Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mouthpiece Placement

The “E” Word


“Brass players are much too concerned about their embouchure and not concerned enough about their sound.”

Along with “Air”, the “E” word (embouchure) is overused in traditional brass pedagogy. Too often, teachers make the assumption that the reason their students are failing, is because there is something wrong with their embouchure or use of air.

When we hear poor tone production coming from the bells of our student’s instruments, there is malfunction of embouchure and air. But most often, those malfunctions are symptoms of something else that’s wrong.


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


“There is no reason for your success or failure other than your ‘state of mind’.”

“Sound motivates function.”

“There is plenty of air to support the poor sounds coming from the bell of the instrument.”

Throughout my career, I have heard horror stories about students who had “dreaded” embouchure changes imposed on them by well meaning, but misguided teachers. Some players survive this unnecessary and potentially destructive imposition, but for too many, their careers are ruined.

In all my years of association with him, Mr. Jacobs never said one word to me about my embouchure!


I have taught brass pedagogy and instrumental performance at fifteen colleges and universities. I recall an incident that occurred at one of those schools.

At the end of his first semester, a freshman trumpet player requested to register for his applied trumpet lessons with me the second semester. He had made no progress working with his assigned trumpet teacher and was being denied an opportunity to play with the band. He was almost completely unable to function. I mentioned that if he had permission from his regular trumpet teacher, I would accept him for one semester. I knew it would be enough time to show him how to play.

From the beginning of his first lesson, it was obvious that he never understood how to play the instrument. I also noticed that he had a very unorthodox placement of the mouthpiece on his lips. His upper lip curled over the top of the mouthpiece rim. However, I said nothing to him about his embouchure.

We began his first lesson by applying the SING, BUZZ, PLAY formula, and were able to create some success immediately. At the end of the lesson, he was very relieved to know that he could play the trumpet.

Finally, I asked, “Has anyone ever mentioned your unusual mouthpiece placement?” Showing his frustration, he almost fell off the chair. He replied, “For years everyone, including every director or private teacher and my father.” I asked, “Where’s your father?” He said, “Sitting out in the hall!” I told him to invite his father to come into the studio. I was determined to have at least one person get off his back about his embouchure.

His father, an oboist, was a graduate of the same college. I proceeded to explain to the father that his son’s performance problems had nothing to do with his embouchure. Then the father told me an astonishing story about his first lesson with the principal oboist of the Chicago Symphony.

He said the first hour of the lesson was about making reeds and orthodox oboe embouchure. At the end of the two hour lesson, the teacher placed the reed in the corner of his mouth, ignoring everything he said about proper embouchure, and played beautifully. He was stunned! He never understood that demonstration until our discussion.


“You can give your worst mouthpiece (reed) or instrument to an advanced player and they will still sound like an advanced player. Conversely, if you give the finest equipment to an elementary player, and they will still sound like an elementary player.”

The trumpet player progressed beautifully over the next four months. He planned to play the last movement of the Hummel Trumpet Concerto for his jury. The lesson before the jury went very well. However, his jury performance was not a success.

When he arrived in the performance room, he found himself in the presence of the same people who hounded him about his incorrect embouchure. As a result, he began to think about his chops rather than the music.

Later, I asked him what they said about his very poor performance. Their response was predictable.

“Your embouchure is incorrect.”

The student was able to transcend the negative comments and continue his college career without having someone impose a change of embouchure.



Most brass players will place the mouthpiece in the most comfortable place on their lips. However, some teachers insist that the mouthpiece be precisely centered or in some other position. Because of the player’s teeth, braces, or some facial structure, an imposed mouthpiece position may be uncomfortable and will distract the player from the music.


“Feel and fail are four letter words to a brass player.”

“A change of embouchure is a needless imposition of pain that will cause increasing failure. Unless the brass player is highly motivated to transcend the discomfort with a powerful awareness of sound, they have no chance of success.”

“We must do things that will prevent, rather than encourage us from going into the “feel mode” when we play.”

Feel involves input to the brain from sensory tissues. However, in order to accomplish any physical function, there must be output (motor function) from the brain to the muscle tissues. If we allow input to be dominant over output, the result will be paralysis.


“We must give dominance to motor systems, not sensory systems. It is impossible to make sound or create any accomplishment using sensors.”

We should not be concerned about having the contact of the mouthpiece “feel good” when we play. But there cannot be excessive discomfort for any reason.

In a previous essay, I mentioned the story of Bud Herseth transcending the pain from his car accident when he performed with the CSO. In his studio, embouchure pain was so dominant he couldn’t play. But, he had the courage to perform with the orchestra.

