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Trumpet reflection #2: All about the Lips
What the buzz?

A trumpet is a resonator for vibrating lips. Unlike say, a saxophone which relies on a reed to produce the initial sound, with a trumpet we’re on our own. When playing a high C note (Bb1 in concert pitch), a small area of the player’s lips are literally moving back and forth 932 times per second. Natural selection has arguably shaped how humans can now communicate using our voice to produce a multitude of sounds, but I’m not sure individuals who could vibrate their lips faster had a greater chance of survival. Therefore, it’s not really intuitive. However, we’re a playful species and we can learn weird tricks - such as buzzing in a horn. With enough determination, anyone can do it!

Tips for lips

Here’s a bunch of tips I’ve collected over the past few years. Some are well known facts whereas others are observations based on my personal experience. Every individual is different, so the key thing is to realise when something has some impact over your lips or playing in general and how to best deal with it.

Beeswax

When I was eleven, I often had chapped lips with some kind of burning feeling. At the time, I wasn’t even aware it was related to playing the trumpet since it could happen many hours later. Since then I’ve learnt that sunshine, wind or even just the air coming out of my nose caused lips to dry which made the problem worse. At first I tried to put some beeswax-based lipbalm before playing, but that came with some pretty bad side effects: slipping mouthpiece, particles of wax in the horn, and worst of all it would add some weight to the lips and slow them down. It might be OK for a didgeridoo player (wax is commonly used on this instrument) but not for trumpet which is designed to produce high and sharp tones. Using it after playing was better, but sometimes it wasn’t needed or I might have to remove it later if I needed to play again.

The bottom line is that it has to be used as little as possible, mostly before being exposed to wind or sunshine for a substantial amount of time or when already feeling some dryness, and only on the rim of the lips. It has saved me some pain but also provided a protective layer for the skin to let it regenerate itself. All traces of beeswax or other kinds of lipbalm should probably be thoroughly removed before playing though.

Flapping

Here’s a very well known thing: when exercising a muscle, lactic acid builds up as a byproduct which then leaves it weakened. This goes away quicker by facilitating blood flow, typically by stretching the muscle. Now, how do you do that with your mouth? One way is to “flap” the lips, or basically buzz at a very low frequency. A bit like a horse, or as some kind of disconcerted reaction when someone tells you something rather obnoxious. I often do this while having breaks between warming-up exercises, and I believe it helps after playing for a long period of time too. Ultimately, it should become second nature to feel whenever it’s needed. And I don’t think it can hurt, at least not yourself - just be mindful of others who might be crossing the stream of your droplets!

Drinks

Water is the only indispensable drink. It’s also a very safe and useful one to rely upon when playing the trumpet. Being well hydrated in general helps with being in good physical shape, and it regulates the temperature of the lips. However, pretty much every other kind of drink can potentially have tricky side-effects so it’s good to know them as you might find yourself playing in various environments:

  • Tea & coffee: If it’s too hot, it can obviously burn the lips or the tongue. This is even more critical when playing the trumpet as it can make the skin more sensitive, so make sure the temperature is well under what normally feels like “burning hot”. More subtely, these drinks can contain some particles that will stay in the mouth for a little while and require saliva to digest and evacuate them. An increased amount of saliva means more of it will also go into the horn and produce that dreaded crackling noise. It’s probably good to drink something warm when playing outdoors in a cold weather, but waiting for maybe one minute before playing should help.

  • Beer, Prosecco and other carbon bubbles: Of course, they cause gas to be released in the digestive system which might result into some annoying pressure or even some surprising tremolo effect when losing control over it. Avoid at all costs, including lukewarm stale English real bitter ale.

  • Red wine: It contains tanin, which can notoriously deposit on the lips and form some pretty tough stains. They may get in the way of higher notes and loudness as the skin becomes more rigid and heavier, so it takes more effort to make it vibrate (basically, a mechanical low-pass filter). I think it can also cause some acidity, which isn’t nice either for the skin nor for the brass of the horn. It can however dissolve easily using the tongue.

  • White wine: Although harder to find of decent quality in bars, it’s much safer than red wine. I think the only issue is probably also the acidity. The same thing applies to lemon juice etc. Drinking water before playing is always a good idea anyway.

  • Distilled alcohol: Whisky, Vodka etc. when used straight are likely to cause some dryness on the lips or weaken the mucus in the mouth. So I don’t think they help, but at least they don’t have any other major side-effects. I mean, for the particular subject at hand.

  • Cocktails: Well, this varies greatly - see the list above and make your own judgment based on the ingredients. Above all, avoid playing after having had a margarita with salt on the rim of the glass as that’s really corosive for brass and it causes dryness of the skin. Gin & Tonic is probably the safest thing to drink in a bar before playing, and a bit of pure gin can help remove any remaining traces of lip balm or whatever. Tonic water isn’t very gassy and a bit of sugar might help stay alert (eating too much food can divert a lot of blood and may hinder your capacity to blow some air into the instrument, but that’s a topic for another post).

Moustache

Needless to say, some humans don’t have this hairy issue. But for those like me who do, I’ve found that the important part is really to trim the edge so that the contour of the mouth appears neatly. This can be done very easily with a fine pair of scissors. Once you follow this rule, there’s basically no facial hair in contact with the mouthpiece so it’s all fine. In fact I’ve never really been forced to stop playing due to some moustache syndrome. It’s just annoying when it gets in the way and it’s not that hard to avoid.

Under pressure

A common beginner’s mistake is to apply too much mechanical pressure on the lips, by pulling the horn. This might be some kind of intuitive gesture to help with higher notes that are hard to play, but it’s really bad practice. You might have to stop playing for a few days if any pain or visible damage appears. Instead, what’s important is to learn how to produce higher air pressure and find the optimum position and angle for the air flow to enter the mouthpiece.

To play louder, I like to try and move the horn away from my mouth and blow air at higher pressure to keep the sound going. For higher notes, this also applies but there are additional techniques with the shape of the tongue and mouth to accelerate the air flow. It would take many more words to try to describe how that works. To be continued…

Photo by Kaveh


Last modified on 2022-02-28