The Embouchure and mouthpiece – what’s best and why…
If you have ever had the situation where someone has suggested moving, or adjusting your embouchure you may well have been through one of the most difficult times of your playing life. What are the pitfalls of having an off-centre embouchure and how much difference does it really make to things when your embouchure isn’t quite set right?
So why is it that it is often insisted upon that we have an embouchure where the mouthpiece is set in the centre? The main reasons behind ensuring that the mouthpiece sits as close to the centre is so that the best possible sound and range can be achieved with the least amount of pressure required. Forming the embouchure uses three sets of muscles that work both with, and against each other. The three groups are the muscle over the top lip, the muscle under the bottom lip and the muscles that run from the corners of your mouth up towards your ears. When these all work in conjunction with each other it is possible to form a natural buzz.
As a brass instrument is really only an amplification unit for the buzz that you produce, it is worth spending a little time making sure that it works well on its own and that there are no problems with it that will be sent down the instrument that you play. To form the buzz the best way that I have ever found of working with this is as follows:
- Say ‘hmmmm’.
- Allow the corners of the mouth to drop slightly (without actively pulling them down)
- Blow air through the lips and allow a small aperture to form.
4. Keep pushing the air through and allow the lips to buzz.
5. Allow the aperture to close and open to change the pitch to rise and fall.
6. Listen carefully to the sound and try to make sure that it is clear from excessive hissing or noise.
When you have a clear sound, put the mouthpiece toward the buzz and allow it to rest on the lips.
There are many different methods on how to do this and it is possible to use the Farkas, Reinhardt or Jacob’s method depending on how you choose to work. I prefer to work with the ideology of Arnold Jacob’s and believe that focusing on air and sound (or as Jacob’s would say wind = song) is the best way forward.
I have often found that muscles and all of the required parts of the body will work when allowed to and will produce the sound that you want and have in mind if you just allow it to. It is ever so easy to fall into the trap of paralysis by analysis where you spend so much time concentrating on the infinite details of all of the muscles required that you lose sight of what is really important.
The mouthpiece placement that will work best is one where the centre of the middle of the mouthpiece is directly in line with the centre of your aperture when you buzz. It is hoped that when the above method is followed for creating a good buzz that the aperture will form somewhere near the centre of your lips.
For every individual it is extremely likely that the mouthpiece will need to be placed slightly off-centre as it follows the buzz and tooth alignment. This is generally fine as long as the place that you have the mouthpiece allows for a clear even tone across the range that you have, is free from pain and allows the instrument to sit in a sensible way you start to play.
As you can see, I play slightly off-centre but have thankfully been lucky enough to have some great teachers that really understood how the embouchure works. I did go through a phase of wanting to ensure that I made everything perfect and did try to move my mouthpiece across. This resulted in the following things:
- Poor quality of sound and a reduction in range.
- A fair bit of pain.
- A lot of frustration!
For me, focusing on moving the mouthpiece so that it was perfectly centre gave no real benefits and if this had been pursued further may well have done a lot more harm than good. I believe that the most important thing is to focus on a good sound, allow your body to work and try to interfere as little as possible with the more mechanical aspects of playing.
When the positioning is more extremely placed to the left or right of the centre, or if the embouchure is formed in a way that doesn’t allow for a good sound to be achieved across the range, it may be necessary to go back and reassess how things are working. If you do find yourself needing to change your mouthpiece placement as things are simply not working, aim to take things slowly, use a mirror and always aim to focus on the sound that you produce.
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