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What to Do When Playing Hurts

Pain Clip Art

You’ve heard the phrase “No pain, no gain”, but when it comes to your brass instrument, pain might impede your progress instead of fostering growth. Who wants to practice when it hurts?

If you frequently experience pain while playing, DO NOT push through it. Speak up! Ask your teacher and your doctor for advice. Continuing to play in ways that cause harm to your body may result in permanent injury. Fix what hurts now, so that it doesn’t hurt forever.

Here are some common causes of pain while playing a brass instrument, and suggestions for correcting them.

Lips

Allergy

If your lips are swollen and stinging after practicing, first eliminate the possibility of a metal allergy. You might consider a nonallergenic titanium mouthpiece such as the Black H-Kote Houghton Horns mouthpiece rim.

Houghton Horns French Horn Mouthpieces Black H-Kote Rim

Poor Breath Support

You might be using your lip muscles to compensate for a lack of solid air flow. Focus on your breathing and posture. Ask a teacher or friend to watch you play and critique your technique.

Incorrect Mouthpiece Angle

Maintaining the correct mouthpiece angle is particularly problematic for marching band students, and who can blame you? You have to stay on beat, move in formation, obey all the commands the band director is shouting at you, AND hold your instrument at the right angle? You’re only human!

French horn players might want to try a Verus M1T mellophone mouthpiece, a Verus M1H marching French horn mouthpiece, or a Faxx mouthpiece bent for marching band to achieve an angle that puts less pressure on your lips.

Verus Mellophone Mouthpiece M1T
Verus Marching French Horn Mouthpiece M1H
Faxx French Horn Mouthpieces Bent for Marching Band

This video by Karen Houghton might be aimed at band directors, but it has some helpful advice for how to correct your mouthpiece angle on the horn.

Incorrect Embouchure

Watch yourself play in a mirror to find and correct embouchure problems. Consider using an visualizer to practice buzzing. Watch Mark Houghton’s video on how to use an embouchure visualizer.

Over-Practicing

Don’t tell your teacher we said this, but there is such a thing as too much practice. Know your limits – probably no more than three hours a day – and stay within them. There’s really no other way to avoid tired and sore lips.

Some people swear by Robinson’s Remedies for aching lips.

Robinson's Remedies

Braces

For starters, do you have your orthodontist’s approval to be playing a brass instrument in the first place? Otherwise don’t mash a metal mouthpiece against your expensive braces.

If your orthodontist has given you permission to play with braces, ask them for advice. They may recommend sticking wax on your braces, or they may be able to sell you a “Morgan bumper” you can wrap around your teeth while playing.

One reason braces are painful for brass musicians is poor breath support. If you are overusing your lips to compensate for insufficient breath support from your lungs and diaphragm, it’s going to hurt more. Practice your breathing and ask a teacher to critique your posture and technique. If you’re playing correctly, the mouthpiece won’t put enough pressure on your lips for the braces to cut into your skin.

Hand

French horn players are in luck here, as it’s fairly easy to tweak many horns to better fit a player’s hand.

First, look at your flipper and pinky hook. Do they have screws that can be adjusted with a screwdriver or hex wrench? You may be able to move the flipper and pinky hook up or down to perfectly fit your hand. When in doubt, ask your band director or a professional repair technician to adjust your flipper and pinky hook for you – they snap off pretty easily, but can cost $$$ to replace.

Don’t have an adjustable flipper and pinky hook? Our repair shop can install one on most horns.

Adjustable Flipper for French Horn
Adjustable Pinky Hook for French Horn

Horn players with small hands might want to consider a Fhrap, which takes a lot of the weight of the horn off the pinky.

Fhrap Black Strap for French Horn

Trombone players can install an ax handle brace to take some of the stress off their wrist. There is also an astonishing variety of straps and braces for the trombone. Ask our trombone specialist Christian for help with your trombone grip.

Trombone Ax Handle Brace Kit

Unfortunately for players of many other brass instruments, there might not be too much you can do by yourself to fix the problem of a poor hand fit. But before you toss out the entire instrument, it never hurts to consult a professional repair technician. On trumpets, for example, they may be able to move the pinky hook so that your pinky fits more comfortably.

Many brass musicians could benefit from looking into something like a Leather Specialties leather guard. If your hand is having to squeeze extra-tight to compensate for sliding in sweat and oil, something that secures your grip will release some of the tension in your hand.

Leather Specialties right hand guard for horn, Lewis model, black leather

Shoulders, Arms, & Back

After hours of holding up a heavy instrument, a little bit of soreness is only to be expected, particularly for beginners who haven’t built up the correct muscle groups. But if you cross the line from “kind of sore” to “actively painful”, there might be a problem with how you’re holding your instrument.

This is easier said than done, but teach yourself to be conscious of any tension in your shoulders and arms. Relax them as soon as you feel it. Practice in front of a mirror so that you build a habit of holding your instrument and distributing its weight correctly.

One of our favorite accessibility tools is the Ergobrass. It’s a brace that allows you to rest the weight of your instrument on the floor or a belt buckle. We highly recommend it for people who would otherwise struggle to play an instrument due to a disability, but it’s great for abled people who want to give their arms a break during an extensive practice session too.

Ergobrass Trombone Support

French horn players can read this guide to holding their horn.

Holistics

Learn to pay attention to your body. The signals it is sending you are important early warning signs of injury that can allow you to prevent larger issues later on. Consider taking up a practice such as meditation or yoga that will teach you mindfulness about your body and how it communicates with you.

Be diligent about warming up before each practice or playing session. Ask your teacher for warm-up techniques. Don’t restrict yourself to getting tips from brass musicians, either – vocalists, yoga practitioners, dancers, and athletes may have great stretches and exercises that help you loosen up before and cool down after a heavy stretch of playing.

Any other brass instrument-related health issues? Ask a question in the comment section below and our staff will get back to you with our recommendations.

Any advice we left out? Please leave a comment.

— Kacie Wright and Dr. Sally Podrebarac

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