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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 3    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.”

After a player's professional life is upended by a painful, unforgiving chop problem, it is totally understandable that every tiny twinge, irritation, bump, divot, scar tissue, colored spot, or weakness he notices in his lips, mouth, or face makes him  wonder whether something else is causing his dilemma—that if he could just fix it, his playing would miraculously recover.

 

Because the lingering symptoms of overuse mimic those of many physical disorders, sometimes, it is difficult for a player to distinguish the difference.  Tingling sensations or pain in the lips, heaviness in the face, quivering in a lip or facial muscle, lip swelling, lip or mouth burning, for example, are symptoms found in many physical maladies; however, they are also among the physical anomalies players encounter in overuse syndrome. 

 

Certainly, any chronic symptom which concerns you should be pursued with your physician. Generally speaking, however, symptoms which are troublesome primarily during playing but disappear otherwise most likely point to overuse syndrome.  So, what exactly is overuse syndrome?  Is it a medical condition which requires treatment? 

 

Embouchure overuse syndrome is an all-purpose term I use to refer to the physical and playing symptoms that are found in every chop problem, regardless of the cause. Overuse is the most common instigator of embouchure problems in professional players; however, there are other things which can also cause mischief to playing and result in the very same painful physical and playing symptoms associated with overuse.

 

Normal Fatigue versus Embouchure Overuse

 

“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.” 

  *****

 

It is not that easy for a player to tell the difference between normal fatigue and overuse.  The effects of the typical embouchure fatigue a player experiences following a heavy performance generally dissipate within twelve to twenty-four hours.  Overuse, on the other hand, does not go away quickly, and the long-term impact it has on playing is profound.  After a day or two, a player's lips feel chronically thick and dead and his embouchure seems completely out of shape, regardless of how much he has been playing.  He struggles to play in the high range and loses his pinpoint control and endurance. 

To understand why overuse evolves into a protracted chop dilemma, you have to consider how it impacts the function of an embouchure in the first place.Three problems persist following a period of overuse: lip pain, swelling, and facial fatigue. Does it make sense that an embouchure impaired by fatigue, discomfort, and swelling would be able to function normally? Of course not.

 

Pain and swelling not only disrupt the normal feel of a player's embouchure, they dictate how it works in playing. It's similar to what happens to a baseball pitcher who develops a sore elbow. His body instinctively defers to the discomfort by changing aspects of his pitching delivery--his arm angle and release point. These mechanical changes are an unconscious reaction to pain. Just like a sore elbow alters a pitcher's delivery, a brass player's embouchure reprograms itself mechanically when it has had to navigate playing long enough in the presence of pain, swelling and fatigue.

 
 
 
"Soon after I finished a long, heavy rehearsal, I noticed my upper lip just left of center 
began to feel a bit strange. There was no sharp pain, but a sense of discomfort and weakness 
from that side of my embouchure."
 
The physical reaction to discomfort and impairment causes a player unconsciously to set his embouchure with a looser, weaker structure, which then exposes his lips to constant irritation. The redundant irritation, combined with the growing struggle to play, eventually produce disconcerting physical symptoms, such as strange sensations, localized lip pain, a sense of weakness felt in one side of the face, a numb area in the center of the lips, discolored spots or scar tissue on a lip, etc.   It is, therefore, understandable that a player would come to interpret any sort of weird sensation and/or discomfort that appears every time he plays as an indication of a medical or dental problem or injury to a lip.

Chapter 6  When NOT to Change an Embouchure

If there is a subject which is widely misunderstood by brass players and prescribed all too often for the wrong reasons, it is changing an embouchure.  An embouchure change refers to moving a mouthpiece on a player's lips up or down, left or right from its normal location with the hope that it will improve playing in some way or solve troublesome playing difficulties.  An embouchure change cannot train or restore comfort or mechanical integrity; it only changes the position of a player's mouthpiece on his lips. Most of the time, an embouchure change backfires and lands a player in a lengthy chop dilemma.

 

If you're the owner of a previously well-functioning embouchure that has recently been foundered by chronic lip discomfort, swelling, diminished endurance, and/or playing difficulties that haven't improved with normal practice, it would be a huge mistake to change your setup.  Even the tiniest adjustment to an embouchure will inflict major consequences on one's playing and can take months to undo.  It is double trouble when a player tries to solve a painful embouchure problem by relocating his mouthpiece away from a chronically sore spot on his lip.  

 

The one major consequence a professional player would invite in changing his long-time mouthpiece location is to his buzzing aperture.  For some quite amazing and mysterious reason, most players naturally and instinctively locate the inner cup diameter of their mouthpieces so their buzzing apertures are positioned in the horizontal center. Not every player's buzzing aperture is situated in the exact center of his lips, which is why some players play off center and do so with full artistic and technical control.  If you move your mouthpiece, you might inadvertently relocate the rim too near where your lips vibrate, and that would, obviously, not end well.... 

 

 

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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