For brass players, mouthpiece pressure is a hot topic! Most have been warned against it since they started playing. But is it really so bad?
Lucinda Lewis, French hornist with the New Jersey Symphony and author of Broken Embouchures, a book dealing with the overuse and performance-related injuries of brass players, offers a second look at mouthpiece pressure. She cites the lack of scientific evidence that mouthpiece pressure is damaging, and discusses the mechanics of how healthy playing can protect brass players from mouthpiece-pressure damage.
All brass players have grown up being told that mouthpiece pressure is a bad thing. There are even new approaches to teaching brass instruments that use a “low pressure” method. But is mouthpiece pressure really as much of a problem as some suggest? Here are a few observations to consider.
First, mouthpiece pressure is subjective. What universal yardstick determines whether a player’s mouthpiece pressure is too great or just right? Is pain the primary indicator? There has never been a bona fide scientific study on mouthpiece pressure in which a sensitive, high-tech pressure-measuring device has been used to determine how much pressure per square millimeter is safe, effective in playing, and acceptable. Absent any legitimate data, it is difficult to argue the “dangers” or “healthy ranges” of mouthpiece pressure.
Secondly, mouthpiece pressure is not static in playing. It doesn’t remain the same from the top of the range to the bottom, or from pianissimo to fortissimo. Mouthpiece pressure increases dramatically when playing loudly in the high range and decreases when playing softly in the low range. Can it really be argued that mouthpiece pressure, which is ever-changing while playing, damages a player’s lips?
Then there’s the issue of mouthpiece size. French horn and trumpet mouthpieces have a very small circumference, compared to those used by trombone and tuba players. Obviously, pressure exerted by a mouthpiece with a smaller circumference would be more focused and intense, and a mouthpiece with a large circumference would diffuse the pressure over a larger area.
Interestingly enough, players whose playing is trouble-free, comfortable, and secure rarely notice the pressure of their mouthpieces. However, when those same players develop lip injuries and embouchure overuse syndrome, they immediately begin suffering with painful mouthpiece pressure. But there is also a group of non-injured players who often feel an uncomfortable quantity of mouthpiece pressure – young students. What’s the connection?
The likely connection is mechanical because healthy playing mechanics protect a player’s lips from mouthpiece pressure. The playing mechanics of an injured player become damaged and cease to function normally, at which point mouthpiece pressure becomes much more obvious. A student player has underdeveloped mechanics that are still in flux and have not yet learned to work correctly. It is, therefore, to be expected that young players are much more aware of mouthpiece pressure. If a player’s mechanics are weak or impaired for any reason, his/her mouthpiece will have a far greater physical impact on his/her lips. It could be argued that painful mouthpiece pressure is more of a symptom of mechanical weakness in a player’s embouchure technique than something that causes playing problems.
Finally, the idea of teaching a “low pressure” method of brass playing is flawed. Can anyone say for sure that it is possible for every brass player to use the same amount of mouthpiece pressure successfully? If a teacher tells a student to “lighten up” his/her mouthpiece pressure, how does that teacher know the student has done so? And how can the student possibly know how many fewer pounds per square millimeter “lighten up” translates into?
Mouthpiece pressure does exist, and players have to use mouthpiece pressure to play. The question is: how do we interpret mouthpiece pressure? Should we try to teach students a low-pressure method of playing without first having the benefit of legitimate scientific studies? And should we even try to debate the subject without genuine research data as the basis?