Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tone Production



"Music is the interpretation of sound. Without the creation of sound, there can be no music."

There are many factors that encourage tone production on a brass instrument. From my own experience of imitating the sound of Mr. Jacobs playing in the CSO, I learned that concept of sound is the most important factor. Adolph Herseth and Arnold Jacobs were such powerful figures on the stage of the Chicago Symphony that they influenced the sound of the entire orchestra. The sound of the orchestra changed when they were not present. The intensity of their sound influenced everyone, including the conductors. That sound cannot be described with words alone. It had to be experienced!

Jake and Bud were the most important influences that created the unique “Chicago Symphony” sound first developed under conductor, Fritz Reiner and later nurtured by maestro Georg Solti. I first experienced the CSO on the great Reiner recordings for RCA. later, I was fortunate enough to live it in Orchestra Hall sitting in the gallery and on stage.

It’s the brass player’s concept of sound that ultimately has the most powerful influence on other factors, such as breath, embouchure, articulation, and fingering.


“The player’s volitional (conscious) concept of sound is the primary motivator of other elements of tone production, such as embouchure and air. Contrary to popular belief, embouchure and air are not the primary motivators of the brass player’s sound.”

“It is the sound of words that motivates a child to speak, not the study of vocal chords, anatomy, or breath. If we go to a child’s crib with pictures of vocal chords and anatomical charts of lungs and the diaphragm, there will be no spoken words coming from their mouth.”

“Only the conscious mind can be the master of the music. Only the subconscious mind can be the master of realizing it.”


“The key to playing a brass instrument is found in speech.”

“It’s not what you sound like that is important. What is important is what you want to sound like.”

RICHARD OLDBERG (former 3rd horn - CSO)

“You know you have a great sound if you can be identified by it”

That statement was certainly true of Dennis Brain, Arnold Jacobs, and Adolph Herseth. The same can be said of Luciano Pavarotti, Itzak Perlman, or Yo Yo Ma. In my career, I was fortunate enough to have a few people, including Ed Kleinhammer and Jake’s wife Gizzi, comment that they thought Jake was playing in a closed room, but it was me. Yes, imitation is the greatest form of flattery.

There are many factors that encourage tone production but the most important one is conceptual. Jake told me to, “Imagine what the music would sound like if Bud Herseth played it on his trumpet.” Or he frequently would say, “You’re Italian. Make the music sound like Renata Tibaldi is singing it.” I always sounded different immediately after those comments.

Interestingly, Bud Herseth does not credit great brass players for having the most important musical influence on him. Since his parents loved opera, they would frequently play recordings of great opera singers.

In 1992, I interviewed Brian Bowman for The Instrumentalist magazine. I asked him how he started on the euphonium and who were his most important influences. There was an interesting response.

Brian had few brass teachers influencing his euphonium playing. His father was violinist and directed a church choir. He sang in the choir and occasionally accompanied them with his euphonium. Brian traveled to Chicago from his home town of Rock Island, Illinois to take an occasional lesson with Forest Buchtel at Vandercook College. He had his first lesson with Jake day after our interview.

Jake frequently said, “I was a pretty good brass player until my first teacher came along.” When he was a child, he volunteered to play the bugle for his Boy Scout troop. His mother was an accomplished pianist but she knew nothing about brass instruments. She simply played the notes on the piano and Jake imitated them with the bugle. He eventually became an excellent trumpet player without having a teacher.


Working with inexperienced brass players, I to use very simple familiar descriptive words, such as loud or big, to motivate them to produce a more resonant sound on their mouthpiece. I also associate the sound with a familiar large object such as an elephant or a bus. I’ll ask them to imagine that their mouthpiece is twice as large.

I may give a beginning trumpet or cornet player the mouthpiece of the next larger brass instrument, such as a trombone mouthpiece. It’s easier to produce a large sound on a larger mouthpiece.

