Music: the way in which a player applies the lips to the mouthpiece of a brass or wind instrument.”
So the dictionary states! However, lips alone are useless without air to generate a vibration, but how that air meets and passes through the lips has almost infinite possibilities. The calibration between the lips and air is almost a spiritual thing; it’s a matter of thought and result. It’s our human nature to analyze but for the embouchure, analyses will never be sufficient. Second only to breathing, there is a sad history of lasting problems caused by embouchure hyper analyzation. Let’s just say embouchure, in the modern meaning, is the air meeting the lips, and the way that that air meets the lips. Embouchure then, is a verb!
The embouchure is an active thing, it is in constant flux as we change registers and dynamics, and as we play music, the aperture, air pressure and flow rate (cubic liters per minute) are all in perpetual adjustment. Similarly, we can analyze speech in the same way, the movement of air meeting the larynx, creating the vibration and the subsequent manipulation of our tongue and oral cavity to create vowels and consonants. Still, our analyses will not help us to speak better, not to mention successfully reading Shakespeare.
The lips and the air movement are a collective and active function in brass playing that cannot be separated. It’s very similar to a hose with a nozzle; adjusting the nozzle itself is useless without also adjusting the water pressure. If we want to make a 3 meter arch of water that is smooth and non-turbulent, not a spray, not a dribble, we must adjust the nozzle, AND the water pressure until we get the 3-meter non-turbulent spout that we want. If we want to change to a 5-meter spout we have to recalibrate both the nozzle and the water pressure. It’s quite the same making a tone on a brass instrument except the adjustment is constant and fluid. The mix between our lip tension and air volume is what determines the tone quality, dynamic and register. Further, how quickly the water reaches, how fast the water is turned on and its impact with the nozzle would correlate to articulation.
That’s a lot to think about, in fact, it would be impossible to keep all those aspects of delivering air to the lips in our consciousness as we play. Imagine, for example, carrying an extremely full bowl of water across a room and not spilling a drop; how can you do this? (Please See "WATERSLOSH" on rogerbobo.com) You can say to yourself “I’m going to keep my wrist and arm rigid so that there won’t be any spilling; I going to walk slowly and if I see the water is going to spill to the left I will tilt the cup to the right to compensate and visa versa: This would probably leave many wet spots on the floor. Or you can just walk carefully using your instincts. You will probably spill no water at all.
It’s very much the same while playing: You can take a breath, tighten your lips to exactly the correct tension, tongue it exactly in the right place, use exactly the right amount of air, and if you are out of tune you can lip the note up or down, this will probably leave a lot of missed notes on the way! Or you can use your ears as a reference and play instinctively. Most likely you will play well!
And once again we arrive at the same conclusion; chronic analyzing gets in the way. Listening is the only way to control these micro adjustments that are necessary for a fluid embouchure.
In all aspects of brass playing as we develop our playing tool chest, it’s our ears that determine the final adjustments and the final results.
February 8, 2007, Tokyo, Japan
Revised June 23, 2012, Tokyo, Japan