Pain in the lower lip

by Gonzalo
(Gainesville, Florida)

I have been playing the clarinet for few years, but when practicing seriously for long periods of time and pressing on the lower teeth doing the embouchure, my lower lip starts hurting making me unable to play any longer. I even bought a custom teeth protector made by a dentist that fits over the teeth. Is there any solution to this problem?


Hello Gonzalo,

The solution is to take more embouchure rests during your practice sessions.
The great thing is that you are so passionate about the clarinet, that you wish to practice. And practice you do, you practice and practice and practice and do not give your body a break. I’d love to know what your long periods of time are: Is it a full hour? Two straight hours? Or more?

So, what do I mean when I type ‘take a break’? Years ago, when I was studying clarinet with Mr. Kalmen Opperman, I had this issue. He was the greatest motivator of all time about practice. During one of his clarinet summits, participants had to go in and interview with him about how to improve on clarinet. I remember one of the participants coming out of that room and saying, “Wow, how can Mr. Opperman say a sentence of 10-words and seven of them are practice?”

Anyway, I had practiced a good deal for this lesson and during the course of the lesson, he suggested I practice more. I asked, “how could that be possible, my lip is hurting, I use teeth cushions (at the time cut up wax paper), and my teeth are caving in (uppers out and lowers in).” He said, “you need to take breaks. You need to play three minutes on and three minutes off. On the three minutes off, you finger through your passages.”

Well, as you can imagine, I thought that was crazy. I gave it a try and it just so happened that Christmas of that year, my sister gave me a Kitchen Timer that had two settings. I put that timer next to my metronome. I set the practice on time and the practice off time (I say on and off because I would vary the times, 3 on/2 off, 3 on/1 off, 2 on/3 off, etc…).

Believe it or not, this increased my embouchure endurance. I also had a side effect I never predicted, my fingered became lighter. As you probably know, as you practice long technical passages and/or high passages, a certain amount of stress comes to your mind and body. The endurance of the embouchure, lots of articulation, and finger strength or tension. I noticed that during the not-playing or not-blowing segment of the regiment, and while I was fingering through the passages, my fingers didn’t have all of the blowing stress. They were lighter and eventually faster. I could focus on the efficiency of the fingers.

So, from an “Ah, ha” moment of learning to take breaks, I also received an “Ah, ha” moment of lightening my fingers. Overall, both of them improved my clarinet playing.

I’m not able to put in the same hours now-a-days as when studying with Mr. Opperman. But, when I practice, I recognize the time I need to stop and let my mouth recover. During that time, I continue to finger through either what I’m practicing at the time or a set of scales, thirds, or seven chords I work to improve a liquid technique.

You are probably thinking I’m crazy. My wife says that I had to be crazy to follow this line of thinking. I never expected the response I received from Mr. Opperman that he gave me. He was a true guru of clarinet. He knew exactly what to do to fix the problem. Most people do not have the discipline to follow this. Honestly, it means you have to spend more time practicing to take the proper breaks in between practicing.

Remember that there is an entire field of ‘sports medicine’ regarding overuse of muscles, joints, etc… It is possible what I have suggested above will not work for you. So, you might have to look to others. Just remember to pace yourself. If you blow and blow and blow and practice and practice and practice, you will very likely injure yourself.

Good luck and keep me up-to-date on your practicing.


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