“Ear on the Prize”: Employing External Attentional Focus in Learning Brass Instruments


Recently, I recapped the excellent text of studies related to attentional focus and its affect on motor skill learning by Gabriele Wulf. To review: where we put our attention when learning a new skill is important in the development of efficient and accurate movements and will contribute to longer-lasting results and quicker progress. Even at the very beginning level of a skill, an external focus will allow our bodies’ natural learning processes to take over and solidify our abilities.

In several installments, I’d like to tackle a few of those tricky concepts associated with learning the particular motor skills of brass playing, and offer some practical strategies for natural, effective learning.  I’ll address common methods, fads, and accepted techniques and then offer ‘external’ focus solutions for each.

Last week we dove into AIR and concepts that can help us use it efficiently and effectively. Now let’s turn to EMBOUCHURE, another loaded topic in brass performance and instruction.

Is the embouchure SET or is it BLOWN?

When we’re learning how to make sound on a brass instrument, our teachers might tell us specific ways to set up our face and air column in order to produce sound. There are as many different ways to describe this process as there are teachers that teach it. The most common approach is to have a new student say the syllable “m”- and set their mouth in that position. They may also be told to tighten the corners of their mouth as though they were sucking on something sour. Those readers who’ve been following along might already know the reasons this initial approach doesn’t actually help develop long-lasting and efficient skills. It’s internally focused: we’re being told to offer functional commands to our muscles in order to enact a specific result, instead of asking for the specific result and letting our muscles develop natural processes for achieving that effect.

Additionally, we might be asked to create a buzzing sound as if we were blowing a raspberry at someone, and in order to that we’ll have to tighten our lips and really force air through them. The sound we get is not pretty, and it’s not how embouchures form.

The truth is, our embouchure is formed only through the production of an air column through our open lips. The scientific principle known as the Bernoulli effect will bring our lips together, allowing for vibration to occur with the air.

If a small volume of fluid is flowing horizontally from a region of high pressure to a region of low pressure, then there is more pressure behind than in front. This gives a net force on the volume, accelerating it along the streamline. (Wikipedia)

As we move air down a tube, our faster moving air will meet still air inside the tube, in what is called the balance point. At the balance point, there is a moment of resistance– the fast air will move everything forward and create resonance, and the backward effect will be low pressure on our lips, pulling them together to create our embouchure. (The best information out there on this subject comes from Jan Kagarice, and is outlined on pages 196-207 in Karen Marston’s excellent dissertation here: Finding The Balance: Jan Kagarice, a Case Study of a Master Trombone Teacher)

And if we’re using an external focus such as a balance point or direction for our air column, we’re utilizing the age-old natural law, “form follows function.” What we want will make the how happen. By focusing on how we do something, we’re going backward. We’re undoing the process. By focusing on the effect we want, we’re allowing our natural learning process the opportunity to try out what works, thereby developing the best technique for the command.

Now, once we have all that set up, and are moving air and allowing for relaxed, natural embouchure vibration, how do we get it to make the sound we want?

Right now, go ahead and read that above sentence out loud. Did you think about how those sounds came out of your vocal chords? Did you shape your mouth intentionally or focus on your tongue’s ability to articulate the syllables?

Nah. You didn’t do that. You just read it. You visualized the words and the words came out. And you didn’t learn to speak as a child by being instructed on the proper technique of talking. You started by making sounds and imitating your family, and gradually you developed better and better control of your functional language capacity.

And if it’s that natural to learn to speak, why shouldn’t we apply that tactic to brass playing?

 Because there is a sensation of blowing against something within the horn, activating the balance point results in sensory feedback for the player. As the amount of resistance changes, i.e. as the player alters pitch, there are corresponding shifts within the feel of the airstream itself. By focusing on this phenomenon, the player can become sensitized to the changing air pressures which control pitch. In order to make this information useful, it must then be systematically linked with musical statements so that the body can map sensory and aural information and over time learn to navigate the instrument efficiently in all registers. The player hears the target pitch and blows it into place on the instrument, eventually merging these two capacities into a feel, or sensory memory. Once this is absorbed by the player s/he no longer has to directly focus on finding the balance point. The process becomes automated. (Marston 204)


Internal focus: 

“Tighten the corners of your lips and blow really hard into the instrument”

This information really does exist in the world! See the photo below, and also as much of this video as you can stand:

External focus: 

“Horn comes up, air moves out”

Internal focus: 

“To play a low Bb, drop your jaw as if saying “oh” and blow really slow, warm air into the horn”

External focus:

“Sing this Bb. Think about how the horn would sound playing that. Let your air move down the bell and think about the sound of Bb.”

Internal focus: 

Everything in this picture.

External focus: 

Providing an example of a good brass instrument sound and, without giving too much instruction, helping your student reproduce their version of that sound.

Internal focus: 

Whatever these are.

[I have a long rant coming about maladjusted concept of putting ‘strength’ development first when it comes to playing.]

External focus: 

drinking straw
the instrument you play

[Hello! I am a broken record. Air moves out and form follows function.]

A companion to this post, a video breaking down internal and external approaches to embouchure formation, is on its way shortly. Now go move some air!



4 Replies to ““Ear on the Prize”: Employing External Attentional Focus in Learning Brass Instruments”

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