A complete chapter from
"The Balanced Embouchure"
What is the role of a trumpet teacher today? Is it appropriate to model
teaching methods from the past, or should we more seriously consider
newer technology? Change is inevitable in almost every field of
knowledge, as stalwart defenders of the old system die off and young
bucks implement newer, more radical sounding ideas. Whether or not
trumpet teaching is due for such a paradigm shift is subject to debate.
But for sure, things haven't changed much in the mainstream of the
profession since Arban wrote his method well over a hundred years
How Much Are We Really Helping?
A small percentage of players will fall into an efficient embouchure
setting without much prompting from teachers. Famed trumpeter
Maynard Ferguson, for example, astonished his teachers as much as
he did other players. The question is - and I think it should be the
burning question for every trumpet teacher - for all of the players that
don't easily find a balance point, is there a common denominator that
ties them together? Is there a flaw in their mechanics that perpetuates
underachievement and lowered expectations?
The numbers alone should cast doubt on current levels of efficiency.
In the real world of music, there are perhaps 100,000 trumpeters each
year who never get to experience the thrill of playing first part. And
that's just in the United States.
Defenders of traditional teaching methods look upon anything new with
suspicion. If a system works more quickly it is derided as a short cut.
After all, if it doesn't require tremendous time and effort, it must not be
professional, since everone knows that becoming a professional
trumpeter takes years and years of sacrifice.
Even if I believed the previous statement, I still wouldn't follow the old
methods, because students' expectations have changed. Frankly, I no
longer scheme for any of my students to become professional players,
nor do many of them have that goal. Of more immediate importance to
them is what I can do to improve the current level of fulfillment in their
musical experience. Above all, they want to succeed now.
Students today generally aren't lazy; their plates are more full than ever
before. Most of my pre-college students spend little time watching
television. Besides homework, their days are filled with extracurricular
activities. They move in the direction of being more well rounded,
choosing to experience a wide range of life. In most cases, they don't
have time to consistently practice an hour a day, seven days per week.
What they want are methods which help them improve in the fastest
way possible, given their level of commitment. They want to spend their
practice time efficiently with something that works, not something that
kind of works. As a teacher, I want to honor the path they've chosen,
which means that I have to do my part and teach with the greatest
Over the years, I've grown increasingly confident in the Balanced
Embouchure process. As long as the student practices at least a small
amount, I know that progress will occur, no matter what the
circumstances. Doing the exercises correctly forces the student to
develop. I firmly believe that development and the higher level
responsibilities that come with development should be an expectation
of everyone, not just the few.
Motivation To Teach
My earliest trumpet teachers were band directors with good intentions
and little else. Without proper guidance, I fell into some of the worst
habits imaginable. I struggled for years trying to find some answers,
assembling a piece here and there, amazed at how much ignorance I
had to wade through in order to get any information of real value.
The weird thing was, through all those early playing struggles and years
of searching, I was also teaching, often with astounding success.
Players many years my senior came to me, disillusioned by ineffective
teaching methods in our music education system, hoping that my "bag
of tricks" would fix their problems. Again and again I watched as players
blossomed with very little effort on my part. They were hungry for
knowledge and I gave it to them, as best as I could with my limited
Note: "Bag of tricks" are methods that sometimes work, while universal
processes always work.
I was successful as a trumpet teacher because I didn't know any
better, ignorant of what traditionally was considered bad or good. As a
result, I openly questioned everything which didn't seem to work as
advertised. And since not much worked for me, I questioned a lot!
If I knew then what I know now, my development into a player would
have been much smoother. Of course, with the struggle to play came a
resolve to understand why trumpet was so hard. Without the struggle, I
might not have found the passion to teach.
In the process, I've become interested in the teaching process and
have altered my teaching style significantly over the years. Amidst all
the change, one thing has unfortunately remained the same: teaching
remains a misunderstood and undervalued profession in our society.
There is a tired old saying: "Those who can't do, teach."
It's a condescending viewpoint which fails to recognize the special
skills that teaching requires. A professional player is not the same as a
professional teacher. The skills are different.
If anything, my observation of trumpet teachers over the last thirty
years prompts me to rephrase the old saying:
"Those who do, can't teach."
Three In Ten
Great players almost never make great teachers. They tend to operate
their embouchure the same way all great athletes operate -
unconsciously, without any idea of how they really do it. Further, they've
often functioned this way since early in their careers, unfamiliar with the
severe struggles that most players experience.
Regarding an understanding of basic mechanics, the great player is
clueless. Because he has enjoyed success, he expects success in
everything regarding trumpet (a bit of ego). He will reason that because
he plays well, he must also know how to help others. How hard can it
Indeed, if the great player sticks to teaching musical interpretation or
similar skills, he will undoubtedly contribute something valuable. But
most students eventually have an embouchure inefficiency. The minute
the great player starts to manipulate a student's embouchure, the whole
process changes and becomes a numbers game.