One of my former graduate students at Vandercook College, a fine professional trumpet player and middle school band director, starts his beginners on a Bach 1C trumpet mouthpiece. It is the largest diameter trumpet mouthpiece in the Bach catalogue. For many years, he has been successfully developing excellent young brass players for his band program.

Most of my professional colleagues and I play large diameter mouthpieces and use large bore instruments to encourage resonant tone production. Jake preferred used a large tuba (York) to help him compensate for his reduced vital capacity.

I remember seeing a trumpet mouthpiece designed and used by Maynard Ferguson. It was not a typical cup shaped design. It was essentially a deep horn mouthpiece (funnel ) with a wide trumpet rim. Mouthpiece design and playing characteristics will be discussed further in a future post.



“A large breath can be used to produce a large sound.”

“Make the sound of a vacuum cleaner when you inhale a deep breath.”

“Inhale very large breaths and renew them often.”

“There are ideal parameters of breathing in order to encourage maximum tone production. Start playing from maximum capacity and renew the breath at about 50% capacity. Avoid the danger zone at less than 33% VC.”

I only make one reference to air when I’m working with wind players. I'll encourage them to take in maximum inhalations and to renew them often. I immediately associate a large inhalation with a resonant sound. Ultimately, it’s the player’s desire to produce a resonant sound that will motive them to take in large breaths. However, this association must be conditioned over time.

It is important to understand that no one needs to be taught how to quickly suck in a large quantity of into their lungs. References to anatomy, such as chest, stomach, or diaphragm are not only unnecessary, they are detrimental.


“At birth, we already have the ability to inhale air into the lungs and to expel it quickly without having someone teach us how to do it.”

“Nobody has to teach us how to breathe in order to play a wind instrument. If you are living, you are an expert breather!”

Since no one is born with an instrument in their hands, an infant does not take their first breath in order to play a trumpet. They breathe to establish their own life support. How do they motivate their first breath? They scream and cry as loud as they can! It’s sound that motivates their first breath!


“Sound motivates function.”

A wind player must condition the need for the large inhalations associated with playing an instrument. It is not necessary to relearn how to breathe. They only have to transfer the use of the skill they already have to use for another purpose. That is playing a wind instrument.

It is also important to understand that the knowledge of breathing is at the subconscious level of thought. No one is consciously thinking about every breath they take in order to sustain their lives. When we try to give a student lessons in anatomy in order to breathe, we are attempting to bring a subconscious function to the conscious level of awareness. At the conscious level, we don’t have the intellect, knowledge, or skill necessary to make that happen. A beautiful function is destroyed.


“Deep breathing must be associated with producing sound on a wind instrument. Without a strong association between the deep breath and resonant tone production, deep breathing becomes a meaningless exercise.”

“Playing an instrument must always be a musical experience that requires a certain amount of mechanics. Playing can never be thought of as mechanical experience first. Otherwise there will be no music.”

Once the brain has been conditioned to associate a large inhalation with quality sound, the large breath will become motivated by the player’s concept of sound. It is important to understand that any conditioning requires numerous repetitions over time.


Frequently, I’ll ask a new brass pedagogy class, “What do you know about Arnold Jacobs.” Someone always says, “He only had one lung”. Not true!

Jake was a severe asthmatic with a greatly reduced vital capacity. At the end of his career, his vital capacity was less than two liters. It should have been at least double that for his age. When I occasionally saw him walking down Michigan Avenue from Orchestra Hall, I would always ask him how he was feeling. He invariably replied, “I’m still fooling them.” He was “fooling” them for fifty years!

Early in our relationship he would say to me, “I wish I could put my brain inside your body. What a combination that would be!” At one time, he measured my vital capacity at almost seven liters of air.

Jake was a master musician who knew how to phrase music in order to disguise his frequent breaths. He also knew how to draw on the strength of the other brass players around him for support. That’s why Jake and Ed Kleinhammer were such a great team.

Because there are only a few compositions that require two tubas, I spent much more time in the CSO sitting next to Mr. Kleinhammer than I did with Jake. Ed was a very supportive partner! I owe him a great debt of gratitude for everything he taught me about ensemble playing. More importantly, he taught me the meaning of musical integrity.

