Trumpet Embouchure Dystonia: Recovery Step 1

If you’ve read my story, you’ll know that I became aware of the effects of my Musician’s Focal Dystonia back in 2005. Neither dentists, physiotherapists, nor neurologists were able to provide me with any solutions for my condition. At best, I was told that botox might offer some partial relief, and that I would have to get injections every few months for the rest of my trumpet playing career.

When faced with chops not responding as they should, my first instinct was to work harder and practise more. Surely, this would’ve been the correct thing to do?

Not at all.

Practising harder was the worst thing I could do. This is because in practising, I was reinforcing negative physical and mental habits, as well as negative emotional associations to the instrument.

In 2006 I took a job teaching and conducting full-time. On paper, only 20% of my position was as a trumpet player. This allowed me more time to practise, and analyse what was going wrong in my own playing.

It took almost 2 years for me to figure out that physical tension – brought about by past emotional stress, inefficient mechanics, and conflicting motor signals – seemed to play a significant part in Musician’s Focal Dystonia.

What I found out was that I needed to retrain my trumpet playing ‘machine’. I needed to devise a series of exercises that would allow me to play more easily, whilst working less.

I have devised many exercises – too many to list here. However, for the sake of posterity (and to provide a free resource) I thought it could be useful for you to see the notes from the very first steps of my recovery process. These exercises were jotted down in the address book section at the back of my 2008 diary.

focal dystonia trumpet notes

An explanation of the exercises:

A feeling of openness in the mouth and throat. A feeling of breathing through a large, hollow plastic tube. This feeling should be maintained throughout all exercises, and whilst playing.

0. Stretches
Physical stretches based upon Taoist teachings. Stretches focus on chest, shoulders, neck, and spine.

1. 10 Breathing ex – relaxed
Breathing exercises, simply allowing air to flow in and out of the body through the ‘open feeling’ in the airway as described above. Note: These exercises should be done passively. This means that the body should be allowed to breathe by itself, without any conscious intervention of ‘trying’ to breathe. This is difficult to explain in words, but please refer to my free webinar on Breathing and Musician’s Focal Dystonia.

2. Blow air thru m/piece
‘Blow’ is the wrong word here, as it implies actively working the breathing apparatus. A better phrase would be: “Allow air to escape through the mouthpiece on exhalation”.

3. Blow air thru tpt (w/mpiece in)
Same as above, this time with the mouthpiece inserted into the leadpipe of the trumpet.

4. Allow notes to come out when blowing air
Bringing the lips to a partially formed embouchure, allow vibration to occur. The note that sounds will probably be a low C, rough, and out of tune. Don’t try to control it – just allow the sound to happen. Keep the same open feeling in the body.

5. Blow air 2 beats, buzz 2 beats w/mpiece and tpt
Similar to number 4, allow air to flow into the mouthpiece for two beats. Transition smoothly into a buzz sound for two beats. Keep the same open feeling in the body.

6. Start low C – air, tone etc. C – F# – C
Start a tone with the air alone, as above. Induce a relaxed vibration. Slur down to low F# and back up to C in one breath.

6. Start low D. D – F# – D
Start a tone with the air alone, as above, this time fingering a D. Induce a relaxed vibration. Slur down to low F# and back up to D in one breath.

Continue the pattern upwards, always keeping the same open feeling in the body.

If you are a brass player with embouchure dystonia, I hope that these exercises can help you get started walking your own path to recovery.

For more in-depth information and personalized coaching to help you recovery from Musician’s Focal Dystonia, see my coaching page.

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