Turning Corners and Firming Corners: Adventures in Embouchure Formation

12 May

We are half-way through the fifth month of 2012 and still it feels as if the year has just begun.  Time has made this a strange year – the events of January feel at once vividly recent and vaguely distant.  This has been a year of upheaval in my playing.

Around January of this year I came close to an injury in my embouchure (the muscular mechanism around the mouth with which brass players play).  For those unfamiliar with the mechanics of brass playing, injury is a great risk.  Overuse and poor technique can quickly overtax the muscles and nerves of the embouchure, leading to pain, muscle tearing, nerve damage, and conditions called embouchure overuse (familiarly, “Satchmo’s Syndrome”) and focal dystonia (a neurological condition leading to lack of muscle control).  (Note: brass players should be aware of these conditions but not overly familiar unless it is necessary.  You will become a hypochondriac.) 

The orbicularis oris – the main muscle in embouchure formation.
Image credit: http://www.fpnotebook.com/ENT/Anatomy/OrbclrsOrs.htm


A few months ago I unfortunately found myself in a condition in which I was overusing my embouchure with poor technique.  I was stretching my muscles too thin and placing a disproportionate amount of my upper lip in the mouthpiece (the upper lip is much thinner and more fragile than the bottom lip).  With this inefficient setting, I was spreading myself too thin, practicing on a tired face and adding too much additional practice onto long rehearsal days of three or four hours.  With all of the wonderful performing opportunities available through CCM, it is crucial for students to learn when to say “no” to extra unnecessary rehearsals, to lay back in ensembles, and not to practice too much or too strenuously on heavy days.  In my enthusiasm, I was doing none of these things.  At some point in January I started to feel a strange, tingling feeling in my lips after playing, and on certain days even looking at my instrument made my facial muscles feel tired.  I took an entire day off, but it seemed to have no effect.  Halfway through a three-hour rehearsal during tech week for the winter opera, I felt a sharp pain in my upper lip – a strong warning sign and often an indicator of injury. 

How can I describe the immense psychological trauma of experiencing an embouchure injury?  Every brass player eventually hears horror stories about players who felt the telltale “sharp pain” and found themselves with a career-ending injury.  I have heard of players undergoing surgery and relearning how to play on scar tissue.  Injury is a major risk, particularly for horn and trumpet players, who play with a great deal of back-pressure from their instruments.  The thought of losing my ability to play horn, my passion and my outlet for performance, cost me many hours of sleep.  I immediately called my horn professor after getting out of rehearsal that night (I didn’t play another note).  Fortunately, based on the symptoms I described, he told me that I probably had not injured myself, but had come very close.  It was time for a break, and we decided it was time for a change.  

I took a week off of the horn entirely (having no idea what to do with all of my free time), nursing my face with ice and Advil.  I was removed from all of my major ensembles – a difficult but necessary step.  I watched others fill in for me and perform the music I had spent hours rehearsing.  After the break I slowly, carefully returned to the horn with a brand new embouchure.  My focus now was moving the mouthpiece down so that the bottom of the rim touched the bottom of the red of my lower lip.  I also focused on bringing the corners of my mouth inward on higher notes to create more of a cushion between the mouthpiece and the teeth, rather than stretching the corners back and making the muscle thinner and more vulnerable.  I started practicing by alternating five minutes of playing with five minutes of rest.  My practice schedules starting out looked something like this:

5 min buzzing

5 min rest

5 min long tones

5 min rest

5 min work with a pressure training device

5 min rest

5 min long tones

It was quite a step back for someone accustomed to practicing 2-3 hours a day.  The whole experience was very humbling.

Starting out with a new embouchure was a little bit like relearning how to ride a bike.  Perhaps a better analogy would be switching from a bike to a unicycle – a similar mechanism, but with an entirely different feel.  Not surprisingly, my sound was extremely unclear and weak at first.  Since my tone has always been a point of pride for me, this was a difficult loss to face.  I wondered sometimes if I would ever get my old sound back.  (Another note: Crises like this force one to think about backup plans.  I now know that if horn falls through for any reason I’m switching to neuroscience or history.  My roommate witnessed many a frustrated breakdown of mine.  She is a saint.)  

