Some Tips on Maintaining a Healthy Embouchure

Last week the ULM Brass Faculty gave a presentation on “Embouchure Health and Maintenance” during our weekly Recital Hour for music majors. We wanted to keep the talk somewhat informal, so each of us prepared some brief remarks based on our own experiences. Because of a family emergency, I was unable to attend the presentation. What follows here are the talking points for my part of the presentation. I hope you find them useful! Feel free to comment if you would like to add to or discuss any of these points.

Embouchure Health and Maintenance: Practical Tips for the College Student

James Boldin, D.M.A.

ULM Recital Hour 3/15/2018

…we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit… Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (1926)

The solution to frustration is reality. -Jeff Nelsen, Professor of Horn, Indiana University

Some Basic Principles

  • Strive to get a healthy amount of sleep each night.
  • Drink plenty of water (not soft drinks) throughout the day.
  • Strive to play fundamentals every day.
  • Strive to do some form of physical exercise every day.
  • Take a few minutes each day to silently relax and focus on breathing, with no other distractions.
  • (Re)Warm-up before each rehearsal with at least 5-10 minutes to spare before rehearsal begins.
  • Play some low/pedal notes at the end of the day to relax and loosen up.
  • Light massage and cool/warm compresses can help with stiffness.
  • Be aware of what is in your lip balm, and anything else you eat/drink/put on your face.
  • Expect your embouchure and playing mechanics to be influenced by what you did or did not do the day before.
  • Take days off only when absolutely necessary, and plan enough time to get back in shape. The 2:1 rule often applies. For every day off, it will take two days to get back to your original playing condition.
  • When working to increase practice time, range, endurance, volume, etc., do so gradually. Sudden changes can lead to future problems.
  • Be careful who you ask for advice, and where you look for it. If you ask someone for an opinion, you will usually get one. This does not mean it is correct or appropriate for you.

Further Reading

British Association for Performing Arts Medicine http://www.bapam.org.uk/

Lucinda Lewis, Broken Embouchures http://www.embouchures.com/

http://www.mountainpeakmusic.com/

Bruce Nelson, Ed. Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs: A Developmental Guide for Brass Musicians, Polymnia Press, 1996.

Andrew J. Pelletier, “Embouchure Health and Maintenance,” in The Horn Call: Journal of the International Horn Society, May, 1999. pp. 65-66.

Surviving a Three-Service Day

nutcracker_coverDecember is a busy month for musicians, especially brass players. With frequent Holiday Pops concerts, Nutcracker ballets, and church performances, double and even triple service days can and do happen. A “service” is usually defined as a 2.5 hour rehearsal or performance, and while many orchestras and other ensembles have contract language limiting the number of them in a single day, all bets are off if you accept work from multiple organizations. Here’s what my schedule this past weekend looked like:

  • Friday
    • Orchestral Rehearsal, 7:30-10:00 p.m.
  • Saturday:
    • Orchestral Rehearsal, 10:30 a.m.-1:00 p.m.
    • Church Service Rehearsal, 2:00-4:30 p.m.
    • Orchestral Concert, 7:30-10:00 p.m.
  • Sunday
    • Church Service performance, 10:30 a.m.-noon
    • Orchestral Concert, 6:00-8:30 p.m.

I’m happy to report that I made it through the weekend relatively unscathed, with chops intact! However, these being my last professional engagements for the year, I’m looking forward to a few light days of horn playing. If you wind up with some double and triple-service days in your schedule, here are a few recommendations to help deal with them. Some are specifically related to brass playing, while others are more general and pertain to overall well being. If you have any suggestions based on your own experiences, feel free to comment below.

  1. Be in good shape: Going into a busy month like December, I try to make sure that my playing fundamentals are in shape. If you are working through any chop or breathing issues, recovering from a playing-related injury, or coming back from an extended hiatus, I would strongly advise against accepting double or triple services in a single day. Heavy playing sessions with relatively little recovery time between them will only magnify these challenges.
  2. Allow time for a good warm-up and warm-down: Some light, easy playing before and after a heavy day can do wonders to limber up or even prevent a stiff embouchure. Be aware that your lips may feel swollen just after warming up, so make sure you have plenty of time for them to loosen up before rehearsal begins. I personally like to warm up 30-45 minutes before rehearsal begins, and take at least a 5-10 minute break before the rehearsal.
  3. Get adequate sleep: The optimum amount for an individual will of course vary, but the usual recommendation is from 7 to 9 hours per night. For more information, see here.
  4. Drink lots of water: Being properly hydrated will help you stay focused and alert, among many other benefits. For more information, see here.
  5. Alternate Warm/Cool Compresses:  In the case of very stiff and/or swollen chops, alternating heat and cold can be helpful. For more information, see here. Other remedies I have heard of but not had much experience with personally are ibuprofen (for pain and/or swelling – if you have concerns, check with your physician first) and, believe it or not, popsicles.
  6. Know when to say when: Playing through pain or discomfort is NEVER a good idea, and it is  wise to lay out or at least back off on dynamics well before hitting your personal playing limit for the day. You only have one set of lips – take care of it!
  7. Make time for recovery: After all the services are finished, try to take it easy for a couple of days if at all possible. This means different things depending on the individual; for me it means a warm up and brief routine for 20-25 minutes for the next day or so after several days of heavy playing. I rarely take days off, but have found warm-up only days to be very helpful.

