Correct Trumpet embouchure is one of the most mysterious parts of brass playing. Lots of players will have wildly different opinions and advice about how to improve your embouchure. Even more, will have no idea how it works!
In this article, we’ll have a look at what embouchure is, why it’s important, and go over some tips to help your playing improve.
What is Embouchure?
The word ‘Embouchure’ has its root in the French word ‘bouche’, meaning ‘mouth’.
It’s used to refer to the positioning of the muscles in our face, mouth, and lips, and how we place the mouthpiece on them, in order to produce a sound on the trumpet.
In brass playing, embouchure is particularly important because the vibration of the lips is what produces the sound.
The embouchure is what turns the flow of air into these vibrations, and varies them to produce different notes and sounds.
Equally important is the way that we position the mouthpiece of the trumpet on our lips while we are playing.
The aim of this positioning is to allow the lips to vibrate freely across the whole range of high and low notes.
An incorrect embouchure can restrict the range of notes a player is able to play, weaken their sound, make it harder to produce notes, and drastically reduce stamina.
So sorting the embouchure can be a really important element of learning the trumpet!
Embouchure is very personal to every player, and what feels natural and comfortable will be different for any two people.
In fact, two of the most important Cornet teachers of the nineteenth century, Arban and Saint-Jacombe, disagreed with each other in their textbooks about the correct positioning of the mouthpiece!
However, there are some general principles which are useful to bear in mind when working on embouchure.
How to Form an Embouchure
With those correctives in mind, let’s have a look in a bit more detail about how to form an embouchure on a trumpet.
Lip and Face Muscles
To begin with, we’ll start with how to position your face muscles and lips as you play.
One way to get the correct positioning is to say the letter ‘M’.
This brings the lips together in a flat line or slight downward curve brings the chin forward and ensures there are no pockets of air in the cheek or lower lip.
With the lips in this position, you can try breathing out.
You’ll find that the lips come slightly apart in the middle, producing a narrow, focused stream of air.
The next step takes a little more practice. If you bring the lips together slightly, you’ll find that their resistance to the air increases, and they start to vibrate.
You might need to breathe out a little faster to make this work.
With more practice, you’ll be able to get your lips buzzing straight away, and make the buzz last a for longer time.
This also requires a bit of work on your breathing – make you’re taking a deep breath before each buzz, and squeeze the stomach muscles inwards as you breathe out to help get a strong flow of air.
Once you’ve got the hang of buzzing with just your lips, the next step is to try buzzing on the trumpet’s mouthpiece.
Lots of trumpet methods use buzzing as part of a regular practice routine to work on embouchure.
James Stamp recommends holding the mouthpiece lightly between the thumb and first finger of your left hand at the point where the mouthpiece enters the trumpet.
This prevents holding the mouthpiece too tightly against the lips.
It’s important to get the position of the mouthpiece correct, and you might find it helps to look in a mirror while you do this.
The general ideal is to position the mouthpiece at the middle of your lips, both horiziontally and vertically.
In terms of vertical position, you want to place the mouthpiece so that the rim of the mouthpiece isn’t touching the red part of your lips, which could hinder their vibration.
Some teachers recommend placing the mouthpiece slightly higher, so that it is more on the top lip than the bottom.
Other teachers recommend a more half-half position.
For the horizontal position, you want the mouthpiece to be in the middle of the lips, not too far to the left or right.
This is so that the lip muscles can be used efficiently, as they are strongest in the centre.
However, it is worth noting that the above are general guidelines, and if the most natural position for you is slightly off-center (either for comfort or because your teeth aren’t exactly straight), that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to change your embouchure.
It’s worth talking to a trumpet teacher that you trust before making any drastic changes!
As Arban writes in his Cornet Method:
“There are some professors who have a habit of changing the position of the mouthpiece of all the students who come to them… I must say that these same artists after having wasted several years of useless practice following this system, were forced to return and place their mouthpiece in its original position, for none obtained good results, and some even could play no more”.
The mouthpiece position should stay the same once you put it into the trumpet, despite the fact that things get a little more complicated once we start playing pieces!