Kleinhammer and I worked out where we would breathe in the music as if we were string players marking bowing. He always wanted to know where I was going to take a breath in an extended passage. He would accommodate my needs first by breathing after me and did the same for Jake.

Even though Jake had a reduced vital capacity, for short durations, he could dominate the entire orchestra with his powerful tone. He would allow the other brass players in the orchestra to do much of the work in extended loud passages. Then, he would bring all his sound to the fore at the end of a climatic passage. It was his sound that the audience remembered most, as if he was carrying the entire brass section all along. He compensated by taking in maximum breaths very quickly and renewing them often. I never knew any wind player who could inhale air into his lungs faster than Jake!


VC is the maximum amount of air that anyone is capable of physically inhaling into their lungs. For life support, there is a tremendous amount reserve capacity built into the respiratory system of the body. While resting, we only utilize 10-15% of our vital capacity to sustain life. We could survive on less than 10% VC but we would be weak and probably bedridden. The extra 85% of reserve capacity allows us to do other physically demanding things like running away from an animal looking for lunch. It is in the best interest of any wind player to utilize 100% of their VC.

Physically, the ability to expel air from our lungs is greatest when we are at 100% VC. This ability diminishes slightly as the air begins to leave the lungs. It looks like a gently sloping curve on a graph. However, when the last third of VC is reached, the curve takes a dramatic nosedive. It looks like the first drop on a roller coaster.

This means that the last third of our VC is mostly unavailable to a wind player. If a wind player typically finds themselves trying to play in the last third of their VC, they will have to uncomfortably force the air out of their lungs. It can be done, but why? It’s very uncomfortable, especially at loud dynamics. If they are playing below 33% VC for an extended amount of time, they will certainly become distracted by the discomfort. In time, the brain may try to duplicate the flow rates associated with the last 33% VC, in the first 67% of VC. The way to make that happen is to resist the flow of air in another manner. This will be discussed in a future post. THE FOUR POINTS OF RESISTANCE OF BREATH

To illustrate this condition, I ask students to take in a very large breath and to slowly expel the air until they can longer squeeze any out. I always find out who the smokers are because they begin to cough and choke as they reach 33% and approach zero VC.

Starting from a very shallow breath, I ask them blow the air on their hand. They repeat the process several times but each time they start with a larger breath. They continue until they are blowing on their hand from a maximum breath. Then I ask, “When did you feel the most air on your hand?” The answer always is when they blew from the maximum (100% VC) inhalation.


“Take in maximum breaths (100% VC) and renew them often (50% VC)”

"Shallow breathers handicap themselves in three ways. They reduce their ability to play extended phrases, louder dynamics, and they begin their exhalation at a point of reduced ability and they quickly move into the 33% VC danger zone.”

I encourage the renewal breath at about 50% to provide the greatest potential for tone production. However, if the wind player doesn’t start playing at 100% VC they will severely reduce their ability to play anything but shorter phrases. What’s even more problematic is if the player starts their exhalation at less than 100% VC, they are already at a point of reduced ability to expel air. They quickly enter the danger zone, the final 33% VC.

Should the player take a maximum breath for every passage? No, I don’t know anyone who does that. The amount of inhalation for a given passage will be motivated by the challenges of the music. Extended loud phrases will require larger breaths than shorter softer passages. Nobody consciously regulates their inhalation when performing. However, a maximum breath must be conditioned.


“The wind player must condition a maximum capacity breath at the subconscious level by repetition over time. Otherwise, when the musical need arises, the brain will never go to that level of breath but of the lack of experience.”


The body forces air into the lungs by creating an internal low pressure or partial vacuum. It does this by expanding the area of the lungs. Conscious knowledge of the precise physiology is not necessary. We live our entire lives as ignorant breathers. However, there is a vast amount of knowledge of breathing at the subconscious level of thought. We must stay out of the way!

