Night of the Living Dead

I was listening to someone play the other day and after they played a passage with a particularly dead sound, I said; “that’s the Zombie sound, now give me the living sound.” Continuing with the mouthpiece discussion last month, lets delve into how we can use the mouthpiece to enhance different challenges such as dynamics, range, and different sound requirements for different types of music.

First, lets discuss what makes a dead “zombie-like” sound, which seems to be a world-wide phenomenon, especially in the middle and lower-middle registers. Generally, the cause is setting the embouchure in a too relaxed position, which results in the airstream hitting too low in the mouthpiece. This is OK for the extremely loud dynamics, where we want some focus taken out of the sound, but medium to soft dynamics require a clear, pure, ringing sound. This is accomplished by having the airstream aimed higher up in the mouthpiece, either directly into the hole or even above it. This means the corners of the embouchure need sufficient firmness to raise the level of the airstream to find the “sweet spot” of every pitch. It doesn’t matter if your an upstream or downstream player, if you get
anything but a clear, ringing sound, you need to raise the angle at which the air leaves the embouchure. This can also be achieved by moving the mouthpiece slightly down of the face, so there is more contact with the upper lip to the upper rim of the mouthpiece. The corners of the embouchure still need to be in a firm enough position to support the increased contact with the upper part of the mouthpiece. Slightly more mouthpiece pressure might be needed, (which I refer to as “seal”) to support more firmness in the corners.

Another important thing to realize is the way the mouthpiece can be made to sound like different sizes the way the airstream is used. Generally speaking, when playing loud, the whole cup of the mouthpiece should thought be used. This would mean a wider airstream emerging from the embouchure. When playing the softer dynamics, the airstream is aimed from the embouchure straight into the hole, as if a straw was placed from the embouchure aperture into the throat of the mouthpiece. This in actuality probably doesn’t happen, as the air probably fills the cup immediately upon leaving the embouchure, but the mental thought of doing so will cause the embouchure to narrow the size of the airstream, thereby moving it faster and more directly into the hole. This produces a clearer, more focused sound suitable for the middle and softer dynamics.

If a player is too relaxed in the embouchure for optimum resonance in the middle register, probably the same situation exists in the upper register, causing many missed notes because of the tendency to under set, or setting too low in the mouthpiece. Another cause of missed notes up high is the tendency to be late with the embouchure. Finding the correct embouchure before playing the note is mandatory. Finding the correct embouchure at the same time as playing the note will cause many misses. Setting slightly before playing each note will help accuracy. A good way to think about the right embouchure is to imagine the embouchure is a fork lift delivering the air to shelves at various levels. The embouchure must expand or contract to allow the air to be delivered on a level plane. To get the most resonance the airstream should hit the inside of the mouthpiece at the hole or above.