In 2017, I purchased a LipCam -- a trumpet mouthpiece with a digital video camera inserted into its cup, which is connected to a computer via USB interface. This technology allows the researcher to observe the oscillation of a brass player's lips in real time, under essentially normal performance conditions. Over the past five years, I have had many students, colleagues, and friends play on this device, and have formed new ideas about how the trumpet embouchure works.
While trumpet players' embouchures vary greatly (and I do not believe there is only one way to play the trumpet), the LipCam has certainly made it possible to observe common patterns and hypothesize a number of possible cause-and-effect relationships. I do believe we have learned more and can establish a probable sequence of events for various types of embouchures. These observations may help us develop actionable pedagogical instructions that may be helpful to all players, especially those suffering from a particular embouchure-related performance limitation.
What follows below are actual videos of trumpet players' lips in the LipCam, as well as some observations about those players' embouchure function.
One area of the embouchure that can be studied in the LipCam is the aperture. The aperture is the hole, or opening, through which air passes. Participants in the LipCam study exhibited a wide variety of aperture types. Some candidates had a "wide" aperture that appeared to span the entire diameter of the mouthpiece, and other players had a "narrow hole" concentric to the mouthpiece circumference. In general, players could be lumped into one of these two large umbrella categories -- wide or narrow apertures.
With regard to dynamics, the LipCam did reinforce the common perception that the aperture increases in size at louder volumes and decreases in size at softer volumes. This was the case with essentially every participant in the study.
With regard to range, the LipCam yielded both expected and unexpected findings. In general, the aperture did have a tendency to become smaller as players ascended, and had a tendency to become larger as players descended. But these were not universal truths, and in fact some players exhibited little to no change in aperture size when making changes in range. (This was especially true of participants who had "wide yet small" apertures.) Indeed, more than one player seem to maintain the same aperture size when ascending from high C to double C. Players who had a smaller apertures generally had better range than players who had larger apertures. This tended to be true across all ages and ability levels.
A common trend was for the aperture to ascend or descend when the player changed register. For some players, as they ascended, they appeared to put more top lip into the mouthpiece, and the aperture accordingly traveled downward, as seen below in "Aperture Travels Down." For other players, as they ascended, they appeared to put more bottom lip into the mouthpiece, and the aperture accordingly traveled upward, as seen below in "Aperture Travels Up." Across, the board, "Aperture Travels Down" players exhibited a much stronger and easier upper register, whereas "Aperture Travels Up" players universally had significant struggles in the upper register. One could perhaps conclude from these observations that, while ascending, it is better to increase the amount of top lip into the mouthpiece than it is to withdraw the top lip. (More on this in "Pedagogical Applications, below)
Pre-Flight Tongue Check
Many players who participated discovered aspects of their playing of which they were previously unaware. One common element was the "Pre-Flight Tongue Check," whereas the player places the tongue between the lips prior to blowing air into the mouthpiece. While some players may lick their lips to make them wet before players, participants in this study usually confessed they were not trying to make their lips wet, and moreover, the amount of tongue action seemed insufficient for significant moistening of the lips. This seems to be just a bad habit -- or a comforting mechanism -- that a significant number of participants did without realizing.
Across the board, the embouchure behaved more violently when articulating than when slurring. This was another "universal truth" that seemed to be the case across all ages and ability levels.
Earlier in this post I described "narrow" vs." wide" apertures, but another observed phenomena was the "asymmetrical" aperture. The asymmetrical aperture is essentially a hole that is located more to one side than the other. In most cases, an asymmetrical aperture was also accompanied by asymmetrical mouthpiece placement on the lips. In other words, asymmetrical mouthpiece placement on the lips did tend to result in an asymmetrical aperture appearance inside the mouthpiece.
Slightly Asymmetrical Embouchure
(Note: The strange fishbowl quality of this video was the result of of the difficulty in seeing this embouchure; We needed turn the mouthpiece and shoot the aperture at an odd angle, and then flip the video back around in the computer software.)
