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Building Embouchure Strength


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Secrets To Building Embouchure Strength


Greg Kerkorian

This may be the most helpful article you have ever read about how to build strength needed to perform effectively on the French horn. Follow the free advice, especially towards the end of the article, and you can dramatically improve your embouchure strength.

Can You Improve? - You Betcha!

There are many abilities needed to make a complete performer. They include mental abilities like pitch perception, emotional abilities in order to enhance musical expression, and physical abilities that actually help to produce the sounds. If your problem areas have to do with the physical aspects of playing the French horn, you need to read further.

 Some individuals have physical features that make them well-suited for playing the horn. Others are not as lucky. Players who have those special characteristics seem to be able to play high or low for long periods of time without getting tired and without losing focus or clarity to their sound. Sadly, those who do not have suitable facial structure or teeth can struggle. The more they play, the weaker they become. Their lips often swell, and after a heavy performance or rehearsal it may take several days for them to recover.  

It helps to have fine lips. By fine I mean thin and smooth. Fleshy lips tend to break down easily and can feel like mush after playing for just a short time. On the other hand, there are players who have heavy or fleshy lips who perform very well. Other facial features can function in much the same way. Sometimes they work well and sometimes they don’t. The point is that there are things that have to do with teeth and facial structure that can make playing effortless, or that can make playing nearly impossible. Most of us have features somewhere in between. Whether your lips, teeth and facial structure are great or just mediocre, the two things that can help are embouchure strength and breath control.  

A Closer Look At The Embouchure

 Several areas of playing rely on, or improve, with greater embouchure strength. The most important is probably endurance while the most desired seems to be high range. Other areas that can benefit from having more strength are consistency, tone, legato/staccato playing, and attacks. The problem becomes simple; build strength and improve your playing. Easier said than done? Maybe it’s not as difficult as it seems.

Before trying to build strength, it’s very important to have the mouthpiece placed properly on your lips. Most players are aware that the mouthpiece should be placed ⅔ on the upper lip and ⅓ on the lower. There is evidence to support this idea including work done by Phil Farkas using cut away mouthpiece rims. In his book, The Art of Horn Playing, you can see pictures of professional players using embouchure rings to show the proper ⅔ - ⅓ position. There are also YouTube performances of the Vienna Horns playing arrangements of Jurassic Park and Back to the Future where you can see closeups of some great embouchures in action. There are many views from the end of the line of players that clearly show the embouchure similarities. You should also notice that the angle of the mouth pipe seems to be nearly the same for every player. 

Another important area of interest has to do with how far the jaw and lower teeth are from the upper teeth. This distance varies with the individual players, but if your focus is low horn, the teeth will naturally be further apart and get closer for higher notes. High horn and strong all around players start with the teeth closer together so that dimples form in the cheeks, and they drop the jaw in order to play lower tones. For many, the close teeth with dimples position seems to improve muscle leverage and control. Farkas refers to the overall look as the mask.

When the mouthpiece is higher on the lip, high range generally improves. There is a caveat here. If the mouthpiece is too high, tonguing can suffer and tone can lose focus or center. Some players do very well with the rim on the fleshy part of the lower lip. This type of embouchure is called einsetzen or setting in. Others need the mouthpiece to be more on the rim of the lip (ansetzen). Experimentation is needed to find the correct place for your playing. Pay attention to the tone, the tonguing, the ease of tone production and whether or not the sound keeps its focus or center as you play louder. There is a very nice article about these embouchures to be found at www.wilktone.com/?p=1285. Pair the information in this paragraph with the very important information about teeth in the previous paragraph.

A Quick But Important Note About Posture

In the Art of Horn Playing, Farkas shows that in order to play higher tones, the air is directed downward in the mouthpiece. If you wish to make it easier to play high, you should sit erect in your seat and lean slightly forward. The jaw can move forward or backward, but sitting forward tends to allow the jaw to recede more easily and allows the air to be directed downward more naturally. Give it a try.

Building Embouchure Has To Do With Muscle Strength!

Ok! So, how do the lip muscles work? Easy answer; they work like every other muscle in the body. Blood flow into the tissue forms the muscle. Athletes warm up for the same reasons that brass players warm up; to set and firm up the muscles by getting the blood flowing. When doing warm-up exercises before you start a playing session, it is very important to protect your embouchure by firming-up these lip muscles. That said, you should also know that there are other aspects to warming up, like encouraging flexibility and finger dexterity. Louis Stout, who played in the Chicago Symphony along with Phil Farkas, and taught horn at The University of Michigan, had several warmup exercises (many on the B-flat side of the horn) that were designed to teach B-flat fingering patterns, but were also important for opening the throat. Why open the throat you ask? Because when the throat is open you are using the correct muscles needed to play and to build strength and you are encouraging proper breath support. Keep that in mind when you warm up. Here are a few other tips about warmup.