Just as fingering, deep breathing, associated with playing, must be gradually conditioned by repetition over a period of several weeks. I encourage my students to consciously focus on taking in maximum breaths with loud mouthpiece playing, for no more than 5-10 minutes a day. I don’t encourage extensive breathing exercises away from playing. It’s very important to establish a strong connection between taking in maximum breaths and playing (mouthpiece and instrument) with a full resonant tone.

Jake once showed me a very simple exercise to motivate a large inhalation without using a breathing device. He said, “Put your first finger vertically over your open mouth and try to suck it in.” The finger doesn’t get sucked into your mouth but a rush of air certainly does. I tell the students to exaggerate the sucking sound to produce a dramatic effect. It’s the sucking sound, like the end of a vacuum cleaner hose, that will motivate a massive inhalation. I call it “vacuum breath”. My younger students don’t like the term because it sounds gross to them. I have asked them to come up with another term but nobody has done so. I’m still open for suggestions.

I’ll ask a student to do an inhalation-exhalation exercise loudly in sets of three. Their first finger placed vertically across their open mouth. They are encouraged to make sucking and blowing sounds as the air quickly moves in and out of the lungs. The use of the HO syllable encourages a fairly quiet inhalation. I’m much more concerned about the quantity and speed of the inhalation than I am about it being quiet. Some teachers encourage silent inhalations because they are concerned about excessive noise or breath resistance. There is no breath resistance unless the player closes their mouth.

Very few brass players have had the opportunity that I experienced sitting in the brass section of the CSO. There is a lot of inhalation noise coming from the players. I have never heard a complaint from anyone in the audience!

I once invited Charlie Vernon, the great bass trombonist of the CSO, to give a master class at Vandercook. He brought a stack if music a foot high and practiced his trombone on the stage for six hours! The sound of the air rushing into his lungs was frightening but the sound coming from his bell was glorious! Once in a while, he played a note he didn’t like. He said, “When that happens, I take the mouthpiece off the horn and buzz. That’s how I fix it!”

I also encourage a long duration of sound (inhalation and exhalation), otherwise students may perform the exercises using a shallow breath with little benefit. The exercises may also be done at varying speeds to simulate real playing conditions. It is most important that the inhalation be taken to maximum capacity and that the exhalation should be to about 33% VC. The discomfort and stress associated with breathing below 33% VC must be avoided.

After the student has executed the breathing exercise well with their finger, I have them substitute their mouthpiece for the finger. They are asked to cover the end of the mouthpiece stem with their free hand on the inhalation and to release open the stem on the exhalation. The purpose of sealing the stem on the inhalation is to prevent the player from inhaling air through the mouthpiece. I want the player to inhale air from outside the mouthpiece and to blow air through it. If the player gets in the habit sucking the air from inside their instrument, the instrument will excessively amplify the sound of the inhalation.

I don’t discuss how the player should form their mouth when sucking the air in while the mouthpiece is on their lips. I prefer not have them consciously thinking about what to do with their mouth. The subconscious brain will respond to the players need to suck in air by creating a sufficient opening. The use of the HO syllable for inhalation is very effective.

I have the do inhale-play exercise by buzzing loudly on the exhalation. At first they may buzz a single note, but I prefer that they play a familiar melody. It could be as simple as, “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” A high level of awareness of the melody is an important factor encouraging tone production.

The next step is to do the inhale-play exercise transferring the mouthpiece playing to the instrument. Again, I recommend simple melodic playing. With advanced players, I’ll have them play mid-range slurred phrases from Bordogni or Concone. Slurs are an important factor encouraging tone production.

Frequently, I notice that succeeding breaths after the initial breath become shallower. When this occurs, I ask the player to take the time necessary to renew a maximum breath by pausing between phrases. This eventually conditions the player to continue to take in large inhalations after the initial breath.


“Don’t expand to breathe. Breathe to expand.”

Jake tells us that you cannot motivate a deep breath by merely creating an expansion of the chest or abdomen. It is possible to create body motion without creating motion of air. It is deep breathing that will motivate expansion. However, expansion alone will not motivate a deep breath.

