Embouchure...possible dystonia?

Hi! I've been playing clarinet for 7 years and I used to have the embouchure down where no air leaked out and my chin was consistently flat. But all of a sudden, I can't keep my corners in or my chin flat. I am a senior in high school, and I don't get much sleep at all...could that be the problem? That I don't have enough time to regenerate? I practice 3 hours every day and I really want to practice more but I'm so tired! If I try to play loudly, my embouchure gets blown out with the air I use. Do you have any exercises that I can do to help my problem?



Hello Jasmine,

I’m glad to see that you are so dedicated to the clarinet. You have developed a real discipline for the instrument in practicing three hours a day. I’m guessing if you are this dedicated, you might be considering it as a career; however, you have worries about these embouchure issues. I am definitely not a medical doctor and cannot give you any advice about dystonia, but I do have a few “sleeping” tips at the end of this note.

So, I’m going to give you a solution that will require more discipline, and that is to take care of your body. How? Give yourself rests during practice. Practicing straight three hours at a time is very physically demanding. I’m also guessing this practice is on top of your band or orchestra time.

Playing clarinet is a sport of the small muscles. All of your embouchure muscles, finger dexterity, breathing, articulation all require use of small muscles (excluding the brain which is a BIG muscle). After some time on clarinet, if people practice many hours straight without any rests, the embouchure will get very tired and often the right hand will get very tight. The weight of the clarinet will start hurting the arm.

Then, some back issues might show up, etc., etc, etc. So, what do you do? Take care of your body.

Practice 3-minutes on (blowing) and 3-minutes off (silent fingering and not blowing). During the off time, put the clarinet on the chair between your legs or on your knee. Completely take the weight of the clarinet off of your right hand.

This will give your embouchure a chance to break. If during this 3-minutes, your embouchure is leaking air and you are not able to keep a flat chin, knock the time down to 2-minutes.

Then, after a while with this discipline, vary your “on” times. Try 3-on and 2-off. 3-on and 1-off. 5-on and 2-off. Etc… How do you do this and keep your sanity? One way is to buy a common kitchen timer that has at least two settings. Here is an example of a kitchen timer with four settings.

You might think I’m lazy that I wouldn’t set the timer for 3, then set it for 2, then back to 3, then 2, etc… The kitchen timer with at least two settings will allow you to keep on track without losing seconds of practice or silent practice.

Please understand you are experiencing the common problem of OVERUSE. Do not feel guilty that an instrument as small as a clarinet can make you hurt. You would think that pain is saved for football or basketball players, right? Well, many in the world suffer OVERUSE injuries simply from a computer keyboard or mouse. If people roll a mouse 8-hours straight during the day and then go home and use the computer, that is a lot of time for the hand to work (often in stressful environments). If these people do not occasionally and consistently bring the hand away from the mouse, they are looking for trouble.

Another reason I say this is commonplace is that my website has had this similar question as least three other times this year. Please reference these answers at the following links: My Lips Can’t Cope, Jaw pain, and Weakening embouchure.

Now, about sleep deprivation, you are a young person with a great life ahead of you. It is very important that you get enough sleep. I’m not a doctor, but you might want to look into yoga, stretching, and/or Alexander Technique to find ways to relax the areas of your body that are picking up the most stress. Overall, all or some of these methods will help you with sleep and more sleep with reduce your awake-time stress.

I’ve never taken a yoga class, but I’ve tried (DVRed) a few yoga TV shows and they really show you how to stretch. Stretching is something I firmly believe in to relax my back. My back between the shoulder blades and in the lower back get tight from sitting too much and often practicing from long hours. This is a book I refer to often for good quality stretches: Stretching: 30th Anniversary Edition

Last but not least, MOVE! Make sure you walk, run, bike, hike, swim or something. Making your body move will give you more energy and improve sleep. Please understand, I’m not a sports enthusiast at all. But, I do know the benefits of a great hike, walk, or run.

Not the kind of information you expected from clarinet website, I’m sure, but know this, your life according to clarinet is all connected.

Jasmine, best of luck to you, keep practicing, take care of yourself, and let me know if any of these ideas work for you.


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