Playing on the red is a very common occurence that is, more often than
caused by playing on a mouthpiece with an inner diameter that is too small
for the individual.
The frequency of this malady is not at all surprising given the
fact that we live in an educational system that supports the notion of
starting all beginning players on 7C's. Most beginning students, no matter
what the size of their lip structure, are quite matter-of-factly given a 7C
as a first mouthpiece. This practice seems to me to be the most destructive
approach to cultivating young trumpet players imaginable.
Pardon me for going off a bit, but mouthpieces are really
amazingly beautiful in their design. Their basic design is comprised of (at
least) nine major elements, each meant to play a distinctive role in
accommodating the physical characteristics of the individual player. One of
these elements, and I believe the most important, is the inner diameter. It
is the function of the inner diameter to "fit" the players lips. The fuller
the player's lips, the larger the inner diameter that they will need.
Giving a player with full lips a 7C to play is to guarantee embouchure
problems. I shudder to contemplate the number of talented people who have
had been denied an enjoyable musical experience as a result of this
Perhaps even sadder is the case of the player who is wildly
talented, disciplined and completely devoted to his art. This player
*because* of his tremendous talent, and in spite of the limiting
characteristics that playing on the red entails, has managed to acquire a
level of accomplishment that may have gained him a place in a fine music
school. Now, suddenly, due to the increased work load that college life has
placed upon his flawed embouchure, he has come face to face with the
realization that there are some very real limiting factors attached to his
playing. I see this scenario far too often. I can't express my degree of
frustration regarding this situation. How can it be that in this day and
age educators still have no idea how to properly equip their students.
I've said it before and I guess I'll keep saying it until it no
longer is news, the mouthpiece has to be fit to the individual. You
wouldn't make a student wear a hat that's many sizes too small for their
head. Why do we do it with mouthpieces? Cup depth, bore size, backbore, all
of these elements are there for a reason. They can be manipulated
intelligently. The age of serendipity, hunting and pecking or emulating
your hero's equipment deserves to die it's natural death. Let's crawl out
of the middle ages!
There are some points that
have been raised on this list regarding
this issue that I'd like to address more specifically.
1) "I know that my students who have had that problem have had major
endurance problems in getting through a long rehearsal."
What's really wrong with
playing on the red? The problem is that
the inner portion of the lip is red because it has virtually no musculature
in it. It appears red because what you are seeing is blood flowing through
tissue without muscle in it. Without muscle to protect it from the pressure
of the mouthpiece, the player is much more apt to stop the flow of blood to
the area which allows for the build up of fluids, toxins...hence swelling.
In addition this area, because of the lack of musculature bruises more
easily. I have seen many a player, who set the rim on the red of the bottom
lip, scream high notes for 20 minutes, take the mouthpiece off to reveal a
deep purple bruise. Playing on the red of the top lip is also a problem for
endurance because with the aperture too far open, the air can never be
properly regulated. There is not enough resistance in the embouchure. This
hastens early fatigue. Of course for those with severe cases, their entire
playing technique is based on using pressure to control the aperture. There
is just so long that these tissues can be abused in this way before they
2) "Whether someone plays on the "red" or not has more to do with
of their face and not if they were playing properly according to some ideal
that doesn't exist".
When someone is forced to play on an inner diameter
that is too small,
they will find a way to make it work. The irony here is that it takes so
much more ability to play incorrectly. I have seen the most elaborate
playing techniques from people who, again, because of their amazing talent
and intelligence and tenacity have developed highly complex techniques that
allow them to play (up to a certain level) despite of the limitations that
their equipment is imposing on them. As my teacher William Vacchiano used
to say "the mouthpiece forms the player". A mouthpiece that is too small
(sets in the red) will not allow the lips to vibrate freely enough to
produce a full, vibrant sound. It is characteristic that players with this
problem have a "pinched" quality to their sounds. The tone can also have
what we used to call "smutzig" or dirt in it, "noise", kind of like
surface noise on an old LP. To counteract this problem, players literally
pull their lip out of the mouthpiece and generally tuck it out of the way
with the rim. With less lip in the mouthpiece the very resourceful can
produce quite respectable tone. The difficulty arises in that in tucking
the lip up in this way, the aperture is opened in a way that severely
reduces the player's ability to control it. For this reason range is almost
always a problem. The cut off point comes right around A or Bb above the
staff, just around the time when they will begin to use more pressure to
try to keep the lips rom being blown apart. Instead, this extra pressure
will often further open the aperture resulting in "wipe out".
3) I strongly advocate playing higher on the lip.
3A) I thought my mouthpiece setting might not be high enough,... maybe I
should play on a wider diameter...
