) voice. In an
untrained voice, one usually finds only two voices, chest and head, and
there's a "break" between the two voices. Many folk forms of singing, like
yodeling, use this break as a musical device.
Many male voices are used
entirely in the head range, in what's known as falsetto. What the Bel Canto
singers discovered was a way to bring the lower voice up as far as it would
go, bring the upper voice down as far as it would go, strengthen both of
them, and gradually create a "mixed" voice where each of the "natural"
voices blended imperceptibly into the other (depending on volume and the
direction of the melodic line), thus effectively eliminating any "break" in the
At this point you might well be saying "OK, but what's this got to do
with playing a brass instrument?" Do an experiment for me now, please. Get
your horn, partially loosen the mouthpiece (just so it's not stuck into the
receiver),and play a mezzo-forte third partial F. While playing that F, slowly withdraw the mouthpiece from the receiver. (If you can't sustain the note, practice it a little. It should be pretty easy. Try playing the note OUT of the horn, and then
putting the mouthpiece back in. If you still can't keep the note happening
while extracting the mouthpiece from the horn after a few minutes, then just
play the F on the mouthpiece alone, for the sake of this experiment.)
However you've arrived at it, play a third partial F with the
mouthpiece alone, as much as possible using the same embouchure and feeling as
you use when you play the note IN the horn. Now slowly, and with no big
shifts, gliss up, carefully listening and paying attention to how it feels.
Somewhere above the original note you will probably find a change in resistance, maybe just a radical change in timbre, or possibly a complete stop of the buzz...a break of some kind. It could be a fourth or fifth away, maybe on octave, maybe more, maybe less. Keep
trying and paying attention until you find it.
Now do the same gliss DOWN from the same third partial F. Again you'll
probably find a change in resistance, a change in timbre, or a complete
stop of your buzz at some point below the original F. With this exercise,
you will have delineated the upper and lower limits of ONE of YOUR several
"voices" or "registers", on YOUR mouthpiece, with YOUR lips, on the
particular day you're trying this technique.
Unlike singers, our vibrating surfaces (our lips, as opposed to their
vocal cords) are not irremediably anchored to the sides of our primary
resonating cavity (our mouthpieces, their throats). By subtly repositioning our
embouchures on the mouthpiece, it is possible for us to have more than two
"natural" voices or registers. Nevertheless, the process of "mixing"
registers is the same for us as it is for them. By identifying for yourself
your own "natural" registers using mouthpiece buzzing techniques similar to what
I just described, and then by both strengthening and expanding those
"registers" into the ranges that are normally the locale of the next
highest or lowest "register", you can create "mixed" registers that can
eventually make for a relatively seamless four or five octaves of
Now that you've found a resistance point, either above or below that F,
try playing a note a major second to a minor third beyond that note. For
example, if you felt a break of some kind around Bb or C a perfect fourth or
fifth above the third partial F, try playing a fifth partial D in the horn and
then taking the mouthpiece out, again sustaining the buzz. (Work on it the same
way as before if you have trouble doing it.) Now gliss DOWN from that note
w/just the mouthpiece, trying to identify the first place below that D where
there's a break. Do the same going UP from the fifth partial D.
two breaks are is the rough boundaries of THAT "register" ("voice",
"embouchure", "setting", "tendency", call it what you will.). After a
period of a few weeks of consistent exploration of all your ranges using
this method, you will be able to fairly accurately identify those several
areas where your "natural" registers exist. By that time it'll be September
and I'll write another column about what to DO with them.
Spend ten-twenty minutes a day trying to figure out what YOUR set of
embouchures is like NOW, even if you don't want to make any changes.
Remember...knowledge is power, as long as it doesn't get in the way of your
playing. (I think that's at least half a joke, but re-reading it, I'm not
By way of a conclusion, I want to point out that, taken to
extremes, NO ONE keeps the "same" embouchure throughout the entire range of
the horn. In microcosm, every change in pitch, timbre or volume is created
by SOME "change" in the embouchure, no matter HOW small. In macrocosm,
there's no player in the world whose embouchure on a fortississimo pedal G is even
remotely similar to how he plays a pianississimo C above the treble clef. Every person has a different SET of "embouchures". Some have more, some less; some are
"correct" according to common practice, some NOT so "correct". If you can
identify the way you "naturally" play certain registers on the horn, and
blend them into the ways that you "naturally" play areas above and below
them, then however small or large the ranges covered by each
setting. Incidentally, I've found most of mine are about an octave
wide and however "normal" or "odd" those settings are in relation to the
way everyone else plays, your embouchure(s) are going to be "CORRECT". (And
they'll work well, too.)
Have fun checking this stuff out, and remember to send me some E-mail.
I've got no way of knowing whether this stuff is working for anybody or
not unless I hear from you.
About the Author...
Sam Burtis attended Ithaca College and The Berklee School of Music. He has been a working musician in New York City since 1969, playing tenor trombone, bass trombone, tuba, valve trombone and euphonium in just about every idiom and situation available to a professional musician in New York during that time. He is also a composer and arranger, writing and transcribing for such musicians and organizations as The Lee Konitz Nonet, The Charles Mingus Band, The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Tito Puente, and the Chico O'Farrill Orchestra.He is currently forming his own ensemble to play his compositions. He is also a free-lance musician, playing studio, theater, concert, and jazz club work regularly in and around New York City and throughout the world.