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Do We Need to MAKE the Lips Vibrate When We Play?

February 12, 2019

This little blog post was triggered by a lengthy conversation with a reader of my blogs and follower of my videos after he read a text book, "Why You Hear What You Hear: An Experimental Approach to Sound, Music and Psychoacoustics," by Eric Heller. Dr. Heller and I actually consulted a little bit when he wrote the book. I'm also cite a couple of times. I'm deeply flattered for that consideration, though I'm not sure the links he included are still live.

 

My reader had the follow premise for our discussion. "We don't have to MAKE the lips vibrate when we play."

 

I found this to be an interesting point. I think the argument can be made that we LET the lips vibrate when we play, but we do have to CHOOSE which frequencies at which they vibrate. If we play a low C on open horn, we just play and let it happen, but we DID have to CHOOSE the LET the lips vibrate at that pitch. If you try to play a low C# on open horn, it can certainly be done, but it is tough to do. I think one could think of themselves as "MAKING" the lips vibrate on the C# instead of C, because if you just LET them vibrate, the actual low C will quickly capture things as that is the dominant resonant frequency in the neighborhood.

 

Now, I think it is important to be very clear here. The lips DO vibrate when we play. If you read Arthur Benade, John Backus, Tom Rossing, or Eric Hellar, to name only a few physicists/acousticians, they all agree on this. Here is a point raised by Dr. Thomas Moore in an article he wrote for the International Trumpet Guild Journal he talks about the lips vibrating and how easily they do that when the lips are vibrating at a resonant pitch of the horn/mouthpiece system. The actual activity of the lips is quite low because the feedback resonant system allows energy to build up in the horn in a standing wave with the system leaking SOME acoustic energy at the bell (this is the sound we hear). The old pushing the kid in the swing analogy can help here. If you give the kid just a little push whenever he or she gets back to you, you don't have to do much with each push because the pendulum retains a lot of the energy allowing it to build up with little effort on your part.

 

So, the lips don't have to do a lot of work and you don't have to put much effort into it. If you try to play way off center (playing C# open horn, for example), it takes a conscious effort. Hence one could think of letting the lips vibrate on the low C open horn and making them vibrate on the low C# open horn. 

 

In any case, the lips do vibrate. I have run into some fine players who insist the lips don't vibrate and that the standing wave just "appears" in some strange way, in the horn. One attempted to prove this to me by loosely placing his mouthpiece in the receiver, playing a low C and gently pulling the mouthpiece out while playing showing the the note quit. I said, "here, let me try," and did exactly the same thing and the low C just kept buzzing on the horn. He protested, "but you kept your lips vibrating!" I said, "Exactly! You LET your lips STOP!" The point is that as he removed the resonance of the horn from the system, it is very easy for the lips to quit vibrating because it takes so little effort to make the note sound when the system is resonating. It takes much more effort to keep the lips vibrating when the horn is removed. His demonstration doesn't show the lips weren't vibrating. Instead it shows that they were vibrating gently and relatively effortlessly until the resonance was removed. 

 

My conversation with my reader was directed at a pedagogical he wanted to discuss. Here it is:

 

"Why do so many people start beginner off by buzzing the mouthpiece instead of using the lead pipe or just playing the horn?"

 

Now, I don't teach beginners, so I find the question intriguing. When we do mouthpiece buzzing, we are most certainly NOT using resonance in any serious way. We tend to buzz meat and potatoes notes, but the first resonant peaks (slots) for a mouthpiece is in the neighborhood if a double high C. You get absolutely no feel of a note building up when you just play a mouthpiece.

 

Now, kids have no idea what it feel like to "find a slot." They barely know how to hold the horn. However, the argument COULD be made that you are training the kids to MAKE the lips vibrate as opposed to just letting them vibrate. My friend was contending that this approach was causing the kids to develop a very tight and pinched approach to playing from the start due to their not understanding why they were buzzing a mouthpiece.