On the stage of Orchestra Hall, the music was dominant and he could play. The challenge of the music altered his state of mind. There was another interesting element of his recovery experience.

About six months into his recovery, he happened to glance into a mirror while playing and noticed that his mouthpiece placement had shifted slightly from center. He never made a conscious decision to move the mouthpiece but his subconscious mind changed the placement in order to alleviate pain.


“Brass players who experience discomfort because of their mouthpiece placement, should be allowed to move the mouthpiece anywhere necessary to alleviate pain.”

Students who have irregular teeth or are expected to wear braces for an extended period can alleviate some discomfort considering the following.

The characteristics of air pressure and air flow encourage tone production at low frequencies. Air pressures (resistance) are low, thus flow rates are high. As a result, less contact pressure is required to maintain the embouchure at low frequencies.

1. Lower register playing requires less contact pressure on the rim.

2. Wider rim, larger diameter, or cushioned (well rounded rim) mouthpieces disperse contact pressure over greater tissue surface.

3. Low brass instruments have larger rim mouthpieces and require less contact pressure to maintain the embouchure.

4. Upper register playing requires increased contact pressure on the rim. A wider rim mouthpiece will disperse rather than concentrate contact pressure.

Because the brain is capable for sending a musical message to any of the lip surfaces, it is not necessary to center the mouthpiece. Farkas mentions that it is also possible to play well by placing the rim of the horn mouthpiece on the interior surfaces of the lower lip. Jake frequently mentioned how “the seventh cranial nerve” transmits the musical message from the brain to the lips.

Jake also enjoyed doing a very amusing demonstration. He played a melody on his mouthpiece as he grotesquely distorted his embouchure and moved the mouthpiece all over his lips. During the demonstration, the resonant melody could be heard without interruption.


The contact pressure of the mouthpiece on the player’s lips should be about the same at all points around the rim. It is also important to understand that the pressure is not minimal, nor should it be excessive.

Phil Farkas (The Art of Horn Playing, The Art of Brass Playing, Southern Music Co.) took numerous photos of brass player’s embouchures while playing on a mouthpiece rim. It is very clear to see by the, lips bulging inside the rim, that the contact pressures are not minimal.

As noted in a previous essay, excessive contact pressure is a symptom of weak chops.
If there is not enough contact pressure on either the upper or lower lip, there may be a lack of support when playing very loud.

Because all facial structures are different, the brass player’s playing angle is an important consideration. The brass player must establish and maintain equalized contact pressure. The playing angle will not be uniform for all players.

Brass players with an overbite (most common) will tend to have a downward playing angle, while those with an under bite will play parallel to the floor or may point their mouthpiece slightly upwards. The best way to determine the proper playing angle is to play on the mouthpiece and then bring the instrument to the angle of the mouthpiece. This is easy to accomplish with a trumpet or trombone. It can be tricky for horn players, if they rest the bell on their thigh or hold the instrument off their thigh.

Too often, I see young horn players resting the instrument on their thigh in such a way (bell pointing into their stomach) that the leadpipe is approaching the embouchure at a severe downward angle. This causes too much pressure on their upper lip and not enough on their lower lip.

Euphonium and tuba players, requiring a severe playing angle, have a difficult time achieving the proper angle with large instruments. In that event, I recommend bending the mouthpiece at the throat. This must be done by a competent instrument technician so that the throat and stem are not reduced in size. In most cases, euphonium and tuba players will adjust the angle of their head instead of trying to adjust the instrument.

During my years spent in Chicago’s recording studios, the number of microphones available was limited by the number of tracks that could be recorded at one time. Usually, it was just eight tracks, but later, sixteen track machines became available.

Three trumpet players had to play into a single microphone. I recall one fine player who had a severe under bite. It was impossible for him to play at the same angle at the other two players so he used a bent mouthpiece.

Since the microphone for my tuba was stationary, it was important that my bell always point in the same direction with as little motion as possible. I took a cue from the trumpet player and had Reynold Schilke bend one of his number 67 tuba mouthpieces to compensate for my minor overbite. I still use that same mouthpiece and horn combination today.

As a brass player changes registers, the playing angle (pivot) continuously changes with the shifts in the embouchure. Most players will make these adjustments with movement of their head. Pivots are necessary to maintain equalized contact pressure. Excessive motion is a sign of the player’s limited technical facility and embouchure development.

