Stiff Lips And Trumpet Playing – Unresponsive Chops?

Stiff Lips When Playing Trumpet How To Fix Unresponsive Chops

It’s early in the morning and after my second cup of coffee I pick up my beloved horn. I start my practice day by doing som descending scales, like the ones I talk about in the article warm up routines for trumpet.

Right from the start my lips feels strange and when I get down to first line “e” the sound get’s weaker and two steps further the low “c” hardly speaks at all….

…what the hell?

I try to continue down to “g” below low c but…

…not  a chance, the notes just won’t come out!

This, ladies and gentlemen, is one way stiff lips can interfere with your ambition to have a productive and fun practice day.

Stiff lip problem when playing the trumpet
What does it mean?

This is what you can expect if you run into stiff lips when playing the trumpet:

  • Your having a hard time getting the note to “speak”. Especially low and soft notes
    This is the most common symptom when trying to play trumpet with stiff lips
  • It feels like you have to blow harder and push more air to get the same volume
    No wonder, if the lips don’t want to vibrate and do their job, then YOU have to work harder
  • The sound is worse and sometimes airy
    Also a common symptom of unresponsive and stiff lips when playing trumpet. If the lips are stiff they don’t turn all the air into vibrations, and thus, an airy sound may be the result
  • Your endurance is down
    With unresponsive chops you are nowhere near efficient playing and thus your endurance will often suffer
  • Your high range is not really there
    Can’t do it today…crap!
  • Pedal tones are almost impossible to play
    The center of the lips needs to be relaxed to play the trumpet. When playing low notes they need to be even more relaxed. Playing pedals with stiff lips= mission impossible (if they are really stiff)

How To Fix Stiff Lips
Tip #1 : Lip Flapping While Singing A Note

This is not the most effective tip on this page but it does work to some degree, does not require any equipment and is easy to do….

…hence it must be on the list!

What is lip flapping in the first place?

Lip flapping is when you flap your lips just like a horse, or like when you were a little boy and played with your small toy cars, making the sound of the engine with your lips. In other words, you do not buzz them, they are just loose and you do not tense them at all…

…imagine a horse snort and you can’t go wrong!

Ok so lip flapping is good but why sing a note while I’m flapping?

When singing a note at the same time you are flapping your lips the relaxing / massaging flap movements becomes more focused to the center of the lips and this is the part that needs to loosen up. In fact when we talk about stiff lips when playing the trumpet, 90% of the time it is the center of our embouchure that are messed up.

Try singing different notes, from low to high, to find the one that makes it “tingle” in your lips while you are flapping…

…found it?

Good, now do this for 5-10 minutes at a time at least three times a day. The most important time is at the end of your practice session because your future “tomorrow self” will thank you for it.

How To Fix Stiff Lips
Tip #2 : Play The Didgeridoo

This is the fastest and most effective way to cure your unresponsive chops. If you regularly have problems with stiff lips then do yourself a big favor and invest in a decent didgeridoo.

Personally I was a bit irritated and confused how a a straight tube can be so pricey but that was before I found this one on Amazon. It is a primitive and lovely instrument than can be a true lifesaver for brass players suffering from stiffness.

Play for five minutes at a time and sprinkle it out throughout the day and your lips are guaranteed to feel better the next day.

But what if it’s an emergency and I have a gig tonight, you say?…

…ahh, then I would put in an intense didgeridoo session before that. 5 minutes on and 5 minutes off. Repeat this cycle for 30-40 minutes. If you’re not a hard case “Stifmeister” then this should be enough to save you from public humiliation later this evening, when you are performing.

Why does it work?

It’s important to NOT play the didgeridoo with your normal embouchure. In other words, do not try to buzz into the didgeridoo because that would defeat the whole purpose, which is to get a concentrated, relaxed and massaging vibration in the center of your chops.  It is those massaging vibrations that does wonders for loosening up your chops.

Can I use a Tuba Mouthpiece Instead?

You can, but it is not as effective as the didgeridoo. The didgeridoo has a way of making your inner soft part of your aperture vibrate in a way that is very relaxing. This relaxation slowly spreads to the rest rest of your chops, and after a few sessions, you’re good to go…

…if you already have a tuba mouthpiece at home then, by all means, take advantage of it and use it. It will certainly help to some degree but if you really want to have an effective weapon for killing the “stiffness demon” once and for all, get your self a didgeridoo.

How To Fix an Unresponsive embouchure
Tip #3 : Stretch Your Chops

The chops are stiff when playing trumpet because the small micro muscle fibers have been abused and some of them may be a bit torn and need to heal. Or to put it in a more accurate way, they may already be recovered but the healed scars in the fibers have made the tiny muscles, literally, a bit shorter. Shorter = more tesnse and stiff.

This is one of the biggest reason why we get stiff lips in the first place, and I’ll talk more about other ways further down…

…but, for now, let’s get to the stretching of those short and stiff muscles….

Open and close your mouth
  • Open your mouth as wide as it gets, keep it wide open while trying to touch the bottom lip with your upper lip. Even if you can’t get them to touch, because of the wide open mouth,  you will still feel a good stretch, especially in the upper lip.

Be a bit careful though and if you feel pain then back of a tiny bit and try using a bit less “force”. Keep doing this for a couple of minutes, rest for a while and then do it once more.

