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

What's in Embouchure Rehabilitation? Here are a few excerpts.

Chapter 1  In the Beginning

When a player is in top form, it is difficult for him to imagine that his embouchure could ever be in peril.  Most of us believe that chop problems happen to other players of lesser talent and experience; after all, great players have perfect technique, right?  Solid playing technique (playing mechanics) not only fuels great playing, it also protects a player’s lips and face from the normal physical stresses of playing; however, there is one thing that can undermine even the best technique and cause playing to become painful and totally disabled—embouchure overuse.   

It begins innocently enough.  You’ve been doing a heavy week of orchestral playing or had a demanding, all-day cast album recording of your Broadway show.  You’ve been practicing for a very important audition or spending long hours preparing for the premiere of a concerto.  Your lips have felt great throughout. Your playing has been free and easy—until one day, you pick up the horn, and nothing feels right.  Your lips feel thick and dead, and your chops seem completely out of shape.  You have no endurance.  You struggle to play in the high range, and you have lost your pinpoint control.  So you practice harder, but with each passing day, playing becomes more and more of a challenge, and the troublesome problems that now inhabit your playing respond to no amount of effort to overcome them.  A couple of weeks of this decline go by, and things just keep getting worse and worse.  Now you’re in a real quandary. “I can’t play,” you say to yourself.  “How am I going to get through the next performance?”  You finally take a therapeutic holiday from playing for a week or two or three, but when you start playing again, nothing has changed.  It is just as difficult as it was when you stopped.  Welcome to the world of embouchure overuse syndrome. 

Few brass players understand the potentially devastating, long-term impact that overuse can have on their embouchures. When a player overuses his face in playing, there are three problems which hang on: profound facial fatigue, severe lip swelling, and lip soreness. An embouchure simply cannot function normally with these physical impairments. As soon as a player feels any sort of weakness and discomfort in his lips or face, his body instinctively reacts to protect the painful area and begins imposing changes to how his embouchure functions mechanically in playing. The resulting compromised playing system exposes the lips to painful irritation, it stresses the facial muscles even more, and soon, this turns into a revolving cycle of disability and discomfort. Eventually, a player's healthy playing system is overtaken by injury habits, and that become the new norm of how his embouchure functions from that point on....

Chapter 2  Explaining the Mysteries

 Playing a brass instrument with confused, dysfunctional playing mechanics has the same cause and effect on the lips and face that wearing tight shoes has on the toes and heels of your feet. Tight shoes irritate toes and heels, causing painful blisters and making walking difficult. It isn't the blisters which are the underlying cause of the pain and troublesome walking. The underlying cause is the shoes. Therefore, no amount of rest or medical treatment of the blisters will cure the pain and walking discomfort permanently if you continue to wear tight shoes. To get rid of the pain and make walking easy again, you have to wear shoes that fit.

 The mechanical changes that embouchure overuse imposes upon a player’s whole system of playing ultimately expose the lips to constant irritation and put the facial muscles under considerable stress. Therefore, like the toe and heel pain caused by tight shoes, resting or medically treating lip pain and/or tissue injury provides only transient results and cannot cure a performance injury without first restoring one's mechanical integrity. 

 Phantom pains and inexplicable sensations in the lips and face are distractions which a player has to sort through intellectually. It is almost predictable that every tiny twinge, irritation, scar tissue, colored spot, or weakness you have noticed in your lips, mouth, or face have caused you to wonder whether something else is preventing you from playing—that if you could just fix it, your playing would miraculously recover. Sadly, that is just not the case; however, if a medical or dental problem is the reason for your having developed overuse syndrome, a resolution to that condition is necessary before you can effectively undertake mechanical rehabilitation.   In most cases, though, the odd twinge in a lip, anomaly in the mouth, weird pain here or there, or that strange sense of weakness you might have felt on one side of your face or the other are, individually or collectively, indicative of overuse syndrome.  To learn more about overuse-related symptoms, see Chapter 4 of Broken Embouchures.  It contains an explanation of the physical discomforts and playing problems that are associated with overuse syndrome.

 The lip injuries that brass players develop are rarely as serious as they feel. They are certainly not as significant as the trauma one would sustain by being punched in the mouth, for example.  In fact, brass injuries are more subtle and usually no more serious than a painful pressure point.  However, because the discomfort can be quite intense and does not respond to rest, players come to believe that their unrelenting lip pain is a sign of muscle damage which requires surgical intervention to solve....


Chapter 8  Performance Rehabilitation 101

 Blocked buzzing provides you with a perfect sensory image of how your healthy embouchure functioned prior to the changes overuse made to it.  It is easy to feel and observe good playing mechanics in mouthpiece buzzing and blocked buzzing, even with painful, swollen lips. Buzzing and blocked buzzing do not require a player to propel a beautiful sound through several feet of tubing.  When you only have to fill a short bit of tubing to buzz on a mouthpiece or blow against the resistance in blocked buzzing, it stands to reason that even the most troubled of embouchures could configure and operate correctly; however, when a painful embouchure is faced with having to make music by pushing a focused sound through a long length of tubing, all of a sudden, playing becomes much more difficult to manage.

 Obviously, you want to get your playing back on track as quickly as you can, but let me warn you.  There is nothing quick about breaking injury habits and restoring playing.  Undoing what overuse does to an embouchure is physically very difficult and mentally challenging.  Do not expect that your old, healthy embouchure will suddenly "pop back into place" and instantly start working comfortably again.

 It bears repeating how the body’s reaction to pain prevents an embouchure from working normally in the first place and then keeps a player stuck in this problem endlessly.  As soon as you feel lip pain or facial weakness, your embouchure is automatically put into protective mode.  Overriding this natural instinct is not easy, but it is absolutely necessary if you are to be successful in overcoming embouchure overuse syndrome.  There are no daily therapeutic exercises, devices, or techniques which you can do to reverse this problem quickly.  You have to employ very much the same boring, conscious intervention you used when you were first learning to play. 

 When you were still a student, and your teacher told you to keep your chin down in the high range, or admonished you for puffing your cheeks, or advised you keep your corners in, you didn't go home after your lesson and just play etudes mindlessly to correct these habits.  You had to concentrate intellectually on keeping your chin down, or not puffing your cheeks, or controlling your corners better when you played.  This is how you have to approach embouchure rehabilitation.  It cannot be done mindlessly. It cannot be accomplished by doing blocked buzzing or buzzing routines.  You have to stop the injury habits which have tightly locked  themselves into your embouchure....


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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