Motion of the head and embouchure are the brain’s subconscious response to create the conditions necessary (equalized contact pressure) to execute the sound. They can only be motivated by a vivid awareness of sound not by studying ourselves in a mirror.

Some misguided methodologies prescribe precise head angles (pivot) in various registers. We cannot create sound by consciously studying motion of air or any body part.


“It is sound that motivates the subconscious mechanics of air and embouchure. We cannot use conscious awareness of mechanics and air to motivate sound. The mechanics are so complex that our limited intellect will allow little or no awareness of sound.”

“At the conscious level, we can only have a single thought at any time. At the subconscious level, thoughts and awareness are unlimited.”

Normal motion of the head and embouchure should not be exaggerated. Since excessive motion is a symptom of an undeveloped embouchure and limited technical facility. I prescribe slurred velocity exercises (scales and chords) that challenge the player over two or more octaves. In time, the brain will learn to minimize shifts of the head and embouchure to satisfy the facility requirements. Since there isn’t time for exaggerated motion of embouchure and head, the subconscious brain learns how to efficiently execute the notes in velocity with less motion. Ultimately, smooth slow slurs played over wide intervals, become much easier to execute.


“I do not recommend visual analysis in front of a mirror to develop any musical or technical skill.”

“In all my years of performing with some of the finest brass players in the world, I never once saw anyone studying themselves in front of a mirror.”

“It is sound that motivates function, not function that motivates sound.”


“Breathe to expand, rather than expand to breathe.”


Logic tells us that it would be an advantage for tone production to utilize the longest embouchure possible. If we compare an oboe reed with that of a bassoon, the bassoon reed has much greater potential for resonance because of it’s greater size. If we were to place an oboe reed in the bocal of a bassoon, the sound of the bassoon would be very thin.

On a brass instrument, the greatest length of embouchure is achieved when the lips come together to form an aperture (space between lips) at the diameter of the circular rim of the mouthpiece.

Today most brass players, except for horn, place the mouthpiece on their lips in this manner. However, many very successful brass players, including horn players, shift the mouthpiece up or down so there is a difference between vibrating surface areas of the two lips. If the mouthpiece is shifted so the ratio of upper lip to lower lip is 2:1 (most common), there will be a corresponding ratio of surface area set into resonance.


There is a myth that the reason for the traditional shifted placement is because only one lip vibrates in the mouthpiece. It’s not possible to vibrate only one lip when both lips are inside the rim and air flows through the aperture between them.

In The Art of Horn Playing (Southern Music Co.), Farkas photographed the embouchures of 30 professional horn players. Interestingly, their mouthpiece placement varied wildly. Some players had almost no lower lip in the rim while some used almost no upper lip. A few players had no shift at all. Farkas said that all the players were very successful professionals.

It must be deduced that mouthpiece placement was not the most important factor determining their success.

One theory for the use of the shifted mouthpiece placement is an advantage to playing in the upper register of the instrument. Before the invention of valves in the 1820s, brass instruments were required to be much longer to access the smaller intervals of the upper partials.

It becomes increasingly difficult to resonate the air column in the upper partials of the overtone series. Except for the Sackbut (early trombone), brass players were required to play in the upper register of their trumpets and horns most of the time. The F horn is the same length as the modern F tuba. Horn players are essentially playing high notes on a tuba most of the time. Baroque trumpeters (without valves) are playing high notes on a Sackbut most of the time.

As a result, the standard mouthpiece shift, before the invention of valves was, 2/3 upper lip-1/3 lower lip. Some very effective brass players retain the shift today. It is standard mouthpiece placement for horn players. However over many years, I have asked hundreds of directors if they have their horn players shift the mouthpiece. I estimate that 95% don’t !

Today, most trumpet and low brass players do not shift their mouthpiece. Does it really matter where the aperture occurs within the mouthpiece rim?


I received a request for a lesson from a tuba player who had recently graduated from a major university with a DMA in performance. However, she was having problems with her playing. I gave her an appointment for a late Friday afternoon.

Yes, she was having great difficulty playing, especially in the middle and low registers. I noticed that the top of the rim of her mouthpiece was cut off. Naturally,I asked about it.

Several prominent teachers told her that the reason she was struggling was because of the need to shift mouthpiece placement. If she cut off the top of the mouthpiece rim, she could shift it even more!

I said, "Is that working for you?" The boxing gloves came on!

When a student begins to fight me, I ask them, "Why are you here?" You wouldn't come to me if everything was working well for you!

