Disclaimer: I am not a physician, nor do I have any formal training in physical therapy. The thoughts and suggestions on embouchure fatigue and injury in this blog are to provide resources and keep an open discussion going about musicians wellness and injury prevention.
An underdiscussed musicians’ injury: the embouchure
After switching from flute, I was one year into learning the oboe in high school when I headed to the east coast, 7000 feet lower in elevation from where I lived. I was visiting colleges when I stopped in a music store and picked up a couple of medium-strength machine-made oboe reeds.
A few days later I was home in the mountains straining to play on reeds that felt like they needed a bit of effort. Being stubborn, I kept at it for several weeks until my embouchure literally couldn’t hold the reed for even a few minutes at a time.
Luckily, I had a lesson scheduled with a professional oboe instructor! I learned a ton and I was sent home with one playable hand-made high-altitude reed that was nice and light.
But it was already too late. I kept trying to practice, but every time I tried, I couldn’t make it more than 5 minutes!
Frustrated, I called my new teacher and told them what was going on. The reply on the other end of the phone crushed me: “I don’t teach students who aren’t committed. Call me when you are ready to get serious about practicing”.
I was devastated.
There were many variables I didn’t understand at the time about how to play the oboe efficiently. Or, how reeds change with altitude and how easy it is to strain a new muscle being used intensely (and probably incorrectly) for the first time. I thought it was my fault.
How I healed
This next section is for anyone out there experiencing the same issue. You are not alone.
Embouchure injuries may not be normalized yet, but someday they might be. In the meantime, I’ve heard about similar injuries and experiences from other musicians. This is a real injury.
For me, it took about 6 months completely off the instrument before I was able to start slowly adding in 5 minutes at a time (on a lighter reed). Teenage-me had zero patience and it was an incredibly difficult time because I didn’t understand what was going on.
There are so many factors to consider with injury prevention. In my experience, here are some warning signs to look out for if you think you might have an embouchure injury, or might be at risk for one:
- If your normal practice/playing time starts to suddenly decrease and doesn’t restore within a day or two of rest
- Suddenly not being able to play at all
- A decrease in quality of playing over time and/or feeling like your embouchure is tired all the time
- Other pain while playing (if the strain in your embouchure is causing anything else in your body to hurt
- Pain anywhere in your body while playing, especially if it doesn’t go away after practicing
How to prevent injuries
If you are experiencing any pain while playing, embouchure fatigue, or embouchure pain, seek professional help immediately. Don’t wait for it to become a full injury that will prevent you from playing at all.
I was in my 5th injury cycle when I finally met Austin Pancner of The Functional Musician. His program helped me get back to playing pain-free. However, there are now many incredible resources available to help with musicians’ wellness and injury prevention. I encourage everyone to look for a resource that resonates with your journey and utilize it to prevent future injuries, and/or help you heal from a current injury.
Injury Prevention Variables
The following is a list of health related variables that I have observed that might contribute to an embouchure injury, or any repetitive stress injury.
- Reeds or an instrument set-up that requires too much physical effort for your body/embouchure and/or personal playing style
- Injuries or strain in other parts of the body that might have a secondary impact on the embouchure such as neck, jaw, back, etc/li>
- General stress which can lead to tension (because tension can lead to tight muscles and an increase in possible injury).
- Lack of sleep, hydration, and other wellness essentials that could lead to tight muscles
- Non-music related injuries and/or overuse at the gym that could cause strain to wrists, back, etc. Just because it’s not playing-related doesn’t mean it couldn’t cause a playing-related injury.
- Prolonged periods of sitting—as musicians we all do this and the impact on our glutes, hips, back, etc can have an impact higher up on our necks, embouchure, etc.
- and more!
A special note for oboe players
This is the advice I wish I had been able to Google when my embouchure quit on me.
First of all, an embouchure injury and/or embouchure fatigue is more common than you might think. My personal philosophy is that we should adapt the instrument to us, not the other way around.
With that being said, if you are experiencing any physical pain while playing and/or embouchure fatigue or injury, there is hope!
In addition to the resource links above, I would recommend reassessing your reed set-up. While I am not a trained physical therapist, I am an oboist!
There are as many reed philosophies out there as there are types of cane. However, if your current set up is not allowing you to do what you want to do (may it be play in a certain way, or even play at all), I’d suggest starting with your reed set-up, air usage, and addressing any excess tension.
Some oboe-specific variables that might be causing strain and/or injury:
- Reed is not responsive enough. This will result in you needing to blow a ton of air just to get things going, let alone do anything else (with tone, pitch, dynamics, etc).
- Reed requires “effort” to sound good. If your reed is too buzzy, sharp, flat…etc, you may feel like you need to use a lot of embouchure muscle to force it to do something. In my experience, it is possible to have a reed where the only thing your embouchure is responsible for is to “hold a seal”.
- Using embouchure to do things your air or voicings (throat) should be responsible for. For years I used to roll the reed in and out to adjust for pitch. I had a lot of issues with fatigue.
There are more efficient ways to control the pitch that don’t involve the embouchure specifically.
- Extra tension in your body or embouchure, or general stress causing extra tension. Even on an ideal set-up, tension alone can cause a “tight” embouchure which will lead to fatigue.
If you are experiencing embouchure fatigue, wondering if your reeds are a good fit for your playing style, or want to learn more about anything listed above, send me an email! I also offer zoom lessons and am happy to help discuss your set-up and next steps.
It is my hope this article will help continue a more open conversations in the music community about wellness and injury prevention. If this information helped you, please feel free to comment below, share with someone that is looking for support, and/or share the musicians resource page. I am keeping the resource page updated and always looking for any new resources to add. Email me if you are a wellness professional or know of someone who should be on the list. Let’s normalize musicians’ wellness and injury prevention as part of our music education!