Recently I saw a post on Reddit’s r/trumpet group in which someone asked which books they should read about embouchure. This blog post is simply me sharing my answer to that question. I figured that as I took the time to write it then I should post it here too.
I see reading the following list of books, of which there are fifteen mentioned, as a basic requirement for anyone who wishes to call themselves an expert in brass embouchure methods. There are actually a significant few well-known trumpet methods missing from this list, because the question was specifically about embouchure. I also think that the world of brass pedagogy would be completely different if teachers were to read and try to understand even half of the books on this list, but I rarely meet another brass player or teacher who’s heard of even a couple, which says a lot. (I was offered a job teaching the oboe for South Gloucester Music Service once and I was told that all I need to do is stay one lesson ahead of my pupils. Clearly they don’t care if their teachers know anything about the subject they’re being paid to teach. Needless to say I turned the job down.)
Which books should you read about embouchure?
The answer to this question depends on your intent. If you are genuinely looking to learn to understand the various ways that different people have understood embouchure and how its teaching has changed over time then I’d recommend reading at least all of the books I’m about to mention.
If you’re looking to learn so that you can improve your playing then there is something I’d recommend first.
Jeff Smiley’s The Balanced Embouchure – This book presents a modern understanding of basic embouchure function in a way that is practically applicable through a series of exercises. It draws on knowledge from a wide range of sources and combines them in a way that requires minimal decision-making or self-awareness on behalf of the learner. A lot of people who come to me for embouchure help have broken the ice with this method because it shows you that you can experiment and make quite drastic change without losing any of your current ability.
If you want a good overview of the most comprehensive studies of brass embouchure from the last century then I’d recommend reading the following three books:
Jerome Callet’s Superchops (The one from 1987);
Roy Stevens’ Embouchure Self Analysis;
Doc Reinhardt’s Encyclopaedia of the Pivot System;
These three will show you the work of three important teachers who dedicated their entire lives to the study of brass embouchure. They are all completely different and contradict each other significantly. All of these people have taught players who went on to be some of the best in the world.
Jerome Callet had a bunch of other books and videos, but two that are worth reading are Trumpet Yoga and Trumpet Secrets. The latter explains an embouchure method called the “Tongue Controlled Embouchure”, which is what I teach. More info about that can be found on http://tonguecontrolled.info/
Other noteworthy books include:
John H. Lynch’s A New Approach To Altissimo Trumpet Playing – Very well written. Describes a system not too dissimilar to Superchops, but with some interesting remarks on the problems that players cause themselves when playing;
Pops McLaughlin has a couple ebooks I like: Tensionless Playing and The 4 Octave Keys;
Walt Johnson’s Double High C In Ten Minutes;
Bob Odneal’s Casual Double High C;
Herbert Clarke’s Setting Up Drills – This is important because this book includes the embouchure instruction that Claude Gordon cut from his explanation of Clarke’s description of playing;
Claude Gordon’s Brass Playing Is No Harder Than Deep Breathing;
Carmine Caruso’s Musical Calisthenics For Brass;
Kristian Steenstrup’s Teaching Brass.
On top of this there is a YouTube video of Bobby Shew describing the basics of his playing mechanics that I’d recommend. It’s about 2 hours long and well worth your time. The link for that is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-Am03K7QDI
On the subject of YouTube content, Lynn Nicholson makes some interesting videos. He does a lot of generalisation and most people really struggle to make practical use of the things that he teaches. What you’ll find from reading the books above is that he is mixing a few incompatible ideas in his MF Protocol but clearly makes it work for one specific application.
I could also mention a few ITG Journal articles if you’re thirsty for more, and more general books about trumpet history and science… but I think there’s enough here to keep you busy for a few years.
You’ll find a lot of people online who can play well and swear by one system, claiming that none other even works. This is an ignorant approach and I would tend to avoid them, just like anyone who says that breathing or more air is the answer to everything. At the end of the day everyone has different experiences and different problems with their playing. The solutions to anyone’s problems could be the opposite of someone else’s. There’s also the fact that some people just aren’t musically aware enough to make progress. The most important part of learning to improve as a trumpet player is the ability to listen to what comes out of the bell and say honestly whether it was really what you wanted to happen.