Sometimes playing on the
red can just be a matter of concept. It
has been proven that the top lip is the only lip that vibrates when you
buzz. The bottom lip vibrates a little, but more in sympathy, than as the
main workhorse. (This is the reason, by the way that the playing on the red
of the lower lip is not as critical as playing on the red of the top lip, a
la horn players!) From this it is logical to conclude that exposing more
top lip is a very good thing. What will decide how much top lip you can
afford to expose is the fleshiness of the lips and the degree of
musculature that your lips contain. The more lip that is exposed the more
strength that is needed to keep them from being blown apart.
Because of this, one can also find players playing on mouthpieces that are
too large for them playing on the red. They try to use the pressure of the
mouthpiece to hold the lip in place, from being blown apart. This method is
self defeating as it robs the player of the vibrations available in his top
lip and makes him a slave to pressure playing. (Remember, more vibrations
= equal vibrancy of sound and increased range!)
4) I have tried larger mouthpieces- they allow my lower lip to fit
properly, but then my upper lip is too far in the cup.
This is an interesting case
but by no means a unique one. How large
of a mouthpiece did you go to? It may have been too large. Or, perhaps the
cup of the mouthpiece was too shallow. These are possibilities.
On the other hand, one needs to consider your personal playing
technique in this instance. If indeed, you have been the type of player who
has spent many years playing on a mouthpiece that was way too small to
allow you to use your lips in the conventional, classical model of
compressing them in order to withstand the flow of air, especially as you
ascend in range, you have probably adapted the alternative method of
playing. This is to cram as much lip as possible into the mouthpiece, push
your lips forward to help guard against the pressure you use and blow like
crazy. While this sounds fairly extreme, this is a method employed by quite
a few "scream" type players. In fact, these players have so much lip in the
mouthpiece that they actually attempt to draw the lip back " as though
kissing your grandmother" (as it's been described to me) in order to free
the inner portion of the membrane of the lip to vibrate. If this is the
technique, or some variation thereof, that you have been employing, it is
not surprising that you find yourself "flapping in the breeze" now that
you've removed the appliance of the rim to hold your lips in place. There
are some drawbacks associated with this approach, even when practiced by
those who can do it best. These are: fairly harsh attacks (it takes a hell
of a whallop to set that much lip into motion), poor tone quality, (there
is still too much lip in the mouthpiece to vibrate freely...except when
playing loudly), and poor mid to low register. Depending on what type of
playing you hope to do, switching off this approach may not be worth the
trouble. Trying to adapt to the other method will be very much like
starting over. Depending on the results you're getting now, you might
consider something of a "patch-work-quilt". It may not be necessary to do a
complete make-over. Having a working knowledge of how you play and why you
play that way and what the repercussions are, may be enough to help you
make a move towards, say a 30% move, in a direction that will improve
5) I know one great player...
I actually know a few great
players who play on the red. One player
in particular and he falls into the "screamer" category. He's a fantastic
player. I can say that his attacks are somewhat on the harsh side, or that
the sound can roughen up when playing soft, but in the context of the type
of playing he normally does it really doesn't matter at all. Besides, the
things that he does well, he does better than anyone. But here's the deal.
It's like Vacchiano used to say..."(so and so) is the king of...(high
notes, tone, etc.), but if you take away... his teeth, his lip thickness,
his particular mouthpiece (this would depend on the particular individual
in question) he'd be a queen!"
The point I'm trying to make is that there are many elements that
enter into playing successfully. I am a great advocate of the maxim "don't
fix what isn't broken". At the last ITG conference I worked with a guy who
was playing in the red. A friend of mine was working with me at the time.
She has been a long time "student" of my approach to mouthpieces and
embouchure problems and wanted to catch a glimpse of me in action. While I
was working with this player, she kept pumping me with (on the QT of
course) "but he's playing in the red!!!" I don't remember exactly what I
did for this gentleman, but I know what I did not do. I did not try to make
him fit into an abstract, preconceived notion of what he should be playing
on. The results he was getting were so good that the thought of insisting
that he play on a bit of equipment that would require him to make major
changes to his whole approach would be ludicrous. I did help him by
providing him with a mouthpiece that would help him to move in a direction
that would allow him to work more efficiently in the context of what he was
already doing...(the patch work quilt), but why *fix* what wasn't really
Why was this gentleman and others like him able to do things that seemingly
break the rules, because they do other things so well, or have a slightly
different physiology that allows them to get away with it. For instance...
the "great player" I mentioned above... he has the thickest lips I've ever
seen on a trumpet player!
Sorry for the dissertation. Some things take time to explain.