Three out of ten players may receive some initial benefit from
changing lip position, because three in ten will get better regardless of
the system used. But the rest will flounder. Unless you're hitting a
baseball, three in ten is a poor percentage and a tremendous waste of
Most great players go blindly forward with their teaching, oblivious to
the human wake they create. And like moths to a flame, the students
keep coming, hoping to get some help.
Doc Severinson is an example of a great player who decided to back
away from teaching. Early on, he discovered that most students did not
respond to his approach, even though it obviously benefited him. When
he gives clinics - I've been to several, and they are great fun - he
always prefaces everything by saying, "This is what works for me.
Please don't blame me if it doesn't work for you!"
Doc's warm-up, by the way, is pure torture for the average player - soft,
smooth lip slurs, and chromatics.
Great players aren't alone in steering students down the wrong path.
They are simply the most visible. The vast majority of teachers are
average players who have given up hunting for a better solution, lost in
misinformation and cynical towards the possibility of finding a more
Most trumpet teachers I've met are well intentioned but clinging to an
inefficient model. According to their particular philosophy, trumpet
teachers tend to clump into certain belief systems. Even though these
are stereotypes, everybody should recognize a bit of themselves here
(including myself). Some are listed as follows:
The Band Director. Overworked and underpaid, the job overload keeps
most of them too busy to explore innovations in teaching trumpet.
About 50% tend to accept as truth that which they learned in college,
and want you to teach their band studentsthe same way, with typical
ideas like all players must use the same sized mouthpiece (often a
Bach 5B or 3C).
On that point, my view is that when your lips are properly developed it's
less important what mouthpiece you play. I agree with Doc Severinsen
who has said many times that a player's sound is more determined by
lip position than by mouthpiece type. However, a less developed
student may struggle with a larger mouthpiece and get off track. Lips
can get lost in the big cup, all spread out and unable to focus efficiently.
A slightly smaller mouthpiece such as a 7C tends to give more support
and encourage the lips to move in a more correct direction.
Joe High Note. Whether via the internet or method books, there are
plenty of guys out there who can play a double or triple C, and dangle it
out there to entice new students. Most of them "teach" a variation of the
Callet method, although few admit it. They tend to be defensive. Each
claims to be the only high note artist who is musical and not merely a
Many are actually good players. However, they all tend to have a very
narrow teaching focus and low rate of success. Still, they attract
students because of their range. As Claude Gordon once said, "Brass
players are the most gullible people in the world. They will buy anything
if you tack a high note on it."
The Symphony Guy. Usually are good players, but not necessarily
great. Most have flat chin (Farkis) embouchures. Most were first chair
Johnnys in high school and are now good second chair players on the
professional level, but still struggle with range. They have an old school
approach developed from years spent at colleges or music
conservatories, so they favor big mouthpieces like a 1C. Because of
their background, they are put on a pedestal by most band directors
and parents, irrespective of their teaching percentage success (which
is often quite low). The common misperception is, "He is a
well-schooled player, so he must be a well-schooled teacher."
However, players good at teaching the nuances of performance may
know nothing about the underlying mechanics which power the
The Scientist. Left-brained and analytical, these technical sounding
guys will attempt to make your embouchure work by following known
principles of Newtonian physics. Measuring air trajectory or building
gadgets to train your lip muscles are where their heads are at.
The problem is, I have never seen a purely analytical approach ever
work. My contention is that an embouchure is too complex to effectively
model. And even if you could describe it in all of its complexity, the
knowledge is useless. You still have to make your lips move in that way,
which is nearly impossible through simple imitation.
My idea is to let the lips figure it out for themselves by doing special
exercises which exaggerate lip movement more or less in the right
The Feeler. For those that have given up on finding physical
mechanics, there is always the mental/emotional approach. The Feeler
comes from a right-brained direction, hoping to influence you through
psychology. He thinks to himself, "If you could just feel what I feel, then
you could play like me." So, he proceeds to attempt to transfer the
contents of his brain into yours. If you play something incorrectly, he will
simply play it for you correctly and say "Now do it like that," and assume
that his command will somehow imprint within you unconsciously and
effect the necessary change. Or, he will tell you to feel a certain way,
hoping that the feeling generated will likewise prompt a more efficient
way of playing. Phrases starting with "imagine that" or "try to feel" will be
common in his lessons.