Sometimes students want to find out how to make their dysfunctional method work. They are not interested in a new approach. This credentialed tuba player was one of those people. She resisted everything I said to her for more than six hours!

Finally, I said, "Are you busy this evening?" She replied, "No". I replied, "I can't let you leave until you experience some success." She agreed to stay.

I knew her career was in serious jeopardy if she did experience some success that evening. She would never return and would continue to try to make her shifted mouthpiece placement work. I knew it would never work because her cut off mouthpiece had nothing to do with the fact that she couldn't play!

We spent the next five hours (with breaks)in a boxing match. Finally, at 10:00 she experienced success. I asked her what caused the change. She said, "I finally decided to listen to you because I want to go home!"

She eventually enrolled as a graduate student in music education at Vandercook where she continued to study with me. She played a very successful graduate recital, without the cut off mouthpiece!


One summer, I received a call from a mother regarding her seventh grade daughter who had been playing a cornet in her middle school band. The daughter’s band director wanted her to convert from cornet to the horn over the summer.

Since she had been playing cornet for several years, I said nothing to her about using a shifted horn embouchure. Had I imposed a standard 2/3-1/3 shift, she would have experienced a great deal of discomfort in her embouchure. That pain would have needlessly distracted her from the music and cause her to fail. I knew that Barry Tuckwell and many other fine professional horn players, did not shift their mouthpiece.

By the time she went to high school a year later, she was an excellent horn player. She attended a high school that has one of the finest instrumental programs in Illinois. She was awarded first chair in the wind ensemble as a freshman, playing the instrument for only one year!

In Illinois, you cannot perform at All-State until your junior year. She won principal horn in the Honors All-State Orchestra both her junior and senior years. She established herself as the finest high school player in the state. No one ever said a word about mouthpiece placement until she attended a major university. The result was a career ending disaster!

Even though she already was a very successful player, the horn professor told her that her embouchure was incorrect and insisted that she must shift the mouthpiece. As a result, he ruined her very promising playing career and, as I learned later, the careers of many other players.

Unfortunately, this story is more common than not. I have heard the arguments, from some instrumental teachers, that their imposed embouchure changes “worked miracles” for their students.

Yes, it is possible to transcend the discomfort and develop one’s playing with a different mouthpiece placement. In most cases, the players became even more highly motivated to focus on the music. If their playing improved after the embouchure change, it’s because they transcended the pain with a greater awareness of the music, recalling Mr. Herseth following his automobile accident.

It’s possible for the brain to send a musical message to any surface tissue around the mouth. The mouthpiece does not have to be confined to a narrow area of tissue.

When I’m working with beginners or non-brass instrumentalist, I motivate them to produce excellent sounds on their mouthpiece immediately. They have no embouchure development but I immediately give them musical awareness. They are able to realize that awareness immediately.


“Keep it simple.”

With inexperienced brass players, I use very familiar melodies (Mary Had A Little Lamb) or simple terms like “loud”, “high”, or “low” to create an immediate musical awareness.


Several years ago, I attended the Texas Bandmasters Convention held in San Antonio. Christian Lindberg performed as trombone soloist with the Army Band. Following his magnificent performance, the thrilled audience immediately rose to award Mr. Lindberg well deserved accolades.

I remember a comment that I overheard from one of the directors standing near me. He said, “Wow! Can you imagine what his embouchure looks like?” I was totally disheartened because I knew it didn’t matter what his embouchure looked like. What was important was what it sounded like! The director didn’t understand that fact and far too many others don’t understand as well.

Mr. Lindberg had absolutely no concern about the appearance of his chops or what they felt like. He was totally committed to just the sounds that he wanted to communicate to the audience!


One of the finest students of my teaching career is a euphonium player who first came to me as a sophomore in high school. At the age of sixteen, he won a competition to appear on a live telecast as soloist with the Chicago Symphony. At seventeen, he won first prize in the Leonard Falcone International Euphonium Competition.

Upon graduation from high school, I told him that he already had all the knowledge required to play his instrument well. He should continue his college studies, working with a euphonium artist-teacher. I suggested teacher “A”. He was thrilled because he had always hoped to study with him someday. He scheduled a lesson with teacher “A”. I asked him inform me about the lesson.

I received a distressful call soon after the lesson. He said, “Mr. Rocco, I can’t study with teacher “A”! He said my breathing and embouchure were all wrong. Then, he put me in front of a mirror to have me visually analyze my face and chest. By the end of the lesson, I couldn’t play anymore. What a disappointment!

