“I think you need to change your embouchure.”
These are some of the most terrifying words a brass player can hear. Some reasons your music teacher might feel this way include but are not limited to:
1) They see that you are playing on the red of the lip
2) You are playing to the side of your lip
3) Your horn angle is pointed too far down or up
4) You have a weak /out of tune upper register
5) You have endurance issues
While it may not seem like much to simply move where you place your mouthpiece, it is a HUGE deal. Before you potentially decide to change your embouchure, you should contact a private instructor for a lesson to try and get a “diagnosis” of your playing. In some cases, an embouchure change is not needed, and you may just have to work on a much more fundamental issue in your playing.
However, if you need an embouchure change, you need to study with a private teacher who will help guide you during this extremely time consuming process.
Why I needed an Embouchure Change
When I started playing the trumpet, I had a perfectly centered embouchure. However, I needed to get braces during my freshman year of high school, which changed EVERYTHING about my playing. I could no longer place the mouthpiece in the same spot I had been for so many years; I had to place the mouthpiece on the red of my lip in order to even produce a sound. So I did this for two years or so until my braces came off, then I didn’t even consider changing it back to the centered position I had prior to my braces.
During the last month of my senior year of High School, I played roughly two concerts every week. As a result, my lips were swollen and I was unable to play for a full week. Once this happened, I came to terms with the fact that playing on the red of my lips was not only hindering my progress, but causing me pain to play the trumpet.
My first experience with the Caruso Method – Jerry Lucadamo
After taking the week off, I immediately went to go see my private teacher, Jerry Lucadamo, to discuss my playing issues. During my lesson, I learned that he had undergone an embouchure change when he was my age. He had the good fortune to study directly with Carmine Caruso, arguably one of the best brass teachers of his time, and felt that this method was the right choice for me. I was eager to begin, but unfortunately the first instruction was to take the next week off from playing. He explained that in order to get rid of some of the muscle memory I had developed from years of playing this way, I had to take the week off to let my face “reset.”
Once “reset”, Jerry helped me find the optimal placement of the mouthpiece on my face. We determined that the center of my lips, where the high point of the mouthpiece rim made contact just above the red of my lips, was the best spot. I was then assigned a couple exercises directly from the Caruso method that would help develop muscle memory for my new mouthpiece placement.
By the end of our lesson, I was already a bit more comfortable with my new embouchure placement and I could just feel that this method was going to work for me. We had one more lesson just focusing on the Caruso method and then he told me to try and get a lesson with one of Caruso’s best students, Laurie Frink.
Studying with Laurie Frink
Laurie Frink has played with the bands of Gerry Mulligan, Maria Schneider, James Darcy Argue, Benny Goodman and many more. An apprentice of Carmine Caruso, Laurie Frink was one of his best students and later became a “guru” for brass advice to her students.
Immediately upon entering her studio, she escorted me to what she would refer to as the “victim’s seat.” She had me first show her exactly how I changed my embouchure and why I felt I needed to change. She had me play the exercises I had been working on from the Caruso method to diagnose my current issues.
Within five minutes of hearing me play, she got out some manuscript paper and proceeded to “prescribe” me a daily routine that incorporated buzzing (both mouthpiece and free buzzing), Caruso studies, some lip flexibility and Clarke study No. 1. The goal was to create a sound with as little effort as possible, and if I ever felt tension in my playing I had to stop for five minutes and just let myself relax. Over the next couple weeks, I began to notice improvement in overall comfort with my new embouchure, as well as, my sound started to shape more into what I wanted.
Patience is a Virtue – The Long Term Benefits of an Embouchure Change
“Patience is a virtue.” This is arguably one of the biggest clichés in history, but it holds a great deal of truth. Changing your embouchure requires a great deal of patience in order for the change to stick and to occur naturally. You must also have faith in your teacher! At one point during the change, I decided to change to a mouthpiece that was way too big for me without the approval of my teacher. Taking matters into my own hands this way nearly ruined all the work I had accomplished on my embouchure change.
At the time, I thought these exercises were a bit too simple, but in reality, I NEEDED to take a step back to the fundamentals and correct my playing on a much more basic level. I really needed to take the time to break down my playing and rebuild it properly, unlike how I did it before. You already messed up one embouchure, why would you mess up this new one by rushing the change? Just relax, don’t push yourself and let things happen naturally. Sometimes, the most simple of exercises can make an absolute world of difference.
It has been roughly four years since I did my embouchure change and I have noticed a drastic improvement in my overall ease of playing the trumpet. Now that I am playing properly and relaxed, my range has become more consistent, my sound has less tension in it and my intonation improved greatly.
After completing this embouchure change, I have much more control over my playing, and I am able to better self -diagnose and figure out what I can do to fix these problems. In addition, it gave me a better understanding of my equipment and how I respond to certain changes to my equipment.
One book you might want to consider looking into to better understand some of Laurie Frink’s methods is “Flexus” by John McNeil and Laurie Frink. It is designed to deal with the problems of a modern improviser…. or any trumpet player for that matter.
Until next time, happy practicing!