Which Books Should You Read About Brass Embouchure?

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.

How effective is my practise?

As an instrumental music teacher the subject of practise is one that I discuss almost on a daily basis with all kinds of people. Usually it’s with my pupils or their parents but it is a topic that comes up in social situations too. Maybe I’m chatting with someone about cookery, open source software or learning a language; eventually the subject of practising to learn new skills will creep into the conversation. I also tend to talk a lot about podcasts and YouTube videos as I can be quite an obsessive consumer of these at times. I find it quite mind-blowing how much you can passively learn over time just from listening to others talking about their passions and interests.

One YouTube channel that I’m a bit of a fan of is that of Mike Boyd. Mike constantly tasks himself with learning new skills and in the past few years has learnt over fifty-two new skills. These vary from the frivolous, such as spinning a ball on his finger or doing a wheelie on a bike, to more serious skills such as swimming a mile in freezing cold water. Mike, it appears, is a real master of mind and body… or is he? I think that if you were to ask him then he’d probably say no. What Mike seems to be master of is practise.

A recent video that Mike put out featured his wife Kim, who learned to juggle as a test to see whether or not Mike learns skills faster than the average person. You can watch this video here, but please remember to read the rest of this article… you haven’t gotten to the good bit yet!

This video really got me into thinking about how I describe the process of practise to people. I’ve done it in a couple ways in the past and neither of them have been particularly effective.

I’m not a fan of the traditional model of music practise that is sold to keen beginners when they take up an instrument. By that I mean getting your instrument and music out, standing in a room alone and repeatedly struggling to get better at the work you’ve been set for half an hour per day, every day. My modus operandi goes like this: I leave instruments and mouthpieces lying around in most rooms of the house. Whenever I walk into a room, get bored whilst sat at the computer, am forced to wait the labourious ninety seconds for the kettle to boil, etc., I pick up an instrument and I start to play. This way I do between five and ten minutes of practise repeatedly throughout the day. This is how I learnt to play when I was young and playing along to the radio in this way is how I learned to play by ear and later developed that into perfect pitch. Another way this system can work is to have a trumpet or cornet nearby when watching television. Whenever the adverts come on you can play for a few minutes. Working like this I would set goals to achieve in that short time and it’s a very effective way to add a little pressure to your mini practise sessions. I’ve told many of my pupils about this way of working. To date I’m only aware of one of them who has actually tried it. I know this because after six months his trumpet had been dropped and knocked off of tables so many times that it needed replacing… #facepalm.

Another thing that I’ve often reserved for more experienced players is simply describing how many hours of an average week I would spend playing my cornet or trumpet between the ages of twelve and sixteen. During that time I attended brass band rehearsals twice per week (four hours). I played in two bands at a Saturday morning music club (two and a half hours). I had a weekly lesson (half an hour) and a couple of lunchtime music groups at school (one hour). In an average week I was engaged in musical activities for a minimum of eight and a half hours before personal practise. And that’s an average week without concerts on the weekends or county brass band or concert band courses to attend. There actually weren’t very many of these minimal “average” weeks. Telling people this information rarely inspires them to try harder so these days I just save it for someone who needs a scare.

In Mike Boyd’s videos he places a counter on the screen so that the viewer gets to see how much time he has dedicated to practising his new skill. In the video above it took Kim just over four hours to learn to juggle three balls continuously for over thirty seconds. She did this over the course of eight days, which is an average of half an hour per day. If Kim were to have only spent ten minutes per day, six days per week, practising then it would have taken a month to achieve her goal. In all likelihood it would have taken longer because a basic familiarity with the task would have taken much longer to settle in her mind and muscle memory.

The problem with this comparison is that it isn’t simply one thing that you are trying to learn when you pick up a musical instrument. What if the skill that you are trying to master is playing one scale from memory and it requires four hours of continuous practise? Well, if you were to practise one scale at a time for ten minutes per day then you could learn all twelve major scales in a year. But after eleven months do you think you’d remember the first scale that you learnt to play? Maybe. (click this link to learn more about my method of teaching scales. There’s also a book about it in my store.)

Here’s another example: a student has an exam coming up in two months and they still cannot play the required music from beginning to end without stopping. If they practise for ten minutes per day, six days per week, then as far as playing time is concerned the exam is eight hours away. It is 9am, could they take the exam at 5pm and pass?

All in all I think there’s a lot of perspective to be gained from doing some simple maths relating to instrumental practise. It’s a great way of understanding how much work needs to be done but also a good way of allowing yourself to accept your limitations in terms of progress. Are you having trouble with double tonguing? How many hours have you invested in nothing but trying to improve it? Maybe you could learn it in four hours of dedicated practise. But something else that Mike Boyd does is research. If you’re struggling to do something on your instrument then it’s best to find out how others do it before you waste time practising the wrong way. It takes longer to over-write a bad habit than to form it correctly in the first place.

The most important things are motivation and enjoyment. Enjoyment can even be used as motivation! I always tell my pupils that it’s fun to be good at something and you get good by setting goals. So, what are you going to learn this week?

The State of the Trumpet Address

I’ve always been blessed and/or cursed with a desire to do things in the simplest way. In my life there have been a number of things that I may have become obsessed with shifting people’s opinions about. Usually it’s just because I think there is an easier way of doing things but for many people the idea of change is a bigger hurdle than the change itself would be. So maybe it could be said that for me the concept of “Learn, Unlearn, Re-learn” comes naturally. This concept is one that comes straight out of Mixed Mental Arts. I like this podcast and the community it has spawned not only because it encourages self-reflection and a thirst for knowledge, but also because those involved have a good way of explaining things that I feel but have been previously incapable of putting into words.