 1   Start with a few easy tones and work up and down for a couple of minutes. Then take a break. While you are resting, your lip is continuing to firm up. It’s also a good idea to pause between warmup exercises. The pause should be longer than you think. The lip will continue to firm on it’s own during the pause.

 2   Whenever possible, slightly remove the mouthpiece from your lips, especially during an extended section of music. A good opportunity to quickly remove the mouthpiece is when taking a breath. You will find that you can play longer and keep your lip refreshed by allowing a little relief from the mouthpiece pressure. It encourages blood flow back into the lips.

 3   Here is one more interesting piece of the puzzle. Everyone knows that good breath support can help or improve most aspects of your playing. Did you know that if the breath support is firm enough that it will improve blood circulation to the embouchure? Just don’t give yourself a stroke. While warming up your embouchure you should remember to relax and breathe deeply to set your breathing patterns. Fill up with air as though your body were a container; from the bottom up. Then bear down to intensify the air for improved support. Ride the air column and protect your lips. You can also increase blood flow to the lips with breath support during rests if you feel that it is necessary. Remember to take a relaxed approach when you deep breathe and try to bear down.

 4   In addition to preparing for play, warm-ups are also used as strength builders. How can you tell if they are working? The answer has to do with pain. If the center of your lip is bruised and mushy, you should stop. You are tearing down your embouchure. If you’re cheeks are aching, you are building strength. Here is a tip: keep your upper lip more forward (jaw back), and very slightly over the lower lip, trying to play more on the firm skin rather than on the fleshy part of the lip. That will help you build strength and protect your upper lip from the crushing and bruising.

 5   This is not about warming up but needs to be said. During rehearsals and concerts you should pace yourself. You are not in a contest to see who can play with the biggest sound or who can play the highest notes. That usually leads to a rough performance. You should focus on trying to express the music artistically. To do that you may need to leave some unexposed notes out here and there to be able to preserve your lip and play a better overall performance.

How To Build Strength Using Exercises And Other Tactics

It is likely that everyone reading this article knows several exercises to help build strength. It’s generally known that slurred exercises repeated in ½ step intervals tend to be strength builders. The fingering pattern is 0, 2, 1, 1-2, 2-3, 1-3, and 1-2-3. Use your double horn to start these exercises up a 4th. The extended fingering pattern will be: T, T-2, T-1, T-1-2, T-2-3, 0, 2, 1, 1-2, 2-3, 1-3 and 1-2-3. Don’t overdo the extreme range possibilities. Concentrate on the exercises that make your cheek muscles ache and try to keep from stressing your lips, especially if they are a little fleshy. If you are playing on the red of the lip and you use too much pressure, you will bruise or crush your lip and you could damage the muscle. If you do happen to crush or bruise your lip, one thing that might help is lightly applying a cream with aloe vera. I have found that Gold Bond Ultimate is a very good product. Many teachers recommend cold compresses applied for several minutes. An exercise session at the gym will also help to rejuvinate your lip. This works well after a heavy rehearsal or practice session.

The other tactics referred to in the heading of this section have to do with ways of building strength without actually playing the horn. This is one of the bigger secrets and key strategies for strength building, unless of course, you already know about it. Either way, the following techniques may be the most effective strength builders you will ever try, especially if you have had difficulty building muscle strength in the past. Those people who play and automatically become stronger as they play do not need these exercises as much as those who do not have as good a physical setup and have difficulty building strength as they play, although, any player who tries these techniques should improve and, over time, improve dramatically. I would like to caution you to do these exercises in moderation. If you overdo them, it is possible to increase the actual size of the lip so that it does not function as well. It is also possible to make your lips so strong that they become muscle bound, which would certainly damage your playing. Proceed with caution and focus more on your cheek muscles.

In the first part of the previous section I mention that the lip muscles work like other muscles in the body. Young kids flex their biceps and their arms strengthen from the flexing. You can do the same with your embouchure. You can build embouchure strength away from the horn with calisthenics. The nice thing about building strength this way is that there is no mouthpiece pressure to break down the tissue.