On that note, I’ll bring to a close my final post for 2015. Best wishes to everyone for safe and happy holidays, and a great start to the new year. Be sure to check this site in January, as I have several posts planned for 2016: more reviews, thoughts on time management, and an update on Solo Training for Horn, my forthcoming etude book from Mountain Peak Music.

A Recital Video and Some “New Year’s” Resolutions

Here’s a brief two-part post for today.

First is a video recording of a live performance from June 2013 of Sweet Rustica, by the Portuguese composer Eurico Carrapatoso. I’ve written previously about Carrapatoso and his music (here , here, and here), so I won’t add too much other than to say that if you don’t know his music for horn you really should check it out. Though the title is fanciful, his Sweet Rustica is a very substantial work for both players. At six movements and nearly 20 minutes long, this major work is suitable for advanced undergraduate or graduate level recitals. For ordering information and program notes, visit my YouTube video directly or the Editions Bim website.

For part two I’ve put together a modest list of resolutions for the upcoming academic year. While I do celebrate the new calendar year on January 1st, August and September usually feel more like the beginning of a new year to me. To get the year started on an upbeat and productive note, here are my resolutions.

  • Limit email time. I’ve read numerous articles describing the negative effects of excessive email checking on productivity (here’s one, for example, and another one), and I fell into that trap last year. From the first hour of  the day I powered up my computer and logged into my campus email account. Not only was it distracting, but it started off my day in a stressful, frenetic way. NO MORE. As suggested in this article, from now on I’m going to build in specific times during the day to check and respond to email messages, and the rest of the time I’m going to focus on the projects I was supposed to be working on in the first place. In addition, I’ve disabled the email and facebook banners and notifications on my phone. New messages will still show up, but only when I choose to check my accounts.
  • Take more timeouts. This resolution is related to my first one, and I hope it will result in a more focused and productive (but less stressful) working day. Here’s a great online tool for taking a brief break. http://www.donothingfor2minutes.com/
  • Exercise and eat a balanced diet. For some personal reasons I won’t get into here I have also begun (re)focusing on regular exercise and a balanced diet. I generally eat healthily and do not lead a sedentary lifestyle, so this isn’t a major change for me, but rather a more systematic approach to things I was already doing.

They might not seem like much, but I think these three resolutions will have a very positive impact during this school year. In fact, they already have as I have been gradually working them into my summer routine. Do you have any resolutions for this academic year? Feel free to share in the comments section below. To all my friends and colleagues out there – here’s to the beginning of another great year!

Musician, Heal Thyself: Canker Sores

Canker sores: these minor annoyances can become an issue for brass players, and over the years I’ve dealt with my fair share of them.  First, the disclaimer: I am not a physician, and the following material is based purely on my own experience.  It is not meant to be medical advice – when in doubt consult a medical doctor!  That being said, I have found a few things that seem to help me (and my students) overcome these painful sores.

According to WebMD, canker sores are “small shallow ulcers that appear in the mouth and often make eating and talking uncomfortable.” The WebMD entry goes on to describe two different kinds of sores, simple and complex, the former being the most common.  For most people, canker sores hurt for a couple of days and then disappear.  For brass players, though, the repeated contact between the sores and the teeth/gums (depending on where the sore is located) can cause them to linger on for several days, even up to a week or more.  Since taking several days off from playing isn’t usually an option, most of us simply have to grin and bear it until the sore(s) finally heal. Canker sores can be brought on by stress, although in my case most of the sores I’ve had have developed from small cuts in my mouth, either from accidentally biting my cheek while eating or scraping my gums or cheek with a piece of sharp food like a potato chip or toasted bread. I’ve never had anything serious enough to warrant a visit to the doctor, but if you have several sores at once or a sore that lasts for multiple weeks you should definitely consult your physician.  After some trial and error, I now follow these basic rules to help prevent and treat my canker sores.

  1. Switch to a toothpaste which doesn’t contain sodium lauryl sulfate.   This common ingredient in many toothpastes can promote the formation of canker sores – for more info see this page on the Mayo Clinic’s website. I stopped using toothpastes with this ingredient over a year ago, and since then I’ve noticed a marked decrease in the frequency and duration of canker sores.  One brand that is reasonably priced and easy to find is Burt’s Bees.
  2. Chew carefully!  As previously noted, cheek biting has caused a number of sores for me, and taking a bit more care when eating has helped me prevent future injuries. What can I say, I enjoy eating, and sometimes I get in a hurry! If you do happen to bite your cheek, make sure to take extra special care that you don’t bite the same place again as this will aggravate the sore.
  3. Keep your mouth clean. This is a good rule of thumb whether you’re prone to canker sores or not.  Brush after every meal when possible, and use a good mouthwash as well.  If I get a canker sore I like to rinse my mouth with equal parts water and hydrogen peroxide.  Follow the directions for use on the bottle of hydrogen peroxide.  There are some expensive mouthwashes out there which claim to be formulated specifically for canker sores, but if you look at the bottles carefully you will see that the active ingredient is, you guessed it, hydrogen peroxide.
  4. Canker Covers: I have had success with treating canker sores using these patches, which protect the sore and dissolve over the course of 8 or so hours. They allow you to eat and drink without running the risk of further aggravating it, although I would not recommend playing with one of them in your mouth. For one it feels pretty weird, and I would imagine that parts of the patch could find their way into your horn if you aren’t careful.

That’s about it for my tips on treating canker sores – if you have run across other helpful remedies feel free to comment below.  I seem to remember there being some information on homeopathic remedies for canker sores and other minor irritations in Broken Embouchures, by Lucinda Lewis, but I have misplaced my copy at the moment so I can’t be sure.

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