Date: Thu, 9 May 2002 11:14:47 -0400
From: sabutin <>
Subject: Closed, open embouchures

    I wrote:
>    Please explain something to me.
>    I hear a great deal about "closed" and "open" embouchures on this list.
>    What do these words mean?
>    S.

I got many answers. Thank you.

As a lower brass player who has occasionally messed around w/trumpet (I  played a few gigs on lower parts in big bands and a couple of easy jingles many years ago) and regularly doubles on many sizes of trombone, trombone m'pce (high jazz lead right on through orchestral tenor and bass trombone) and tuba, I suspect that this open/closed thing is one of the few places where trumpet embouchure might depart from that of the lower brass instruments.

I say "suspect" because I am not really sure. Maybe the relatively small area w/in the trumpet m'pce almost FORCES the lips closed.

However...I am going to include what I know about this idea from a trombonist's perspective, There is a middle eastern saying, "As above, so below", that makes me think that maybe the same things are happening in both approaches to brass playing.

Here goes...

As I have posted here recently, I studied w/Carmine Caruso for a long time, and Carmine was very consistent in not dealing w/concepts like this in a direct, verbalized  manner. He would instead prescribe exercises that established the most efficient and effective way for players to do whatever was necessary for their individual needs on the horn.

One of the ways that he would approach this problem...and I know for a fact that he used this concept for french horn and trumpet players as well as for trombone and lower brass...was with breath attacks. Especially breath attacks done in the lower registers as very low volumes.

He also used metaphors, mental pictures of what was supposed to be happening. One of the most effective he ever gave me was one that used the idea of the swinging doors in a western cafe to illustrate the proper balance of the lips for a brass player. If those doors were to be adjusted improperly, they would either be too close and clack together, sticking when they should be swinging and stubbornly refusing to move properly and easily, or they would be too far apart and swing wildly back and forth without ever touching at all, never establishing any relationship whatsoever to one another, always out of phase.

If, however, those doors were to be perfectly balanced, just touching, then the slightest breeze or touch would cause them to swing gracefully back and forth, and their swinging would be adjusted and timed in by their balanced and subtle meeting in the middle of every cycle.

He gave breath attack exercises to illustrate that idea and to train the body to FEEL a balance of that sort.

Once the breath attack becomes clean and well controlled, the lips are in proper balance to start a note. Not "closed". not "open"...concepts that are hard to define anyway, inside a m'pce and in the act of playing...just "correct".

Here are the results I have found as I dealt w/this idea, and have also seen to be true w/many students.

A breath attack that goes "fa'....or worse "ffffa" or "ffffffffa" or for that matter just  "ffffffffff" an unsuccessful breath attack.

Ditto one that goes "PWAh" , "fwap", BAM!!!" or "kaBLOOEY".

A GOOD breath attack is be one that starts cleanly, with neither excess unused air nor an explosion of air.

The sound of unvibrated air..."ffffff"...indicates that the lips are not sufficiently well balanced to produce a sound, not in close enough proximity to one another, and if a note is successfully produced after the sound of "fff" it means that the player is bringing his lips into the correct position for the note after the breath has started.

The opposite extreme, an explosion of some kind, means the player has his lips TOO closely clamped together and they must be forced open by the air in order to vibrate.

The visualization (auralization?) of the idea of a "Pah" attack will serve a player well here, if you consider the consonant  "P" at the beginning of the "Pah" to be the most delicate and unexplosive "P" possible...almost the feeling you would get if you whispered the word "pop". The capability of producing  a breath attack of this sort means that the lips are in perfect balance, and begin vibrating immediately and efficiently as soon as air is passed between them.

The ending of a note, ideally, results in the lips once again returning to the same "P" position...again, whisper the word "pop" only this time don't let the second "p" explode in a puff of air, just let the lips remain in their beginning position.

Now of course it is possible to start notes from an "open" position,. it just requires an extra motion to bring them into position to vibrate. This kind of motion can be timed in...I mean we're talking VERY small tolerances here, very small motions...but again, the concept of "As above, so below" can be applied.

In baseball, there is a term used to describe a batting problem called having a hitch in the swing...some kind of unnecessary habitual motion before the swing actually begins. Some very good batters have succeeded in integrating their own particular "hitch" into their swing...but the really great ones have none. They are perfectly balanced, coiled and ready to move.

They are also not RIGIDLY coiled...frozen in a tense posture that must first be relaxed to some degree before the swing can begin. This is a useful picture of the brass player who uses a "closed" embouchure that is TOO closed, one that must be forced open by the air (or in some instances, contact from the tongue itself) in order to function.

Now all of these ideas are dependent on other factors as well...the individual size + shape of a player's lips, the AMOUNT of lip used, the size of the rim + cup, the range and volume being played...complicated, ain't it, this thinking stuff?

So...consider the possibility of a THIRD position, one that is neither "closed" NOR "open". but able to be either and/or both depending on the circumstances of the music.

Neither permanently closed nor permanently open...just correct.

Have we come full circle, back to the idea of "just play and the embouchure will take care of itself"?

Could be...but it's always an interesting trip, isn't it?