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Performance: Embouchure

James Whitis • Performance • September 17, 2014

Insights on Dealing with Braces

 

When I was in the second grade, I had an accident that knocked out a top front tooth and chipped the corner of the tooth beside it. Over the years, the gap closed up somewhat, shifting inward, but it was still quite noticeable. I also had a tooth on the lower set that protruded out in front of the other teeth. This may have been my biggest obstacle to playing trombone.

I’m not so vain as to be too worried about the overall look of my teeth. I had learned over the years to hide them with a smile that pretty much kept my lips together. I had done it for so long that it was second nature and if someone told me to smile big, I would have to make a concerted effort to “show my teeth.” Needless to say, I rarely did.

It wasn’t until I was teaching middle school band that I really started thinking about my teeth again. I had realized that I wanted to continue to play my trombone well past my teaching days, and I was reminded daily of issues that my particular dental concerns would cause for a brass player. I discussed this with my wife and we decided that now that the kids were out of their braces, it was my turn.

I took the plunge and decided to visit a local orthodontist for his advice. Of course orthodontists are very familiar with the perils of band students and braces, and mine seemed to be particularly curious about my motivation. We went through the preliminary stages of taking pictures and x-rays to get a feel for just what would be the best solution.

“Invisalign” braces were just coming onto the scene. These were more expensive than your traditional braces, and less invasive, but because of my particular situation, they were not an option for me.

The standard metal braces would be the cheapest way to go. The thought of braces was honestly very scary for me. I had seen so many students show up to school and proudly announce that they were getting braces (or worse yet show up with braces already on)! Of course, I would be supportive, but inside, I would be dreading the struggles that they would encounter in the months and years to come. This time, it was me who would experience those struggles.

The day came for my visit to the orthodontist to get my braces. At age 44, I was entering what would be a period of real introspection regarding my playing and my teaching of young brass players. And then it was done – the braces were on!

I couldn’t help but go immediately to pick up my trombone and see what would happen. I picked up the horn, put it to my face and honestly my first thought was, “This is a very cruel joke! What have I done?” It was obvious to me that this was going to take a tremendous amount of patience on my part.

Being a band director, I have advised many students and parents over the years of the numerous products available for use with braces. Most dentists will provide wax for free to their clients. The “Morgan Bumpers” are also available: these are clear plastic strips that clip over the braces like a “C” channel.

All I can say is that none of these options seemed to do the trick for me. I even experimented with a few homemade solutions. The most creative was buying a mouthpiece guard from Walmart, boiling it as per instructions and making the usual imprint. This proved to be too thick. I tried my best to make it comfortable, but to no avail. I did this repeatedly, but never found anything that actually worked.

Most of my students over the years would try the usual products, only to eventually just do their best without anything. They either grew tired of applying the product or just didn’t feel that it lived up to its billing. Eventually I came to the same conclusion. I had a master’s degree in Trombone Performance and more than twenty years of teaching experience and I did not want to quit playing.

The only thing that worked for me was to keep my chops going by switching to tuba. I bought the smallest tuba mouthpiece I could find and tried to spend each day at least playing a good warm-up. This helped me to feel like I could still play. Trombone, trumpet, and French horn were out of the question, mainly because the mouthpiece pressed my lips firmly against the braces.

Throughout the duration of my time wearing braces, I began a rather voracious time of exploration. I bought books, I went online and visited forums, and I talked with friends that I felt were knowledgeable about embouchures and brass playing. Trumpet forums were especially interesting since all trumpeters seemed to be searching for the holy grail of embouchure development. They were a great read and very thought provoking.

Four years later, the braces came off. I was overjoyed that the day had finally come!

I had often told students that there would be an adjustment period. My students had told me that the teeth would feel “slick” and “slimy” and the mouthpiece would feel “awkward” on the face. These things were all true. Putting the mouthpiece in the old embouchure spot felt strange and I sensed that I would have a battle ahead.

The thing that I did not anticipate was how much my mouthpiece placement would move. I don’t have a very large upper lip or distance from the edge of the lip to the base of my nose. Nothing that looks unusual, just not as much as some have.

From this point on, everything changed. I came to realize how low my mouthpiece placement had been. This was due to a tooth on my lower set that protruded out in front of the other teeth. For this tooth to set comfortably, it needed to slip inside the rim of the mouthpiece. The end result of this was a low mouthpiece placement. We removed this tooth as an obstruction to mouthpiece placement and – voila! – the mouthpiece shifted upward.

Heretofore, I had a low range (using lower lip vibration) down to pedal A-flat. Anything beyond that was hit and miss and very soft. The only pedal that I would actually feel comfortable performing would be the pedal B-flat.

With the mouthpiece moved up, it allowed the upper lip to vibrate more freely, and I was able to play down to around a pedal E-flat. It is not so much that the playing of these pedals was important to my livelihood or even necessary for the normal range of my playing, but it was something that I had hoped I could develop.

So what have I learned from this experience that I would want all band directors and brass teachers to know?

 

First Things First – Take a Good Look

First of all, when assigning instruments to students, be very careful to take notice of their teeth and general facial structure. I have made it a habit to tell my students to give me a big “smile” and show me those teeth. I tell them that I’m just like their dentist. I need to see what is going on in there before I can help. I look to see the general alignment of the teeth. Will they need braces? I ask the parent as delicately as possible if they have had discussions with their dentist about the possibilities of orthodontic work in the future. If the answer is yes, then I carefully explain to them the difficulties that arise from playing some brass mouthpieces. It is important to try to steer them to the instrument that will give them the best chance for success.

