“Shifts” Pt. I

I got into a discussion about “shifts” recently and some interesting stuff came out of it. Here is an edited version of some of my contributions to that discussion. Remember…this is not just about pedal tones. As above, so below. All of these concepts work in any direction on any brass instrument. Bet on it.-S.


Comment from savio: I did try yesterday to see what shift I have. I can play legato from low pedal F up to high Bb and also C and D and down again. Without moving the mouthpiece on my lips. The problem for me is the high where I press to much and yes I hate to say it but the very high Bb and above is maybe a bit smiley. I try to work on that and have problems playing a melody above F. Don’t have control there even I can play them.

When I get under pedal F my dynamic goes weaker. I try to do that shift Alan Raph do but I don’t get the same effect as him.

Sam: Once again…”Not moving the m’pce on the lips” is not the be-all or end-all of embouchure study, and one player’s effective shift motion is not necessarily going to work for someone else.

You say: “I can play legato from low pedal F up to high Bb and also C and D and down again. Without moving the mouthpiece on my lips.”

But then you also say: “The problem for me is the high where I press to much…”

“I hate to say it but the very high Bb and above is maybe a bit smiley.”


“I try to work on that and have problems playing a melody above F. Don’t have control there even I can play them.”

Your first statement is a bow to the “no shifting” idea…an idea that is suspect if only by the lack of understanding evinced by so many people who try to use it…and the following three statements prove that (as you are using it) that idea is not working. It is not working to your own satisfaction at the very least.

One at a time here:

#1-“I can play legato from low pedal F up to high Bb and also C and D and down again. Without moving the mouthpiece on my lips.”

What do you mean by “not moving the m’pce”, savio? Do you play with a totally dry embouchure? I do, and through most of my range I also try to not move the m’pce on my lips through my major range areas. But on the closest examination…and my exercises (the ones that I call Micro-Connection Exercises) allow for some really accurate observation of this phenomenon…there is indeed some minimal movement of the m’pce on my lips through certain areas of my range. This is especially noticeable if I am either a little out of shape or if I have been playing one size of equipment and I’m trying to get in balance on another size. If I play with a wet embouchure those tendencies become even worse. Short of applying Super Glue to the chops and m’pce, there will sometimes be motion of this sort. And further…this in not the only (or even the most common) kind of troublesome motion that occurs in embouchure systems. The most common kind of motion is motion of the m’pce and lips against the teeth in an upward or downward direction. The Reinhardt Pivot System is basically dedicated to understanding and categorizing that kind of motion so that the player can understand his natural tendencies in that regard and maximize the potential of his own physical system (a system that is largely dictated by his physical facial makeup) by using that understanding.

There are other motions as well…side-to-side, excessive pressure or not enough pressure which causes a bad air seal (both of which are essentially in-and-out motions although they are limited by the teeth in one direction and air seal necessities in the upother), twisting or torquing motions of the m’pce on the lips without moving its actual geographic position on them, motion of the m’pce and lips against the teeth in any direction through 360 degrees of possibilities, jaw motions which in themselves dictate m’pce motions, changes of m’pce angle through 360 dgrees…the list of possibilities is nearly endless. We are dealing with a three-dimensional system here, a system which is further complicated by the plasticity of the lips themselve. We have two totally immobile hard machines here…the m/pce rim and the teeth…interfacing with the soft machine of the lips and the movable machine (again through a three-dimensional range) of the jaw.

Hoo BOY!!!

No wonder we have problems figuring it all out.

So you can “play legato from low pedal F up to high Bb and also C and D and down again. Without moving the mouthpiece on [your] lips,” eh? Possibly, although I question the scale of your observation to some degree. But…what about all of those other motions?

And then comes the big question.

Do you really think…especially given the plain fact that you change physically from minute to minute (That’s what a warm-op is about, as are tired chops, endurance problems, etc.), day to day (“We’re only human.”-Carmine Caruso) and year to year…do you really believe that you can think about all of these aspects of embouchure and still play music?

I don’t.

Carmine Caruso taught all his students to tap their foot and mentally subdivide in sixteenth notes while doing his exercises. He claimed that rather than try to figure out which muscles and nerves to control (and precisely how to control them) among the thousands necessary to perform any action on the horn, the application of good time and repetition would allow those muscles and nerves to align themselves in the most efficient manner necessary to provide the desired results.

