The embouchure position varies from one instrument to another and there can be as many variations as there are players since no one as the same teeth and facial muscles. You don't need a "text book" embouchure position to perform well. As long as it's not completely off, it's better not to change anything if it feels good and sounds good.
Some embouchure position might feel right at this moment but cause you problems in the future so it may be necessary to tweak it a bit. However, it is very difficult to predict what will happen so you might want to seek advices from more than one teacher before you do anything to your chops. Be aware that it takes time and patience to adapt to a new embouchure position and the results are often mitigated.
Here are a few simple guide lines on where to place the mouthpiece for all brass instruments:
For the french horn, 2/3 of the mouthpiece should be above the line formed by your closed lips and 1/3 below as shown in the illustration on the left.
Trumpet and trombone players will place it more or less in the middle
Tuba players can play in the middle for better sound but can also play 2/3-1/3 as it makes it easier to reach some notes.
Don't worry too much if your embouchure position isn't like what you see in books or on pictures online. I have seen people playing slightly on the side and still sound great. Everyone is different and it's more about how you feel than how it looks.
Unfortunately, some teachers will have their students change their embouchure position into something that works perfectly for them but isn't necessarily what is best for the student. They end up doing more damage than good. I've seen many people with a fine tone losing their sound, strength and self confidence after studying a few months with a so-called great teacher who made them change their perfectly fine embouchure. Don't let this happen to you.
If you do choose to make a change, consult two or three teachers. Be patient as it will take time for your lips to unlearn what they are used to, adapt to the new feeling and build new muscles. Monitor your progress over weeks/ months and tweak the new position to make it your own. You will get better results this way.
The BERP is a little plastic device you can fix to your lead pipe. It comes in various sizes to fit all brass instruments. You put your mouthpiece in and play as normal. If you don't know your piece well, it'll immediately show so you'll have to make an effort to hear your music better in your head. It's also very good to practice your buzzing. It has an adjustable slide to increase the resistance when you play so it feels easier when you put your mouthpiece back in the lead pipe.
I personally use it quite a lot to build endurance.
You can find it in some music stores or on the BERP website (see link bellow).
Musical Enterprises Berps & Bags
You'll also find some exercises to do on "how to berp".
It is not a good idea to practice on worn out chops. You should always plan to take breaks in your practicing sessions especially if you are doing 2-3 hours everyday. First warm up in the morning and let your embouchure rest for 15-20 minutes. Then start working on what you need to prepare for your lessons, rehearsals, concerts etc. Depending on what you play, you'll have to adjust the length of your practicing time. Ideally, you should be doing 30 minutes sessions followed by 30 minutes breaks. You can use that break in a productive way by singing your music or working on your ear training. It's not a waste of time. Of course that depends on how much time you have. Also, low brass players can play longer than horn or trumpet players so it also depends on which instrument you play. The bottom line is don't wait until your chops are dead to stop. If you practice on a worn out embouchure, you will eventually have to force to get the notes out and develop bad habits.
If you plan on increasing your overall practicing time, do it gradually over a few weeks. Suddenly going from one hour a day to three hours will damage your embouchure and you'll have a hard time playing after a few days if the change is to abrupt.
I've seen students going to a band or orchestra camp suddenly playing 6-7 hours per day while their embouchure wasn't used to it. They could barely play after a couple of days. If you find yourself in that situation, remember that the most important is the concert at the end. It is not necessary to play all the notes all the time in all rehearsals. You can always take turns in the section if you have a lot of players. You also don't need to play the loud long notes over and over again. See it as a marathon, the concert being the final sprint.
If I have a big concert to play, I usually take it easy during the dress rehearsal. I avoid playing high, sustained, long notes or repeated notes if they're not too important. No conductor has ever complained about it. They usually understand that you need to save your chops for the show.
In the many school where I conduct sectionals, some students tell me that their embouchure isn't strong enough or that they don't have enough endurance. I ask them if they are playing every day and the answer is almost always: "well..."
It's sound like a no brainer but you need to play almost every day to build a strong embouchure and develop endurance. Ideally, you should be playing your instrument at least 6 days per week by yourself or in rehearsal. You can't expect much if you only pick up your horn for band practice three times per week. If you already know your band or orchestra pieces well, practice some solo pieces or etudes. If you are satisfied with only playing in the band and don't wish to invest more time and effort in your playing, it's your choice. That's fine but since brass playing requires some strength and endurance at some point, you might want to put a little extra effort sometimes if you're having trouble keeping up with the group. At least a few days before a performance.
The Caruso technique is a series of exercises designed by Carmine Caruso to strengthen your embouchure, give you more endurance and help your whole register. It also helps focussing your tone. I never had lessons with Caruso myself but I had the chance to study with one of his students for a couple of years so I learn it from someone who got it from the master himself. Good enough!
A few golden rules about this technique:
1) Do it only once a day. You might hurt yourself if you over do it.
2)Do it 3-4 times per week. You can do it more often once you're strong enough but never more than 5-6 times per week.
