Flexibility, Accuracy and Ease

  • Vowels  and Jaw Positions
  • Points of Release
  • Finger-Breathing​

Brass technique centers on regulating minute differences in air speed. Since air speed determines the speed of vibration, we need to discover and utilize reliable, replicable, and sustainable ways to control it. Brass players usually think that controlling the aperture size with their facial muscles is the primary way to regulate air speed. The smaller the aperture size, the faster the speed of vibration. This works, but it's only part of the story.

In The Structures and Movement of Breathing (GIA Publications, Inc., Chicago, 2000), Barbara Conable, noted Alexander Technique teacher and author, states: "Our oral space is bounded by the roof of the mouth above, the muscular floor of the mouth below, the muscular facial cheeks at the sides, and the tongue within, so the mouth is not a thing but rather a space among things! In singing, the space is radically altered again and again by the structures that form it and fill it."

Each pitch on the horn requires a specific air speed, and controlling the size of the oral space by singing or thinking different vowel sounds is an effective way to produce the right air speed. 

To look into what actually goes on inside the oral space, Dr. Peter Iltis (Professor of Horn and Kinesiology at Gordon College) has been conducting research for the past nine months in collaboration with both the Institute for Music Physiology and Musician's Medicine (Hannover, Germany) and the MRI Lab at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical and Biomedical NMR Research in Gottigen, Germany. The research involves high speed, real-time magnetic resonance imaging of elite horn players performing on an MRI-compatible horn. Though results are only preliminary, several of these films show horn players from the highest echelon of the profession increasing their oral space for lower notes and systematically decreasing the oral space from the mid-register to the top of the range. 

The Vowels

Say "oo-ee." What happens inside your mouth? When we go from "oo" to "ee," the jaw rises a bit, and the back of the tongue arches and widens. When the air is delivered from the windpipe over the base of the tongue, and the tongue is in the "ee" position, the air speeds up as it rushes through the narrow channel between the top surface of the arched tongue and the roof of the mouth.

Say "oo-oh." What happens to the shape of the tongue and lips when you say "oh"? The tongue becomes flatter, moves forward in the mouth, and settles in between the low molars: the oral cavity becomes larger. "Oh" shapes the lips in a rounder configuration. Some people even lower their jaws a little when they say "oh." Because of regional differences in pronunciation, it helps to pronounce "oh" as if there were a "w" tacked at the end. Since "oh" makes the oral space larger, the air flow slows down, and  This vowel is extremely useful in the low register.

During my years in The Cleveland Orchestra, I experimented with and refined my use of vowels. After about fifteen years, I came up with a specific chart of ranges that seems to work for most horn players (with minor adjustments).

Jaw Positions

When I was a teenager I had horn teachers who said, "There's a high embouchure and a low embouchure, and other than that, your face shouldn't move." It's true that there is a definite "break" where the jaw drops radically when going from the high register to the low register (my break is around middle c'). But I've learned through experience that we need to have subtle gradations of jaw position to finely tune oral cavity size and further control the air speed coming out through the aperture.

To improve centeredness in the low register, I like to use the image of the wrench set. Picture a wrench set, like the kind that's organized by size progressively smaller to larger on a pegboard. For example, for playing the low horn tutti excerpt in the first movement of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, it helps to think of the opening of each wrench getting subtly and progressively larger as you move your jaw lower with each note of the descending whole tone scale. If this is a helpful image for you, and your tone quality and intonation improve, use it!

Points of Release on Articulation

The point of release of the top of the tongue during articulation helps determine the initial speed of air. The basic principle is this: the higher the top surface of the tongue releases from on the teeth or above the teeth, the faster the initial speed of the air.

This idea can help improve accuracy: If we play the harmonic above the note we're aiming for, the top surface of the tongue's point of release is probably too high--the initial air speed is too fast. If we undershoot and hit the harmonic below the note we want, our tongue's point of release is probably too low--the initial air speed is too slow. 

Carefully examine this chart of release points of the tongue and experiment while articulating a three octave G major scale. Notice how "thoh" with a soft th, as in the English word, "though," helps us lightly scrape the bottom of our two upper front teeth. This helps with starting low notes. Likewise, notice how "thuh," also with a soft th, as in the English word, "the," helps us release the top surface of the tongue from just above the bottom of the two upper front teeth. This helps with accuracy in the middle register. "Thoh" and "thuh" are very useful in low horn excerpts. The syllable "tsoo" helps us release the tongue from the top of the teeth and shapes the lips into an "oo" formation improving the sound, response and accuracy of notes near the top of the staff. "Tee" helps us release the domed front of the tongue from the alveolar ridge above the teeth for accuracy and ease in high notes at and above the top of the staff.

Finger-breathing: Making Horn Biomechanics Intuitive and Natural

I'm always searching for new techniques and strategies to help horn players create more ease and naturalness in their playing so that they're free to express themselves without obstacle. A few months after I published the first edition of my book, Horn Playing from the Inside Out, ​I attended a master class at New England Conservatory with Keith Underwood, noted flutist and breathing teacher. Keith's ideas confirmed many of the pedagogical principles that I had arrived at independently. If I hadn't heard it with my eyes and ears, I wouldn't have believed the dramatic difference his methods made in the sounds that his flute, voice and horn students were able to produce. Read more...

In addition to reading this material, you might want to view my YouTube video, "Eli Epstein, Horn Playing from the Inside Out: Finger Breathing," for a visual demonstration of these effective techniques.