Saving Your Chops

Mike Lawson • Archives • October 9, 2009

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Through both my 25 years as a professional trumpet player and in my consultations with other experts during the creation of the ChopSaver lip balm, I have learned a great deal about the lips and lip maintenance. Much of what I have learned came through simple trial and error. My hope is to help you avoid some of those errors.

For starters, let’s take a crash course in anatomy. Our lips and the muscles that make up our embouchure are a complex arrangement of muscle and tissue. The skin covering our lips is much thinner than the skin covering the rest of our body which is why your lips are red and very sensitive. It’s also why they’re capable of creating beautiful sounds when buzzed properly.

In the same way you don’t need to be a mechanic to drive a car, you don’t need to know a lot more about how the lips function in order to play well. But knowing how to care for your lips and avoid accidents can help you play longer and with less discomfort. After all, “lip care” isn’t something you should think about only after you play or when you have a problem, any more than auto maintenance is something you should think about only after a long trip or a crash.

Be a Musical Athlete
A successful athlete is keenly aware of everything he or she does, from eating well and getting enough rest to following a training regimen that builds without destroying muscle tissue. As brass players, we should think of our lips, embouchure, and body in the same way. For our purposes, let’s use a long distance runner (an athlete that focuses on endurance and efficiency as opposed to brute strength) as our model.

Taking care of your lips should include good practice and playing habits. Basic concepts like good posture and always taking a full, relaxed breath are important, but easy to forget. Think of your lips as sails on a boat they both work better with a nice, full supply of wind.

While we certainly can’t expect our lips and embouchure to get stronger by babying them, they can be severely damaged by overuse and abuse. Forgot the old mantra of “No pain, no gain.” Today’s athletes alternate their workouts in a pattern of “Stress” followed by “Recovery.” If we don’t include Recovery (or adequate resting) in any sort of physical activity, our bodies will force us to rest by breaking down. Pain and discomfort are how our body talks to us and a smart musician/athlete learns to listens.

Generally speaking, muscles swell up when used, and the lips are no exception. However, there is a difference between being “a little sore and puffy” and sharp pain. If you are a little sore and fatigued after playing, your body is saying, “You should stop soon and take it easy during your next practice session.” True pain means “Stop immediately and step away from the horn as soon as possible!”

How to Create More Good Days
Here is another way to illustrate the stress/recovery concept. Let’s say you’ve had a really good day. Maybe you’ve finally nailed the high lick in a piece you’ve been working on. The temptation is to do it many times just to make sure you’ve got it and, after all, it’s fun. But you need to resist that temptation. Play the lick a few times, but do not pound on it over and over.

Why? Because, to achieve that new plateau, you have just experienced a peak moment (stress), and peak moments should always be followed by a valley (recovery). That’s the way your body works. So, you can either fight Mother Nature or work with her. (She always wins, by the way.) Have the discipline to take it a little easy the next day. And then the following day, your patience will be rewarded by being fresh and strong, and having an even better day. Trust me on this. If I had understood this concept as a young player, I would have avoided a lot of frustration.

Think about that distance runner. He considers the stress/recovery model as a process of creating waves and learning how to ride them to success. He’ll taper off his training before a big event, essentially creating a wave in reverse (recovery before stress). You can do this, too: if you have a hard performance on a Saturday (stress), plan ahead by tapering off a bit in the days leading up to it (recovery). You’ll generate a wave or peak when you really need to be at your best. Remember: range and power come from efficiency, not brute strength. Efficient chops feel responsive and fresh, not sore and beat up.

People often say, “Rest as much as you play.” This is generally good advice, but it doesn’t necessarily mean play an hour, rest an hour, play an hour, rest an hour, all day long. Here’s how I interpret that advice: let’s say you have an hour to practice. Warm up (flap your lips, maybe buzz on the mouthpiece and play a few scales or a simple tune you like) for five minutes. Then rest for at least two or three minutes. Then work on some fundamentals like scales and lip slurs for 10 minutes or so. Rest for 10 minutes. Finally, spend a good 30 minutes working on the music you currently are learning (school music, a solo, or etudes). But be sure to take the horn off the chops every now and then during those 30 minutes.

You can even set a timer to help you maintain your discipline. If you only have one hour a day, then you can rest until the next day knowing you have used your time well. If you are really trying to build some strength and endurance, try to establish two practice sessions seven to eight hours apart.

Now that you have some practice discipline established, I urge you again to apply the stress/recovery model. A “hard” day or practice session should ideally be followed by a lighter one. Here is where you have to become your own best coach. Keep in mind that what is hard for one person might be very easy for another. Don’t compare yourself to your peers, just stay on your own path to success and you’ll be fine. Everyone develops at different rates.

Help in an Emergency
Of course, life doesn’t always unfold this neatly and sometimes we over-do it for a variety of reasons. In those cases, use the same therapeutic techniques that athletic trainers prescribe for abused muscle tissue, such as alternating cold (to reduce swelling) and heat (to promote blood flow). An ice cube can be applied much in the same way you would suck on a Popsicle. For heat, soak a wash cloth in warm water and gently press on to your lips and face. Just a few minutes at a time with either procedure is adequate and will stimulate healing. Also, use your hands and fingers to massage the face and lip muscles (yes, ChopSaver does work well for this!), keeping in mind that an embouchure is formed with the muscles of the jaw, chin, cheeks, and neck, not just the lips and corners.

This is especially helpful if you are playing outdoors in cold weather. Very soft playing at the end of a practice session is a great way to bring overblown chops back into focus, just like slow jogging helps an athlete cool down after a workout. In extreme cases, an anti-inflammatory such as aspirin or ibuprofen can be used. Always follow label instructions when using any sort of medication, even something as common as aspirin.

Hopefully, these tips will help you create a disciplined, goal-oriented approach to your practice and help you spend more time making great music and less time complaining about sore, tired chops.

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