Buzzing the Mouthpiece

Buzzing the Mouthpiece

Time for a Revision of Teaching Pedagogy

Neil Hansen

In this writing I will state the case that recent research warrants the updating of brass methods textbooks which advocate the buzzing of the brass mouthpiece as a prelude to success in playing a brass instrument. Most texts used in college brass methods classes were first written twenty five to forty years ago and still promote mouthpiece buzzing in contradiction to recent research which proves that it is contrary to its assumed benefits. Acceptance of this research may also encourage those who teach the trumpet and other brass instruments to update their approach. Most of the research quoted in this writing is entirely focused on the trumpet however most of the information will also apply to other brass instruments.

In the world of brass players there is agreement that a good daily warm‐up routine should include long tones, lip slurs, tonguing exercises, scales, etc. For many players the preparation to play almost becomes a ritual which in the extreme may include intense physical activity such as calisthenics. In contrast to these well accepted concepts, there is one area which seems to create controversy among teachers and players alike:  whether or not to buzz the mouthpiece.

When the subject of buzzing the mouthpiece is raised, there appears to be no middle ground among knowledgeable players and teachers concerning this aspect of trumpet pedagogy. Those who do buzz as part of a warm‐up are convinced it is one of the only ways to properly prepare themselves to play. Some ignore this concept and utilize other means to accomplish the same goals. I have encountered players who buzz only for a few seconds before beginning to play while others advocate spending a few second up to as much as forty‐five minutes doing buzzing exercises on the mouthpiece before playing a single note. Although this may provide some benefit to the student in the area of ear training, research shows that buzzing the mouthpiece will introduce unwanted tension into the process of making music.

One of the main reasons mouthpiece buzzing has been advocated for so long has been the perceived belief throughout the brass community that it helps develop the embouchure for playing the trumpet, horn, trombone, euphonium, or tuba. One of the best descriptions of the brass embouchure comes from the respected trumpet professor William Adam. He described the formation of the embouchure in a 1975 clinic address as follows.

I am convinced that the most workable embouchure is one that has the area behind the mouthpiece in a state of resilience and quite relaxed. At the mouth area outside the corners of the mouth there is firmness, but not a real tightness, and this feels like a warm tension. The trumpet muscles, or the buccinator muscles, are the muscles we utilize when we are getting ready to spit. The muscles should form a passageway for the air to be accelerated through the lips and through the horn. If we can retain the resilience and relaxation of the embouchure, we make it possible for our air to get through the lips and the horn without too many restrictions. The more we can cut down on the resistance of the air stream, the better the tone will be, and also the easier the horn will play. (Adam)

The buccinator muscles on either side of the face (cheek muscles) and are described in the Merriam‐ Webster Medical Dictionary as:

… a thin broad muscle forming the wall of the cheek and serving to compress the cheek against the teeth and to retract the angle of the mouth (Merriam‐Webster)

Adam continues in the same address to make the point that when the mouthpiece alone is used to create a buzz it will result in unwanted tension in order to produce an audible sound. He suggests instead using the mouthpiece and leadpipe combination as a preface to playing the trumpet. Here is how Adam described this technique to a skeptical audience of trumpet players:

 To try my exercise, first buzz your mouthpiece. Note that there is a certain amount of tension with that action. Now instead of buzzing your lips, just think of not pre‐setting the embouchure in any way, shape or form, but just place the mouthpiece in the lead pipe and think of moving your air through that tube. Does that seem easier than buzzing the mouthpiece? (Adam)

 

I have found that to make the mouthpiece buzz, I must bring it into closer contact with the lips by using more pressure against the lips than I would otherwise desire to apply. It appears that the typical brass player has two ways to create the buzz: either by increasing the pressure of the mouthpiece against the lips or by blowing harder. It does not make much sense to add this tension to the warm‐up routine and then later work to eliminate it. Instead, according to Adam, the embouchure is blown into position by the air. Although buzzing the mouthpiece may provide some benefit to players by helping to train the ear or mentally prepare for music performance, it necessitates the creation of too much pressure to be included as part of a regular practice routine.

In his address Adam did not discount the fact that the lips do indeed interact with the standing wave in the trumpet and thereby produce a sound. (Some may refer to this sensation while playing as buzzing, but for the purpose of discussion I will limit references to the term buzzing to mean the sound created with the mouthpiece only.) Adam quotes research by Arthur Benade who, in a 1973 article titled “Physics of Brasses” published in the Scientific American, proved that when a sound is created on the trumpet the lips do not move until the acoustic energy is transferred back from the bell of the trumpet to the mouthpiece. This research, which was published two years prior to Adam’s presentation, demonstrated that the lips are then set into vibration by the standing wave and a sound is created.

In a more recent study of the physics of playing the trumpet, Thomas Moore, Professor of Physics at Rollins College, set out to determine if what Adam stated in 1975 was accurate. In his research Professor Moore created artificial lips and teeth and connected them to a wind source and a trumpet mouthpiece both with and without the complete trumpet.  Moore proved the trumpet mouthpiece alone does not produce a sound until it has been inserted into the leadpipe of the trumpet. In this study, published by the International Trumpet Guild in 2001, he and his students proved what Adam had declared almost thirty years earlier: the lips do not move until the mouthpiece is inserted into the trumpet.

Instead of buzzing the mouthpiece to warm‐up Adam advocated that players insert the mouthpiece into the leadpipe only. Unless the player has a leadpipe available the easiest approach is to simply remove the main tuning slide. On the trumpet this use of the mouthpiece with a standard length leadpipe will produce a pitch which typically sounds a concert Eb. As Adam has often demonstrated in his presentations, and Moore’s research substantiated, air is first blown through the mouthpiece without creating a buzz. Then the mouthpiece is moved into the trumpet. As the mouthpiece begins to slide into the receiver of the trumpet the sound as the standing wave occurs. This sound will transpire without any change in the airflow through the mouthpiece as it makes a connection to the leadpipe.

