Type Your Chops

The two primary reasons for breakdowns in embouchure development are:

(1) placing the mouthpiece on an embouchure devoid of form and
(2) unnecessarily moving the mouthpiece on the lips during initial
and between-phrase inhalations.

Taking a breath before setting the embouchure has been the cause of more flubbed notes on initial attacks than can be imagined.  It is more difficult to hit a moving target, i.e., mouthpiece on the lips, than a stationary one, especially for trumpets, cornets and French horns, with their small mouthpieces.

Some players get by without setting the embouchure because they have quick reflexes, which work to set the lips in that split second between touching the mouthpiece and sounding a note.  But you cannot rely on quick reflexes as you get older.  Dry lip players have to find the precise spot – they must twist or contort their lips to find the comfortable place.  Successful dry lip players place the mouthpiece exactly, and if they get the slightest moisture in there, they go into a tailspin.

(1) STEP ONE – Preparing the embouchure:
Start by wetting top and bottom teeth between teeth and lips.  I’ll bet you won’t see this instruction in any method book.  Some degree of resiliency between lips and teeth eases the playing of the full range of the instrument.  When your lips stick on your teeth, the notes stick when moving from one interval to another.  Periodically lick the teeth because they dry out, especially in a dry climate.

It is not necessary but OK if you use A&D ointment, always in conjunction with saliva.  In Palm Springs I would lick my lips and saturate with A&D.  Critics will say everything will slide around like it’s on a skating rink, but realize that the lips that are not in the mouthpiece form a doughnut around the rim and hold the mouthpiece steady.

(2)  STEP 2:  The second step is to wet the mouth corners and then the entire lip surface.  If your mouth becomes dry (for example, from nerves), press the tongue against the roof of you mouth, hard.  The mouth will flood with saliva.  An alternative is to bite your tongue.

Form the lips around your teeth by positioning the lower lip slightly in and over the lower teeth, reaching the upper lip down slightly (as when saying the letter “M”), and putting the lower jaw in the position you use when playing.  The jaw may be reposed or slightly protruded, but keep your teeth spaced,  neither clenched nor too far open.   At this point, feel the mouth corners and lower lip “hugging the teeth gently.

(3)  STEP THREE – Placing the mouthpiece on the lips:
At the same playing angle, bring the horn and mouthpiece to this “firm” set-up.  Place the mouthpiece when you naturally place it (i.e., one-third upper, two-thirds lower; two-thirds upper, one-third lower; or 50-50).  Slightly press the mouthpiece against the lips before and while taking a breath.  This slight pressure gives a little grip so nothing moves.  Back off with the pressure when you blow.

Repeat the above many times before even taking a breath.  When you do inhale, the inhalation may be a nose breath or a mouth-corner breath.  In a mouth-corner breath, sip the air at the corners — do not pull the mouth back in a smile.  Because the lips are wet, the corners open beautifully.  You can absolutely get a good big breath.   If  players feel they are not getting enough air, they may be blocking airflow with their tongue.  The tongue must be gotten out of the way, clear of the airway.   Complete discussion of taking the breath is beyond the scope of this masterclass.  The chief thing is to form the lips as just described before placing the mouthpiece and inhaling, i.e., form — place — inhale — blowNever inhale — place — blow!  Even if you do not prepare the embouchure, always place the mouthpiece before breathing.   This procedure may seem elaborate, but with practice it becomes subconscious.  You get to the point where you won’t even think about wetting your teeth.  This technique works for beginners or any player with an embouchure problem.

You have an embouchure problem if you have trouble playing high, low or soft, or if you often chip notes or flub slurring.  Never blame your equipment or your breathing.  We’re like oboe players who are lost without a good reed.  An oboist can breathe like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it’s no good if the reed is not working.  Lips that don’t properly vibrate are just like a bad oboe reed – we play a double reed instrument!

Realize that learning this procedure is for the practice room only.  On the job, music needs 100 percent of one’s attention.  During performance, be concerned with only “making good.”