Eventually I moved these fractions of time up to ten minutes, then to fifteen, then to twenty.  I kept breaks in between playing, but gradually decreased them in proportion to the amount of playing I was doing.  Writing about this so summarily makes it seem as if it were a short, linear, simple process.  It was anything but that.  I would make astonishing progress one day, then feel discomfort and play with poor tone quality the next.  At times I wondered if my sound would ever be the same, if this embouchure would ever feel comfortable, if I was cut out for this.  What if my muscles were just not capable of doing what they needed to do to play properly?  

I am happy to say that my muscles are proving quite capable of doing what they need to do properly.  My range has been increasing slowly but surely.  I am performing the Beethoven  Sonata for Horn and Piano, Op. 17 for my solo board in just a few weeks.  This means that I have attained a G above the staff!  When I started this whole process a C in the staff felt like playing in the stratosphere.  Just recently I hit an A above the staff, and I did it efficiently – with firm corners and fast air, rather than mouthpiece pressure, stretched muscles, and constricted air.  

Expanding my range has been like slowly climbing a ladder (a greased ladder, at times).  Each half step I gain is like grabbing another rung.  At first I have a tenuous grasp on the next rung, and my hand keeps slipping off, but eventually I gain a firm grasp on it once I learn how to reach it properly.  Every once in I while I may slip down a few steps, but I have learned to be more patient as I gain these footholds again. 

Although I would not wish this experience on anyone, it has been incredibly valuable to me.  I have learned an entirely new side of my own perseverance, and I am more determined than ever to perform, and to do it the right way.  I am lucky to have an incredible support system through Professor Gardner, my friends, and my wonderful family.  I still have a way to go, and occasionally I fall back on old habits, but it only pushes me to be more vigilant. 

Needless to say, the Horns Across America Project has been a rather low priority for me.  My confidence in my own playing is only slowly returning, and had you asked me to play in a lesson with one of the finest horn players in the country a month ago, I probably would have laughed in your face and subsequently run screaming.  Since the lessons are an incredibly important part of learning about each orchestra, I would not want to sacrifice them, and I wanted to wait until things were a little more solidified before taking that risk.  I eagerly look forward to resuming the project, and I may have some plans for this summer.  Thanks for continuing to follow the blog, and thank you to all of the people who have supported me throughout this.  I’ll probably get back to you in the summer, but maybe some miracle will happen and I will write sooner.  In the mean time, I hope everyone is enjoying warmer weather and longer days.


6 Responses to “Turning Corners and Firming Corners: Adventures in Embouchure Formation”

  1. Kathleen Pinkham 05/12/2012 at 10:26 pm #

    Wow, Jess, that was an incredible blog! I hope other players will read this and either take heed, or encouragement, if they find themselves in a similar situation. You are a pillar of strength and resilience and I am so proud of you for persevering!

  2. Carrie 05/14/2012 at 2:22 am #

    I love you Jessie! Keep up the amazing work!! 🙂

  3. Dad 05/14/2012 at 3:35 pm #

    Great story of a true musical saga that is still unfolding. There is no question you’ll come back even stronger and better than you were going into the issue. Perhaps everything that has happened even saved your career, as your old technique could well have resulted in a permanent injury. Your determination and desire are awesome, and we’re proud of you!

  4. Auntie Kimmy 05/14/2012 at 9:35 pm #

    Applause applause applause….and “brava”!! Your determination is awesome. Your career sounds as complex (and difficult) as a med student’s. It’s so interesting to read about something I know absolutely NOTHING about. You are opening up new visions to those of us who read your blog. Keep up the amazing work, Sweetie!

  5. C 02/08/2013 at 3:12 am #

    Great story. I’m going through a similar process right now. It might be the most interesting experience a person can go through. Glad to hear of your success. It motivates to continue working.

    • Jessica 02/08/2013 at 7:52 pm #

      Best of luck with everything! I can tell you from the other side that it’s not an overnight process; I am still fighting old habits from time to time, but I have played without pain for a long time now. Do you mind if I ask what instrument you play and what you are experiencing?

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