Before starting, remember that the lip muscles are small, so you should probably start slowly, perhaps two or three times a week. You should also note that when producing sounds on the horn, many muscles are involved and they should be working together in concert (excuse the pun). Yours may not be working together properly so one of your objectives will be to solve that problem by strengthening the muscles so that the smaller lip muscles become well connected with the larger surrounding muscles like the cheeks. Your other objective is to discover how to form your embouchure so that your muscles engage while you play. You should start by strengthening the muscles individually. 

Here are some things you can try for strengthening your embouchure:

1   The most basic exercise you can try is to simply clamp your lips together until you get tired. Start slowly. Don’t overdo it. Clamp and rest, clamp and rest. Sooo simple, but it will work over time.

2   Another strategy is to try to build the muscles individually. For instance, for the lower lip, you might draw the lip tightly against the teeth. Flex and release 100 times. Next, clamp the corners of your lips together and do the same. Flex and release 100 times. Then, perhaps you can raise and relax your cheeks (with the corners flexed), 100 times. Get the picture? Find a set of muscles and work them. There will be some minor muscle pain involved so you may need to start with fewer reps. 

3   One of the most important parts of the mouth to strengthen is the upper lip, especially if your upper lip is not well connected to other muscles. This is, after all, the part of the mouth that gets the most abuse from the mouthpiece. You might try forming your lips into an ooh formation and then draw the upper lips against the teeth. Flex and release. Another tactic might be to wrinkle your nose. Often raising the cheeks and wrinkling the nose at the same time will engage the upper lip muscles. A special word of caution here: If you overdo strengthing the actual lip muscles they could turn wooden as you play. I strongly suggest that you limit work with the upper and lower lip muscles, and focus more on strengthening the cheek muscles.

4   After a few weeks of working individual muscles you can increase the number of times per week you exercise. A good time to exercise is in bed, laying on your back, just before falling asleep. An important secondary advantage is that these exercises will often rejuvenate your muscles for playing the next day.

5   Now I will tell you how to get all those important muscles to work together. First form your embouchure. Don’t try to muscle it too much, simply form the thing. Now, open your throat, flex your cheeks and raise your eyebrows. Flex 100 times. Raising the eyebrows brings everything together and works really well when you are actually playing. If you have never done it you may be in for a nice surprise. 

6   Here is a word of caution...You must practice on the horn. If you try to use these muscle builders and skip practicing on the horn, the next time you try to play could be a rough. Another problem that can occur is the tendency to use too much embouchure strength and not enough air. Trying to muscle every note can restrict blood flow and result in a wire hard tone that is insecure and can shake, especially in performance. I know this from personal experience. To counter this problem, do some loud playing as part of your warmup and focus on staying relaxed. Remember to keep your throat open and play with confidence. 

So there it is. Building your embouchure in this way can really help your playing. Muscles don’t develop overnight. It takes time, but if you stick to it, the muscles will develop. Good luck! I sincerely hope that this helps your ability to play the French horn. 

Greg Kerkorian


Before you leave, you might think about the lesson books you are using......Good lesson books can help to improve overall development.

Take a look at these!


Measures for Beginning French Horn

Bridging the Gap

Measures for Intermediate French Horn



  Measures for Beginning French Horn

Measures for Beginning French Horn is a method for starting new horn players by providing materials designed to develop the mental, physical and musical fundamentals needed to play the instrument. Included are elements to help in the creation of a firm foundation for future growth and development, and to motivate and inspire your young beginning horn student. Of Special interest is an intriguing approach to teaching time signature basics which is developed further in Bridging the Gap.

   Bridging the Gap

Bridging the Gap is a transitional method that helps players progress from beginning students to intermediate performers. Information included provides an in-depth development of basic principles and an introduction to subjective disciplines not talked about in other methods. This is a great book for helping to make a complete player. It is excellent for private lessons and is designed to be used by itself, however, it can also be used effectively as a supplement with other methods.

  Measures for Intermediate French Horn

Measures for Intermediate French Horn includes exercises and information to further develop your students into competent performers on the French horn. The book provides a well developed presentation of keys up to six sharps and flats, and includes several exercises and unaccompanied performance-like pieces in those keys. Between each key presentation are pages dedicated to various elements of performance needed to enhance your student's abilities and complete his education.
These books are excellent. They work! They provide a comprehensive presentation of subject matter with great clarity and in logical sequence. The three books together offer a complete and sequenced course of study which can transform young players into performers. The covers showing are the original design. New orders for these books will arrive with the attractive gold cover shown on the home page.