How to Kill An Embouchure Without Even Trying

I haven’t wanted to write this post. I thought about titling it “How Not to Get Back Into French Horn Playing,” but really, what I’ve done is slaughtered whatever I had of an embouchure.

Whoops.

Here’s what happened. 

I felt a little too sure of myself, I suppose. Returning to the French horn was finally going well, back in early July. I was able to practice happily for half an hour to forty-five minutes at least.

I debated for weeks, but eventually, I reached out to the local community theater to find out if they needed a French horn player for their summer musical. I figured with enough time to practice the music, I’d be fine! After all, in high school I’d performed, quite happily and well, in a handful of community and school musicals, and doing so again was a main reason for taking up the horn.

A couple of weeks went by in late June and early July. Finally  I heard back. The director wanted to know my experience. I told him I was returning to playing after some years off, but had played in other shows from a similar era before. I said I’d be happy to audition, or come in to pick up music.  A couple more weeks, it seems, went by, and suddenly I had an email with the rehearsal schedule!

I felt both elated, and a bit scared. I remembered my first musical in 9th grade, Peter Pan, and being amazed at how much music there was – all the offbeats, the brief spurts of melody, the essential background harmonies – so much music that the part was in fact referred as the “horn book.” I loved it. We weren’t in a pit for that show — the show took place in a big convention center, so we were off to the side of the stage — but I still had a great time.

When I showed up for the first rehearsal — the music still sight-unseen — I was terribly nervous. I had warmed up at home, but as soon as we started playing, I realized how much I was in over my head. I hadn’t sat in front of a conductor in years, and a musical’s changing fast tempos and key signatures were a bit much for me to keep up with. I got lost a lot, found my place, and left after the 1.5-hour rehearsal feeling like I could do this, maybe, just maybe, if I practiced enough.

Things went better on the second 1.5 hour rehearsal a few days later. I’d played through the book and knew the trouble spots, the places I needed to work on, and I did ok. Not great, by any means, but I was better able to keep up. Surely with a couple more rehearsals, I’d be fine!

Our next rehearsal was the sitzprobe, three hours long, with the cast, where we’d play through most of the music for the first time ever. By half-way through, I was aware that my lip was feeling tired, but I didn’t think much about it. I’d played with a tired lip before. Besides, I was nailing the high licks, coming in on the right notes even in the upper register, and gosh, wasn’t it fun to see the actors actually singing and, in some cases, dancing their parts!

A little while into the second half of the sitzprobe, though, I knew something was wrong. As much fun as I was having, I couldn’t wait for the rehearsal to end. My face felt funny, and it hurt to play. But I still could play, so I kept on playing, loud, soft, high, low.

When I got home, I figured things would feel better in the morning. My face around my lips felt funny, kind of numb, kind of in pain, kind of swollen. I’d never felt this after playing before, and it was a decidedly unpleasant sensation.

I took the next day off from playing, and the day after that, I had a first meeting with a possible horn teacher! It wasn’t exactly how I wanted the meeting to go! “Hi, I’m returning to the horn after ten years, and guess what! I’ve blown out my chops, so I can’t really play for you!”

I warmed up a bit, and my tone sounded gritty. My upper lip felt a bit funny, but not too funny, and was actually feeling okay after doing a few mid-range only arpeggios on the harmonic series. She suggested taking a few more days off, and returning with a different way of breathing that might help my face and lips hold less tension, plus lots of work on slurred arpeggios on the harmonic series. I agreed that all this sounded like a good idea.

This past Tuesday, I tried a light warm up with plenty of more relaxed breathing, but after only about 10 minutes, my chops and the area around my lips felt funny again — rubbery, inflexible, somewhat numb, with a sort of burning sensation running parallel about a half-inch above the upper lip.

I’d already told the conductor for the musical that I might have to drop out, but he suggested I come on Wednesday, the first dress rehearsal, and see what I could do. I warmed up at home a bit, which felt ok but not great, then arrived, and played on the second horn part, which was a little lower and easier than first, but not tremendously different.  By a few numbers in, I was sitting out most of the time, or holding the horn up and fingering along. The director had said he didn’t mind if I only played the main horn solos, but I could do those with any guarantee of volume or accuracy.

My chops are effectively gone, and I’ve only just barely gotten them back again.

It’s been several days since that last dress rehearsal, and I’ve stopped playing completely. To say I am devastated, pissed off at myself, and embarrassed is all true, and probably an understatement. I wish I’d read obsessively about embouchure overuse, etc., before I tried to, for example, run a marathon when I’d barely succeeded on a 5-K, so to speak. I should have realized that what was easy and fun as a high school musician with chops in shape from a full (and gradually achieved) schedule of rehearsals and practices would not mean that I could just jump back in, even if my playing ability had improved. Whoops, again.

A few days later, even when I smile or am not using my lips, I can feel an odd tingling or burning in the upper lip.  I’ve been using Advil and ice, but I can’t help but wonder what’s truly going on. Have I merely strained my lip muscle, the orbicularis oris, and it’ll take a few weeks or months to heal? Or is something more devastating going on, and I have actually torn the muscle? Is this “embouchure overuse” or something more complex, like Satchmo’s syndrome? I’ve been Googling way too much, reading and re-reading sites like Lucinda Lewis’s embouchures.com, a Horn Matters post about painful lips, or this page at Horns Across America about recovering from painful playing.

I know I’ll be taking a few weeks off the horn, but what I don’t want is to start back too soon, injure the lip again, and develop (or continue to develop) embouchure problems from that when continued rest and recovery of the muscle and/or tissue might be better. Or, what’s worse, if I have torn the lip muscles, continue to play when there is an injury.

I want to be a French horn player again, but I wonder if between this and the issues I experienced earlier this spring with my tooth removal, it’s just not in the cards? I swing between thinking this, and a more positive approach, that I just need to proceed with more caution and care this time, and that one day I will be able to play again. Maybe. If I am lucky.  Wish me luck, or perseverance, or hard work, or whatever it is you think will help.

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