The word is of French origin and is related to the root bouche (fr.), 'mouth'.
The proper embouchure allows the instrumentalist to play the instrument at its full range with a full, clear tone and without strain or damage to one's muscles.
While performing on a brass instrument, the sound is produced by the player buzzing his or her lips into a mouthpiece. Pitches are changed in part through altering the amount of muscular contraction in the lip formation. The performer's use of the air, tightening of cheek and jaw muscles, as well as tongue manipulation can affect how the embouchure works.
Even today, many brass pedagogues take a rigid approach to teaching how a brass player's embouchure should function. Many of these authors also disagree with each other regarding which technique is considered correct. Research done as early as the 1940s, as well as more current research, suggests efficient brass embouchures are dependent upon the performer using the method that suits the player's particular anatomy. Individual differences in dental structure, lip shape and size, jaw shape and the degree of jaw malocclusion, and other anatomical factors will affect whether a particular embouchure technique will be effective or not for a particular performer.
Philip Farkas, a noted French horn performer and brass pedagogue, hypothesized in his 1962 publication, The Art of Brass Playing, that the air stream traveling through the lip aperture should be directed straight down the shank of the mouthpiece. Farkas believed that it would be illogical to "violently deflect" the air stream downward at the point of where the air moves past the lips (Farkas, 1962). In this text, Farkas also recommends that the lower jaw be protruded so that the upper and lower teeth are aligned.
In 1970 Farkas published a second text on brass embouchures, A Photographic Study of 40 Virtuoso Horn Players. This publication contradicted his earlier writing. Out of 40 subjects, Farkas showed that 39 subjects directed the air downward to varying degrees and 1 subject directed the air in an upward direction at various degrees. The lower jaw position seen in these photographs show more variation from Farkas' earlier text as well.
This supports what was written by trombonist and brass pedagogue, Donald S. Reinhardt in 1942 with his publications, Pivot System For Trumpet and Pivot System for Trombone. In his 1972 publication, The Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, Reinhardt described and labeled different embouchure patterns according the characteristics including mouthpiece placement and the general direction of the air stream as it travels past the lips. According to this later text, players who place the mouthpiece higher on the lips, so that more upper lip is inside the mouthpiece, will direct the air downwards to varying degrees while playing. Performers who place the mouthpiece lower, so that more lower lip is inside the mouthpiece, will direct the air to varying degrees in an upward manner. In order for the performer to be successful, the air stream direction and mouthpiece placement need to be personalized based on individual anatomical differences. Lloyd Leno confirmed the existence of both upstream and downstream embouchures in his 1987 article for the International Trombone Association Journal entitled "A Study of Lip Vibrations with High-Speed Photography".
More controversial was Reinhardt's description and recommendations regarding a phenomenon he termed a "pivot". According to Reinhardt, a successful brass embouchure is dependent upon a motion wherein the performer moves both the mouthpiece and lips as a single unit along the teeth in an upward and downward direction. As the performer ascends, he or she will either move the lips and mouthpiece together slightly up towards the nose or pull them down together slightly towards the chin, and use the opposite motion to descend. Whether the player uses one general pivot direction or the other, and the degree to which the motion is performed, depends on the performer's anatomical features and stage of development. The placement of the mouthpiece upon the lips doesn't change, but rather the relationship of the rim and lips to the teeth. While the angle of the instrument may change as this motion follows the shape of the teeth and placement of the jaw, contrary to what many brass performers and teachers believe, the angle of the instrument does not actually constitute the motion Reinhardt advised as a pivot.
Later research supports Reinhardt's claim that this motion exists and might be advisable for brass performers to adopt. John Froelich's article for the International Trombone Association Journal, "The Mouthpiece Forces Used During Trombone Performances" (1990), describes how mouthpiece pressure towards the lips (vertical forces) and shear pressure (horizontal forces) functioned in three test groups, student trombonists, professional trombonists, and professional symphonic trombonists. Froelich noted that the symphonic trombonists used the least amount of both direct and shear forces and recommends this model be followed. Other recent research notes that virtually all brass performers rely upon the upward and downward embouchure motion, including The Correlation Between Doug Elliott's Embouchure Types and Playing and Selected Physical Characteristics Among Trombonists (David Wilken, doctoral dissertation, Ball State University, 2000) and An Analysis, Clarification, and Revaluation of Donald Reinhardt's Pivot System for Brass Instruments (David Ray Turnbull, doctoral thesis, Arizona State University, 2001). Other authors and pedagogues remain skeptical about the necessity of this motion, but scientific evidence supporting this view has not been sufficiently developed at this time to support this view.
