It’s all in the lips

Dennis Brain

The key to playing the horn right is all in the lips. Have a proper embouchure is the only thing that you must get right and form properly. It’s defined as “the position and use of the lips, tongue, and teeth in playing a wind instrument” by the Merriam Webster dictionary.

In The Art of French Horn Playing, Philip Farkas mention on mouthpiece placement that the “ideal spot is a very delicate and painstaking job of experimentation for the individual”. Also, the concept of 2/3 Upper Lip and 1/3 lower lip is mentioned.

I’m going to share with you what I have learnt and also discovered myself.

When I was preparing for an exam, I had to play some music where the highest note was a high “G”. (Note that at this point in time, I had been playing the horn steadily for 5 years. Everyday without fail, I would play at least 30mins some etude, piece or routine.) I had difficulty playing it, sustaining it, randomly playing etc… I just could not play high G. What happened?

My embouchure went haywire. I went for 2 master classes – 1 with Kerry Turner and another with Soichiro Ohno. Both told me something was not right with my embouchure because I took too much effort to play a high G. I was ok 6 months ago, but nearing my exam, this happened. Unfortunately, I went through the exam in this state. Fortunately, I passed. It was extremely demoralising and I had wanted to stop playing horn for good.

What I discovered was I had not used the 2/3 Upper and 1/3 Lower principle. I was using a 1/2 Upper and 1/2 Lower combination. This meant that I had less Upper Lip to buzz with. I had to use more effort and strength just to make that little bit of lip buzz. My muscles weren’t strong enough to sustain and hold that position.


I had to change. And there’s no overnight cure for wrong embouchure. It was a painful 1 year to make sure I got things right. Through the discussions with my good horn friends, I learnt more about the term “einsetzen” (setting in) and “ansetzen”(setting against). I didn’t bother with ansetzen because I knew I was already in that mode of just placing the mouthpiece against my lips in a 1/2 1/2 Upper Lower position.

I started using einsetzen position. This changed everything. By setting in the mouthpiece into the lower lip, I was mentally setting up for a 2/3 1/3 Upper Lower position!!! Not only that, I anchored the mouthpiece to my lower lip. My teacher had always reinforced to use the lower lip as a support and to keep the chin flat. It finally made sense!!! By using the einsetzen method, I was physically setting up the lips ratio, lower lip support and keeping my chin flat. Playing and buzzing became efficient – i.e. I was using less strength or effort to produce sound!

To drill this new embouchure position in, I threw away all my normal routines and dived straight into doing scales. Everyday without fail I would do all the scales possible on the horn – staccato, slur and tenuto. For Ab, A, Bb and B – I would do 3 octaves (as required by the ABRSM exam), the rest 2 octaves. In particular, I focussed on the breaking point somewhere around middle C, and so I would routine a 1 octave G major scale over that note.

After going through this for 1 year, I can confidently say that the mouthpiece position on my lips does not change at all whatsoever. What changes is the aperture size of the embouchure. I was renewed! Re-vitalized! I could play the horn again and play all octaves with ease and stability.


1. Using the Einsetzen method of “setting in” the mouthpiece. Do not think of Ansetzen as you traverse up the scale because that will cause you to ‘change’ mouthpiece position. Just remain Einsetzen even in the upper register.

2. Do scales to strengthen your muscles and get familiar with traversing the scales.

Next: The 30min-a-day principle

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