It should also be noted that a maximum inhalation requires full expansion of the lungs, both upper and lower areas. As a result, there will be simultaneous motion of the upper chest and abdominal areas. There should be no awareness of specific breathing from the “stomach” or “chest”.



“Sit as though you are standing from the waist.”

Many wind players prefer to stand when they play because it is easier to inhale a maximum breath. I knew of a very fine tubist, playing in a major American orchestra, who insisted that he be allowed to stand on the stage as if he was playing in a marching band.

It is not necessary to stand if as Jake says, “you stand from the waist while seated.” When I first started teaching at Vandercook College of Music in 1979, the only chairs available for the musicians were slanted toward the front. They were called “H.E Chairs” because they were the idea of one of the school’s founders and a highly respected faculty member, H.E Nutt. The chairs forced the player to sit on the end rather than with their lumbar pressing on the rear of the chair. He wanted their lumbar to remain the same as if they were standing.

I first ask new students to stand in front of their chair and bring their instrument to playing position. They sit on the edge of the chair so their playing position and torso are the same as if they were standing.

Proper posture and playing position will not make anyone a great player. However, poor posture and playing position will make tone production a little more difficult.


Large bore instruments and large diameter mouthpieces encourage a more resonant tone.


“We can make a large bore instrument or a large diameter mouthpiece sound like a smaller one. But, we can’t make small bore instruments and small diameter mouthpieces sound like large ones.”


Another important factor encouraging tone production is articulation. This brief discussion will be followed by a more detailed post later.


“The tongue serves no purpose in tone production. It can only interfere with tone production.”

“I never use the word “tongue” in my teaching. I substitute the word, “articulation” instead. The instant you say tongue, the player has a mental image of their tongue. They start to consciously think about their tongue instead of the music.”

“In everyday life, the tongue has been conditioned, at the subconscious level of thought, to respond to the sound of words and to function as an aid in chewing . It works beautifully without conscious interference. When we play a wind instrument, we want to subconsciously condition the tongue to respond to the sound of music."

Consciously, thinking about how our tongue feels or what it should be doing, will cause it to malfunction,”

I have noticed that when I'm lecturing about not consciously thinking about the tongue, I begin to stutter because I start thinking about my own tongue!


Wind players have learned that they can use words to direct the motion of the tongue and air in articulation. The syllables consist of a consonant (t,d,l,r,n, etc.) and an open vowel sound (ah, oh ou). I never encourage the use of a closed vowel such as ee. Some trumpet teachers encourage their students to use the ee vowel in the upper register to help play high notes. I strongly disagree with this antiquated practice. I will discuss this subject further in a future post, DEVELOPING RANGE.

Syllables are only used initially with beginners to condition the brain to use the tongue and air to create the sound of precise articulation. I never think syllables when I play. I’m always thinking sound! That’s always the ultimate goal.


Sound is created in the mouthpiece only by vibrating the lips with the use of air. Since the tongue can only interfere with the flow of air to the embouchure, it is important to minimize that interference.

The pure slur (lip slur) minimizes the use of the tongue. I always begin my initial performance (after melodic mouthpiece playing) by slurring scales and chords. They may be long tone type studies or velocity exercises from Arban, Schlossberg, Kopprasch, or Clarke. I first establish my quality tone in the mid-range and gradually expand lower as well as higher.


Sustained notes also minimize the interference of the tongue in the inter oral airway and they maximize the production of sound.



“Loud dynamics encourage tone production. Softer dynamics discourage tone production.”

“Think (sing) pitches, play loud”

“Loud dynamics encourage air flow through the embouchure.”

“Dynamic studies are tone controls for tone production.”

“When a player is challenged by practicing varied dynamics, they learn how to use air (subconsciously) to created better tone.”

“Musical and technical development is motivated by musical and technical challenge.”

As a young high school tuba player, I thought the job of the other members of the band was to accompany me when I played. I was proud of my tone so I thought it was the most important sound on the stage. It should be heard the most! Unfortunately, that’s what happened most of the time.

