If you get swollen and painful lips after practicing the trumpet, you’ve probably gotten into the bad habit of applying too much mouthpiece pressure.
As a general rule, playing the trumpet with less mouthpiece pressure requires you to practice your “no-pressure notes” You’ll also need to develop a strong embouchure and work on air efficiency, rest correctly, keep the pressure on your bottom lip, and beware of how you hold your trumpet.
In this article, I will cover all of these points and suggest some mentors for each.
If you want to find out effective methods on how to lessen the mouthpiece pressure so you can play well for more extended periods without getting tired, keep on reading.
This article isn’t just about screaming out the high notes, (it is a bit..) it’s also about enjoying playing in a relaxed way and reducing the pressure, not only on your lips but on yourself.
If you have played trumpet for any length of time you will have probably been on “Mouthpiece Safari” looking for the perfect set up to play high, low, and for long periods.
It doesn’t exist. Believe me, I’ve looked everywhere!
Check out this video on why it’s not simply down to the instruments and mouthpieces we select.
Some players are fortunate. They form a very good embouchure from a young age and have good teachers along the way ensuring that everything not only stays correct but improves.
I wasn’t one of the lucky ones.
My first experience in brass playing was with a cornet at the age of around 7. “Blow down here until you get a note out “ and “smile to play higher” were some of the well-meaning instructions given to me.
It was a case of work it out for yourself!
I played this way for many years until finally fatigue and frustration got the better of me and I decided to research how the top players not only play but practice.
Do you ever watch your favorite players and wonder how it all looks so effortless? In most cases, it appears that they play with very little mouthpiece pressure or tension.
It mesmerizes me. It really does.
How To Practice With Less Mouthpiece Pressure
Too much mouthpiece pressure usually means you’re doing something wrong and trying to cover up and overcome the problem with extra pressure. Removing the pressure trap can help you with the pain and soreness and let you discover what other things you may be doing wrong.
Here’s what you need to do to practice properly without too much pressure:
It’s (Nearly) All In Your Hands
For the first no-pressure tip, you need to be aware of the finger hook on your valve hand.
Instead of gripping the trumpet tightly with your left-hand be aware of your grip and relax a little, the idea with this is to naturally remove the weight(pressure from your lips). Being aware of how you lift and hold the instrument is important to remove the pressure and tension from your playing.
Watch legendary trumpet player James Morrison explain this.
It certainly works for him.
Take a look at his performance at the opening of the Olympic Games in Sydney 2000.
Now that’s pressure! (but not mouthpiece pressure)
Find The Notes
After choosing your less-pressure grip, it’s time to find your “no pressure working notes.”
A popular method is the Caruso Method. This method involves only 6 notes. A basic overview of this method is that the embouchure remains in position without the lips leaving the mouthpiece during the exercises.
Take a look at this video that shows a demonstration of the Caruso method in action.
Build Strength With Training
One way of practicing is to start slurring your no-pressure notes a couple of times in a row. Then, use your new relaxed grip and try to keep playing like before, with the minimum pressure possible, Take a break and repeat the exercise. Patience is the key to success.
Take a look at this cornet player to see how relaxed everything is. All the work is done with the aperture and embouchure and not with mouthpiece pressure.
Note how, as explained in the Caruso Method his lips do not re-adjust or leave the mouthpiece during any of the passages. Breathing is also achieved without the lips leaving the mouthpiece. It looks almost effortless.
Remember not to go higher than your working notes, because you want to play from a position of strength and gradually transfer the no-pressure feeling to your normal way of playing.
Another method for practicing is to incorporate the exercise in your practice routine so that you can carry the effect out and train your brain into using as little mouthpiece pressure as you possibly can.
For example, you can do the exercise with the new relaxed grip, remembering not to pull the instrument onto the face, then practice a piece of music, with your new set up. Then rest and do it again.
- If you rest as often as you play you will build up your new muscular scaffold more quickly. Don’t hurt yourself.
Remember not to overdo this method, as you can still get tired although there’s only a little pressure. You should notice that your embouchure becomes tired and you no longer have nasty ring marks from your mouthpiece on your lips.
Hang Or Put Down Your Trumpet-Myth Or Method?
Don’t run away just yet.
There is a way you can replicate this method later in the article (without potentially damaging your instrument)
There’s an old method called the “suspended trumpet.” It suggests that you suspend your trumpet from the ceiling with some strings, which will allow it to swing freely. (It’s Not for me)
Then you should try to play it.
The more mouthpiece pressure you have, the more you’ll push the trumpet away, and finally, it’ll lose its balance. This exercise tries to teach you to use the minimum mouthpiece pressure, but in a hard way. It isn’t a practical way to practice though, but if you imagine it (or try it) you can “feel” how little mouthpiece pressure you would be able to apply.
A slightly more practical method would be to place your instrument on a surface, like an elevated table. Then get close to it and start playing a note. This method makes it easier for you to apply some pressure without losing balance. You can use your no-pressure working notes in this exercise as well.