Musical Example: Stravinsky
The following video shows six different players (of varying embouchures, ages, and abilities) playing the "Ballerina's Dance" from Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka.
"Ballerina's Dance" from Stravinsky's Petrushka
Size of Aperture
As a general rule, the smaller the aperture, the easier the response, the better the sound, and the better the range. Participants who exhibited larger apertures tended to have poor response, fuzzier sounds, and a more limited range. This was true and consistent across all age and experience levels.
The student in the video below demonstrates poor range, a larger aperture (of the 'wide' variety) as well as top lip recession indicative of an "Aperture Travels Up" variety:
General Pedagogical Applications
In general, my goal of using the LipCam has been to simply "observe the phenomenon." In other words, while I'm fascinated to see what really happens within the darkness of the mouthpiece, I cannot guarantee these observations will provide "the answer" to a student's particular playing problems. That being said, there area few general pedagogical suggestions I can provide to accompany the videos above:
1. The smaller the aperture, the better. In general, it was easy to note the ease of response and range in subjects who had smaller apertures. To develop a smaller (and more efficient) aperture, I encourage students to practice soft attacks, three notes per sequence, using "hoo, poo, too" as their initial articulation. Practice these with the softest pianissimos and strive for immediacy of response with the softest puff of air.
2. Effect of aperture travel direction on range. As noted above, players who had an aperture which traveled downward while ascending in range tended to have much better range than players who had an aperture which traveled up. First, I should caution any teacher about directly discussing "aperture travel direction" in a lesson, which could be confusing to the student. I believe the travel direction is the effect, and the teacher could focus on possible causes. The pedagogical advice is twofold: First, players may want to play scales and flow studies and be mindful of not pulling out the top lip while ascending, and second, one should observe the direction of their bell pivot when changing registers. In general, players who exhibited the "Aperture Travels Down" embouchure where those who had a traditional pivot, in other words, the bell angle went downward while ascending and upward while descending. Players who had an "Aperture Travels Up" embouchure tended to have a "reverse pivot," in other words, the angle of the bell went up while ascending and down while descending. In some ways, this LipCam study would tend to provide evidence on the merits of a traditional pivot.
3. Importance of practicing dynamic shifts. I always encourage my students to practice their full range of dynamics in their daily routines. I personally practice a crescendo-diminuendo on every note of the instrument every day! This study would tend to support this kind of practice to develop focus of the aperture. (In addition to the physical benefits of such practice, the musical benefit of having broad dynamic control is obvious as well.)
4. Eliminate pre-flight checks. As shown above in the "pre-flight tongue check," the LipCam sometimes revealed little habits players have that may not be necessary. I tell students, "Just blow and go." The LipCam has been helpful in showing students those little extra things they do that really do not contribute in a positive way to their performance.
Limitations and Self-Criticism of this Study
In this study I have used terms such as "poor response," "limited range," and the like. Often I, as the researcher, am making these statements based on my pre-existing knowledge of the players being studied. Often these players were my students and professional colleagues and I knew their playing very well, including their strengths and weakness. In other cases, when the players were out-of-town participants I did not know well, they self-identified their weakness. Indeed, in many cases these qualities are easily noticeable on the video itself (such as a student struggling to produce high notes or producing an immediately recognizable fuzzy sound), but, these terms and qualities are indeed subjective observations. Certainly, this study is not immune from the presence of observer bias. Future studies utilizing videographic observation of the trumpet player's embouchure may wish to create more objective measurements for identifying exactly what "poor response" and "limited range" are.
Future studies may also want to simultaneously have the LipCam on the lips and a second video camera on the trumpeter, so the external playing conditions (outside the mouthpiece) could be observed. Particularly when observing asymmetrical embouchures and apertures that "travel" up and down, a second camera on the player itself would have been really helpful.
If you have question, you are more than welcome to reach out to me via the Contact Page on my website.
Jason Dovel is associate professor of trumpet at the University of Kentucky and a Yamaha Performing Artist. He is host of the annual UK Summer Trumpet Institute held every June in Lexington, KY (USA).