“Because embouchure overuse syndrome most often appears at a time when a player is at the top of his form…” -Lucinda Lewis, “Broken Embouchures”
The beginning of this statement is very true for me. My experience with embouchure overuse syndrome began when I was at the height of my playing abilities, at a time when I felt bulletproof. Unfortunately, my vest had some flaws, but all kidding aside, it did occur because I was playing/practicing too much. I pushed myself too far, injured my top lip, and then I never gave it time to properly heal.
Before we get too far along, you may be wondering what it means to have embouchure overuse syndrome, or EOS. Well, according to the creator of the term, Lucinda Lewis, it refers to the following:
“An embouchure problem which follows a period of heavy or intense playing that does not improve with rest and is accompanied by lip pain, lip swelling, strange, numb, rubbery or cardboard sensations in the lips or face, lacking endurance, unfocused sound, loss of playing control, and difficulty playing in the high range is a unique performance injury called embouchure overuse syndrome.” -Broken Embouchures, p. 3
This is a very vague definition, and if you’re skeptical, try reading this blog post by Dave Wilken at Wilktone: A Skeptical Look at EOS. I don’t really like the term, and I do feel that the definition can be linked to just about any embouchure injury, but at the moment, a better classification system doesn’t exist. However, regardless of whether or not you agree with Lewis, she has a lot of great information concerning embouchure injuries in her book, Broken Embouchures, and on her website. I will discuss some of her findings and exercises in another post, but for now, I would like to discuss the symptoms that I felt during this period.
At first, my injury felt like a typical case. I practiced a little too much earlier in the day and showed up for my late night orchestra rehearsal already pretty tired. I pushed myself a little too hard and suddenly felt a sharp, shooting pain in my top lip. Thankfully this happened at the end of the rehearsal, so I basically stopped playing right after it happened. The next day, my embouchure felt weak and was a little sore, so I took it easy. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take too much time off, because I had a DMA recital to play a few days later, so I at least tried to limit myself as much as possible. Well, the recital was great, and my lip felt fine, which led me to believe that everything was back to normal.
All of you who have been in grad school as a performance major, know that you always have something to play or prepare for, whether it be a multitude of concerts or orchestral auditions. The same was true for me, so I was never really able to stop playing like I should have done. About a week after the first instance, I injured my top lip again, and this was the injury that lingered and never went away. I don’t really remember exactly how it happened, but I definitely remember the context.
It was a hot, muggy afternoon, and I was rehearsing a chamber piece that I would be performing with a Guest Artist at WVU, Dance of the Ocean Breeze, by Roger Kellaway. It was a Sunday, and we were rehearsing in the big rehearsal hall. This would have been fine, except for the fact that the A/C was not turned on and it was way too hot and humid in the room. The piano was out of tune, the tuba player couldn’t play in tune, and neither could I for that matter, but I was still doing my best to match pitch. Somewhere within this version of intonation purgatory, I hurt my top lip again…and it didn’t get better this time. (Helpful Hints: when you sustain an injury, REST! Also, don’t try to rehearse in a room that is too hot or cold.)
I felt most of the symptoms described above by Lewis continuously for a period of about six months: pain, constant discomfort, some swelling, loss of endurance and flexibility, etc. I didn’t lose ability in the high range, but my low range suffered, and my articulations started to get a little sloppy, which was odd, because I don’t think that I have ever had trouble with articulation. I also dealt with air issues, which Lewis also attributes as a side effect of EOS. Essentially, I became less efficient with the use of my air, and over time, I began to lose the ability to play long phrases with one breath. It wasn’t too bad at first, but it was enough for me to notice and worry about it.
Like I stated in my introductory post, my level of playing stayed the same, but the shooting pains and discomfort really bothered me. The discomfort is very difficult to describe, because it was just a very weird feeling. Every time I would set the mouthpiece on my embouchure, it just felt like something was there. I wouldn’t feel pain, but it’s kind of like when you have a small pebble or a little bit of sand in your shoe, it doesn’t hurt, but it’s definitely enough to annoy you and break your concentration. It worried me, and since the sensation lasted for so long, I began to change the placement of the mouthpiece on my embouchure almost on a daily basis. This was what really hurt my playing the most. If I had toughed it out and not changed anything, I don’t think I would be writing this post at present. The constant embouchure changes made playing feel foreign, and my abilities continued to deteriorate, because I kept trying to play using an inefficient/defective embouchure. This crushed my confidence and led to the debilitating performance anxiety that I feel today.
It’s cathartic to finally talk about what happened. I’ve used it as an excuse for so long, but now it’s time to put it in the past and move on. I have often wondered what my life would be like if this stuff hadn’t happened, but I don’t think I would ever go back and change anything. The events of the past five years have left scars, but I am definitely stronger because of them as well. In the coming months, I hope to use my recent failures as the fuel that I need to overcome my anxiety.
After this post, I really want to focus on the task at hand. That being said, if anyone needs advice or wants to share their own injury story, I would be glad to help. I can’t promise that I can fix anything, but I can at least lend a sympathetic ear and hopefully point you in the right direction. I will, however, probably discuss and share some techniques that helped me retrain my embouchure in a later post.