In our previous post in this series, we met three students: Sarah, Eric, and Ian. Each of them has a different personality and responds differently to the foundational concepts of trumpet playing. At this point, we need to teach them to produce a buzz and make a sound on the trumpet. Before we talk about how to accomplish this task with these specific students, however, let’s talk about four general guidelines you will want to follow when setting up a beginner’s embouchure:
1) Look at your student’s teeth. Ask him/her to bite down and bare the teeth so that you can see them. You are looking for the following:
- Does the student have a significant overbite? (Most people have an overbite; your main concern is whether this is an abnormally large overbite.) This variable affects jaw placement.
- Do you see any severely misaligned teeth? (Examples would include teeth that have grown in behind one another or teeth that are sharply angled and might protrude into the lip.) This variable affects horizontal (and sometimes vertical) mouthpiece placement.
- Once the student relaxes his or her mouth, how does the upper lip align with the upper teeth? Are teeth visible even when the student’s mouth is resting, or is the upper lip long enough to meet the lower lip? This variable affects vertical mouthpiece placement.
Most students will have a moderate overbite and relatively straight teeth. See below for information about students who are exceptions.
2) Get your student to buzz. The trumpet embouchure works as a contradiction of opposing forces: the circular muscle around the mouth, the orbicularis oris, contracts in an inward direction, pulling the lips into a pucker. Meanwhile, the muscles of the cheeks contract outward, pulling the corners of the mouth back into a smile. When these two forces contract in an appropriate balance with one another, we create the trumpet embouchure, in which the lips are not puckering and the corners are not smiling. To form an embouchure, I tell my students to anchor the corners of the mouth to the teeth immediately behind them and then flatten the lips. This language tends to prevent the students from pulling the corners too far back. Once they make this shape, I have them take a breath and blow, without involving either the trumpet or the mouthpiece. I am looking for any evidence of a buzz, in any register. At this point, I care that the student is using sufficient air to fuel the embouchure and that s/he understands the difference between buzzing versus simply blowing air.
3) You want your student’s mouthpiece to sit roughly in the middle of his or her lips, not too far to either side and not too high or too low (if in doubt, err on the side of having too much top lip in the mouthpiece). This placement will enable the opposing muscle groups to function with the least amount of strain. Once the student can produce a buzz without the mouthpiece, I ask him or her to place the mouthpiece in the center of the embouchure and do the same thing.* The student will naturally place the mouthpiece wherever it feels most comfortable, and I am looking to see if this placement is actually centered. If it isn’t, I may have the student adjust, provided that I haven’t seen any problems with the teeth that would require a different position.
4) You want the student to keep the teeth apart while playing. Keeping the teeth apart will counteract a whole host of problems, including shrill or spitty sound. I also believe that this action lays the groundwork for a smooth transition into the more forward jaw placement that many professionals prefer. It may be easier to monitor this factor once the student has the mouthpiece attached to the trumpet itself, since the angle at which s/he holds the instrument will likely have an impact on the position of the teeth (and vice versa). Use your judgment, and mention it to the student whenever it seems most appropriate.
In a few cases, you may need to adjust your expectations. For example:
- If a student has a pronounced overbite, s/he will usually need to learn to bring the lower jaw to a more forward position while playing so that the mouthpiece can rest on the flat surfaces of both sets of teeth. This change may take a long time; you will need to be patient with the fact that the student’s bell angle will depend upon his or her jaw–which means that, until the student has developed the strength to protrude the jaw, the bell will likely point towards the floor.** In rare cases, the student may not be able to move the jaw forward without putting strain on the temporomandibular joint. I make a point, whenever I am adjusting jaw placement with one of my students, of asking the student to notify me immediately if anything odd starts happening with the jaw (popping, clicking, locking, etc.). Such symptoms would indicate that we are moving the jaw the wrong direction for that player’s physiognomy. (So far, I have not had any students who have reported this problem as a result of a lesson assignment, but I have had to adjust a few players’ jaw placement in order to relieve an existing problem.)
- If the student has an underbite, the student’s bell will point upward while s/he is playing. Make sure that the student is still placing equal pressure on both the top and bottom lips, rather than directing the full weight of the trumpet to the top lip alone. This player’s corners may turn slightly upward while playing because of the natural set of the jaw.
- If a student’s teeth are extremely crooked, I usually ask whether braces are in the future–if they are, they will likely make things easier. I still want the mouthpiece to be in the center of the embouchure, but it’s okay if it sits slightly to one side or the other to get around a protruding tooth. I am more concerned that it not sit too low.
- If the student has a very short upper lip, s/he may not be able to place the mouthpiece high enough to get optimal results. We don’t ever want the soft red tissue of the upper lip to sit directly under the upper rim of the mouthpiece because this tissue needs to vibrate, and the pressure from the mouthpiece will impede that action. Many players can play successfully with a somewhat short upper lip (I am among that number), so we’re really only concerned with the extreme. Attempt to keep the mouthpiece close to the nose, but understand that this scenario will create a different set of problems (namely, the aperture will no longer be aligned with the gap between the teeth).
- Some players have very full lips and struggle to fit them inside the mouthpiece. As in the case of players with a short upper lip, I do my best to keep the upper rim of the mouthpiece above the red tissue of the upper lip. Many band directors suggest that these players should switch to low brass; however, I do not personally believe that this lip shape is automatically detrimental to good trumpet playing. Certainly, low brass is one option and is may even be an easier option, but I have taught many advanced players with this lip shape who do not seem to suffer from it. Keep an eye on it and see how your student develops.
Note that these principles apply regardless of your student’s personality. In our next post, we’ll return to Sarah, Eric, and Ian to discuss the various ways in which you might want to package this information to achieve maximum results with varying types of students.
* I tend to go back and forth about the benefits/detriments of lip buzzing, but I definitely support mouthpiece buzzing, especially at this stage.
** Some teachers use bent mouthpieces to help with this scenario, so that the student can learn to hold up the trumpet without placing undue pressure on the top lip.