Focal (Embouchure) Dystonia

An article by Lucinda-Lewis Copyright 2000.

Focal (Embouchure) Dystonia One of the most frustrating and debilitating problems any musician can develop is a focal dystonia. A dystonia is an overuse syndrome which causes a kind of short circuit of motor signals in the suffer’s brain and completely inhibits his physical ability to perform. In a string player or pianist, a finger is often affected. In a brass player, a dystonia can appear in the lip (usually the upper) as an uncontrollable spasm or sneer; or it can present itself as quivering lips in the middle aspect of a player’s range; or it can show up in the jaw, causing the teeth to become uncontrollably clenched as a player begins to play. While some drugs are prescribed for focal dystonias, no cure exists.

There are a few physicians who have worked with musicians in retraining the afflicted muscles but with limited success. Since a dystonia is a neurological problem, a player suffering with any sort of uncontrollable spasm or quiver should seek the advice of a neurologist who specializes in movement disorders. [Players suspecting that they have a focal dystonia should contact Dr. Steven Frucht, , who is conducting a study on brass players’ embouchure dystonias at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.]

It’s only natural to believe that once we have mastered the technical difficulties of a musical instrument, the physical mechanisms we perfected for playing are somehow permanently encoded on our mental hard drives. Unfortunately, the stresses of life and the physical demands of a professional career can have a deleterious impact on our overall capacity to play. While our performance experience provides us with the aptitude for overcoming playing problems, sometimes that ability causes us to lose sight of our physical limitations. Avoiding injury can be as simple as applying a little common sense. Overcoming an injury requires massive doses of it.

Every brass player suffering with an embouchure malaise or lip injury believes that he is forever doomed to performing on painful or uncooperative chops and will never be able to repair his playing back to the level he once enjoyed. The good new is, every one of these problems can be repaired and by the player himself. While it is neither a quick nor simple task, it must begin with retraining basic embouchure mechanics.

To that end, it is useful for a player to compare how his buzzing embouchure differs from his playing embouchure. There’s a novel little oddity about embouchures. A player’s healthy chop mechanics always seem to be present in his buzzing (on a mouthpiece) embouchure. If an afflicted player watches himself in a mirror and analyzes how his muscles configure when he buzzes on his mouthpiece, as compared to how they configure when actually plays, he will likely see for himself where the weakness is. Although buzzing and playing do have certain minor differences, the configuration of the muscles should be comparable in both. In other words, even in the throes of the worst embouchure problem or lip injury, a player’s healthy chop mechanics are still there just waiting to be rediscovered.

This article was adapted from the forthcoming book by Lucinda-Lewis, The Embouchure Handbook. She has been the principal horn of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra since 1977 and Secretary of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians since 1990.

Copyright 2000, Lucinda-Lewis.

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