However, this does not mean this process has been generally accepted in the trumpet community. In his article ”Mouthpiece Buzzing Confusion” Nicholas Drozdoff is well aware of both the previously quoted articles but almost derides the concepts presented by Adam and Moore as uninformed. He does not mention Adam by name but makes reference to his lecture presentation in the following paragraph:

In fact, one of these teachers even claims that one shouldn’t actually be able to properly sustain a tone on a mouthpiece when it isn’t in the horn! This is not quite complete. What we have here is an incomplete understanding of physics. While it is possible for some trumpeters to find that their buzz stops when the trumpet is removed from the mouthpiece, it is just as possible to find trumpeters who can sustain a buzz while playing and removing the horn and then even the mouthpiece, buzzing only the lips! It turns out that there are rather complex models for understanding how a trumpet and trumpeter works. (Drozdoff)

In reading this article it becomes apparent that Drozdoff refuses to accept these documented studies but does not present any scientific evidence to support his position. The serious student of the trumpet might be wise to discard such unsubstantiated statements and rely instead on the documented facts. I realize that many players will be reluctant to accept Adam and Moore’s conclusions. Most likely these are the individuals who spend several minutes a day buzzing the mouthpiece and believe it has benefitted their musicianship as a result. I have found in my own playing, and in that of my private students, that the tone production on the trumpet at lower volume levels is not similar to what is required to achieve a buzz with the mouthpiece alone.

Each year across the country university music departments teach countless aspiring music teachers to learn the basics of brass instruments in methods classes. These courses usually utilize textbooks as part of the class instruction. These same texts will likely become valuable references for future educators and may provide them with a resource to answer questions concerning brass pedagogy. Therefore it is imperative these textbooks contain the most accurate and scientifically based information.

I have discovered two of the most commonly used texts, Guide to Teaching Brass and A Complete Guide to Brass, advocate the teaching of buzzing as a prelude to performance on the trumpet. Many music teachers in the public schools across the country have learned in their college methods classes that the first thing to be taught to beginning trumpet players is the concept of buzzing the mouthpiece. In fact, when presenting the various band instruments for beginners to choose from, some educators may have potential brass players attempt to produce a buzz with only the mouthpiece as a sort of “test” to better predict their future success on that instrument. Here is what one such brass methods book states concerning this practice:

It is suggested that each student practice the buzz until the embouchure can be held steady without air pockets., and that he practice on the mouthpiece until he has a range of approximately one octave, which can be played freely without undue strain, closed throat, or excessive pressure. (Hunt)

Other brass method texts promote buzzing the mouthpiece in more detail. Scott Whitener devotes three entire pages of his book A Complete Guide to Brass to mouthpiece buzzing, advocating it as a prelude to producing a tone on a brass instrument. Although he does warn against the use of excessive pressure, he encourages future teachers of beginners to use this method. This results in valuable instructional time being spent teaching students to play exercises on the mouthpiece alone.

At first glance this might seem to create a serious problem which will follow a musician for as long as he or she plays an instrument. In most cases, however, the beginning trumpet player will quickly dispense with buzzing the mouthpiece when the ability to play melodies on the instrument occurs. Regardless of the impact, it is likely that most teachers of beginners believe that buzzing the mouthpiece is a positive concept to teach young students.

Often it is only when the player advances and may begin taking private lessons with a specialist that the concept of mouthpiece buzzing will be reintroduced. It is the private teacher who is most likely to advocate this approach to warming up on the instrument, perpetuate its practice, and indoctrinate the player into continuing to utilize it. As Adam promotes in his teachings, it would be better for these students to begin their practice routine with a few minutes spent playing the mouthpiece/leadpipe combination. This process more closely resembles the way the trumpet is actually played. If ear training is the goal of the teacher then asking the student to sing or whistle the sounds would be more beneficial.

I realize that many of the thoughts presented here may conflict with long held beliefs concerning tone production on the trumpet. I, too, was skeptical of many of these ideas when I first heard about them. After careful study and observation of my own playing and that of my students I have come to agree with this update to brass pedagogy.

As stated earlier most of these textbooks were first written in the 1970’s and 1980’s and have been revised in more recent editions. Unfortunately none have incorporated any of this recent research in their revisions. I would hope that as the ideas presented here become more widely known that the authors might change their pedagogical information to reflect this research.

 

References

Adam, William. “1975 Clinic Address.” Everythingtrumpet.com. Ed. Mark Minasian. 16 Sept. 2007

<http://everythingtrumpet.com/Bill‐Adam/articles/ClinicAddress.html>.

“Buccinator.” Merriam‐Webster Medical Dictionary. Merriam‐Webster.com. 17 Sept. 2007

http://www.m‐w.com/medical/buccinator

Benade, Arthur. “The Physics of Brasses.” Scientific American (July 1973): 24‐35.

Moore, Thomas. “Playing Without Buzzing: Fact or Fiction?” International Trumpet Guild Journal 25.4 (June 2001): 51+13.

Drozdoff, Nicholas. “Mouthpiece Buzzing Confusion.” GeoCities.com. 16 Sept. 2007

<http://www.geocities.com/Vienna/3941/poppycock.html>.

Hunt, Norman J. “The Embouchure.” Guide to Teaching Brass. 1968. 3rd ed. Dubuque: Wm. C. Brown, 1984. 23.

Whitener, Scott. “Tone Production.” A Complete Guide to Brass. 2nd ed. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 1997. 139‐141.

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