The embouchure is the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece of a wind instrument. Less frequently, it is used to mean the mouthpiece itself. The word is of French origin and is related to the root bouche (fr.), 'mouth'. [French, from emboucher, to put or go into the mouth, from Old French : en-, in; + bouche, mouth (from Latin bucca, cheek).]

The proper embouchure allows the instrumentalist to play the instrument at its full range with a full, clear tone and without strain or damage to one's muscles.


Brass embouchure

While performing on a brass instrument, the sound is produced by the player buzzing his or her lips into a mouthpiece. Pitches are changed in part through altering the amount of muscular contraction in the lip formation. The performer's use of the air as well as tongue manipulation can affect how the embouchure works.

Even today, many brass pedagogues take a rigid approach to teaching how a brass player's embouchure should function. Many of these authors also disagree with each other regarding which technique is considered correct. Research done as early as the 1940s as well as more current research suggests efficient brass embouchures are dependent upon the performer using the method that suits the player's particular anatomy. Individual differences in teeth structure, lip shape and size, jaw shape and the degree of jaw malocclusion, and other anatomical factors will affect whether a particular embouchure technique will be effective or not for a particular performer.

Phillip Farkas, a noted French horn performer and brass pedagogue, hypothesized in his 1962 publication, The Art of Brass Playing, that the air stream traveling through the lip aperture should be directed straight down the shank of the mouthpiece. Farkas believed that it would be illogical to "violently deflect" the air stream downward at the point of where the air moves past the lips (Farkas, 1962). In this text, Farkas also recommends that the lower jaw be protruded so that the upper and lower teeth are aligned.

In 1970 Farkas published a second text on brass embouchures, A Photographic Study of 40 Virtuoso Horn Players. This publication contradicted his earlier writing. Out of 40 subjects, Farkas showed that 39 subjects directed the air downward to varying degrees and 1 subject directed the air in an upward direction at various degrees. The lower jaw position seen in these photographs show more variation from Farkas' earlier text as well.

This supports what was written by trombonist and brass pedagogue, Donald S. Reinhardt in 1942 with his publications, Pivot System For Trumpet and Pivot System for Trombone. In his 1972 publication, The Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, Reinhardt described and labeled different embouchure patterns according the characteristics including mouthpiece placement and the general direction of the air stream as it travels past the lips. According to this later text, players who place the mouthpiece higher on the lips, so that more upper lip is inside the mouthpiece, will direct the air downwards to varying degrees while playing. Performers who place the mouthpiece lower, so that more lower lip is inside the mouthpiece, will direct the air to varying degrees in an upward manner. In order for the performer to be successful, the air stream direction and mouthpiece placement need to be personalized based on individual anatomical differences. Lloyd Leno confirmed the existence of both upstream and downstream embouchures in his 1987 article for the International Trombone Association Journal entitled "A Study of Lip Vibrations with High-Speed Photography".

More controversial was Reinhardt's description and recommendations regarding a phenomenon he termed a "pivot." According to Reinhardt, a successful brass embouchure is dependent upon a motion upon where the performer moves both the mouthpiece and lips as a single unit along the teeth in an upward and downward direction. As the performer ascends, he or she will either move the lips and mouthpiece together slightly up towards the nose or pull them down together slightly towards the chin, and use the opposite motion to descend. Whether the player uses one general pivot direction or the other, and the degree to which the motion is performed, depends on the performer's anatomical features and stage of development. The placement of the mouthpiece upon the lips doesn't change, but rather the relationship of the rim and lips to the teeth. While the angle of the instrument may change as this motion follows the shape of the teeth and placement of the jaw, contrary to what many brass performers and teachers believe, the angle of the instrument does not actually constitute the motion Reinhardt advised as a pivot.

Later research supports Reinhardt's claim that this motion exists and might be advisable for brass performers to adopt. John Froelich's article for the International Trombone Association Journal, "The Mouthpiece Forces Used During Trombone Performances" (1990), describes how mouthpiece pressure towards the lips (vertical forces) and shear pressure (horizontal forces) functioned in three test groups, student trombonists, professional trombonists, and professional symphonic trombonists. Froelich noted that the symphonic trombonists used the least amount of both direct and shear forces and recommends this model be followed. Other recent research notes that virtually all brass performers rely upon the upward and downward embouchure motion, including The Correlation Between Doug Elliott's Embouchure Types and Playing and Selected Physical Characteristics Among Trombonists (David Wilken, doctoral dissertation, Ball State University, 2000) and An Analysis, Clarification, and Revaluation of Donald Reinhardt's Pivot System for Brass Instruments (David Ray Turnbull, doctoral thesis, Arizona State University, 2001). Other authors and pedagogues remain skeptical about the necessity of this motion, but scientific evidence supporting this view has not been sufficiently developed at this time to support this view.

Many noted brass pedagogues prefer to instruct the use of the embouchure from a less analytical point of view. Arnold Jacobs, a tubist and well-regarded brass teacher, believed that it was best for the student to focus on his or her use of the air and musical expression to allow the embouchure to develop naturally on its own (Brian Frederiksen, Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind, 1996). Other instructors, such as Carmine Caruso, believed that the brass player's embouchure could best be developed through strength building exercises that focus the student's attention on his or her time perception (Carmine Caruso, Musical Calisthenics for Brass, 1979). Still other authors who have differing approaches to embouchure development include Louis Maggio (see C. MacBeth, Original Louis Maggio System for Brass), Jeff Smiley (The Balanced Embouchure), and Jerome Callet (Superchops, Trumpet Secrets).

