Compression Tactics

Making a balloon squeal by releasing small amounts of air through a stretched opening bears resemblance to the function of the lips and air on a brass instrument. When compressed air is forced through compressed membranes, vibration results, which is the source of sound. The greater the compression, the faster the vibration and the higher the pitch.

Air. While there are specific techniques, such as “wedge” or yoga breathing, to increase air compression, if you have ever successfully blown out the candles on a birthday cake, you know what to do. To paraphrase Claude Gordon: “Just take a big breath and blow!”

However, for more ideas on air flow, read my article, “Harness Your Air,” from the September/October 2010 issue.

Lips. There are several ways to generate lip compression. One is to simply press the mouthpiece harder against the lips. While the “full pressure” approach may produce higher notes initially, it won’t be long before your lips beg for mercy.

Stretching the corners of the lips back will speed up the vibrations and produce a higher pitch. This scenario can be seen by stretching the opening of the balloon tighter or by stretching a plucked rubber band. The advice, “Smile to ascend,” used to be accepted pedagogy. But stretching the lips makes them more vulnerable to pressure, and there is only so far that you can stretch before the vibrations cease, which is likely to be well shy of modern playing demands.

The ideal way to create lip compression is lip against lip. They stand a much better chance pressed against each other than squeezed between metal and bone. To generate substantial compression in the center of the lips—the vibrating points—you need to develop strong facial muscles at the mouth corners. The Personal Embouchure Training Exerciser (P.E.T.E.) tool is excellent for targeting and developing these muscles.

The Right Balance. Getting the balance right between lip and air compression results in better tone, range and endurance. With far more musculature in the torso than in the face, and since breathing is physiologically so natural, it makes sense to do as much as possible with the air. Simply put: The more work the air does, the less the lips have to do.

Visit Chase at his website.

Photo courtesy of Chase Sanborn.

About author

Chase Sanborn

Jazz trumpeter Chase Sanborn is a Yamaha Artist and an assistant professor of jazz at the University of Toronto. Chase is the author of a series of educational books and videos on playing music. His most recent is “The Brass Tactics 6/60 Routine”. Visit Chase on the web at Also visit

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