Try not to change your embouchure drastically as you play – if you find yourself unable to move between two notes without bringing your mouth off the instrument, that’s usually a sign that your embouchure isn’t quite correct.
Instead, your embouchure should change gradually and smoothly as you move between high and low notes.
The lips will contract as you move higher, contracting inwards towards the mouthpiece, and relax as you move lower.
The position of the tongue is also important for changing notes.
The tongue should move upwards as you move to a higher note, in the same way that it moves when you say “ahh” and then “eee”.
In fact, it can be helpful to think of the syllable ‘eee’ as you move upwards, and ‘ahh’ as you move downwards when playing.
Finally, it’s worth noting again that breathing is the other fundamental element to brass playing.
Without proper breath support, correct embouchure won’t work, and vice versa!
As one of my trumpet teachers was fond of saying, “If you don’t blow, it won’t go!”
Learning how to form correct embouchure is difficult and complex, partly because it requires us to use our facial muscles in a completely different way to normal!
There are a lot of common mistakes that it’s useful to be aware of, so that we can avoid them.
Pockets of Air
It’s easy to allow the cheeks to puff out and let pockets of air form above or below the lips when we’re trying to create the strong airflow needed for trumpet playing.
However, this creates extra resistance that makes it harder to produce a strong, focused sound, and makes the facial muscles work less efficiently.
If you find this happens a lot, try to keep coming back to saying the letter ‘M’ to form your embouchure, and then breathing out.
This should naturally help you create a position which will discourage pockets of air from forming.
Air can escape out the corners of the mouth when you’re playing, particularly if the lips are getting tired.
This happens when the muscles at the side of the mouth aren’t keeping the embouchure in position.
We can help the corners of the mouth stay in position by going back to saying the letter ‘M’, or by ‘frowning’ as we play to help the corners point downward, rather than up.
If your lips are tired, the only real solution is to take a break!
Come back and practice when you’re feeling fresher – practising when tired is more likely to develop bad habits.
‘Smiling’ to Go Higher
What’s wrong with smiling, you may ask? Shouldn’t we be having fun while playing the trumpet?
Well, yes, of course we want to have fun! But in a smiling shape, the corners of the mouth start pointing upwards, tightening the lips outwards rather than contracting inwards.
It’s a very common mistake for beginner trumpeters to smile in order to make a note go higher.
However, there’s a limit to how far this will work, and learning to raise pitch by smiling will place limits on your playing quite quickly.
It’s far better to get into good habits early, so you can keep improving!
Another way that trumpet players can try to get higher notes is by pressing the mouthpiece down harder on the lips. While this does produce higher notes, it does so in a very unhelpful way!
Pressing down on the lips will cause them to get tired more quickly, and could even damage them.
It will also produce a thinner, weaker sound than a note that is well supported with deep breaths and correct embouchure.
Connected to this are habits of moving the mouthpiece to the side, twisting the mouthpiece round, and other facial contortions!
As a general rule, anything that causes you to put more pressure on the lips, or make your lips and facial muscles strain, is not a habit that is going to help us get better.
When everything is working properly, the lips and face should be fairly relaxed at all times, and the breathing muscles should be doing the brunt of the work.
Any article on trumpet embouchure wouldn’t be complete without a nod to one of the greatest trumpeters of all time, Dizzy Gillespie.
Gillespie was one of the pioneers of the bebop movement in jazz, writing many well-known compositions, and pushing the limits of virtuousity on the trumpet with his high notes and fast playing.
However, his embouchure is also an example of everything your trumpet teacher tells you not to do: his cheeks puff out, and his neck bulges tremendously as he plays.
So you might ask, shouldn’t I be doing that if I want to play like Dizzy?
The answer is, not really – there’s no guarantee that what worked for him would work for you! Gillespie’s trademark puffed-out cheeks developed over the course of his career as the membranes and muscles in his cheeks stretched more and more through the sheer amount of practicing and playing that he did.
Perhaps the best way to approach this is as a cautionary note that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ embouchure.
The best embouchure will be different for every player.
However, the aim of embouchure is to study general habits and apply them to our individual playing, with the help of a gifted teacher, to help us to play in a way that is as relaxed and controlled as possible – all in service of making the best sound we possibly can.