He used the story of the centipede and the ant to illustrate the idea of paralysis through analysis.

Once there were an ant and a centipede living in the same house, and the centipede was continually chasing the ant around, meaning to eat it for dinner. (Centipedes are quite vicious, you know. And fast, too.)

Up and down, back and forth, the chase went on, under the sofa, across the living room, behind the bed, around the garbage pail, day after day after day after day. One day the ant found himself looking down on the centipede from the safety of a high table.

And the ant had an inspiration.

“Hey! Yo! Up here, ya dummy! Yeah, right up above you!”

The centipede looked up.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you a question, but with all this running around, I never got a chance.”

“What?”, said the centipede.

“You’re real fast with all those legs and all, I know, but I often find myself wondering as I hide beneath the rug or under the bread basket….WHICH LEG DO YOU MOVE FIRST?”

And the centipede never moved again.

Paralysis by analysis was Carmine’s name for this tendency.


So…what to do, what to do…

And that brings us inevitably to:

#2-“The problem for me is the high where I press to much…”

“I hate to say it but the very high Bb and above is maybe a bit smiley.”


“I try to work on that and have problems playing a melody above F. Don’t have control there even I can play them.”

In Bel Canto terms (the 19th century Italian operatic teaching system that is still with us and in good repute to this day), it sounds to me like you are “hauling chest”. Bel Canto teaching deals with what they call chest voice, head voice and mixed voice. Chest voice equals the “normal” speaking voice of most humans, male and female; head voice equals the so-called falsetto voice (in which some number of women speak most of the time) and mixed voice is what happens when a studied singer extends both the head voice up and the chest voice down so that they effectively overlap. (This is a very simple overview of a quite complex process, of course.) For example, when you hear a straining operatic tenor almost shouting his high range…that is “hauling chest”. He is pulling his chest voice up too far.


Sound familiar, savio?

I think it might.

Now, short of being there in the same room with you I cannot tell you specifically how you should approach this problem, but the problem itself?

There it is, I am willing to bet.

It’s not just about “moving or not moving the m’pce on the lips”…as I have established above, there are so many more aspects of embouchure movement that such a concept begins to appear extremely simplistic…it’s about finding out how to play in that register (or any other register, for that matter) with the minimum of strain and then connecting it with your other, stronger (More “natural”?) registers.

And of course:

#3-“When I get under pedal F my dynamic goes weaker. I try to do that shift Alan Raph do but I don’t get the same effect as him.”

That downward interval exercise that I posted here recently?

Sevenths down
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That exercise can be played in any interval, starting in any range, in any key or scale, in any meter and starting on any subdivision. And it can be inverted. It can also be played with the intervals going in one direction but the overall progression of the exercise going in another.

Here are three examples of this idea, all headed towards finding a way to play the pedals and subpedals. They can be played on any trombone, from a bass right on through the smallest tenor equipment, and done right they can be incredibly effective. “Done right” is the kicker, of course. There are simply too many applicable and important variations and principles to sketch them all out here. The simplest and most important ones of all?

They should be done:

1-In good internal time while striving not to make large embouchure motions no matter how strange the initial notes may feel in extreme registers.

2-Stopping when a note doesn’t sound and then starting again at that interval and continuing until when you re-start once again the note does not sound at which point you have finished the exercise.


3-Beginning w/smaller intervals and progressing through to larger ones at least during the first few months.

And of course…not getting obsessive about the practice. Not overdoing it (maybe 5%-10% of your practice, maximum) plus always going back to the middle ranges and re-establishing the way you normally play after wandering around down there for a while.

Have fun…

Thirds up, going down
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Fourths up
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Fifths down, going up
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P.S. Remember…these are just examples. Find your own way in.

You be bettah off.

Bet on it.

(This in turn led to more discussion. Read “Shifts” Pt. II if you are further interested.)

“Shifts” Pt. II

OK. Let’s talk about shifts.

You ask regarding shifts: “Yes, no, why, why not?”

This question is a little two-dimensional for my tastes.

The question demands that we must first somehow pin them down. Define them so we have a common ground on which we can continue the discussion.