I mentioned that I was sorry for his experience and I was sure he would be satisfied with artist-teacher “B”. He enrolled at the major university where teacher “B” was on the faculty.

Periodically during the school year, I received progress reports. I could tell he was not happy. He was receiving the same old analytical trash! At the end of the year, he mentioned he was leaving teacher “B”.

I saw him for a lesson the summer following his first year in college. I was dismayed to see that his playing had deteriorated. I confidently mentioned the name of artist-teacher “C”.

Teacher “C” (tuba) was a wonderful student of Mr. Jacobs. “A” and “B” are not Jacobs students. I had hoped the two artist-teachers would focus only on the music. In the fall, the student enrolled at the major university of teacher “C”. From the beginning, he was very happy.

I told him that if a gig ever came along before he finished school, he should drop out and accept the opportunity. He soon won a job playing with one of the major DC military bands. Today, he is one of the most prominent brass players in all the military bands.

Most college teachers are hired because of their performance ability not for the success of their teaching. As a result, many very fine performers are somewhat poor teachers if their students are experiencing playing problems.

I have had many students, with impressive college credentials, come to me because they can barely play.

I once asked a horn player, who had recently received her Master of Performance degree from a major university, what her artist-teacher said about her severe playing problems. He said, "I don't understand why you can't play anymore than I understand why I can."


“We cannot motivate our embouchure by observation. It can only be motivated by our vivid awareness of sound.”


The embouchure is created by the subconscious brain in order to realize the player’s conscious awareness of sound. It’s the quandary of the chicken or the egg. Which came first?

Traditional brass pedagogy says in order to create the perfect sound you must first create a perfect embouchure. Mr. Jacobs (Herseth, Rocco and many others!) tells us that it’s the awareness of sound that must come first. The development of the embouchure will follow gradually just as the ability to say words with vocal chords gradually followed our awareness of words.


“A child learns how to speak because of the sound of words rather than the study of vocal chords.”

“Because there are no standard facial structures there cannot be a standard mouthpiece placement.”

If the brass player is musically motivated and given enough time, they can realize their awareness with almost any mouthpiece placement.

Brass players and teachers should be aware that if standards of mouthpiece placement are imposed, failure may result because the standard may not fit the player’s facial structure. The brass player must be free to place the mouthpiece comfortably and with equal contact pressure on their lips. If this doesn’t occur, they will become distracted by the discomfort and will fail.


Some teachers complain that the poor performance of their students, is the result of “puffing cheeks”, “puckered lips”, “tight lips, “loose lips” etc. They give them “embouchure magnifying mirrors” in order to study their face. Other teachers have their students play on glass mouthpieces so they can visually analyze their chops when they play. Where is the player’s concept of sound when they are analyzing their face in a mirror?

When a brass player is “mindlessly blowing” into their mouthpiece, there is no musical message to motivate the subconscious formation of an embouchure. There are certain principals of mouthpiece placement as outlined earlier in this essay.

Self analysis must be kept to a minimum. Concept of tone should be the dominant.

I am aware of many very successful brass players who “puff their cheeks” or have some other unorthodox mouthpiece placement. Does it matter if they are successful brass players?


I recall attending a brass quintet concert of an excellent group from Boston. I was invited by the very fine tuba player who had studied with me on occasion in Chicago. I immediately notice that one of the excellent trumpet players severely puffed his cheeks when he played.

Following the concert, I had an opportunity to meet with the members of the quintet. I knew that the quintet performed many educational concerts and gave numerous brass clinics in schools. I said to the trumpet player, “I’ll bet the directors make you crazy asking why you play so well when you puff your cheeks.” He replied, “Yes,I just tell them I’m a freak of nature.”


“I don’t care if what you are doing is all wrong if it sounds good.”

We must conclude that if it sounds good, it cannot be wrong!


“Embouchure is created by the brass player’s subconscious mind in order to realize their vivid concept of sound. We must not care what it looks like, only what it sounds like.”


  1. Thanks so much for this post! Rok

  2. Outstanding I played trumpet at very young age 9, my tumpet broke in sixth grade and my parents could not pay to fix it so my grambling university dreams ended. I've been encouraged to play for my Church, I'm trying to teach myself again I'm a disabled veteran, who's had TMJ surgery and an overbite! I'm frustrated my sound changes one day I can play "There is Power In The Blood." the next thing I know. I can't blow C,D,E, or G in key of Bb. My lips hurt every time I try to play high notes, I never had this issue when I was a kid, Im frustrated and humbled I thought it would be easy knowing I played before. My day ended crying out to God im my prayer closet.