Do you want to attempt this? I certainly don’t as it will be a ridiculously uncomfortable and unenjoyable experience, but again think and imagine the amount of pressure you would be able to use when playing, very little before the instrument moves right?
After a couple of minutes of either doing (or visualizing) either of the mentioned exercises, hold your instrument using your new relaxed grip and start playing while trying to implement the feeling you’ve experienced while doing or visualizing the exercises.
Stratos Brass- Remove The Pressure Trap
Imagine being a Pro Trombone player and falling off the stage and your instrument hitting you in the face and destroying your embouchure and lips.
Imagine being told after surgery that your brass playing days are over.
This is what happened to Marcus Reynolds the developer of the Stratos Brass System. Marcus wanted to be able to play again so badly he dreamt of a system that would allow the mouthpiece to hover over the lips with minimum pressure, a system that replicates hanging an instrument to reduce pressure.
A system that simply does not allow you to play with too much mouthpiece pressure. Ever.
Marcus has developed his Stratos brass system to fit any instrument and offers a free skype lesson with every purchase. He is internationally known as “The Embouchure Guy” Marcus is now playing regularly again to a very high standard which is a remarkable achievement.
Check out this video for a quick overview of the Stratos Brass system.
The knowledge gained by Marcus on how to play with minimal mouthpiece pressure during his recovery is invaluable and I highly recommend you check him out.
You can find Marcus at Stratos Brass
Finding The Centre Of the Mouthpiece
Try this simple exercise. Place you hand directly in front of your face around 6 inches away (15cm)
Whistle and feel whereabouts the air hits your hand. If you can’t whistle then just pretend but blow the air anyway.
Where does the air hit your hand? At the bottom? On your wrist? Try this exercise again but instead of whistling, form an embouchure as if you are going to play your trumpet, then blow.
What generally happens with players that use too much pressure is the air is not being directed down the center of the mouthpiece.
Wasted air creates unnecessary pressure and tension when playing, and guess which part suffers the most? The lips.
Be aware of your air direction when you “buzz” make sure the top and bottom teeth are aligned and there is enough gap between the teeth to let the air flow out.
Doing this will allow your playing to be much more relaxed and relieve some mouthpiece pressure.
As a friend of mine always says, “Pressure is for car tires”
Check out this article from Brasshero.com called How Do Trumpet Mouthpieces Work. You can read it here.
Check out the explanation of finding the center of the mouthpiece by watching this video.
It’s clear that if you can’t seal the mouthpiece well, air can leak out of your mouth. You’ll then have to compensate for it by adding pressure so that you can play properly. That’s why you should do lip exercises and build stronger lip corners.
You need to exercise your lips.
Play until you start to feel like you’re soon going to be tired. Don’t let yourself get past that point. This way, your body will send strength-building signals to your mouth, and you won’t have to tear your muscles and feel pain or stiffness for the next couple of days.
Efficiency means not having to play with more energy than necessary. You need to turn all the air you use into lip vibrations, with great control over the aperture.
To do so, you can practice by playing soft tones for a long time, which will help your lips vibrate with the minimum amount of air. You can also try doing lip bends every day to improve control over your lips.
Another method you can do is “P” attacks. In this exercise, you’ll have to start playing each note by pronouncing the letter “P.”
Check out this incredible trumpet playing by George Rawlin.
Playing like this is not achieved by the mouthpiece pressure. George Rawlin has a fantastic Youtube channel and is an expert in teaching how to use your air efficiently. He also has an online video series called airplay on his website. You can find his website here
Take a look at this video by George Rawlin entitled “The $1000 trumpet lesson”
Get Proper Rest
As you probably know by now, resting is an essential factor when it comes to practicing long hours. You need to rest both between your practice sessions and during them. You shouldn’t start playing and keep going for half an hour or so.
You’ll need to take short breaks every couple of minutes to prevent your muscles from getting too tired. If that does happen, you might start developing bad habits, without even noticing.
And remember, you’re not considered lazy if you need to take a day off after an intense day of practice.
Move The Pressure To The Bottom Lip
For sealing the mouthpiece and lessening the pressure, you should keep the pressure on the bottom lip.
Whenever you feel like you’re pushing the mouthpiece into your top lip, do the opposite, as long as you can. This will help you have enough lip tension when you start a phrase, making playing much more comfortable.
With the information given to you, you might have detected the problem and realized what you’ve been doing wrong.
If not, start playing with the new relaxed grip and see if your tone and sound changes. If it does, you should consider the fact that you’ve been doing something wrong and covering for it with too much mouthpiece pressure.
This extra pressure is what’s causing you to feel tired after practice and it may even lead to bad posture and habits.
Try to practice with the pointers given, and do the exercises without tiring yourself out. Achieving minimum mouthpiece pressure needs time and awareness.
I wish you relaxed playing.
Good Luck and enjoy it.