Some Thoughts about Hotspots and Embouchure

(Please remember – I write most of these articles for people who are having serious playing issues. If you play great and do the exact opposite of what I write, that’s great. Honestly! A very smart teacher once told me that the embouchure can be made to reflect almost any concept given the player has good mechanics. I think that’s 100% true.)

Hot Spots

That searing pain, right in the middle of your upper lip. It happens in a flash, then it’s gone. Have you ever experienced this?

Well, read on fellow brass player. Here’s what I learned after dealing with hot spots for over 3 years.

First off, it’s a common misconception that hot spots (or playing injuries in general) are caused solely by using too much mouthpiece pressure. It’s true that hot spots, torn-muscles, etc, are caused in part by excessive mouthpiece pressure, but it’s where that pressure is being directed that is the big problem. This brings me to my first point;

  • If you’re experiencing hot spots, the first thing you should check is to see if you’re grinding the mouthpiece into your top lip before you play, or at the moment you’re releasing the air. (Spoiler alert – you are.)

If you’re into the habit of hastily placing the mouthpiece (I’ll discuss my thoughts about this in another blog post), then it’s very easy to establish habits that are destructive to your embouchure. A good rule to remember is that more of the pressure should go on to the lower lip than the top. Some people will start talking fractions at this point (60/40, 80/20, etc), but speaking in these terms always confused me, so I try to avoid that talk. More pressure needs to go on the bottom lip than the top – that’s all you need to think about.

The reason this is such a big deal is because your top lip simply can’t take abuse like your bottom lip can. For some reason, when things go wrong, trumpet players (perhaps in an effort to gain a feel of stability?) start grinding that mouthpiece into the top lip. This only “works” for so long before your top lip gives, resulting in that hotspot sensation, a bruise, stretch, or in extreme cases – a tear.

This is really a big problem for people who place in the red of their top lip (like myself) or don’t have very high placements.

Once this happens to you, invariably you start googling, bringing ones self to a handful of trumpet forums containing horror stories of people who are going through the same thing you are (or worse). Without fail, someone will post something to the effect of “you need to use less pressure”. This brings me to my second point;

  • Simply attempting to use less pressure will not prevent hot spots (or any injury) from happening or recurring. In my case, it exacerbated them.

The reason why backing off on mouthpiece pressure doesn’t work is simple – it’s not the pressure that’s hurting you; it’s your poor playing mechanics that can’t deal with the rigors of playing that are causing your embouchure to perform inefficiently, which in turn causes the hot spots.

Your embouchure needs pressure, just like it needs air to function properly. There’s no way around it, so if you’re convinced you can play in a manner where you don’t need constant, firm (not a teeth shattering amount of course . . .) pressure against your chops, you should consider a different approach. A good way to think about this is that you should feel some teeth in your placement, meaning, you need to have enough initial mouthpiece pressure (Again, more on the bottom than top) to make the embouchure go.

Conclusion

Correcting poor playing mechanics can miraculously cure hot spots almost instantly. Us brass players are great at getting into cycles of bad habits which end in discomfort/pain. Hot spots however can disappear as fast as they appear. To recap, here’s a little checklist to consult if you’re currently experiencing them.

  • Make sure you’re not grinding the mouthpiece into your top lip. The placement should be relatively natural, i.e., you don’t need to twist the mouthpiece into position to get into playing position. (If you already do this and it doesn’t harm you – don’t change it on my behalf!)
  • You should have more pressure on the bottom lip. Don’t over analyze this – just feel more weight on your bottom lip.
  • Don’t try to back off on mouthpiece pressure. Observing point 2 will fix this issue.

Keep the messages coming – I enjoy your feedback!

Until next time,
MS

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