Many noted brass pedagogues prefer to instruct the use of the embouchure from a less analytical point of view. Arnold Jacobs, a tubist and well-regarded brass teacher, believed that it was best for the student to focus on his or her use of the air and musical expression to allow the embouchure to develop naturally on its own (Brian Frederiksen, Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind, 1996). Other instructors, such as Carmine Caruso, believed that the brass player's embouchure could best be developed through strength building exercises that focus the student's attention on his or her time perception (Carmine Caruso, Musical Calisthenics for Brass, 1979). Still other authors who have differing approaches to embouchure development include Louis Maggio (see C. MacBeth, Original Louis Maggio System for Brass), Jeff Smiley (The Balanced Embouchure), and Jerome Callet (Superchops, Trumpet Secrets).
Most Professional performers, as well as instructors, use a combination called a puckered smile.
It is described in "The Art of Brass Playing" and is easy to set. It is the way you blow when you cool soup, or whistle.
He told people to blow as if they were trying to cool soup. That is how he set the embouchure. Raphael Mendez said to say the letter "M". The skin under your lower lip will be taut with no air pocket. Your lips do not overlap nor do they roll in or out. The corners of the mouth are held firmly in place. To play with an extended range you should use a Pivot, tongue arch and lip to lip compression.
According to Farkas' text, "The Art of Brass Player" the mouthpiece should have ½ top and ½ bottom, or ⅓ top and ⅔ bottom lip in it. Your lips should not overlap each other, nor should they roll in or out. The mouth corners should be held firm. Farkas speculated here that the horn should be held in a downward angle to allow the air stream to go straight into the mouthpiece, although his later text, "A Photographic Study of 40 Virtuosi Horn Players" shows that air stream direction actually is either upstream or downstream and is dependent upon the ratio of upper or lower lip inside the mouthpiece, not the horn angle. Farkas advised to moisten the outside of your lips, then form your embouchure and gently place the mouthpiece on it. He also recommended there must be a gap of ⅓ inch or so between your teeth so that the air flows freely.
Stevens embouchure was formerly the Costello embouchure and was developed by Roy Stevens and William N. Costello. It uses a slight rolling in of both lips and touching evenly all the way across. It also uses 50% top lip and 50% lower lip in the mouthpiece. The teeth will be ⅓ inch apart and the jaw thrust forward so that the teeth are even. This will give you a level, or slightly elevated horn angle.
There is little mouthpiece pressure. To practice this hold your horn by laying it on its side in the palm of your hand. Do not grasp it. Place your lips on the mouthpiece and play. At first you will get nothing, but with practice of this exercise, one can get to the point of being able to play a high C in this position.
You must use vertical (up/down) lip compression to play your upper register. Relax the chops and back off the pressure. Make the air do all the work. As your top lip pushes down and the bottom lip pushes up you may get a roll of skin under your lower lip. This embouchure can use a tongue arch (although Stevens didn’t like that) and a pivot.
For example, on a trombone, the Stevens may enable a whole extra higher 'super' octave to be accessed. However it is extremely difficult to control, especially when moving from lower to higher notes. It is also difficult to shift between Stevens and Farkas to enter and exit high-register passages, and a physical reset may be required.
A rare, puckered embouchure, sometimes used by jazz players for extremely high "screamer" notes. Maggio claimed that the pucker embouchure gives more endurance than some systems. Carlton MacBeth is the main proponent of the pucker embouchure. The Maggio system was established because Louis Maggio had sustained an injury which prevented him from playing. In this system you cushion the lips by extending them or puckering (like a monkey). This puckering enables the players to overcome physical malformations. It also lets the player play for an extended time in the upper register. The pucker can make it easy to use too open an aperture. Lots of very soft practice can help overcome this.
This embouchure method, advocated by a minority of brass pedagogues such as Jerome Callet, has not yet been sufficiently researched to support the claims that this system is the most effective approach for all brass performers.
