Classical Trumpet Performance, Teaching

​John Freeman

Why do my lips feel bad today?

      Unfortunately, as trumpet players our playing is often affected by the fact that part of our instrument is our own human bodies, which have the capacity to react very differently on a day to day basis.  Many things can affect how our lips respond, and some of them are variables we can control, and some are things we cannot.  Our job as trumpet players is simply to be in the best shape we can at all times, and minimize the “bad” days.  It takes years of listening to your body and experimenting with different things to begin to get it right, but I suppose we will never truly figure everything out, nor can we completely control it.  These are some of the physical, non-musical things that we trumpet players have to deal with that most teachers won’t tell you about but will effect you at some point.  This is a list of some of the things I have found that help.

Amount of Playing

     The most powerful effect on your chops is how much you’ve been using them.  This is a very complicated thing to equate, but when in doubt, it’s best to go by brains/reasoning, not just by feel.  Sometimes our lips can feel great the whole time we're overworking them, and later it's too late to undo those 4 extra hours of intense practice we did because it "felt fine..." 

     Everyone who has played trumpet for long enough knows that our lips are muscles, which under stress are broken down and need time to recover, and hopefully build back slightly stronger than they were before.  We’ve all had days where we played way more, or way harder than we normally do, and have felt the effects the next day.  I have found the full equation to be much more complicated, but it basically boils down to what you did vs. what you are used to doing.  Over time, (years) we can get used to playing 4-5 hours per day, and then playing a 4 hour day is totally normal.  However, if you are used to playing 1 hour a day, then playing 4 hours would probably leave you swollen and hurting the next day.  However, the reverse is also true- if you’re used to playing 4 hours, and then you only play 1, you’ll probably feel great- super fresh the next day.  You should also watch how you feel over many days.  Add up enough “hard” days in a row, and you dig yourself down into a deficit, which can take several “light” days to get back out of.   It's also important to think about what you play- 4 easy hours might count less than just  20 minutes of banging out high C's until your lips hurt...

     Over time, you will begin to get a feel for all of this, if you pay attention.  You can use this to your advantage if you have a specific date in mind (audition, recital, big performance, etc) that you want to feel extra good for.   The same way an athlete “tapers” down before a big race, you can take it easy for a few days before the event, and it will usually help your lips feel better.  Don’t overdo the taper- you don’t want to feel weak, or way different than normal.  I’d say, if you’re used to playing 3 hours a day, only play 1.5 to 2hrs for about 3 days before.  Let the positive benefits sink in gradually over several days, rather than all at once.  (I’ve tried taking the whole day off before auditions, and although my lips might “feel” great, I usually don’t play as well)  All of this will work well if you have the luxury of deciding how much playing you get to do on any given day.  Often times, we don’t get to decide.  We’ll have a 3 hour dress rehearsal the same day as a big concert, or be on tour and have a 8 hour flight the day before a big show.  Often you just have to deal with it regardless.

External Factors

   Here is a list of controllable things that I have found to affect how I feel physically as a trumpet player.  This list can vary from person to person, but I felt like it would be interesting to share my observations.

Exercise - This is probably the single most effective way of externally boosting how I feel on trumpet.  I’m not sure whether its the extra “opening of my lungs” or the added circulation, or what, but every time I come back to practice after going out and running or cycling or whatever, my lips always respond better than I expect them to.  It probably has to do with clearing out the swelling in my lips, but it often feels like I got an extra night of sleep.  Plus exercise is good for the brain and whole body.

Sleep- One night of reduced sleep won’t make or break you, but a slow growing deficit will. It takes discipline to get in bed early, but the rewards are great.  Deep sleep is when our bodies do most of their muscle repair and mental processing.  It’s during this time the pituitary gland is releasing growth hormone which repairs and rebuilds muscle. It’s also the time during which our brains are processing everything that it learned/practiced that day.  Not getting enough sleep is like sabotaging your own practice efforts.  I notice it physically too- the longer I sleep, the deeper my endurance goes the next day.  Try it- sleep 10 hours (get in bed early) and see how you feel.  The difference between 6 and 10 hours is huge.

Enough calories- I've definitely noticed that if I'm restricting my calories, or just not eating enough, my ability to recover from day to day on trumpet is reduced.  As we know from sports science, it's nearly impossible to build muscle or recover adequately on a long term restricted diet.  Remember that after days or weeks of heavy playing, our bodies need the raw materials to rebuild if we want to recover and hopefully grow stronger.  During heavy symphonic weeks or before extra important events, I always allow myself to eat a little extra.  I'm sure it helps.  Whatever you do, just don't be in a caloric deficit when you need to recover from heavy playing.

Being Hydrated - Ever had to play the morning after a hard night on the town? Feel terrible? Ever seen singers who obsessively walk around with water bottles?  We trumpet players depend on a similar small piece of vibrating flesh as singers do, yet trumpet players rarely care about hydration. Stay hydrated.  And since I alluded to alcohol- I do once in a while partake, but know that alcohol negatively affects us as trumpet players as well, especially in our ability to recover from a hard day.  Notice how all high level competitive athletes only rarely drink, especially leading up to a  big event .  Read up about alcohol and muscle recovery.  Alcohol also negatively effects our ability to sleep deeply. (REM sleep)

Other Recommendations:

Chapstick, preferably with SPF.  I hate it when I hear of trumpet players complaining about about chapped lips.  This is totally controllable.  It’s especially important to pay attention in cold and dry climates, or if you’re in the sun for extended periods.  Don’t forget our lips sunburn a lot easier than normal "outer" skin.

Avoid really salty foods.  These always make my lips feel bad- maybe the salt draws moisture out?  I’m not sure, but I don’t like how they feel.  If you have to eat something salty before a performance try to not let it touch your lips.

Anti-Inflammatories.  (Ibuprofin) While it’s not a cure for swollen lips, it might help 10%, and you know, that’s something.  In years past, I occasionally used it before or heavy playing but I don't anymore. Don’t let it become a crutch, but it can help if things are really bad.  Most effective when used before the swelling takes place- i.e. before rehearsal.  Some people think that anti-inflammatories can interfere with recovery, so take that into consideration.  There are also anti-inflammatory creams you can use, and some players recommend icing lips after particularly demanding sessions.  I think ice is too cold, but a ice cold soda can held up to the lips for a few seconds/minutes on and off can work well at reducing swelling.  Arnica gel is also really good in case you really pounded your lips- can prevent bruising.

Warm downs are a good idea after a strenuous bout of playing.  Refer to Michael Sach’s Daily Fundamentals book, and play some things on page 38.  Just some easy low and soft things help remove some of the tightness and strain.  

Breathe Rights If you are ever congested at night, or someone who often breathes through their mouth while sleeping, these simple adhesive strips that go on your nose are very effective at allowing you to breathe freely through your nose all night long.   This not only prevents dry cracked lips caused by mouth breathing, it promotes deeper sleeping.

Burning Hot Liquids are a potential danger.  Ever burn your tongue or lips on scalding hot coffee and had that bad feeling for a day or two?  This is avoidable.  At coffee shops, I always ask them to put a few ice cubes in the coffee to cool it down.  Also watch out for hot steaming food. Cooked potatoes can hold in a lot of heat and release it when you bite into it.

Other small ones for me:

Drinking a glass of water with fresh lemon juice in it makes warm ups easier in the morning. I do it first thing every day.

If you pay attention, you will probably find other things that can make you feel good or bad on trumpet.  If you find any big ones I missed, let me know!