Axes of tone: pucker

Another range-of-motion change that will shape your tone is the amount of pucker in your embouchure. First let’s think about the typical trumpet embouchure muscles for a moment: the muscles that anchor our corners are the buccinators. Our chins are flat because of the depressors labii inferioris. And there are many other muscles which give us our “mmm”-shaped trumpet embouchure.

But don’t forget the pucker. We trumpeters don’t pucker as much as horn players, but we can and we do. The pucker is primarily controlled by the orbicularis oris, that wonderful circular-shaped muscle–the kissing muscle.

Have you ever given your trumpet to a horn player for them to play (maybe before the pandemic)? If they play on your trumpet with your mouthpiece, they still sound much more hornlike than you do. Why? A horn player has spent years trying optimize the sound that works with a conical bore instrument with a funnel-shaped mouthpiece. This means more embouchure pucker. More orbicularis oris forcing the aperture to turn outward, which does not result in the strongest and highest range. It results in a more mellow tone. And if they play your trumpet with your mouthpiece, they bring that mellowness to your equipment because of their embouchure. You can do this, too.

Try playing a middle-range long tone with a normal embouchure. Then try to slowly “pucker up.” Then back to your “unpuckered” embouchure. Try to avoid simply adding tension to the lip tissue inside of the rim. Instead, try to turn the aperture outward ever so slightly while puckering. Repeat this slowly and listen for the change in timbre. What do you think? Is it a pleasant sound? Is it a useable setup? Can you use this slight pucker embouchure for short-term musical gestures? I have, when needing to play lyrically, in a low register and softly.

By the way, as a side benefit, engaging the orbicularis oris helps to prevent cuts that can happen on the inside of your lips when you play high notes. This muscle helps to cushion the pressure between your mouthpiece rim and your teeth.


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