Brass Advantage with Wayne Downey
Welcome back to the land of “All Things Brass.” This installment of Brass Advantage is “Part One” of an article written by Ms. Lucinda Lewis (Principle Horn of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra) that was written for both music educators and brass players seeking advice on embouchure health and rehabilitation:
Embouchure Overuse Syndrome in Brass Players
By Lucinda Lewis, Adapted from Embouchure Rehabilitation
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 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 has on their embouchures. How and why can a strong, healthy embouchure deteriorate so quickly? It’s actually quite simple to understand. Four problems tend to hang on following overuse: significant lip swelling, lip pain, severe facial fatigue, and strange sensations that develop in the muzzle area of the face. An embouchure simply cannot function normally or correctly in playing when it is impaired in this way–even though it may not initially feel terrible or be all that disabling. However, if a player continues to play on lips in this condition, he will unconsciously begin to compensate and adjust his embouchure to accommodate the playing problems caused by the presence of physical discomfort, swelling, and fatigue.
All embouchure problems and lip injuries are related to a player’s normal embouchure technique having become dysfunctional, almost always following a period of intense overuse. This dysfunction stems from the habit a player quickly develops of setting his embouchure cautiously (with too little structure and stability) as a reaction to the constant presence of pain, swelling, and fatigue. This "looser" setup allows the mouthpiece to irritate the lips and perpetuates the overall embouchure dysfunction and playing disability. As the problem progresses, the acute injury phase–that began with overuse–is replaced by a chronic type of lip irritation that can be so painful at times, it actually feels like a serious injury. This is the point at which overuse has evolved into embouchure overuse syndrome.
There are other casualties of overuse syndrome. An embouchure which is chronically tired, sore, and impaired also cannot compete physically with normal air pressure. So it then becomes necessary for a player to reduce the intensity of his air control. This is one reason players who develop this syndrome complain that they feel no air support when they play. In addition, this loss of normal embouchure structure prevents a player’s tongue from working efficiently. Fast tonguing is especially difficult.
One of the more surprising and unique things about overuse syndrome is that rest has no effect on it. You would naturally assume that hurting, swollen, tired lips would heal after a week or a month off. In fact, there are players who have taken six months off only to face to the same physical issues and playing problems all over again. Unfortunately, rest cannot reverse what is, for all intents and purposes, an embouchure change.
As described above, in the painful aftermath of embouchure overuse, a player adopts a cautious and deferential way of setting his embouchure. This might offer temporary relief to a player; however, as the discomfort, swelling, and playing problems persist, a player begins adjusting his embouchure mindlessly in search of reliable solutions to the things that are disabling his musicality. Some players go so far as to try to move their mouthpieces to a more comfortable spot on their lips.
Sadly, there is no such thing as a temporary or easily reversible embouchure adjustment. Even the tiniest physical adjustment one makes to his embouchure– consciously or unconsciously–has the impact of a major embouchure change. The result is an embouchure that has not only been stripped of its playing control and strength but that has become mechanically confused in the process. In the final analysis, it is not difficult to understand why a therapeutic holiday from playing offers no lasting benefit to sufferers of overuse syndrome.
Embouchure overuse syndrome is to an embouchure what tight shoes are to the feet. If you wear shoes that don’t fit your feet, your feet hurt, and you limp. Embouchure overuse syndrome inflicts a stealth-like embouchure change on a player. So by the time you have developed the full-blown syndrome, you are wearing a different embouchure when you play–one that doesn’t fit you. To reverse your playing disability and restore your comfort, you have to retrain your embouchure to function the way it did prior to your injury.
Believe me when I tell you that there is no such thing as a permanent lip injury or an embouchure which cannot be fixed. Embouchures do get injured, and that’s neither a sign of incompetence nor weakness. Perspective is important here. You must accept the fact that you are an injured player, and your playing is not going to be as you want it for some time to come. That is not a cause for panic but a simple reality you must digest with clinical objectivity.
Phantom pains and inexplicable sensations in the lips and face are distractions which you have to sort through intellectually. It is
almost predictable that every tiny twinge, irritation, 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 was the predicate for your developing overuse syndrome, a resolution to the underlying condition is absolutely prerequisite to rehabilitating your embouchure. In most cases, though, the odd twinge in a lip, 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.
Embouchure Overuse Syndrome in Brass Players, © 2010, Lucinda Lewis
Don’t forget to check out all the new brass and percussion technique books and accessories on my website. This month I’m highlighting P.E.T.E. (Personal Embouchure Training Exerciser) as well as the Buzzzmaster (Keep the buzz in your chops fresh and ready all the time) & “The Breathing Gym” by Sam Pilafian & Patrick Sheridan. If you’re a drummer or band director looking for a Winter Drum Show don’t forget to check out the newest compositions by; Dave Glyde (Blue Devils), Shane Gwaltney (Music City Mystique) and Mike Nevin (Blue Knights) on my website at www.XtremeBrass.com & www.XtremePercussion.com, send your questions or topics to: AskWayneDowney [at] drumcorpsplanet [dot] com.
“Don’t Let The Chance Pass You By”. See Ya Soon…
Wayne Downey is the first of Drum Corps Planet’s panel of subject-matter expert columnists – providing our readers with expert information and insight from the best teachers and leaders in the drum and bugle corps activity. In addition to his long-term role as Music Director of the 13-time DCI World Champion Blue Devils drum and bugle corps – where he’s won 20 Jim Ott awards for "Excellence in Brass Performance", Wayne is distinguished as one of the finest brass teachers/clinicians and arrangers in the world. His work has been featured by some of the world’s most-respected drum corps, high school and collegiate bands – as well as the Tony and Emmy award winning show "Blast" and in feature films. In 1991 Wayne was inducted into the Drum Corps International Hall of Fame for his contributions to the Drum & Bugle Corps activity as the musical director for the Blue Devils. Wayne’s latest venture – XtremeBrass.com provides brass players of all ages and skill-levels, as well as educators, personalized lessons and access to his championship-winning techniques and methods. We’re honored to have him as one of our contributing columnists. -jmd
Wayne Downey was the first of Drum Corps Planet’s panel of subject-matter expert columnists – providing our readers with expert information and insight from the best teachers and leaders in the drum and bugle corps activity. In addition to his long-term role as Music Director of the 14-time DCI World Champion Blue Devils drum and bugle corps – where he’s won 21 Jim Ott awards for “Excellence in Brass Performance”, Wayne is distinguished as one of the finest brass teachers/clinicians and arrangers in the world. His work has been featured by some of the world’s most-respected drum corps, high school and collegiate bands – as well as the Tony and Emmy award winning show “Blast” and in feature films. In 1991 Wayne was inducted into the Drum Corps International Hall of Fame for his contributions to the Drum & Bugle Corps activity as the musical director for the Blue Devils. Wayne’s latest venture – XtremeBrass.com provides brass players of all ages and skill-levels, as well as educators, personalized lessons and access to his championship-winning techniques and methods.
Posted by Wayne Downey on Monday, August 2nd, 2010. Filed under Brass Advantage.