Take notice of the lips and their shape. Do they have “fleshy” lips with a lot of pink? Are their lips “thin”? How much upper lip do they have between the base of the nose and the edge of the upper lip? How much lip is available to cover the teeth when an embouchure is formed? Is there a small amount or a great excess of lip? Do they have a large mass in the middle of the upper lip such as a “cupid’s bow”? Do they have large teeth or small teeth? How much of the teeth show when their lips are at rest? Can you see all of the upper teeth (aka the Joker) when their facial muscles are at rest?

Overbite versus underbite should be noted. Being able to move the lower jaw forward and backward comfortably is an advantage for all brass players. It’s all about the air stream and being able to manipulate the path it takes with speed and compression.

For all of the questions that I just raised, there is no one right answer. Combinations create different outcomes and careful observation is the key to success.

 

Working with Different Mouth Types

If a child has thick lips with a lot of flesh, then you can assume he or she will easily fill up the larger mouthpieces such as tuba and trombone or euphonium. However, if there is not much distance from the base of the nose to where the flesh meets the red of the lip, a student on tuba may wind up playing with a 1/3 upper lip and 2/3 lower lip embouchure. General wisdom would want a more 50/50 setup. A thin upper and lower lip, as long as it meets the 50/50 setup can do very well on a larger mouthpiece. In either case, my biggest concern is if the lips are able to comfortably keep contact during playing and can they easily vibrate to produce a great tone.

When it comes to size of the teeth in combination with the amount of lip available, it is always a question of ratio. Students with small teeth and large, full lips may have trouble supporting the embouchure, especially for upper register. Those with large teeth and smaller lips may experience issues with getting the lips to vibrate easily, especially if the upper lip is small and the upper teeth are large. The airflow may not be able to engage the upper lip as needed to produce a good and free-sounding buzz.

When a student has a large mass in the middle of the upper lip, such as a cupid’s bow, it may be difficult to play on a smaller mouthpiece. However, if the student has large teeth behind that upper lip that allow the flesh to flatten out or tuck in against the teeth, then the crisis may be averted. This may actually set up perfectly for the “M” embouchure, which is usually accompanied by a slight rolling in of the upper lip. This is the method taught to me in graduate school and I see it in many beginner books.

There are always exceptions: experience has taught me that a student with thick lips is not always destined to play a low brass instrument, nor is a student with thin lips to be put immediately on trumpet or horn.

All of the physical characteristics combine to make up the student’s embouchure and also provide information about the air stream he or she will produce. Some combinations are obviously ideal, but almost no combination is unworkable. They are all truly unique.

 

Tips on Technique

My experiences have emphasized the need to stress keeping the corners forward, which helps to create a cushion and encourages light mouthpiece pressure. Anything more than light pressure is a recipe for disaster, especially for a student who wears braces. It only takes one stick, rub, or pinch from the braces to induce a little torture. Any type of “smile” embouchure is fundamentally wrong and certainly doesn’t work with braces. Keeping the corners forward and playing with light pressure will help to keep the aperture small. A student may initially not be able to play with much volume, but if the end result is being able to continue playing without pain, it’s a trade off that is acceptable. The smaller aperture will help with shaping the airflow, and having adequate cushion will help send the player’s range upwards as his or her embouchure strengthens.

Continue to focus on the air stream. If the air is free flowing during their time with braces, they will be ahead of the game when the braces come off. Excessive mouthpiece-to-face pressure will serve to create lip tension and negatively affect the young player. So again, light pressure and good airflow. The use of a straw or turning the mouthpiece around and having the student move the air with little to no resistance is an effective exercise.

When the braces come off, the student will feel the need to create a better seal between the mouthpiece and the lips. If they have truly been working on airflow and continue with that feeling, it will lessen the need for mouthpiece pressure to create the seal. If this is the case, they will more easily slip back into playing shape. The normal scenario is that while a student has braces, she develops many bad habits, not the least of which is extreme lip tension. In addition to this, the student has adapted to the braces and the pain associated with them by doing virtually anything that makes them bearable. Some students will move the mouthpiece left or right and up or down, or any combination thereof. The end result is having to correct a bad habit once the braces are removed. Watching a student who shows promise on an instrument struggle with braces is often followed by the agony of seeing that student lose interest. We must do our best to make sure that our students have success after their braces come off.

 

Takeaways

Several points to remember while teaching any student, but especially one wearing braces or anticipating getting braces should be as follows:

  • Take time to evaluate your students’ physical characteristics before they choose an instrument.
  • Anticipate the possibility of braces and let that factor into your decision.
  • Teach an easy and relaxed airflow resulting in an effortless buzz on the mouthpiece.
  • Don’t push for volume with a student wearing braces. That will come.
  • Stress that the corners stay forward. This helps cushion the embouchure and lightens mouthpiece pressure.
  • Be vigilant against the smile embouchure.
  • Above all, be patient.

Remember that the end game is to get your student safely through the braces with no bad habits and no frustrations that might result in the loss of a student from your program.

Thirteen years later, I believe I am a better teacher because of my experience. I am now teaching low brass at the college level and have just given my first recital in 30 years. Some aspects of my playing are better than they have ever been. There will, however, always be those things that need daily attention that I will work on diligently into the future. I became a band director because of the enjoyment I got from playing my trombone. If I can pass that same love to my students, then I’m happy.

 

James Whitis is an assistant professor and joined the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor’s College of Visual & Performing Arts as director of Instrumental Activities in 2007.  Whitis teaches courses in pedagogy, literature, and education. He directs the Bell County Symphonic Band, a community band made up of area musicians and maintains a low brass studio both at UMHB and locally.

Prior to coming to UMHB, Whitis served as a band director in the public schools of Texas for 26 years. His experiences range from working with students in grades 6–12 and with bands in numbers from 50–275. In addition to having taught in public schools, James Whitis has served as adjunct instructor of low brass for Wayland Baptist University and for UMHB.

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