Why Buzz the Mouthpiece?

The practice of buzzing the mouthpiece away from the instrument has been a major part of brass players’ preparation and maintenance for the past half-century or so, and has been advocated by leading players of every brass instrument. While there have always been some players and teachers who were not in favor of regular buzzing practice (including one of my own teachers), the “no buzzing” position has long been a minority report. Nevertheless, one well-known trombonist caused quite a stir in the online brass community a couple of years ago by posting a video discounting the practice of mouthpiece buzzing, suggesting that it is a waste of time at best and deleterious to playing at worst. This individual has been a well-established and highly regarded performer for over 35 years, so his opinions necessarily carry some weight. While few if any players changed their own positions based upon this video, it did spark a good deal of self-examination and discussion among players, which is not a bad thing.

And to be fair, there are some possible dangers of mouthpiece buzzing. The biggest is that, at least in my observation and experience, people tend to use the embouchure and air slightly differently when buzzing compared to playing on the instrument. If buzzing is overused there is a chance that one might try to retain too much of the “buzzing approach” when moving back to the instrument, with odd results for both tone quality and response. Another potential pitfall is that a player might begin to pinch excessively in an attempt to achieve a perfectly clear sound on the mouthpiece, leading to a rather thin and unpleasant sound on the instrument. Instead, the desired “buzzing sound” is going to be slightly airy in character, leading to a tone quality possessing the right balance of clarity and warmth.

These potential dangers notwithstanding, there are benefits to mouthpiece buzzing which I believe outweigh any risks. The greatest of these benefits is the promotion of efficient use of the air and embouchure. To employ a politically-correct buzzword (and with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek), the mouthpiece is “intolerant” of inefficiencies in one’s use of the air and embouchure. I have found that students who have difficulty producing sounds on the mouthpiece also work much too hard to produce sounds on the instrument (I myself had this problem as a young undergraduate student). As students practice on the mouthpiece and become proficient at doing so their tone production on the instrument becomes less laborious. Thus buzzing on the mouthpiece helps to promote efficiency in tone production, and that with minimal conscious thought given to the precise activities of the various physical structures involved in playing.

Another benefit is promoting smooth movements between registers. As students become more proficient at buzzing on the mouthpiece the “buzzing range” should gradually be extended to three octaves or more. All of us have “shifts” of a greater or lesser degree when moving through the instrument’s range, and as proficiency on the mouthpiece increases most players find that negotiating these shifts is easier on the mouthpiece than with the instrument, simply because subtle changes in mouthpiece angle and even in the relationship of teeth, lips, and mouthpiece are more simply executed and often done unconsciously. Daily use of a glissing exercise like the one below (tuba 8vb) will promote smooth, seamless negotiation of register changes which the player should seek to transfer to the instrument.

Range Extension

The last benefit of mouthpiece buzzing that I’ll discuss here is perhaps the most obvious: ear training. While the natural tendencies of the instrument have a way of correcting minor errors in audiation—at least in the middle and lower registers—in order to correctly play the desired pitch on the mouthpiece the player must first accurately hear and internalize that pitch. Practicing buzzing at the piano, with tuning drones, or even with songs on the radio can help to promote this ability. Solfège practice, while loathed by many students, is eminently helpful in this regard also, as it is likewise beneficial for nearly every musical endeavor. Despite having so-called “perfect” pitch I find solfège practice to be useful because of how it promotes perception not only of individual pitches, but of tonal relationships.

While I find a small to moderate amount of mouthpiece practice to be helpful and even necessary, I advocate spending only about 5-15 minutes per day buzzing. This amount is enough to realize the great benefits afforded by regular mouthpiece practice without experiencing the potential dangers mentioned earlier. Additionally, I do not favor regularly practicing “free buzzing” without the mouthpiece. While free buzzing does much to develop strength and control and is even necessary for correcting certain embouchure issues, I find that the absence of the mouthpiece rim and its isolating effect on the embouchure musculature makes the sensation of free buzzing too different from that of normal playing to be of great use. Buzzing on the mouthpiece rim alone can be a viable compromise position.

Finally, and at the risk of “throwing myself under the bus,” I’ll remind the reader that this is an area of practice and pedagogy about which fine players—some far more accomplished than me—differ. There are great brass players who strongly advocate free buzzing, and there are great players who advocate not buzzing at all. Having tried various approaches, though, I have found that regular but moderate and judicious mouthpiece buzzing practice yields the best results for me and for nearly all the students with whom I have worked over the years. This seems to be the majority report in the broader brass community, as well.

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About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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