By Kirk Lundbeck
As we strive to be better trombonists we work with many instructors, mentors and fellow musicians and conversations quite often are about embouchures. There are high embouchures, more upper lip, low embouchures, more bottom lip, off-center embouchures, and combinations of all those. Then there is downflowing air into the mouthpiece, up flowing air and even sending the air through the hole of the mouthpiece. There is mouthpiece pressure and do not get me started down this road. I will just say this about mouthpiece pressure, I tell my students not to pull the mouthpiece into their face, but instead push their lips lightly against the mouthpiece. And finally, there is talk about the embouchure corners and that is what this article is about.
Embouchure corners are those two slits at the outside edge of your lips on either side of your mouthpiece. We are told to keep these firm, not tight and neutral. Smiling embouchures and frowning embouchures can be a negative influence on the lips by limiting range, quality of sound, articulations, and endurance by causing the aperture, that little hole between your lips that the air enters the mouthpiece to get squeezed or pinched off. There is no doubt about this. If you must work your lips muscles harder than they need to in order to produce a good sound something has got to give and that is usually range and endurance. Ok, so firm and neutral embouchures are the way to go but what about the inside corners? I just heard in my mind a collective “huh” from all the readers of this article so let me explain.
My perception of an embouchure has three main parts. The outer corners, the inner corners, and the aperture. When you place a mouthpiece to your lips the outer corners are the ones outside the mouthpiece on the corners of your mouth. Then the rim of the mouthpiece sits on the lips until the bowl of the mouthpiece starts. That rim is about ¼ of an inch or 0.64 centimeters in length on a trombone mouthpiece. So approximately a half inch or 1.27 centimeters of your lips are covered by the rim of the mouthpiece and that portion of your lips is not used to produce the sound. Where the mouthpiece rim ends, and the bowl of the mouthpiece begins is where the inner corners lie. Those inner corner muscles relax when you play in the lower register and the opposite in the upper. Those inner corners are the ones that allow your lips to vibrate to produce your sound. If you look in the mirror you will not see your outer corners vibrating. Put your finger on one of your outside corners and do a mouthpiece buzz. You will feel a slight vibration, but those outer corners are not the ones flapping, the inner corners are. When you use too much mouthpiece pressure those inner corners are the ones compressed by the mouthpiece rim, stopping the lips from vibrating, and causing the lack of sound, range, articulation, etc. Great players quite often say they feel more lip in their mouthpiece when they play in the upper register. Jay said those exact words when we were testing out Alto Trombones the other day. What that means is your inner corners of your embouchure are allowing your lips to purse more which will not pinch off the aperture giving the opportunity for the air to flow and the notes to speak. Learning to control the inner corners makes all the difference. It takes the unnecessary pressure off the lips and allows the aperture to move accordingly.
Finally, the aperture. My analogy of the aperture is like this. The aperture is the hose that sends the air into the mouthpiece. Think of an air compressor with a hose attached. The compressor is full of air and attached to it is a two-inch diameter hose. Open the valve fully and the air escapes through the hole in the hose until the compressor is empty. The compressor empties the air in the tank quickly but the air pressure coming through the hose is relatively slow. Now fill the compressor with air again and attach a ¼ inch hose and open the valve. The air leaves the hose much faster than with the two-inch hose, but it takes longer to empty the compressor of all its air. In trombone terms the two-inch hose is like a pedal Bb. The aperture hole is big, the inner corners are more relaxed, and the air is slow and empties your lungs quickly. The ¼ hose is like the C above middle C. The aperture hole is smaller, the lips more pursed to stop aperture restriction and air is fast. This means to play higher does not mean more forced air, just faster air!
At your next practice session spend some time and pay attention to what those inner corners are doing, rather than what the outer corners should not be doing. Just keep those outer corners firm and neutral and let those inner corners take over allowing the aperture to work properly. You will be pleasantly surprised with your results.