It is a common question for a parent or star low brass player to worry about adjusting to playing with braces. It even goes so far that they wonder:
Can I play low brass while having braces?
The answer is: yes! Not only have millions of people, including myself, gone through this, they often come out the other side better players. There will be a transition period, but let’s explore some of the ways to make it easier and some related questions.
I’ll first say that low brass players have it hardest. I sympathize. My brother played trumpet, and it was easier for him. The mouthpiece barely touches the affected region. The larger the low brass instrument, the more metal is going to press your lips into the braces.
Early Days of Braces
The main thing that needs to happen is to build up callouses inside your mouth. This will only happen by playing and then giving yourself enough rest to let it heal. You need to cycle this process several times, probably over a few weeks, to get it to be comfortable.
One way to make this less painful is to use wax. This is just a gooey substance placed on the metal of the braces so that the metal doesn’t come in direct contact with the inside of your mouth. You can even continue to use wax while playing for the entire time you have braces.
I’ll warn you that you will probably still need to build up callouses, though. If you’re playing for any significant amount of time, then the wax will squash down and the metal will start to poke through. So, you’ll either need to continuously reapply it, or develop better callouses.
I would not recommend pain relievers if you experience a lot of pain. This is your lip telling you that you’ve gone far enough for the practice session. It is much better to just rest until playing is comfortable again.
Callouses are formed by healing a minor wound. Remember to keep your mouth clean during this process to speed it up. Mouthwash can be effective to make sure germs aren’t getting into the wound.
Once you are back to playing for long sessions with comfort, you’re going to have to retrain your embouchure to make sure you have the tone quality, range, and flexibility you had before getting braces.
You will probably start to use less pressure of the instrument against your lips when you first get braces because of the irritation. This is great, and if you manage to keep doing this after getting the braces off, you’ll probably be a better player for it.
Some people tense up after getting braces. This happens naturally as a result of the body expecting pain when bringing the instrument to the lips. The best way to get your sound back to where it used to be is to focus on staying relaxed and open in the throat. Use a lot of warm air.
You should be able to get back in shape quickly by doing long-tone exercises where you focus entirely on tone quality and relaxation (see my article on improving tone quality). Once your body stops expecting pain, it should stop tensing up.
In the long term, you will be retraining your embouchure, but there isn’t too much you can consciously do about this. Your body will make natural adjustments as you focus on the sound.
As long as you don’t develop any bad habits to compensate (a teacher should catch these), then you can come out of the experience a much better player.
My range, tone, and stamina had all gotten better when I got my braces off. Of course, some of this was me progressing as a player. But being forced to use more air and less pressure can be seen as a blessing in disguise.
Can I Play with a Pimple or Cold Sore on My Lip?
Most people have been there. You wake up and find a full blown cold sore or pimple on your lip, right where your mouthpiece goes.
I don’t think we’re going to solve the old and controversial science of whether those medications in your local drug store are actually effective at shortening the time of these things.
If you personally find comfort in a certain topical medication, and it makes it easier to play, then definitely do it! But I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this option for everyone, because I’ve personally never found one to be effective for me.
I’ve always played through these situations, and I’ve scoured the internet in search of finding some reason not to. It’s possible that aggravating them will cause them to stick around longer, but there shouldn’t be any serious reason to avoid playing if you have to.
Obviously, don’t do it if it’s unbearable. I’d also not do it if the awkwardness makes it so that it’s not worth playing (maybe you can’t get a good seal on the mouthpiece or even hit some of the notes in the piece).
The most important thing is to thoroughly clean your mouthpiece after every use while a cold sore exists. Cold sores can form by your lip coming into contact with the virus that causes it. This means you could reinfect yourself if you aren’t doing a thorough cleaning.
Use running water, because viruses aren’t necessarily killed by disinfectant or heat.
Can I Play if I Grow a Beard?
I had a beard for five years. It was trimmed short, but it was definitely in the region of my mouthpiece. When I do this, it takes some getting used to, but I’ve never had any problems.
The main issue is during the growing out period. You can expect that the “stubble” phase will be a bit irritating. For me, this is around 3-7 days of growth. Once it passes a certain point, the hairs lay flat against the rim of the mouthpiece. Before then, they will poke into your skin.
If you are having problems, then you can consider shaving the part where your mouthpiece touches. I know one tuba player that does this, and it looks perfectly natural.