Can they be defined in terms of the actual type of movement made by a brass player?

I believe not, myself. Not really. Too many possibilities, as I sketched out above.

One at a time here:

#1-“I can play legato from low pedal F up to high Bb and also C and D and down again. Without moving the mouthpiece on my lips.”

What do you mean by “not moving the m’pce”, savio? Do you play with a totally dry embouchure? (Etc., see above)

Can these shifts be defined in terms of aural results?

I think that they can, to some degree.

Let us examine the trombone from an operatic, bel canto style of analysis.

I have mentioned many times that we have the possibility of the equivalent of multiple head, chest and mixed voice sets on the trombone, but as I posited in my short article Carmine Caruso, Mandelbrot Sets and Me, the Sufi “As above, so below” idea applies here as well. We can think more broadly and consider a simpler lower, middle and upper range approach to the instrument.

Joe Jackson (A fine trombonist and current director of the Air Force’s great band, the Airmen Of Note) recently wrote in explanation of his own choice to use “shifts”:

“I consider the shift to be akin to moving between chest and head voice for singers. I don’t like the sound of those players muscling their low setup into the high register just as I don’t like the sound of high-set guys playing low. In most situations I consider both to be musically inappropriate.”

And as I wrote in the same thread:

“As I have stated so many times here…shifts are not the problem. We all use them. If they are too large and/or badly timed in, that’s a whole ‘nother can of embouchure problems. I would go so far as to say that in my experience even the finest “unshifted” embouchures…a relative term since something is changing in order for there to be a change in any given note…even the finest “unshifted” embouchures tend to be slightly less colorful, less dynamic in their timbral qualities than do those where the player has mastered a shift or two or three in order to access higher or lower registers. When you hear a really dominant bass trombonist or lead trumpet player sizzle out inhumanly strong notes, in my experience what you are hearing is either a “shift” or that player has made a conscious decision to specialize in one register at the inevitable expense of others. Now Phil Teele, whose playing and teaching I respect enormously, has devised a system the aim of which is to largely eliminate low range shifts through the current money ranges and volumes of the commercial bass trombone as practiced in the Hollywood studios. I have never worked with him nor heard him up close and personal, so I really have no idea of what he does to get up into the areas above say on the horn or even if he can do so with any subtlety, strength or endurance as could George Roberts and Paul Faulise, for instance. It is not a knock on his playing if he cannot do that, it just means that he is a specialist and a very successful one. More power to him. But when you watch and hear many players who have power and control throughout truly extraordinary ranges up and down on a brass instrument, you will see ‘shifts’.”

“Once again…Britt Woodman playing through about 3 1/2 octaves with a full sound on Duke Ellington’s ‘Hank Cinq’.”

The shifts are plain as day.

Of course they are not pedal shifts, but as I have written in my recent short article Carmine Caruso, Mandelbrot sets, and me:

“I have found that what works on say tenor trombone in the middle register also works in its highest and lower registers, and further that it works on higher and lower pitched instruments as well.”

As above, so below.

Or, to put it country simple…there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

There is always more than one way to do anything.

You want the ultimate in safety and control in your playing?

By all means strive to eliminate your shifts, but be prepared to pay the price in other aspects of your playing.

More of an outlaw or adventurer by nature?

Go whole hog plus postage. Go for it; devil take the hindmost and more power to you.

Or…like most of us…find some habitable middle ground and settle on in.

The Goldilocks choice.

Not too shifty, not too stable.

Juuuusssst right!!!



P.S. There is indeed more than one way to skin a cat, but the resultant pelt will differ with every style of cat-skinning, just as it will differ with every individual cat that is skinned.

Even Schrödinger’s l’il ol’ cat.

So here we are with a topic called “Shifts…. yes, no, why, why not ?”, yet there is no existent definition of a “shift” upon which we can all agree.

So…back to the Mandelbot set/fractal idea.

On one end of this spectrum, we have this concept as I have expressed in many times in many different places:

“There is no change in a note…not in terms of timbre, not in terms of volume nor in terms of pitch…without a change (a ‘shift’) of some sort.”

