My Personal Experience with Embouchure Overuse Syndrome

As with any musician who has been in a similar situation, I never thought, never dreamed that this would happen to me. About five years ago, I suffered a playing injury that lingered for far too long. For roughly six months, I couldn’t play without feeling pain or a sense of mild discomfort in my upper lip. The injury happened during the second year of my DMA studies at West Virginia University, and I didn’t have time to wait around for it to heal. Now, I could still play at a very high level even though I was constantly feeling pain or discomfort. I performed principal on Mahler 1 and even won an orchestral audition while this was going on. Unfortunately, it lasted so long that I decided to start tinkering with my embouchure in order to attempt to relieve the discomfort. However, when the discomfort finally disappeared, the damage had already been done. My embouchure felt weak, and I didn’t have the same strength and endurance that I had enjoyed before, which led to even more tinkering. Thankfully, I was able to perform my final recital and finish my degree before my playing really started to deteriorate.

Due to my tinkering, I have endured a tumultuous relationship with the horn over the past few years. After finishing my DMA, I could still play pretty well, but I started having to work harder to keep things in check. My playing was no longer effortless, and this was due to my embouchure setup being completely wrong due to all of the changes that I had tried to make. I am one of those rare people that actually enjoys practicing, but for a while, I just didn’t even want to look at my horn. I began to practice less and my embouchure finally broke, which was not a fun experience. I even sold two of my previous instruments, because I just felt so depressed, and I didn’t believe that I would ever play again. It was rough, but for some reason, I couldn’t get away from it. I don’t think I ever had Focal Dystonia, but I do think that I changed my embouchure so frequently that I developed a severe case of Embouchure Overuse Syndrome. It was so bad that at one point I struggled to even produce a sound. I am pleased to say that my embouchure is currently back in its natural setting, but I’m still trying to gain back range and endurance.

This whole ordeal has created mental scars that have produced a level of performance anxiety that I have never felt before. I will admit that I struggled with anxiety for many years, even during my doctoral studies, but the level of anxiety that I have felt during performances over the last two years has truly left me handicapped. I think we all have dealt with the adverse effects of “dry mouth” and adrenaline, but this has been much worse. I don’t think I even suffer from dry mouth anymore. On the contrary, my body just completely shuts down. I’ll try to attack a note and nothing will happen. Loud stuff accompanied by other brass instruments is usually fine, but heaven forbid I have to play an exposed passage at piano.

These are issues that I will continue to work through, and I hope that I will be able to share thoughts and insights that might be of value to others along the way. I just have to keep practicing and remember that even the smallest steps forward equal progress.

Dr. J


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