by Andrew J. Pelletier
The embouchure is a remarkably complex area of a horn player's physique. Thousands of tiny muscles are manipulated to create the needed resistance against the airstream, which in turn creates the buzz. No matter how strong one becomes, there is also the risk of injury. This article will not speak directly to the issue of damage (on this subject, I highly recommend Bengt Belfrage's article, "Damage due to Overstrain in Brass Players" in The Horn Call XXIII/2 (April 1993): 21-24). Instead, it will focus on ways one can avoid the risk of damage, and actually make the embouchure feel consistent from day to day.
In the summer of 1994, while making a solo recording, I began to feel a sharp twinge in my face, running down the left side of my nose, and ending at the corner of my mouth. Numbness and dull pain followed. I thought nothing of it, and continued to play, not realizing until later that I was pulling, or overworking that muscle. During nine months of difficult recuperation, I discovered what had happened was completely unnecessary and avoidable. Instead of being negative about it, I chose to see it as a blessing, and set out to create some ways of keeping my embouchure consistent and injury-free. I do not claim to be a medical expert; these ideas are just suggestions that may or may not work for you. As with all suggestions of a medical nature, however, please be sure consult a doctor or appropriate specialist. The important thing is to think about the present and future health of the embouchure, with this thought leading to positive action.
Basics of Embouchure Health
1) "Listen" to your embouchure. It is truly incredible how one can get used to ignoring the body. The concept of "listening" begins with the warm-up. "Listening" consists of being constantly aware of the feel of the embouchure muscles; rather than playing in an inattentive manner. One should use this "listening" at the beginning and throughout the warm-up. If the embouchure feels tight, warm-up in a manner that loosens it up. If there is a lack of center, do some stabilizing exercises; like long tones or air attacks. Be willing to experiment and do what the embouchure needs. If a burn (a tight, warm sting in the muscles, which marks the beginning of muscle cramping) begins in the corners of the embouchure, ease up for a second and allow the muscles to relax. This relaxing will prevent the build up of lactic acid, which makes the muscle less flexible, and eventually leads to cramping and damage.
Take this concept of "listening" into the practice session itself, and experiment by practicing in spurts with rest; for instance 30 minutes of work with 10-15 minutes rest. Practicing in this manner is beneficial for the embouchure and your brain as well. Times of brief rest can yield great insight into a problem needing work.
2) Get enough rest. A full schedule of performing, teaching, and traveling is sometimes achieved at the expense of one's physical health. Proper rest begins with the night's sleep. It is important to get enough sleep to allow the body time to rest and repair. For most people, this is between five and nine hours per night. Obviously, there will be times when this is impossible, but the moment your schedule allows, give your body as much time to rest as necessary.
Eat meals sitting down, and no, this does not include in the car! It is the small things that can make a big difference. Eating while sitting promotes better digestion and has a greater calming effect. The more relaxed the whole body is, the more relaxed the embouchure can be, thus providing more strength. Finally, when possible, set aside about 20 minutes a day to mentally rest (i.e.- read a book for pleasure, meditate, play with your pet, etc.). We are all busy people, and the effect this can have on ones playing could be profound.
3) Water! There is no simpler path to better health as drinking at least eight glasses (eight ounces each) of water a day. Not only does it aid digestion and absorption of vitamins and minerals, it disposes of lactic acid, which helps the player to fight cramping and stiffness. I could not believe the difference this water consumption made in my own playing. I now drink between two and four liter of water a day.
In addition to these basic ideas, here are some additional strategies that can make a difference:
Massage: After some very hard playing, massage can loosen the embouchure up to a normal feeling. Experiment with manual massage while taking a hot shower, or try a small, hand-held electronic massager on the embouchure. This can truly help the embouchure feel consistent, despite very hard playing demands. For some specific massage techniques, consult the Belfrage article mentioned earlier, as well as Paul Pritchards' section of "The Business."
Diet Alteration: Some food products can affect the performance of the embouchure. Consider slowly phasing these foods out of the diet, especially during times of heavy playing. Foods like citrus, tomato, spicy food, or heavily salted food can make the lips swell, or cause canker sores. Excessive caffeine can affect muscle response and control. Careful consideration of your diet and how your embouchure responds can lead to some great discoveries.
If, after valiant efforts at maintaining embouchure health, there is still stiffness and mild discomfort, here are some techniques that I have found very helpful. First, definitely do some light massage of the embouchure, and place a warm, moist towel over the entire area. Follow this with some kind of anti-inflammatory drug, like ibuprofen or other as recommended by you doctor. I have found excellent results using the homeopathic remedy Arnica. It is very safe and it seems to work better with the faces smaller muscles. It can be found in many natural foods stores and some pharmacies. Continue this pattern daily, regardless of the playing demands of that day, until the stiffness and discomfort subside.
Here are some resources that can complement your embouchure health techniques. Although not all music- based, all contain great lessons.
Belfrage, Bengt. "Damage due to Overstrain in Brass Players," The Horn Call XXIII/2 (April 1993): 21-24.
Brussat, Frederic and Mary Ann. Spiritual Literacy. New York: Scribner Books, 1996.
Bruser, Madeline. The Art of Practicing. New York: Bell Tower, 1997.
Green, James. Male Herbal. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1991.
Pritchard, Paul, ed. The Business. Self-produced, 1992. (ISBN #0 9520626 0 7)
Horn players can and do hurt their embouchures and the most disturbing thing is that it is preventable. If one takes time to get to know how their embouchure works and responds to symptoms, such pain could be prevented, the embouchure can feel consistent from day to day. The techniques suggested here are just a start. Once you have achieved a greater knowledge of your own embouchure, feel free to experiment with other methods to improve and maintain your embouchure's health. My hope is that this article will help you to maintain a healthy embouchure, and enjoy consistent, pain-free performing for as long as possible.
Dr. Andrew J. Pelletier joined the faculty of Bowling Green State University in 2004; He is a Grammy Award-winning soloist and chamber musician regularly performing across the United States; principal horn, Ann Arbor Symphony; first-prize winner of the 1997 and 2001 American Horn Competition and appeared as a soloist at the International Horn Society Annual Symposia in 1997, 2003 and 2005; in demand for artistic residencies and clinics at universities and music schools; member of Southwest Chamber Music, with which he won a 2005 Grammy Award for Best Classical Recording (small ensemble category); has performed as principal horn for the Michigan Opera Theatre (Detroit Opera House), Ann Arbor Symphony, Ann Arbor Ballet Theatre, Michigan Symphonietta, Long Beach Camerata, Maine Chamber Ensemble and Portland (Maine) Ballet; regular performer with the Toledo Symphony; has also performed with the New West Symphony, Portland (Maine) Symphony, Portland Opera Repertory Theatre and the Santa Barbara Symphony; member of the San Luis Obispo (California) Mozart Festival Orchestra; spent over seven years as an active freelance performer in Los Angeles and can be heard on film soundtracks for Lethal Weapon 4, The X-Men, Against the Ropes and Frequency, as well as various television movies for Lifetime TV and the Sci-Fi Channel; holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern Maine and a master’s and doctorate from the University of Southern California; primary teachers are John Boden and James Decker and trumpeter Roy Poper; has recorded for Cambria Master Classics, Criterion Collection, Delos and MSR Classics labels; articles published for the International Horn Society, New York Brass Conference and the Norwegian Horn Society; has taught at the Portland (Maine) Conservatory of Music, University of Southern California and Moorpark College.