The tongue-controlled embouchure

This embouchure method, advocated by a minority of brass pedagogues such as Jerome Callet, has not yet been sufficiently researched to support the claims that this system is the most effective approach for all brass performers. It cannot be questioned, however, that some players who utilize this approach are successful performers, indicating that more research is needed in this area. One of those is Robert (Bahb) Civiletti, who plays and teaches the TCE method.

Advocates of Callet's approach believe that this method was recommended and taught by the great brass instructors of the early 20th Century. Two French trumpet technique books, authored by Jean-Baptiste Arban, and St. Jacome, were translated into English for use by American players. According to some, due to a misunderstanding arising from differences in pronunciation between French and English, the commonly used brass embouchure in Europe was interpreted incorrectly. Callet attributes this difference in embouchure technique as the reason the great players of the past were able to play at the level of technical virtuosity which they did, although the increased difficulty of contemporary compositions for brass seem to indicate that the level of brass technique by today's performers equal or even exceed that of most performers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Callet's method of brass embouchure consists of the tongue remaining forward and through the teeth at all times. The corners of the mouth always remain relaxed, and only a small amount of air is used. The top and bottom lips curl inward and grip the forward tongue. The tongue will force the teeth, and subsequently the throat, wide open, supposedly resulting in a bigger, more open sound. The forward tongue resists the pressure of the mouthpiece, controls the flow of air for lower and higher notes, and protects the lips and teeth from damage or injury from mouthpiece pressure. Because of the importance of the tongue in this method many refer to this as a "tongue-controlled embouchure." This technique facilitates the use of a smaller mouthpiece, and larger bore instruments. It results in improved intonation and stronger harmonically related partials across the player's range. These characteristics can be heard as a focused (as opposed to spread or distorted) tone. The improvement in sound quality resulting from using this method is more apparent in the upper register, especially when comparing proficient players. Performers who have successfully adopted this approach often exhibit a very strong upper register. Although it is completely different from widely used methods, the "tongue-controlled embouchure" is perhaps the most promising.

Some authors, such as Donald Reinhardt, recommend that players who can successfully adopt a tongue position that maintains contact on the lower lip while playing must possess shorter than average lower teeth and lower lips that are thicker than normal. Callet's advocates, however, are quick to point out that fundamental differences in recommendations about how the mouth corners and tongue manipulation are used make Reinhardt's suggestions too different to effectively compare the two approaches.

It would seem that no one method is understood enough to be proven the "correct" method of forming and developing a brass embouchure. Students are rarely given specific instructions with regards to this aspect of brass playing. As a result of this, the development of any particular student's embouchure is dependent on a wide range of physiological and psychological factors that are not easily understood or predicted. This dependence may be manifested as the variation in sound quality and range that is greater among brass players than any other wind instrument.

Woodwind embouchure

Flute embouchure

A variety of transverse flute embouchures are employed by professional flutists, though the most natural form is perfectly symmetrical, the corners of the mouth relaxed, the lower lip placed along and at a short distance from the embouchure hole. The end-blown shakuhachi and hocchiku flutes demand especially difficult embouchures, sometimes requiring many lessons before any sound can be produced.

Reed instrument embouchure

With the woodwinds, aside from the flute, piccolo, and recorder, the sound is generated by a reed and not with the lips. The embouchure is therefore based on sealing the area around the reed and the mouthpiece. This serves to prevent air from escaping while simultaneously supporting the reed allowing it to vibrate, and to constrict the reed preventing it from vibrating too much. With woodwinds, it is important to ensure that the mouthpiece is not placed too far into the mouth, which would result in too much vibration (no control), often creating a sound an octave (or harmonic twelfth for the clarinet) above the intended note. If the mouthpiece is not placed far enough into the mouth, no noise will be generated, as the reed will not vibrate.

With single reed woodwinds like the clarinet and saxophone, there is a controversy in the United States and in some other countries concerning the use of a single-lip or double-lip embouchure. With a single lip embouchure, the reed rests upon the bottom lip of the player, which is placed on top of the bottom teeth. The top teeth are then used to bite down on the mouthpiece, and the top lips are wrapped around them in order to create a seal. With the double-lip embouchure, the top lip is placed under (around) the top teeth. This is the more natural method, which employs human bisymmetry to ensure that both lips are pulled back equally over the teeth. Though the perfect single-lip embouchure is far more difficult to achieve, it is also more frequently taught. The double-lip embouchure requires more lip strength, and promotes better technique as it prevents the player from biting too hard on the mouthpiece, muting the sound. Because the double-lip embouchure is more natural and easier to develop, it is beginning to become more popular as a way of correcting the embouchure of students who cannot achieve a proper single-lip embouchure. When using a double-lip embouchure, because it requires more strength, some students may need to play sitting or with their instrument rested on a knee, until they develop the lip strength necessary to hold their instrument.

The double reed woodwinds, the oboe and bassoon, have no mouthpiece. Instead the reed is two pieces of cane extending from a metal tube (oboe - staple) or placed on a bocal (bassoon, english horn). The reed is placed directly on the lips and the played not unlike the double-lip embouchure described above. Compared to the single reed woodwinds, the reed is very small and subtle changes in the embouchure can have a dramatic effect on tuning, tone and control.

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