Advocates of Callet's approach believe that this method was recommended and taught by the great brass instructors of the early 20th Century. Two French trumpet technique books, authored by Jean-Baptiste Arban, and St. Jacome, were translated into English for use by American players. According to some, due to a misunderstanding arising from differences in pronunciation between French and English, the commonly used brass embouchure in Europe was interpreted incorrectly. Callet attributes this difference in embouchure technique as the reason the great players of the past were able to play at the level of technical virtuosity which they did, although the increased difficulty of contemporary compositions for brass seem to indicate that the level of brass technique achieved by today's performers equals or even exceeds that of most performers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Callet's method of brass embouchure consists of the tongue remaining forward and through the teeth at all times. The corners of the mouth always remain relaxed, and only a small amount of air is used. The top and bottom lips curl inward and grip the forward tongue. The tongue will force the teeth, and subsequently the throat, wide open, supposedly resulting in a bigger, more open sound. The forward tongue resists the pressure of the mouthpiece, controls the flow of air for lower and higher notes, and protects the lips and teeth from damage or injury from mouthpiece pressure. Because of the importance of the tongue in this method many refer to this as a "tongue-controlled embouchure." This technique facilitates the use of a smaller mouthpiece, and larger bore instruments. It results in improved intonation and stronger harmonically related partials across the player's range.
A variety of transverse flute embouchures are employed by professional flutists, though the most natural form is perfectly symmetrical, the corners of the mouth relaxed, the lower lip placed along and at a short distance from the embouchure hole. The end-blown shakuhachi and hocchiku flutes demand especially difficult embouchures, sometimes requiring many lessons before any sound can be produced.
The embouchure is an important element to tone production. The right embouchure will produce a beautiful sound and a correct intonation yet little time is spent developing it. The embouchure is produced with the muscles around the lips. These muscles have to be properly warmed up and exercised before practicing. Tone development exercises including long notes and harmonics must be done as part of the warm up every day.
With the woodwinds, aside from the flute, piccolo, and recorder, the sound is generated by a reed and not with the lips. The embouchure is therefore based on sealing the area around the reed and the mouthpiece. This serves to prevent air from escaping while simultaneously supporting the reed allowing it to vibrate, and to constrict the reed preventing it from vibrating too much. With woodwinds, it is important to ensure that the mouthpiece is not placed too far into the mouth, which would result in too much vibration (no control), often creating a sound an octave (or harmonic twelfth for the clarinet) above the intended note. If the mouthpiece is not placed far enough into the mouth, no noise will be generated, as the reed will not vibrate.
The embouchure for single reed woodwinds like the clarinet and saxophone is formed by resting the reed upon the bottom lip, which is in turn supported by the bottom teeth. The top teeth then rest on top of the mouthpiece. In both saxophone and clarinet playing, the corners of the mouth are brought inwards (similar to a drawstring bag) in order to create a seal. Do not "smile" as some beginning band directors may instruct their students. This will later cause many intonation, tone, flexibility, and consistency problems. With the less common double-lip embouchure, the top lip is placed under (around) the top teeth. In both instances, the position of the tongue in the mouth plays a vital role in focusing and accelerating the air stream blown by the player. This results in a more mature and full sound, rich in overtones.
The double reed woodwinds, the oboe and bassoon, have no mouthpiece. Instead the reed is two pieces of cane extending from a metal tube (oboe - staple) or placed on a bocal (bassoon, English horn). The reed is placed directly on the lips and then played like the double-lip embouchure described above. Compared to the single reed woodwinds, the reed is very small and subtle changes in the embouchure can have a dramatic effect on tuning, tone and pitch control.
Recent "waterflute" installations as fountains in public parks allow for a kind of reverse-embouchure. Whereas traditional instruments are supplied with compressible fluid (air) from the mouth of a player, the new waterflutes supply fluid (water) to the player, and sound is made when the player resists this supply of fluid. Water flows out through mouths of the instrument and the player blocks this flow of water to make sound. As a result, the player can put one finger in each of several of the instrument's mouths, to play a chord, while independently controlling the embouchure of the sound made at each mouth. Additionally, the player's own mouth is free to sing along with the instrument, while the player can independently affect the sound of each of several different musical parts with this "finger embouchure". Such instruments are referred to as hydraulophones. Finger-embouchure can be used to make a wide variety of sounds, ranging from a buzzing sound like that made by a defective faucet, to a very pure tone similar to the sound made by a glass harmonica. Finger embouchure can also be used to affect the intonation or temperament. For example, a skilled hydraulist can use finger-embouchure to remain in a just intonation while changing keys, or to fluidly vary the intonation of a chord while it is sounding.