On the other we have the “one embouchure” approach as expressed by the fine trombonist, teacher and m’pce maker/designer Doug Elliott who studied with Donald Reinhardt for a number of years:

“I have always used the term ‘one embouchure’ as Reinhardt did, meaning one placement on the lips without shifting, but with the necessary motion against the teeth to play the range. Also staying within one ‘embouchure type’ without reversing motion or air direction.”

“Many players DO reverse motion or air direction, but I consider consistency of those factors to be of primary importance in my own playing and in my teaching. Consistency of mechanics leads to consistency of results.”


As is evidenced with the Schrödinger’s cat/indeterminacy principle, there really are no hard and fast answers here as far as I can see.

Is the cat dead or alive?

Does the player use “shifts” and if so in what manner?

Same question; same difficulty, same answer.


Again, Wikipedia.

“To further illustrate the putative incompleteness of quantum mechanics, Schrödinger applied quantum mechanics to a living entity that may or may not be conscious. In Schrödinger’s original thought experiment he describes how one could, in principle, transform a superposition inside an atom to a large-scale superposition of a live and dead cat by coupling cat and atom with the help of a ‘diabolical mechanism.’ He proposed a scenario with a cat in a sealed box, where the cat’s life or death was dependent on the state of a subatomic particle. According to Schrödinger, the Copenhagen interpretation implies that the cat remains both alive and dead until the box is opened.”

The problem here lies in the opening of the box, because as soon as you try to observe what is going on the experiment is at an end. Instead of remaining an ongoing process, you have pinned it to a specimen board like a butterfly.

The cat is suddenly either alive or dead.

The embouchure is suddenly either one that shifts or one that does not shift.

The butterfly is either a fluttering, stutter-stepping, hard-to-catch entity or it is a dead duck kind of butterfly, and if you have a sensitive enough nose you will also find that it is beginning to smell bad as well. A problem shared by all two-dimensional thinking once your mental nose gets sensitive enough to deal with the true indeterminacy of it all.

And I do mean “of it all”.

Which brings us…me, anyway…right back to Carmine Caruso’s approach.

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“Just do this exercise. please. In good time.”


From an article that I wrote called Carmine Caruso-A Brief Overview. (Part of my Out Of The Case/Letters From New York/ series which I am gradually putting up here on my website.):


To illustrate [Carmine’s] consistent refusal to put words on things pertaining to playing, here, as an example, is a reconstructed (and slightly formalized) dialogue gleaned from my many lessons w/Carmine. (C=Carmine, S=student. Or “Sam” if you want to be precise about it in this instance.):

S-”I think I need more support.”

C-”Support? What IS support?”

S-”Well, EVERYBODY knows what ’support’ is. Support is what you do w/your diaphragm when you’re playing.”

C-”Diaphragm? Where IS your diaphragm? Can you see it? Feel it? Separate it from all the OTHER muscles down there?”

S-”The diaphragm is the muscle you use when you’re breathing ‘correctly’.”

C-”Correctly? Do you mean you can breathe ‘incorrectly’? If you were to breathe ‘incorrectly’, you’d asphyxiate.”

And so on…this would continue around any number of subjects until the student tired of “thinking about playing”, at which point Carmine would give him an exercise or metaphor that would indeed help him do whatever it is he wanted to do “correctly”. Regarding breathing, for example, I remember him saying that if you wanted to know what “correct” breathing LOOKED like, observe an infant breathing in the crib. If you wanted to know what a full breath FELT like, yawn. If you wanted to know what good support felt like, you had to observe your own body when certain of his exercises were going well.

I can’t say enough about this reversal from common practice teaching. ALL the common teaching words…”SUPPORT” “EMBOUCHURE”, “CORNERS” “CORRECT”, “GOOD”, “TONGUE”, “DIAPHRAGM”, “OPEN”, “DARK”, “BRIGHT”, etc….are merely metaphors, code words for what we really experience. I’m not saying words are unimportant, but I am saying that the experience of playing in a certain way and the description, the map of that particular concept, are radically different, and that further, any given “experience” is different for every human being, and can even be “different” for any one human being from one day (or minute) to the next.

One of Schrödinger’s smarter cats, it seems to me.

Carmine Caruso.

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Bet on it.

Later…gotta run.

I’m on the early “shift” today, myself.

Have fun…