O.J.'s Trumpet Page Articles and reviews
What is a good embouchure?

Pops, I have divided my answer to your question into several sections. First I look at the definition of the word embouchure, then I list some important aspects of what defines a good embouchure, then I discuss how to develop a good embouchure and finally I list some very good embouchure methods.

The word "embouchure" - a definition
Let's look in a dictionary:

Our use of the word would be 2 b in the above definition. As this definition says, the word embouchure is used by both wind and brass players. The meaning is a bit different - a reed player forms his mouth around the mouthpiece. Here is what a saxophone player says: A reed player produces his sound by the help of a single (saxophone, clarinet) or a double reed (oboe, bassoon). A brass player's sound comes from the production of vibrations achieved only by the player's lips. The instrument only serves as a resonator (amplifier of vibrations). If a brass player formed his lips around the mouthpiece, no sound could be produced 

The embouchure is the "whole system"
Some books and methods describe the embouchure as the way we set our lips to play. This is too narrow a definition. To me the "embouchure" is the whole system that makes playing possible. Not only the lip setting, but the teeth aperture, the oral cavity, the mouthpiece rim, the throat, all the facial muscles that are in use when playing. People have very different physical makeup, some have big lips, some have small, etc. Every person has his / her own unique embouchure. This whole embouchure system is indeed very complex.

Embouchure and "settings"
Some have classified embouchures after players:

A better word for this classification would in my opinion be "setting" - like the "Maggio setting". People trying this puckered setting would still have their own unique embouchure.

The brass embouchure and our vocal chords
The action that takes place between a brass mouthpiece and the lips when a sound is produced can be compared to the action of the vocal chords when we talk or sing. We are all born with vocal chords, but the "brass chords" (embouchure) are artificial or "man made". Few people, if any, can pick up a trumpet and play with a good embouchure. Some few lucky ones, the "naturals" can play with good sound from a very early time. Maybe they have an intuitive ability to transform the lips to "vocal chords" - they are able to use their musicality to "sing" on the instrument. But the majority of brass players, especially those who choose trumpet and horn, struggle to find a good embouchure. Some lack range, others both range and endurance. A lot of players have a bad sound.

What defines a good embouchure?

1. good tone (or sound)
2. good endurance
3. good range
Developing a good embouchure
There are certain stages in helping a beginner to develop his embouchure. Before placing the mouthpiece on the lips, the lips must be formed in an M-position. This M-position is also called a "puckered smile" (Philip Farkas). Two groups of muscles are at work:
1. The muscles around our lips are those, which bring our lips to an extreme pucker, such as would be used to whistle.
2. The cheek muscles group, are those which bring our lips to a smile.
When these two muscles groups are working in balance, we have a good M-postion. We are now ready to place the mouthpiece on the lips. Horn teachers will advocate using a mouthpiece placement of 2/3 upper lip and 1/3 lower lip. A few trumpet teachers will also suggest this, but most teachers will advocate ½ upper and ½ lower lip.

When the "sweet spot" (optimal placement) is found, the beginner can start to develop his playing. The main goal now is to find the balance between air & vibration.

The vocal approach
Some people with embouchure problems try to analyze what the muscles do. Knowledge about anatomy is good - but to think about oris orbicularis and the buccinators etc. when developing the embouchure is to ask for trouble. It leads you into "paralysis by analysis".

Like a good singer, we must focus on sound and let that activate our mind and body to "self-correct". The greatest brass teacher in the last century, Arnold Jacobs, called this approach: Song & Wind:

Books for embouchure development
Nothing can replace a good teacher who knows about embouchure development and is a good player. This teacher can demonstrate how to form the embouchure and give the student a good sound model. A good teacher will also educate the student to be his "own best teacher" - and he will direct the student to good books.

Here are some books that are very good for developing an efficient embouchure. They all share some common things like breath attacks, long tones with crescendo and decrescendo and lip slurs. They all have simple but powerful exercises with the necessary instruction text:

In addition, two of the books (Thompson and Smiley) have an accompanying CD with sound samples.

Thanks to some of Carmine Caruso's long time students, it is now possible to take full advantage of the book "Musical Calistenics for Brass". Trumpet player Charly Raymond and trombone player Sam Burtis have explained how to use the Caruso exercises in an efficient way. Burtis has also written a book, "The American Trombone" where he describes the basic Caruso exercises. Some of this writing can also be found on the Internet at the "Online Trombone Journal". Raymond is the moderator of the "Caruso Forum" on the website "Trumpet Herald".

A crucial point in the Caruso exercises is, as Burtis says, to "listen to the foot" - tapping the foot while mentally subdividing the beat into 16th notes. About the breath attack Caruso says the following:

As we see, Caruso call embouchure balance. "Balance" is indeed the keyword in the Thompson and Smiley books. They work from two different and opposite positions to develop a flexible and efficient embouchure. Thompson uses glissando exercises on the mouthpiece alone and on the instrument, starting in the middle register and working in both directions - up into the upper register and down into the lower register. About his method, Thompson says: Smiley starts in the very low register (Roll Out) and in the high register (Roll In). From this exaggerated positions he works to develop a balanced embouchure. In an interview I had with him, he says: There are a lot of other good books for embouchure development. Herbert L. Clarke "Technical Studies" is excellent if used in the right manner. The book by James Stamp is great - and the list goes on. The books that I have listed helped my own development a lot. I got a more stable and flexible embouchure from using the exercises on a daily basis over the last year.

Pops, your books and your "cyber teaching" have also been a great help to me.

Good luck with this new project!


o.j. 2002 - This article was an aswer to a question from Pops Clint McLaughlin.
Update note (September 2002): It is now compiled into a book called The Pros Talk Embouchure