Brass Advantage with Wayne Downey
Issue 22

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Welcome back to the land of “All Things Brass.” This installment of Brass Advantage is “Part Two” 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

Lip Injuries

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 an inflamed pressure point, which is a minor (albeit extremely painful) irritation of the tissue of the lips. However, because the discomfort can be quite intense and does not respond to rest, players come to believe that their recalcitrant lip pain is a sign of muscle damage that requires surgical intervention to solve. Since more and more players are contemplating surgery, and in some cases, because of the information they find in my books, allow me to add a note of caution on this subject.

I’m at a loss to know exactly what to say to a player when he tells me he has been advised to have surgery or thinks he needs it. The reason is that I receive more letters of complaint from players about the failure of the surgery than I have received from players enthusiastically endorsing it. Please don’t misunderstand. By failure, I do not mean this is an issue of malpractice. Repairing a tear of the obicularis oris (lip muscle) is quite a simple procedure. Dr. Simon McGrail (Canada) and Dr. Craig Vander Kolk (USA) are two fine surgeons who have consistently performed successful surgeries on brass players; however, it is important to understand that surgery only fixes the muscle. It does not repair the underlying cause of the tear–or the lip pain–or the playing problems.

Too often, players view this surgery as a cure all–that it will fully rejuvenate their playing after a slow and careful period of getting back into shape. Unfortunately, when a year or more goes by, and a player finds himself still beset by lip pain and numerous playing woes, he assumes that his surgery was a failure. Surgery isn’t to blame here as much as the misguided, inflated expectations of the players who have it and, to a degree, the musical ignorance of the surgeons who perform it. If a surgeon cannot understand the specific embouchure malfunction in playing that can stress the fibers of the orbicularis oris and cause them to separate, there is no way that surgeon can give a player-patient the kind of specific, post- surgical performance rehabilitation that is essential for full playing recovery. There is only one certainty in all of this: with or without surgery, if a player fails to restore the structure, stability, and control of his embouchure in playing, neither his lip nor his playing will ever recover.

I am often asked whether a player can fix his playing in spite of a torn muscle. I think a better question is whether the obicularis oris can heal on its own without surgery. If you are a sports fan, you know that one of the most common injuries among professional athletes is a muscle tear. Surgery is almost never done to repair these injuries. Only when there is a severe, avulsed tear of a muscle is surgery required, but tears of this severity are rare. Most muscle injuries in sports are treated with rest and therapy. So if you are contemplating lip surgery, you might first want to seek a second opinion from someone such as a sports medicine specialist who can give you another perspective about muscle injuries.

Let us return to the issue of performance rehabilitation and the thing you need to know and the mindset you must adopt if you are to be successful.

Embouchure overuse syndrome is, without a doubt, the most difficult of all the instrumental injuries to overcome. The reason is that embouchure function in playing is so reliant upon feel–on sensation. A player doesn’t diagnose his embouchure problem by sight but by how it feels. So it is not surprising that when a player’s normal facial sensation is disrupted by chronic physical problems such as pain and swelling, he has no way of determining by feel what is wrong or how to fix it. He just keeps adjusting things hoping to find something that works and feels right.

There is really only one thing a player has to do to fix his injured embouchure: restore its structural integrity in playing. Sound simple? It could be, were it not for a couple of things which work against a player from the moment this problem takes hold. Obviously, the sensory issue presents a real complication to playing and hastens an embouchure’s decline just on its own, but compounding this problem is the degraded physical condition of a player’s face. An embouchure which is both uncomfortable and always tired and stressed tries to protect itself by shedding as much of the energy as it can from the muscles of a player’s face. It not only desires this more comfortable structure, it has become totally accustomed to it. The fine muscle control which once made playing so easy for you has atrophied, and what remains is not even a shadow your normal embouchure.

Overuse sets into motion a chain reaction that culminates in a wholesale change in a player’s embouchure technique. What you now have is no longer your old, healthy, reliable embouchure–the one you played on for so many years with complete comfort and confidence. As things began to unravel, and nothing about playing felt normal, you urgently began adjusting your chops in an effort to find that familiar feeling and playing control you could always count on. Some of those adjustments were intentional. Others were unconscious. And then when all else failed, you tried changing equipment.

It’s no wonder your embouchure has finally gotten to the point that it is physically confused and incapable of functioning the way it used to. Well, your old embouchure hasn’t gone far. It still resides, totally intact, in the far reaches of you muscle memory.
Want to say hello?

You will need your mouthpiece for the following:

Blocked Buzzing

Stand in front of a mirror.

Plug the end of your mouthpiece completely with a finger. Put your mouthpiece up to your lips exactly as though you were going to buzz a midrange note. Begin blowing by tonguing a midrange note (In other words, don’t just start blowing. Start the note as you would to buzz or to play–by tonguing it). Blow with a constant mezzo forte stream of air. (There should be absolutely no sound or air leakage from your lips or mouthpiece.) Notice how firm and controlled your entire embouchure is and how your chin stretches down with considerable energy as you blow. Tongue a few notes with your mouthpiece blocked, and observe how still your face and throat are and how well your air works. This is your old embouchure structure.

Let’s do that again. Block buzz in slow motion, and pay careful attention to how your embouchure physically prepares itself to block buzz. Notice how your embouchure deploys considerable energy in your facial muscle in preparation to blow against the resistance. When a player block buzzes, his embouchure prepares and sets itself with an intense, controlled structure, even before he begins to blow. The normal level of embouchure stability generated by a healthy embouchure in playing is comparable to that generated by the embouchure for blocked buzzing. Embouchures that have developed overuse-related dysfunction actually deprogram themselves to set with this degree muscle energy and control.

When an injured player block buzzes, he does not feel mouthpiece pressure, lip pain, or the kind of facial fatigue that he experiences in playing. The reason is that even the most dysfunctional of embouchures configures mechanically correctly to block buzz. Your embouchure works correctly here not because you are blowing against resistance but because of how your facial muscles prepared and set themselves to block buzz. Compare this blocked-buzzing structure to how your embouchure currently configures itself to play. Do this with your instrument:

Watch yourself in a mirror. Start on any comfortable midrange note, and play an octave scale up and down slowly.

If you are like every injured player I have observed, you put the mouthpiece up to your lips and immediately began playing with little or no opportunity for adequate energy and control to be infused into the muscles of the embouchure to play comfortably or securely. It is
a certainty that your embouchure did not configure with the same, intense muscle control of blocked buzzing.

With your mouthpiece only:

Watch yourself in a mirror, and block buzz again. Make sure that you start the note you are block buzzing with your tongue and not by blowing. You can see and feel how much more solid, firm, and controlled your embouchure is when you set to block buzz than it is when you set to play.

Ever wonder why playing loudly has always felt so much more secure than playing softly? It’s because the embouchure has so much more grip and stability when it is set to play loudly. That’s the key to blocked buzzing and how it can help you. Blocked buzzing offers you a window into correct embouchure function and gives you a quick and easy way of evoking your old, healthy embouchure structure. It provides the best means with which to compare your current injury- prone embouchure structure with the one you so desperately want to get back.

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 &, send your questions or topics to: AskWayneDowney [at] drumcorpsplanet [dot] com.

“Don’t Let The Chance Pass You By”. See Ya Soon…


About the Author:
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 – 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 on Monday, August 30th, 2010. Filed under Brass Advantage.