What to do when your lips just can’t take anymore…

What is it and what does it feel like?

If you have bruised embouchure, you will possibly feel like parts of your face and lips feel fairly foreign, are sore or things just simply stop working.  The pain caused can be acute or chronic depending on the severity of the bruising caused.

lips 2You may feel that your playing goes from being great to just feeling completely disabled.   You may find that your lips hurt, they may even swell, and may feel as though they don’t fit into your mouthpiece. The symptoms may also spread to your cheeks and they may feel like they are sore or weak.  You may find that any attempt at soft, sustained playing is impossible, and that you may not be able to play for very long at all.

These symptoms are typical of over-use and when this is acute bruising the problem may well only be short term.  You may well find that there is no warning of this and that your ability to play just abruptly stops.  If these symptoms continue for more than two weeks, then this problem will move into a chronic form and will require more substantial work to reform the embouchure so that the condition can be resolved and, hopefully, avoided.

What can I do to ease the problem?

This is an important consideration for every player.  When the problem has occurred it is important to avoid making changes to the way in which you normally play as this can make things even worse.  Avoid the temptation to adjust or move your mouthpiece onto a different place on your lips.  This may simply spread the problem or cause issues with your teeth, sound or embouchure formation.  Changing the mouthpiece to an unfamiliar, or uncomfortably shaped one will also cause further issues – some of these may well go un-noticed until further problems have been caused.

Remember that this bruising was most likely to have been caused by over-playing (working the lip muscles too hard for too long), initial poor technique or simply just not listening to what your body is telling you.

Trombone_mouthpieceIf you get to the point where your embouchure is bruised there are a number of steps to take to ease the issue.  Firstly, lighten your playing load!  Stop playing for long periods of time and focus on just gentle, short playing times.  Gentle buzzing, playing soft long notes in the middle register and playing gentle lip slurs will help to ensure that your embouchure doesn’t freeze up.  As soon as pain is felt, stop – this should be the most important indicator of whether or not you are doing the correct thing for you.  Aim to rest for twice the time that you play so that the muscles have adequate time to recover.  Use as little pressure as possible when you play and allow the lips to move.  You may find that the notes do not seem to come out well and this will be due to the bruising that has caused swelling.  Since the aperture that is formed by the embouchure is often quite small, any amount of swelling may cause significant issues to the shape of the embouchure that is formed.

Use of hot and cold therapy may well help with any swelling and can allow muscles to relax effectively.  For this, try to put a face cloth into hot (as hot as necessary so that it is comfortable and will not burn) and place this over your cheeks, nose and lips.  Do this a number of times.  Then dry your face and use an ice block from the freezer and place this on top of, and under, your lips for as long as is comfortable. (Obviously, putting an ice block on skin for long periods of time is not advised!)  Try this, initially, a few times a day and it may help the swelling or soreness.

It is also possible to produce a low and loose lip buzz after any playing that you do to allow the blood to flow more freely around the muscles.

Although these ideas will ease the symptoms they will of course not cure the issue, and it is important to allow the injuries sustained the time, patience and care that is necessary.  Everyone may well experience some form of embouchure bruising at some time in their playing, but the key feature is how quickly it is reacted to and the steps taken to resolve the cause of the problem – not just treating the symptoms.

How can I make sure that I don’t go there again?

Taking things easy and providing an adequate amount of time for full recovery is a great way of allowing yourself an escape route from this issue, but that is not always possible.  Sometimes it is just not feasible to cancel a concert or stop practice due to upcoming commitments.

When this is the case, take a really good look at your current technique.  Is there any chance that you are pushing too hard or relying on a great amount of pressure to produce certain notes?  Excessive pressure and heavy blowing will stop blood flow in the muscles, damage your teeth and create more bruising.  Aim to allow the blood flow in your embouchure to return after high playing and try to avoid any excessive pressure.  It is possible to play without excessive pressure in all registers, with a range of dynamics.  This is an issue of technique and when developed can ensure that bruising becomes a thing of the past.

embochure 1A technique for practicing this is something that I have picked up from Crispian Steele-Perkins.  His advice was to hold the trumpet by your thumbs alone so that you are not able to grasp the instrument tightly.  Then start by playing a middle C so that you produce a warm and full tone.  Notice how much pressure is really required to produce a note – hopefully you will see that all that is really required is a seal between the aperture formed by your embouchure and the mouthpiece.  Following this play a middle C and then lip slur up to a G.  Then go from middle C, to G and then to C.  Try to keep the amount of pressure used the same and avoid pushing the instrument onto your face.  Allow the lips to vibrate and keep a seal between the lips and the mouthpiece.  You may find that initially you do not manage to get very high, but do keep trying and things will improve.  In the workshop that I attended, Crispian managed to do this from middle C and up about four octaves!

Take things gently, listen to your body and make sure that you try to avoid pain as much as possible.  The maxim of pain=gain is really not appropriate to brass playing and may well lead you to cause yourself more problems.

If it hurts, stop and rest. 

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