3)Don't force the notes out. Be patient. With time, you'll become stronger. You should see some effect on your chops in 3 to 4 weeks.
4) Don't follow it blindly. Adjust the frequency and number of exercises you do to your own needs. Experiment with it and see what works best for you.
You can find the basic Caruso on this website:
"The Basic Caruso"
Here is another site dedicated to Carmine Caruso.
Carmine Caruso Tribute
When you produce a tone with your instrument, you are not only using your lips but also all the muscles involved in breathing. You need to make sure that you coordinate all these muscles with your lips properly to get the best possible result.
One comment we hear about a singer sometimes is that "His tone really comes from deep". That's because they need to use their entire torso to move the air through their vocal cords to produce a nice tone. We can learn from that and learn to support our chops with a good air stream.
It's not very complicated after all. Here is something you can do to practice your air support:
1) Stand up or sit with your back straight.
2) Fill your lungs with air completely and let the air come out without making any effort to push it out. When you breath, extend your entire rib cage as much as possible.
3) After a few breaths, place your hand in front of your mouth and blow in it. Try to maintain the same air pressure for as long as possible. You will have to apply gentle pressure from your rib cage and diaphragm to keep the air pressure. Don't blow to hard, It's not necessary.
Do this a few time and be aware the muscles you are using to keep the air running.
4) Repeat the exercise using your mouthpiece this time. Hold long notes. You can try various pitches. You'll notice that it gets harder to stay relaxed as you get higher. Try to keep your torso muscles from getting tense as you go higher.
5) Now put your mouthpiece on your instrument and do the same thing with various notes. Once you feel comfortable, try scales and arpeggios.
Try to be aware that you're are using your entire body to produce your tone. Not only your chops. Feel which muscles are working.
You will have more power in the high register and more endurance if your lips are well supported by a good air stream that comes from the bottom.
Everyone gets a bit stiff once in a while. We spend a lot of time practicing difficult passages and pieces and that can sometimes create tensions affecting the embouchure and making our playing uncomfortable especially in the high register.
If your embouchure doesn't feel as good as it normally does, you better not insist too much and avoid forcing the notes to come out. It will only make things worst. If you can normally play a piece well, there is no need to fight with it if it doesn't work on that day.
Instead of trying to beat your instrument into submission, just put the hard stuff away and play some very simple, easy and slow pieces. Even beginner pieces. Stop on a few notes and try to make them sound as good as possible without forcing. After about 30 minutes of doing this, you'll feel your embouchure relaxing and feeling right again.
After that, take a break or put the horn away for the day. When you pick it up again, go back to what you normally practice. You should feel much better.
It is important to take a break from your instrument sometimes. I just came back from a couple of weeks of vacation myself! Not playing for a little while will help your body to get rid of tensions accumulated during the past few months and rest your head while you think of something else. When you come back to your instrument,
you're more enthusiastic about playing and ready to rock!
The downside of this is that you'll be out of shape when you pick up your horn again. If I don't do anything during my break, it normally takes me one day of practice for each day of break before I get my optimal shape back. For example, it would take me two weeks to get back in full shape after a two weeks rest. That's why I always plan to come back from vacation several days before we start working again to get my chops running again. If I can't do that, I'll just bring my horn with me and play during my trip.
There are things you can do to speed up the process. I did the pencil exercise every day for a week before coming back and it helped maintaining some strength in my muscles. I also buzzed my mouthpiece a bit for 15 minutes/day during my trip. Once I got back to my horn, I did the Caruso technique every second day to strengthen my embouchure. Doing all this cut my recovery time in half and I'm almost ready for work after 5-6 days.
You need to be patient when you come back from a break. The first practice session will most likely not be very pleasant. Especially if you add jet lag on top of that! Increase the duration of your practice sessions and level of difficulty of what you play gradually. At first, play some very easy pieces and just get through them. The next day, try to play a bit longer and work on your tone a bit. When you feel a bit stronger, start playing etudes. They are very good for endurance since they normally have no or very few bars of rest so your chops can get use to play non stop for a while again. Like I said, the Caruso technique or any other chops building method is always good. With all this, you should be able to get back in shape in time for your next gig with a strong embouchure, a well rested mind and a relaxed body!
Here's a little experiment: make a fist with both hands and squeeze as hard as possible. While doing that, try to blow air. How does it feel? Not very good of course.
Now relax both hand and blow. See how natural and comfortable that feels.
We tend to press our valves or pistons too hard when we play. Especially for high or difficult passages. This creates tension in the harm which affects the rest of the body and stiffens the air flow causing problems in the high register.
Take a couple of minutes to practice pressing your valves gently with just the minimum amount of pressure. Trombone players can practice holding the slide gently and moving the harm fluidly. Then play on your instrument this way. Your playing should immediately feel more relaxed and comfortable. You might miss a bit more notes at first but it'll only take a few minutes for your embouchure to get used to this new relaxed way of playing.
This will help your tone in the high register and improve your endurance.
I am associate principal horn of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the author of the progressive methods. I'm happy to share my experience as a horn player and teacher with you.