 

I do use some unusual approaches in my own practice. I do free-buzzing of the lips for about 5 minutes, ring buzzing, mouthpiece (BERP) buzzing and lead pipe buzzing and finish off with false scales as part of a routine I do a couple of times a week. Each segment last for about 5 minutes and I harbor no illusions that the lips are naturally coupling with a resonant system in any way (though I do work my way up to DHC, where slots can be found) until I've at least added the lead pipe. My purpose in doing this was to train myself to use less pressure on my lips.

 

During my brief tenure with Maynard Ferguson, I cut up my lips one day and was prepared to be fired. The boss, was actually very supportive (as was Stan Mark...) and told me not to worry about it and take it easy for a few days till I recovered. Stan and I worked out a plan by which I could take it easy and no aggravate the problem. I recovered, but this problem with cutting up my chops by using excessive mouthpiece pressure had to stop. I invented that odd little routine I discussed above in an effort to deal with it, and it most certainly worked for me.

 

I was, however, a player of some modest accomplishment, at that point, and also a trained electrical engineer (specializing in electro-acoustics and communications). I was developing a "live lip transducer" and I knew exactly what I was doing. I'm not sure I would use this approach with a kid just starting out on the horn.

 

My friend likes using lead-pipe buzzing as a starting point, and I can see that. There are some nice slots right in the middle of the staff - notes that the lead pipe alone on which it will resonate. For that matter, if I were to teach a beginner, I think I would just have them start playing the horn and carefully monitor how they were using their chops.

 

Let me finish this train of thought with my daughter's experience. When she graduated from Dartmouth, she was a virtuoso classical alto and soprano saxophone player. She achieved that level while still in high school. She is now a professional economist, and no longer plays, but her experience as an instrumentalist had a checkered beginning. She plays piano very well, and started with a Suzuki piano instructor who was very nurturing and understanding of child education. She used Suzuki as a substrate, so to speak, but would allow the kids to play MUSIC as part of their training. She did not make them sit and put their hands on the keyboard and not play just to obsess about form. Later, my daughter wanted to try violin and we found a Suzuki violin instructor. Her experience here was quite different.

 

First, I was stunned that the Suzuki violin instructor actually insisted that I sit in on the lessons, knowing that I was a professional trumpet player AND a professional high school physics teacher. The first couple of lessons I found odd, but interesting. She would NOT ALLOW my daughter to even make a SOUND on her violin. Instead, she insisted on a posture, stance and arm/bow position and wold make her do that over and over again in the lesson. Fine. However, this continued for MANY WEEKS! I was getting pretty steamed, as this was costing me money and my daughter was getting frustrated. She was already a good pianist. I spoke to the instructor about it but she was insistent on a methodology that was strikingly rigid and not dedicated to music but to method. After many months of this, my daughter elected to switch to saxophone, and quickly became quite skilled.

 

Kids are just that: KIDS! Yes, there may be an opportunity to nail down proper form, and the Suzuki system is somewhat successful, but a decent teacher needs to be alert to the INDIVIDUAL needs of each kid and not try to force fit EVERYONE into a rigid system. This is my humble opinion on all of this, in any case.

 

If starting a kid off on mouthpiece buzzing works, that is just great! If, however, some problems surface that COULD be traced to this approach, in my humble opinion, I think a good teacher of beginners would be alert to the unique needs of each kid.

 

Lead pipe buzzing and just playing the horn with careful scrutiny might be a good alternative.

 

Now, as I conclude, let me reiterate, that I do NOT have any significant experience with teaching beginners. I most certainly do NOT presume to tell any expert teachers of beginners how to do their job, particularly if they are already good at it!! I'm just offering some grist for the mill as the result of a conversation with one expert teacher of beginners who had a point of view that caught my fancy.

 

Thanks for reading! If you like my blog and videos, I hope you'll subscribe. There is no cost. I have also launched a podcast called "Duets From The Trenches: Musicians You Should Know," a series of interviews with professional musicians on how to survive if you are NOT in LA or NYC. It can be found on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn and SoundCloud. It is also free.

 

I am looking for sponsors for my work. I'm developing some self-directed crowd funding to raise money for the VDPE performances, online concerts that will be available to the public. Just follow the sponsorship link at the top of the page to learn more. All of the funds will get plowed directly back to the performers. None goes into my pocket.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

Respectfully submitted...

Nick Drozdoff

 

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