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Embouchures.com - Providing Information about the Performance Injuries and Embouchure Dilemmas of Brass Players

So, what's in Broken Embouchures? Here are a few excerpts.

Chapter 1 Just Having a Bad Day--or Is It Really a Chop Problem?

The "Embouchure Twilight Zone"

About three weeks ago I was very stiff from an excessive amount of practicing the day before. The next two days I continued to play as usual. The third day, my sound was full of air, and I had no ability to play softly. I took three days off and tried to play again. After playing for two days, it was obvious that something was still very wrong.; I decided to take the last month of the season off, canceling all sorts of solo concerts as well. It was all pretty embarrassing and upsetting. It's been over two weeks that I haven't touched my horn. I thought in another week that I would try buzzing. There is still a prominent scar on the inside of my top lip."

If you have ever suffered the effects of embouchure overuse, you have likely traveled into the fourth dimensional-space known as the Embouchure Twilight Zone. But far from Rod Serling’s wonderful 1960s CBS television series, the Embouchure Twilight Zone is a very real prison, replete with its own daily nightmares.  Many adjectives are offered to describe it. Few do so adequately. 

“My symptoms are as follows: 1. localized pain at the point where the mouthpiece contacts my upper lip where the pink of the lip borders the white skin above, usually on the right side of my embouchure but occasionally on the left 2. swelling of the upper lip. The impact on my playing: diminished flexibility and response, dull sound, difficulty in centering pitch, harder to play in extreme registers, etc.  Like many horn players, I had occasional minor bruising or a "fat lip" which I was able to overcome with a day or two of rest until about two years ago when I hurt myself particularly badly during a very heavy week. I went to see my doctor who referred me to a local ear, nose and throat man who put me on prednisone. After a week off, I went back to playing and quickly re-injured myself, forcing myself to have to take more sick leave. Since then, my symptoms have come and gone with regularity, depending on the heaviness of my schedule.”

There are no Disabled Lists for instrumental players.  No one will get up before a performance to announce the names and ailments of all of the distressed musicians on stage.  Musicians have to suffer their discomforts silently with no merit badges for playing under duress. We’re just expected to play well regardless of how lousy everything feels, and, in large part, that’s what we expect of ourselves.

No one can begin to understand what it’s like to play and perform in pain or with a dysfunctional embouchure unless he has personally experienced it. When a player’s embouchure stops working comfortably, playing is reduced to a terrifying effort, requiring much more mental and physical energy. Unfortunately, it is within this confused, emotional prison that a player is faced with figuring out what’s not right and how to fix what he cannot figure out.  Unraveling the mystery becomes an even greater burden when one’s career and livelihood are on the line.  What is it?  What caused it?  Will it ever go away?....

Chapter 4    Embouchure Speak

A Translation of the Most Common Physical and Playing Symptoms

I have had the same problem with my chops for years. When I play too much or too loud, the tiny part of the inside upper lip that actually vibrates gets irritated.  It seems that after a while the skin just simply can't take the vibrations.  Playing loud seems to be the real culprit.   A bump kind of raises and I can feel it with my tongue.  Then I know I'm in trouble and I have to really back off.  Other than taking it easy playing, the only things that seem to help are drinking lots of water, vitamin C, diet and maybe ibuprofen.  I have talked to other players and have gotten unbelievable different response about this thing.  Some have no idea what I'm talking about. Some have experienced the problem but have been freaked out by it and haven’t told anyone.”

If you listen to your chops, you can learn a lot.   Pain, swelling, bruising, stiffness, and abrasions are all part of your embouchure’s idiomatic lingo.  Ancillary to that is what your playing is telling you.  A hollow, airy sound, a problem high range, difficult attacks, painful mouthpiece pressure, loss of endurance are all ways that your embouchure communicates with you, but do you know what it’s saying?

“I can’t focus my sound any more.  My lips feel like they are made of rubber and that I’m playing with both cheeks puffed out, and I have no control over what I’m doing.  My lips are already tired after a five-minute warmup.  I just don’t know what could be wrong.  I’ve added several hours of practice each day, but it hasn’t helped.” 

Injury to a player's embouchure system from overuse masquerades as a variety of nasty physical and playing symptoms.  The symptoms most often appear soon after a very heavy period of intense, physically demanding playing, where the muscles have become so taxed and the lip tissue so stressed that the player's embouchure is rendered physically incapable of configuring properly.  From then on, a player’s lips are exposed to repeated irritation.

At the end of an average day of playing, which would consist of the amount and kind of playing one is used to, a player may experience mild lip puffiness and facial fatigue which disappear within a few hours. However, because the buzzing aperture is so tiny to begin with, any change in the physical contour of the lips from swelling can make playing very challenging.

In general, lip swelling is anathema to playing.  Brass players describe it as “stiff lips,” because that’s how it feels. Swelling narrows the gap of the buzzing aperture, preventing the lips from vibrating freely. To overcome swelling in the lips, the facial muscles have to work just a little bit harder to stretch the aperture open enough so it then has room to vibrate. Even though the face has to work with more effort, under normal circumstances, the muscles are strong enough to handle the added burden; however, after an episode of embouchure overuse, nothing is normal.

Embouchure overuse occurs when a player has engaged in an extreme amount or kind of physically demanding or stressful playing which is well beyond what he is accustomed to. Even a player who is playing at his peak and is in good physical playing shape can invite embouchure overuse after having to engage in several hours of very high, loud playing or playing nonstop for a greater than normal duration....

Chapter 7  When NOT to Change an Embouchure

Many times, young students have to undergo an embouchure change because their technique is hampered by their mouthpiece position. On the other hand, an embouchure which previously served a player well and produced reliable results does not need to be changed, even if it has been musically hobbled by chronic pain and playing problems for months on end.

Good embouchures don’t go bad, although they do become injured and malfunction when they have been severely overused. Nevertheless, many players who develop embouchure overuse syndrome are seduced into changing their embouchures or moving their mouthpieces away from a painful spot on a lip. You should understand that even the smallest adjustment you make to your embouchure--especially when your chops are injured—can have major consequences on your playing and take months to undo. The reason for that is simple.

Your brain creates a sensory map of every aspect of your embouchure and playing. The sensations generated by your mouthpiece on your lips, pressure points, mouthpiece pressure, and the controlled energy you deploy in your facial muscles during playing all fuel that sensory map. Much of the discomfort and playing confusion that players develop from overuse is attributable to the disruption of normal sensation in the lips and face. When you make changes to your embouchure, the load of the mouthpiece is redistributed onto new pressure points, and the muscles of your face are suddenly forced to configure and work differently. This compounds the already confused and disabled state of your chops.; It is difficult enough to restore a dysfunctional embouchure, but it can be doubly difficult once it has been physically altered.

The best advice is to leave well alone. You can fix yourself much more easily by concentrating on reversing the mechanical dysfunction that overuse has inflicted to your playing....

Buzz Pipes, Mute Nooses, and More

Embouchures.com also features Stephanie Tretick's handmade French horn Mute Nooses and an array of buzz pipes, sound enhancing weighted valve caps, valve cap spacers, and mouthpiece donuts which are custom made by Chuck McAlexander at the Brass Lab. Click here to go to our Products page.

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