How to Combat Stiff Chops

by Bruce Chidester

Originally published to

From time to time we all have gone through the sensation that our trumpet playing lips are too stiff and feel uncomfortably ridged. Each time you put the mouthpiece to your lip you seem to have the same reaction, “Oh no, here we go again." When this condition develops, there are several ways to address this problem - 

  • What is wrong with my lip?
  • How did I get this way?
  • How can I get relief?
  • What do I need to do to prevent this condition from coming back?

What’s wrong with my lip?

A stiff or inflexible embouchure is usually caused from one of two actions (1) Practicing the wrong material or (2) Playing too long at one time. Some of the symptoms which go along with the overly stiff embouchure are: difficulty playing soft passages, uncertainty when starting notes, and an airy sound to your tone. If you are experiencing any or all of these symptoms, you might be suffering from an overly stiff embouchure.

How did I get this way?

Practicing the wrong material– Trumpet playing is very similar to any other athletic event. Both disciplines require a regular and balanced conditioning routine which should include the following -

Warm-up period- The purpose of this practice is to gradually warm the muscles involved with your discipline. An athlete will gradually begin a session by stretching, which gradually warms and stretches the muscles involved with the up coming actions. Without a warm up, both athletes would run the risk of injury to their bodies. Trumpet players usually have their own method of warming up and this will eventually be decided upon through careful evaluations on your part. Some players feel that softly played long tones is the best method. Some regularly buzz without the mouthpiece for five to ten minutes. Some players feel that ten minutes of buzzing on the mouthpiece is best. I remember one of my former teachers felt that he needed to buzz on a trombone mouthpiece for ten minutes before he was ready to start his trumpet practicing. Which method you decide upon will be your first step towards better lip conditioning.

Correct practice material- There are two extremes when trying to build your embouchure. The first is flexibility and the second is strength. Each is reached through different means. Flexibility is what you will need to perform rapid changes in the different ranges. It is also this ability which will affect your ease with which you move from one note to the next. Flexibility will also determine the openness and fullness of your tone quality. To achieve flexibility, every player should spend time during his practice period doing flexibility exercises. One of the best books I have used to achieve this goal is Twenty-Seven Groups of Exercises by Dr. Earl Irons. This book will guide you through many interesting exercises which will not only increase your flexibility but will also increase your upper range. Be sure to follow the written material as well as the written exercises. It is very important that you follow the suggestions for dynamics. Consistently playing too loud will negate the benefits of these exercises.

Practicing too many flexibility exercises can begin to create another problem which is; developing too much flexibility and not enough strength. Building strength usually requires the playing of long tone exercises. Effective exercises for increasing strength can be found on pages 11 and 12 of the Arban Complete Method. Playing these very simple exercises at a slow tempo, beginning soft and gradually increasing the volume and finally returning to a soft dynamic will help you increase your strength as well as improve your tone quality.

What can I do to get relief?

If you are now experiencing a “too stiff” embouchure, there are several techniques which will improve your condition.

  • Soft playing
  • Buzzing on only your mouthpiece
  • Buzzing without your horn or mouthpiece
  • Flapping your lips
  • Warm compresses
  • Brush your teeth
  • Lip ointments

Soft playing

If loud, sustained playing tends to stiffen your embouchure, it seems only logical that soft playing in short intervals will lessen the stiffness.

Buzzing on only your mouthpiece

Buzzing on your mouthpiece tends to loosen the muscles within the cup. Remember to keep the volume down and concentrate of the fullest, richest sound you can create.

Buzzing without your horn or mouthpiece

The vibrations created with this method will increase the area which will be affected. The embouchure area will now include more of the lip and consequently will begin to loosen more of your embouchure.

Flapping your lips

This exercise will start to relax all of your facial muscles. To get the proper results, you will have to create the sound of a horse flapping its lips. The lower the pitch, the more benefit you will achieve. Gradually you will begin to feel a tingling sensation in your facial muscles. At that point, you have gained the benefit from this exercise and you should be fully relaxed and ready to put your instrument away for the day. One thing to be aware of is the fact that if you have completely relaxed your facial muscles, you should not start playing again for several hours. If you immediately begin to play after a complete relaxation exercise as you have just done, your lip might be too relaxed and could be susceptible to damage if forced to play too strenuously.

Warm compresses

In an extreme case of lip stiffness, a warm wash cloth placed over the embouchure can sometimes help. This would only be necessary in extreme cases. The warmth will increase blood flow and eventually flush waste products from the effected areas.

Brush your teeth

I am a firm believer that the practice of brushing your teeth immediately after playing will speed up the recovery process tremendously. I brush after every segment of my daily practice routine. I start my practice for the day with a warm up which takes about ten to fifteen minutes and then I brush. My next session will last about an hour and then I brush. If I can get a third session in that day I will play again for about an hour and then brush. The action of the bristles on the inside of the lips and the minty element of the tooth paste seem to hasten the circulation in the lip muscles and it tends to ward off stiffness as well as helping to keep your instrument clean and your teeth white.

Lip ointment

Many of my brass playing friends use ointments on their lips after playing to keep them in good condition. I need to warn you that trying new medications on your lip can be hazardous and for that reason I will share with you one of the most difficult days in my playing career. Our faculty brass quintet was to perform at another college in Iowa one Sunday afternoon. The day before our concert I participated in a hunting dog field trial with my German Short Hair Pointer. When we left the music building to travel to the afternoon concert, I mentioned that my chops were dry and one of my colleagues offered a new lip ointment. I put some on and found the product very stimulating. By the time we reached the concert hall, my lips had begun to swell and as I started to warm up, I realized my mistake. I was allergic to the lip cream. By the time we mounted the stage, I was in stark terror. Before we had played half of the first number, I could not get a note out of my horn. The concert was cancelled and we returned home not playing the concert and not getting paid for our afternoon. Take my advice, “If you are going to try something new, don’t do it before a performance!”

I have used several products which I have on hand for lip conditioning. ChapStick® original is helpful when you’ve out in the wind. Another product is Blistex, but I have found that there is material in this product which relieves pain and in doing so will tend to numb your lip. The danger in this is that any area which is numbed can run the risk of excessive mouthpiece pressure. If you can’t feel your lip, you might begin to apply more mouthpiece pressure than you are accustomed to. You won’t realize this mistake until the medicine has dissipated. A friend recommended L-Lysine for lip conditioning and I have a jar at home for tired lips. I would like to repeat that “these conditioners should only be used in extreme cases. If you are practicing properly they may be helpful in adverse weather conditions. Anything more than ChapStick® for exposure to wind should not be needed.

Read the original publication here.

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