Any frequent visitor to my website will have noticed that it has been nearly five months since I published a blog post. It certainly isn’t that long since I wrote one, but I haven’t written anything that I’m happy to share. Despite receiving a lot of positive feedback for my writing and more readers of my posts per month than pounds that I earn in that time, I feel that in an attempt to share the fruits of my reading and playing experience I may be contributing to a system that I do not wish to be a part of (i.e. a trumpet-ideology pissing match). Subscribing to a modern and yet-to-be widespread method of playing puts me in a position whereby I go out of my way to find multiple sources for any ideas that I promote. I’m sure that I present a balanced set of arguments, backed at least by quotes and sources, if not evidence. But as I am about to explain, this isn’t always enough.

Something else that comes up on the podcast is the concept of internet echo chambers. The internet has allowed everyone access to more information and different ideas than ever before but using services like Twitter, which allows you to select who you follow, and Facebook that actively censors your news feed so that you more-often-than-not see things that you like, creates an environment where you’re only exposed to groups of people that agree with what you say. This can give somebody the impression that they have all of the knowledge that they need and prevent exposure to ideas that could help them grow. Whilst listening to Mixed Mental Arts I often notice myself finding examples of the things they talk about in behaviour on the Trumpet Herald Forum. The forum contains a bunch of self-moderated sub-forums dedicated to specific teachers and pedagogical ideologies. If you’re in the wrong place and you suggest an idea that isn’t in line with what a certain teacher taught then your post just gets deleted. All questioning of the guru’s wisdom is thwarted and in many ways this can prevent newbies from ever understanding how their thinking differs from the ideas being discussed. Naïve realism rules the roost and the idea that somebody could learn from cognitive dissonance in totally unheard of (Naïve Realism is the belief that we see the world as it really is and anyone who disagrees is somehow bigoted or misinformed).

One problem that I believe we’re all dealing with is ego. Let’s not lie about it this one thing: Trumpet playing is hard! I would go as far as to say that the trumpet is one of the most difficult instruments to play and it’s absolutely true that most who try it fail. Whilst music students with other instruments can concentrate on playing and learning about music, brass players have to spend a lot of time cultivating their technique just to make the instrument work at all (Radiohead weren’t wrong when they sang Anyone Can Play Guitar!). This is then compounded by the problem that for many, playing for more than a couple of hours per day is a physical impossibility because their embouchure gives out. It’s not hard to understand therefore that when a trumpet player gets really good at playing that they believe that they’re in possession of the holy grail. This is where the fundamentalism kicks in – if something works for me then everything else must be wrong. Quick, shut the doors, lock the windows, no further learning is required here.

I want there to be no doubt about what I’m going on about here. In a way my ambitions and desires are at least twofold. When I’m wearing my teacher’s hat I want to be able to look at the brass teachers and the education systems that are out there and see a team of enthusiastic experts sharing their experience and knowledge in a way that enables learners to question, think and grow into a better generation of musicians and teachers than have come before them. When I’m wearing my enthusiast’s hat (by which I mean someone with a thirst for knowledge about this crazy instrument I play, who wants to share with and learn from others for the benefit of all, write a crazy blog, be a better trumpeter, take over the world…) all I want is an environment where I can discuss modern ideas, demonstrate current techniques, debate the heroes of the past and come out the other side without feeling like I’ve been bickering with children. The unfortunate truth is however that neither of these two situations are currently a reality, but when I think about it I see the problem and solution to both situations is the same. People believe that the day they leave school is the day that they stop learning. Many teachers out there were taught in an era before the internet made the sharing of knowledge so easy. In those days learning required effort and it was expensive, plus exposure to alternative playing methods from the other side of the world was rare. Well anyway, if you can play or teach well enough to get paid then why do you need to be any better?

There is also a problem that I’ve tried to discuss in the past but I know I made a bad job of it and have since removed the blog post and it goes like this:

  • Many of the great pedagogues from the past taught and adjusted their methods on a pupil-by-pupil basis – Good.
  • Those people are now dead – Shame :.(
  • Neither their books or their past pupils are capable of offering true representations of what those people taught – Fact.
  • People are out there promoting these books and their limited experience of their teachers as the last word on trumpet playing despite the fact that it’s obviously not true – Stupid.
  • There is a better understanding now of how instruments work and how to develop playing technique than when those pedagogues were alive – No really!

I’m not saying that your hero was wrong, but if they were alive today then they would be continuing to build on their knowledge with current ideas so buck up kiddo because your fundamentalism is holding you back.

It baffles me why people are so defensive about the teachings of their heroes. In a recent interview on The Other Side Of The Bell Greg Spence talks about how he has been shunned from the Claude Gordon community because despite teaching techniques that come directly from Gordon’s books he also suggests that players should use tension in their embouchure. Indeed that is all it takes to be ousted. In a blog post on the MMA website Hunter Maats discusses defensive behaviour and suggests that it is a result of insecurity. It’s quite a simplistic explanation, but if the shoe fits, you wearin’ it. I don’t understand what people have to be insecure about unless they can clearly see evidence of their beliefs being wrong and if that is true then why not dig a little deeper and find out more? Or stick your head in the hole, whatever…

In the past we’ve looked at the world of trumpet playing in terms of national schools of playing. The way that anyone learned to play came straight out of the music colleges and traditions in their locality and this made for some interesting variation in styles and approaches to playing and teaching. Globalisation and the internet have changed that. The availability of recordings, books, and direct contact with experts from anywhere on the planet has put us in a position that in the MMA community they refer to as “Humanity’s First Family Dinner” and we all have to learn to tolerate each other’s company because unlike your on Twitter feed you can’t chose to unfollow this one.

As always, please feel free to comment, like and share using the buttons below. Check out my other website. Links to my Facebook Page and Twitter are on the right hand side. This is my Instagram. Contact me for lessons! Have a nice day.