lips swelling when playing

Discussion in 'Trumpet Discussion' started by brianwhitehead, Jan 23, 2008.

  1. brianwhitehead

    brianwhitehead New Friend

    Dec 16, 2005
    West Yorkshire, UK
    I posted this over on trumpetherald, and thought I'd post it here to see if anyone can help. Any advice gratefully received.


    I have been playing trumpet for over 25 years, and currently play principal trumpet in a local amateur symphony orchestra. Over the past couple of years, I have found that my lips swell when playing, particularly in high and loud passages. This is causing me problems with endurance, and also can lead to irritation of the lips for several days after playing.

    The problem first came on two years ago when I was doing extra practice for a performance diploma, but now my practice time has returned to normal, the problem is still there. I tried stopping playing for a couple of months, and then eased back into it, but the problem came back. I have been to see a dermatologist, who tested me for allergies, which gave a negative result. In any case, I have had my mouthpiece gold-plated, just in case, but it hasn't made any difference.

    I find that taking ibuprofen reduces the worst of the swelling, but doesn't eliminate it. Has anyone else experienced lip swelling suddenly becoming a problem after years of playing? If so, do you have any advice on how to tackle it?

    Many thanks.
  2. rowuk

    rowuk Moderator Staff Member

    Jun 18, 2006
    lip swelling is actually normal and is a safety function of most body parts after being beat up. Most of us really never notice this ourselves, my wife comments from time to time after a gig that my lips are very red and swollen - I tell her that is because she deserves a bigger kiss for all that she puts up with concerning my trumpet.

    A proper embouchure involves compression of the lip tissue. Normally swelling is just compressed away until the muscles give out. If this is not the case, your breathing may be off and "force" could be sneaking into your method of tone production.

    There are a couple of things to look at:
    Do you just get tired, or does your sound cut off? Do the lips give out before the facial muscles?
    Do you start playing with (considerably)more pressure when playing high and loud?
    Does your breathing get out of sync when you notice the swelling?
    Does the swelling occur in the same way when practicing at home?
    Have you changed anything like horn or mouthpiece?
    Do you play wet or dry?

    From the nature of my questions, you can see that many factors can be involved. Figuring out what is going on is detective work. When trying to analyse the problem it is useful to reduce the variables. I would suggest the following:

    1) try a 45 minute practice session with the mouthpiece alone. Play the same repertory that causes the swelling. Play loudly! No IBU before or after please!
    2) next day: try the same session with the horn but focus on deep, relaxed breathing and low pressure. Take enough time to breath even if the musical line says differently. We are trying to figure out if you are adding force instead of support when the going gets a bit tougher!
    3) after (or even during) a playing session repeatedly licking your lips (could be a nervous "tick") can change a bit of irritation to a lot. Get a good lip balsom like chop saver and apply it IMMEDIATELY after playing - do not lick your lips.
    4) Hydration can be a big cause of stress. Most people do not drink enough (non-carbonated water) when playing. If the lips get dry, they are subject to damage (yes, I know that there are some exceptions!). Keep a bottle of water for rehearsals and take a sip between playing passages. The cool water will also inhibit swelling.

    This may be a good opportunity to get a "check-up" by a professional player. Tell them what is going on and that you would like an hour of tough excerpts or duets with analysis afterwards. Them looking at your face in times of trouble could be a positive turning point for you!

    Irritation can also come from your valve oil. If you are using a petroleum based product like Al Cass, switch to a synthetic type they are more "inert".

    If you bathe your horn on a regular basis, change the brand of liquid soap that you use and RINSE, RINSE, RINSE before reassembling.

    Disinfecting your mouthpiece before and after playing (do not get this alcohol on your chops) could also help.

    IBU or aspirin are band-aids and I feel if you can function without them, it is better than becoming dependent.
    Miyot likes this.
  3. Dave Mickley

    Dave Mickley Forte User

    Nov 11, 2005
    about 10 or 12 years ago when I was playing more and playing higher parts I went through what you are experiencing. please listen to rowuk he knows what he is talking about. a good instructor helped me, he told me to stop using the pinky hook [octave key] and keep ice water with me along at the job. this worked for me but it was only a band-aid not a fix. I am a pressure player and to be honest I am to lazy to change at 58. as I said before - LISTEN TO ROWUK. Dave
    Miyot likes this.
  4. Miyot

    Miyot Pianissimo User

    Jul 22, 2007
    Although I am a comeback player and haven't been playing steady as you have, I also have some problems with lip swelling. Rowuk gave some good advice and it has helped. I am 49 and I am sure my body just doesn't recover as quickly as it used to. I was over working my chops a little, and was playing to loudly.

    I just got a job with a good band and the book is very demanding. I wanted to make an impression and was overworking, overblowing, stressed, etc. Lots of little things added up to problems, which I am still working on.

    I guess my point is to be kind to your chops. As we age, things just don't work like they used to. I am trying to get solid, and it aint easy. Hope you get this worked out.

    One more thing. I did find I was also forgetting to use plenty of breath support, and reverting to pressure. If I make a concious effort to use breath support I do much better.
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2008
  5. Vulgano Brother

    Vulgano Brother Moderator Staff Member

    Mar 23, 2006
    Parts Unknown
    I experienced some weird swelling in Germany at Sunday morning church gigs--I had been in the habit of drinking energy drinks purchased at a local gas station, I don't know if it was an allergy to the metal, a preservative, or the energy drink. When I stopped this practice the swelling stopped as well.
  6. rowuk

    rowuk Moderator Staff Member

    Jun 18, 2006
    you just needed to be sure that that energy drink didn't have STP on the label!

    I am sure that things like coffee, strong black tea and other things can raise our blood pressure or cause other symptoms not optimal for playing the trumpet. Sunday morning church gigs are dangerous for players that have trouble getting up in the morning and compensate with caffeine and sugar. Hydrate with uncarbonated water.
  7. brianwhitehead

    brianwhitehead New Friend

    Dec 16, 2005
    West Yorkshire, UK

    Thanks for the advice. Will try what you suggest.


  8. Luis M. Araya

    Luis M. Araya Pianissimo User

    Jul 24, 2005
    Hi, One has to make shure that one is working with the most efficient way, especially with the blowing/breathing aparatus and secondly with the embouchure.

    I have being playing lead trumpet latin gigs since I was 18 years old, and at the beguining lips got swollen a lot and the next day it was so difficult to feel confortable when playing, especially at soft dynamics, but I tried to keep all my teachers advices and with some time the swell got manageble and the next day of a gig I could play even soft passages in the symphony orchestra with no dificulty.

    However, I stoppet playing salsa gigs 2 years ago (I am 33 now), then last december I started to play salsa again and to my surprise I felt like at the beguining, luckly my embouchure recovered rapidly and right now I feel like never before.

    In summary, I think, like rowuk said, that lip swelling is a defense mechanism for the body, but if one is not working efficiently it could take a loooong time to develop the endurance needed to play lead/commercial, IMHO.


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