Some of the weirdest things you will ever hear about trumpet playing
come out of the mouths of good players who don't know any other way
to communicate. In an attempt to get the student to visualize the correct
way of playing, students have been told everything from "imagine the
notes like an ascending string of pearls," to Dizzy Gillespie's pithy
advice on playing higher: "Tighten your asshole."
The problem is, do-as-I-do techniques rarely solve inefficient lip
position problems - even in beginners - and the excess wordiness just
wastes time. I'm reminded of a story told by conductor Andre Previn. In
the middle of rehearsing a passage, he stopped the orchestra and
addressed the first chair horn player. Mr. Previn told him that he wanted
more expressivo, greater dynamism, enhanced presence, and on and
on. Finally the horn player interrupted him and said, "You mean that you
want it louder?" Mr. Previn paused for a second, realized that was
exactly what he wanted, thanked the player and continued the rehearsal.
The "Dr." Many college teachers with advanced degrees insist that you
call them "doctor," which makes sense because they have about as
much success teaching trumpet mechanics as medical doctors have in
curing the common cold. Universities tend to have feeder systems -
graduate assistants who teach the lowly undergraduate students before
the students can qualify to be taught be the self-important "doctor." This
weeds out all of the people who have problems! The doctor only gets
the best players and everybody else gets shown the door. If the doctor
is the expert, shouldn't he be teaching the players with the biggest
problems? Don't they need his help the most?
The Main Thing
I occasionally talk with other trumpet teachers about embouchure
mechanics. Sometimes what I hear drifts so far from reality that it
sounds like a bunch of vague psychobabble. So, whatever topic is
being discussed, I invariably steer it back to what I view as more solid
ground - in other words, the lips. How does opening the teeth affect the
lips? How does moving the jaw affect the lips? How does saying
syllables affect the lips? How do puffed cheeks, mouthpiece selection
and positioning, throat tension, etc., affect lip position?
The lips are the cause. Everything else is the effect.
Funny thing is, everybody seems to know this instinctively, but because
lip movement in the regular playing range is too complex to manipulate
through some sort of left-brain analysis, teachers and players get
frustrated and start looking elsewhere for answers.
If the lips work correctly, everything else tends to fall into place.
And yet, exactly how the lips move is beyond analysis. So trumpet
playing, like any high level physical skill, can only be taught up to a
point. A teacher can reveal the basic mechanics and prescribe
particular exercises to help the student become more familiar with the
range of motion required by the skill. But the "aha!" experience, the
moment when everything comes together and balance is achieved, is a
final step that students must "fall into" on their own.
Do You Really Want
to Be a Teacher?
Not everybody is cut out to be a trumpet teacher. Many start for the
wrong reasons. Here are some, but certainly not all, basic
1. Psychology of helping Ultimately, teaching is not about making a little
money on the side. It's about devoting yourself to helping another
person grow. There is a greatness in this profession that is lessened by
every teacher looking for a quick buck. Do you want to help others more
than you want to help yourself?
2. Commitment You must be there for the student, including as many
performances and auditions as possible. If you are also a player, there
needs to be balance between playing and teaching. Teachers who
unexpectedly cancel lessons because of a playing gig just don't get it.
3. Energized It sounds so basic, but being there, focused, on purpose,
and ready to go is incredibly important. You can't expect students to be
that way if you aren't.
4. Exceed me, please! Some teachers are actually threatened by the
progress of their students, concerned that they will be diminished if the
student exceeds them in some way. This is more how a player thinks
than a teacher. Teaching requires a less competitive mentality. It's
more a partnership than a contest of wills. A teacher must put his ego
aside and do everything to promote the success of the student.
5. Open brain The world is full of mediocre teachers, locked into one
way of doing things, resistant to new ideas because new ideas threaten
long-established comfort zones. A good teacher, on the other hand,
never stops looking for ways to enhance teaching effectiveness.
6. Students teach you, too. Every great teacher knows that you can get
as much out of teaching as the student does from being taught. In other
words, there is a reciprocal flow of information that occurs on many
different levels between teacher and student. Teachers with an "iron
fist" shut down this flow. Be open to the special wisdom of the student.
7. Broad Understanding As a teacher you ultimately want such a vast
knowledge of your field that you can explain your points in many
different ways. For example, some students are more auditory than
visual, or more right brain dominant than left. You need to know how to
alter your explanation to fit the student's ability to comprehend.
If these teaching attributes sound reasonable to you, and you are
interested in learning more about the Balanced Embouchure from a
teaching perspective, then please e-mail me. I am looking for teachers
to teach this process. I'm working on a teacher's manual which is
packed with practical information gleaned from decades of giving
lessons. Whether you are new to the profession and want a career
jump-start, or you want to augment your current level of experience, this
book may fill your needs.
My current e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Check the web site for