However, that mindset served me well later when I found myself on the stage with the CSO. I remember Ed Kleinhammer once remarking, “Don’t hide in the weeds kid!”

I recall a rehearsal of the Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony conducted by Georg Solti. I was stunned by the enormous sound of the opening brass fanfare. Eventually a descending scale is passed around the brass section and finally comes to the tuba. By the time, it was like the giant ball in the opening of the first “Indiana Jones” movie. I’ll never forget the sound that came out my bell. It was so loud that I turned to Ed Kleinhammer and apologized. I told him that I didn’t mean to play so loud. He said, “Don’t apologize, it sounded great!”

It is important that loud dynamic should be encouraged but it’s also important to understand that soft dynamic playing should not be neglected. Again, this subject will be discussed further in a future post.


“Low register notes encourage a resonant sound. High notes discourage resonant tone production.”

“Low notes are the foundation for your sound”

Jake once invited the principal players from each of the four brass sections of the CSO to his studio. He wanted to measure inter oral air pressure by inserting a small tube attached to an air pressure gauge through the corner of each brass player’s mouth. Inter oral pressure is the amount of force of air necessary to have the embouchure vibrate specific frequencies.

He asked each player to play the same frequency (middle C- 256 cps) at about the same dynamic level. Middle C is a lower register note on a trumpet, a mid-range note on the horn and trombone, and a relatively high note on the tuba.

He learned that the inter oral air pressure was about the same for each instrument and that the pressure doubled with the interval of an octave. There is a distinct correlation between frequency and the embouchure’s resistance to the flow of air. He also learned that the pressures were not very great even in the extreme upper register of the trumpet. He noted that even in the extreme upper register of the trumpet, the inter oral air pressure required was much less than that of a cough.

It is not possible to measure this air pressure when we play because we don’t have the sensory awareness at the conscious level to detect it. That’s not a problem, because we can consciously detect frequency very vividly.


“Strength is your enemy, weakness is your friend”

Jake is telling us that since the embouchure provides very little resistance to the flow of air, it doesn’t take much physical strength to play a brass instrument, even in the upper register of a trumpet.


“The facial muscles of the embouchure are some of the weakest in the body. The abdominal muscles used for breathing, defecation, and child birth are some of the strongest in the body. It is not possible to resist the flow of air with lips."

"Facial muscles vs. abdominal muscles is no contest.”

In his master classes, Jake frequently demonstrated the power of the abdominal muscles by having a female student stand on the stomach of a male while he was lying on the floor. He could easily resist the weight of the person standing on him.

Serious problems can develop if a brass player thinks that the strength necessary to play is greater than it actually is. The flow air can’t be resisted by the lips but it can by the tongue, throat, or an “isometric contraction” state of the muscles of inhalation working against those of exhalation.

With almost no exceptions, the muscles in the body are paired against each other. The biceps bends the arm at the elbow. The triceps can straighten it out again. There are separate muscle for inhalation and exhalation. When they simultaneously work against each other, an isometric state occurs and there is great effort but no motion. This subject will be discussed further in a future post. THE FOUR POINTS OF RESISTANCE.


When air flow and air pressure lines are graphed relative to frequency, the lines move in opposite directions.

At low frequencies, the embouchure offers little resistance to the flow of air so flow rates are high. At high frequencies, the embouchure becomes more resistant to the flow of air so air flow rates are lower. The bottom line is if we want to encourage high flow rates of air through the embouchure to encourage tone production, we must play with the air pressure-flow characteristic of low notes. To do this, we must practice a lot of low register notes.

JOESPH MOUREK (former 4th horn - CSO)

“Practicing low notes is more beneficial than high notes.”


“You can never damage your tone by playing too many low notes. However, playing too many high notes without compensating for their detrimental impact, can damage your sound.”