Use your fingers
  • Watching a lot of Netflix at night? Well, it’s a perfect time to use your fingers and do a gentle stretch session for your lips. Slowly stretch your lips in the opposite direction they are working towards when you play the trumpet. For example the center of the lips should be moving a tiny bit forward  towards the center of the aperture when you ascend and play the trumpet….

….so, when stretching your lips with your fingers you stretch them back the other way, like a smile. Smiling should never be done when playing. When playing we should move everything towards the center but now, as I said, when stretching you stretch in the opposite direction. Always stretch in the opposite direction of what the working muscle is doing, that goes for the gym as well.

Stretched muscles loosen up and recover faster

You should be a bit careful with this and if it’s your first time then don’t do too much of it your first try. Try it out for 3-5 minutes and see how your chops feels the next day. If they are just a little better then try it for a bit longer the next evening and see how they respond the day after that.

This way you will learn what your optimal stretch routine is going to look like and you will quickly notice that stretched muscles also recover a lot faster form yesterday’s beating they got.

How To Fix Stiff Lips
Tip #4 : Play pedal tones, tonguing notes

Now I have to say that this tip does not always work, especially if the lips are swollen and really stiff but it can work some of the time and it’s certainly worth giving a try.

If done correctly, pedal notes also loosens up the chops. The problem is that sometimes we are just so tense that we can’t even play pedal notes. The trick is to be patient and slowly work your way down. This can take some time and there have been many occasions when I spent more than 40 minutes on this, until I get the low notes to speak.

I recommend playing descending scales with tonguing eight notes.
f-f-f-f-e-e-e-e-d-d-d-d-c-c-c-c…etc, tonguing those eight notes going down to the pedal “f”. Don’t give up if your chops are too unresponsive to get the low notes to speak the first few times. Just do some more lip flapping and try again…and again…and again, for several minutes…

…eventually your lips should start to become more responsive and you’ll be able to get down there. If you try this and it seem impossible, even after 30-40 minutes, then your really should consider investing in that didgeridoo.

Unresponsive and stiff lips when playing trumpet
Why does it happen in first place?

Some people are lucky and almost never suffer from unresponsive chops, no matter what their playing schedule look like, while others get stiff even if they do almost everything right. The world is not a fair place and the trumpet world is certainly no different. That said, generally there are a few things that we should be careful with. Things that tend to make your lips feel like their made out of plastic.

  • A lot of fortissimo playing, especially in the high register
  • Playing several endurance demanding etudes in a row, or something similar, with only very little rest in between them (this will almost always make my lips stiff)
  • Doing a lot of isometric lip strengthening exercises
  • Only practicing long tones and no lip flexibilities
  • Swelling because of fluctuation in the body’s water balance

So what to do if we do have to play a lot of high notes or do a lot of endurance demanding playing in band practice, with little to no rest in between pieces? …

…well, of course we all are going to find us in situations like that and I don’t even think that we always should avoid it. A well rounded musician has to be able to deliver in all kinds of circumstances. There are, however, a few things we can do to help with this…

…which leads me to the next subheading…

How do we prevent stiffness from forming?

Ok so now that we know how to get rid of stiff trumpet chops let’s talk a bit about what we can do to prevent it from happening again. Below are a few pointers that you should memorize…

  • Always warm up before you start playing something more demanding
  • Always do a “warm down” after having had a hard practice day
  • Never change your diet the day leading up to an important gig
  • Always keep yourself well hydrated

The warm up, every trumpet player should have a good warm up routine. This is so important for many reasons and one of them is, of course, to reduce the risk of developing stiff lips. If you would like to get more ideas about how to structure a good warm up routine then read my article
How to warm up on the trumpet. In that article I also share my personal warm up routine as well as other good warm up exercises.

The warm down: When it comes to stiffness and problems with unresponsive chops then the warm down, or cool down, is even more important than the warm up. Never just put your horn down and go to bed after you have been playing something physically demanding.

You won’t find a single sprinter who just goes home after training demanding sprints, without having done some light jogging and some stretching after his workout. They do this to prevent them from being stiff like an iron pole the next couple of days….

…do you think the elite Olympic competitor know a thing or two about muscles and recovery? Yeah, so why not learn a thing or two from them.

The diet: Trying out different diets can be a good learning experience and a healthy thing to do and lord knows I’m very often experimenting with things like that. And that is also why I know that this is not something one should be messing around with just a few days prior to an important gig.

The reason for this is that it is highly likely to change the water balance in the body. Our face, and in particular the soft part of our lips have a high water percentage and even a small change in diet may confuse the embouchure because the lips suddenly feel “fuller” or “thinner” or…

…stiffer!

The hydration: and the hydration part is, of course, also very important. Not only because our brain and body functions best when well hydrated but also because of what I just wrote about how the soft part of our lips have a high water content.

Problems with stiff and unresponsive lips
Final words

Try to implement these tips and see if  you notice any improvements. My guess is that you will. If nothing seem to be working then perhaps you should consider visiting your doctor to find out if are allergic to something in your diet or in your environment. Most allergies are accompanied by swelling in some form and the lips will often get a taste of this.

-Robert Slotte-

P.S. Do you have, or have you had, any problems with unresponsive chops in your trumpet playing? If so, how bad was it and were you able to solve it? Please leave a few comments in the comment section below. I would love to hear from you.

 

 

 

 

 

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