Orthodontics present a special challenge for students. I have had recent first-hand experience with braces, as I elected to undergo orthodontics as an adult.
When I was in middle school I begged my parents not to force me to get orthodontics to correct uneven front teeth so as not to interfere with my horn playing. Through the years it became clear that my horn playing was suffering from my uneven teeth: I could play high notes but only for a limited amount of time. From the uneven pressure, my lips became more and more painful until I had to rest them.
After having been a professional hornist for more than 15 years in Boston, I had to have major dental work on my front teeth due to a decaying root canal. In consultation with my dentist, Dr. Thomas Ford of Brookline, MA, and orthodontist Dr. Lloyd Mahler, we devised a plan for me to undergo a full two year orthodontic treatment following the dental bridge work. When I went in for my initial orthodontic evaluation, I brought in my mouthpiece to show Dr. Mahler the area where the pressure against my lips was strongest, and he always made sure that there were no sharp points on the braces in those areas. He was also able to apply the braces so that they were not directly in line with where my mouthpiece pressed against them.
The first time I played my horn after the braces were put on my upper teeth (braces on my lower teeth were added later) I very quickly realized that I could barely stand to use any mouthpiece pressure at all. The best (and only) way for me to play with significantly reduced mouthpiece pressure was to take much deeper breaths, and use greatly increased air pressure to allow my lips to “buzz.” With these two factors now in play, I sought out the best references I could find for deep breathing exercises, including “The Breathing Gym” DVDs and books on pranayama yoga breathing.
The next revelation I had, to be able to play effectively with braces, was that it helped immensely to release the mouthpiece off my lips every chance possible, to allow blood to flow to my lips. With these three adjustments, I was able to perform professionally during this period, choosing to play low horn whenever possible. When my braces were removed, I played my first high C in two years (!), I could play without pain and had greatly enhanced embouchure endurance.
The first-hand knowledge I gained from having orthodontics as an instructor has greatly influenced my teaching approach for students with braces. When they first get braces, every student finds that they have more difficulty with both the higher and lower notes of their range. Although this is very common, it often takes younger students by surprise. I design specific exercises for each student, both with slurring and tonguing, that are within their narrowed range. At first, the lips become fatigued quickly, and I make sure for the student to rest their lips briefly. Little by little, the exercises help to rebuild muscle strength, and toughen the inside of the gums where the braces touch when they play. Gradually, we increase the range, both higher and lower, always taking care to rest the lips periodically, to build up the muscles and gain more lip stamina.
In my private studio, I always make a point of talking to parents of new middle school aged students in my studio about the long-term benefits of orthodontics, preferably before they have their first appointment with the orthodontist. When a child is to go in for an orthodontic evaluation, I strongly recommend that they bring in their mouthpiece and tell the orthodontist that they play horn, because the vast majority of patients do not apply pressure against their lips, other than brass players. I tell each student that there are three major upsides to having braces: 1). using much reduced lip pressure 2). taking consistent deep breaths 3). Increasing endurance by releasing the mouthpiece from the lips whenever possible.
For all students and particularly those with braces, I have developed my own deep breathing exercises that are both challenging and fun for each student. For new students who come to me with endurance problems due to excessive mouthpiece pressure, I recommend the “Stratos Embouchure Builder” invented by Marcus Reynolds, which is a great aid to those needing to learn to play with reduced pressure (without the benefit of orthodontics).