“If a brass player confines their playing to the upper register of their instrument, without balancing by playing in the mid and lower registers, their subconscious brain will begin to interpret the air flow-air pressure characteristics of high notes to be normal. Unfortunately, those characteristics are not normal for playing in the middle or low register and failure will result.”

“Always play with the characteristic sound of low register notes in your mid and upper registers.”

I frequently have my advanced level students play their etudes one octave lower than written. They may play by phrase, lines, or entire sections. Students may repeat a passage two or three times before playing in the written octave (loco). Their improvement in tone is always dramatic even if their low register sound is still somewhat undeveloped.



“You can make a large bore instrument and mouthpiece sound like smaller equipment, but you can’t make small equipment sound like large.”

“Small equipment can have limiting factors in your tone. Most brass players use large equipment because they don’t want any boundaries.”

Early in my career, I had the great fortune to spend many hours in Chicago recording studios, working with some of the finest musicians in the world. None of the brass players used large bore instruments, including myself. The reason is we were playing into a microphone and our sound was being controlled by engineers.

Most of the professional brass players who I work with outside the recording studios, tend to use larger equipment because of its greater amplification of sound and darker timber. The exception is jazz players who want a brighter timber and also to play with greater flexibility in their solos.

Many teachers, who start beginning brass players, give their students smaller mouthpieces, such as a Bach 7c trumpet mouthpiece. The theory is that because they have weak and undeveloped embouchures so they are not capable of playing on larger mouthpieces. However, many teachers have told me that they prefer to start beginners on medium sizes mouthpieces because they encourage more resonant tone production.

One of my former graduate students at Vandercook, a very fine professional trumpet player, starts his beginning trumpet players on the largest mouthpiece in the Bach catalogue (1C). He has been a very effective brass teacher for many years.
Motivated students should never be allowed to remain on small mouthpieces for an extended length of time because they will never develop a mature brass sound.


Since “embouchure” is such an overused word in the brass player’s vocabulary, I prefer to refer to call it the “E” word. Actually, the term I use most is “mouthpiece placement”.

It is very unfortunate that many brass players and teachers misdiagnose their failure as the result of problems with embouchure. They usually don’t correct problems by ordering embouchure changes. They cause more severe problems!


“There’s nothing wrong with your chops. Your mind is messing them up.”

We have all heard horror stories about students who were forced to alter their mouthpiece placement by some well intentioned teacher. In the worst situations, the players were destroyed by the experience and never played their instrument effectively again.

Some teachers have the misguided notion that the mouthpiece placement should look the same for all their students. Usually, they want their student’s mouthpiece placement to be the same as their own or some picture in a book.

However, that’s not what is taking place in the world of high level brass performance. You can observe the brass sections of any major orchestra, and see that there is no uniform mouthpiece placement. Yet all the players perform very well on their instrument. Phil Farkas photographed the unorthodox mouthpiece placement of several professional horn players. He noted, “They all were very successful players.”

There are some elements of mouthpiece placement that may be a source of failure for some players. Those elements will be discussed in a future post, MOUTHPIECE PLACEMENT.


1. Sing and buzz the notes you want to play.
2. Inhale maximum breaths when the musical challenges require it.
3. Consciously think about the sound you want to play.
4. Sing each note in your head as you play it.
5. Develop a beautiful sound in your middle register first.
6. Use open vowel syllables to develop the sound of precise articulation.
7. Practice a wide range of dynamic levels, but develop forte + dynamics first.
8. Expand your range gradually form the mid-range simultaneously in two directions.


1. Pay any attention to your lips, tongue or any body parts.
2. Be concerned about blowing air when you play.
3. Consciously think about the mechanics of playing.
4. Think about air except to condition a deep breath over time.
5. Play too many high notes without balancing with middle and low register notes.
6. Play in extreme registers until you have developed a good sound in your middle register.
7. Pay much attention to the instrument you are holding.


  1. As a percussionist who is trying to brush up on some brass concepts before judging a solo and ensemble contest, I found your entries extremely coherent, focused, and well-articulated. I was able to take in a lot of information in a short amount of time because of it!

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