My problems playing trumpet with chapped lips began when I lived in El Paso, an arid, mountainous area of the great state of Texas. In stark contrast to living in Hawaii, where I had lived previously to El Paso, the desert mountain climate of West Texas was brutal to my lips. There were days when the skin split open so wide that blood gushed out for days. This is obviously a problem if your intentions are to become a serious professional trumpet player.
I have written about this before but with the new Google structure in place, that article continues to sink to the bottom of the virtual sea of obscurity. Since I now have a recent story to write about, I decided to resuscitate the old topic and write about it again.
You can read my old chapped lips article at my website. I don’t often refer people to those articles anymore because my writing is far improved from what it was twenty years ago.
Bad Sound and Chapped Lips
Not long ago I posted a blog about the 1001 reason for your bad sound. I wrote this article because so many trumpet teachers focus on “How to get a good sound on trumpet,” but never seem to focus on the things that hinder that process. I believe that a very important part of working on someone’s sound is chipping away at all the things that might be ruining an otherwise beautiful sound.
Chapped lips is one of those things that can cause someone to have a bad sound, even when they do everything else right. My father used to tell me not to try to diagnose mechanical problems in a car until you tune it up. I look at working on sound production with my students the same way. Things like chapped lips can cause a misdiagnosis, causing the teacher to prescribe inappropriate, irrelevant remedies.
As I grow as a teacher, I get better at recognizing chapped lips in my students just by listening to their sounds. Chapped lips have a very distinctive sound. Usually. when I hear that sound, I know not to automatically spew the traditional tone production instructions. If I recognize that the students have chapped lips, I will have them do something about the chapped lips before I try to work with them on their sounds.
The most important thing is to avoid getting chapped in the first place. You can often avoid getting chapped lips by staying super hydrated. Drink plenty of water. Chapped lips are a symptom of dehydration. Contrary to what my earlier article seems to imply, dehydration is the not the only cause of chapped lips, but it is the most common cause. So drinking enough water goes a long way towards preventing this problem and maintaining a better trumpet sound.
In my old article I said that staying hydrated was my chapped lips cure and that I rarely needed the treatments anymore. That is still about 90% true today. Because of my kidneys, I have to drink enough water every day. As a result, I rarely have issues with chapped lips. But there are times when that’s not enough and my lips do chap.
Compensating In Performance
If you find yourself in a situation where you must play on chapped lips, there are a few things you can do to salvage the performance. First of all, avoid playing softly at all costs. It is better to be criticized for playing too loud than to sound like an incompetent beginner. Playing softly means literally not playing at all. When the tissue in the lips are dried up, they don’t vibrate. The lips become hard like rawhide leather and gentle, delicate musicianship is no longer an option.
Another thing you can do if you are forced to perform with chapped lips is to temporarily change your embouchure, rolling the lips outward to expose the mucus membrane. On this embouchure, it is the softer tissue that vibrates, not the skin of the lips.
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the importance of the warmup. Warming up on chapped lips is entirely different from a typical warmup. The objective is different. When you have chapped lips, the objective of the warmup is to work the leather into a more supple, more pliable texture. Practice pedal tones and easy lip slurs. Do lots of long tones. Sometimes a nice long warmup of long tones and low notes can completely reverse the problems caused by chapped lips.
Healing Chapped Lips
I remain a big fan of the Neutrogena Lip Moisturizer.
It’s funny. I have a adult male beginner student who told me he doesn’t use “lip stuff” because it’s too feminine. Hey, I’m with him on the whole femininity thing. I don’t do “metro male.” I wouldn’t be using lip treatments at all if the suppleness of the lips wasn’t such an important factor in my profession…playing the trumpet!
The reason I decided to write this blog today is because I recently had a short bout with chapped lips again. My lips chapped on Monday. I looked around the house for lip treatment but all I could find was a tube of chap stick that needed to be used up (I don’t like to waste). On Monday evening, the bottom lip had a piece of skin that pealed off and swelled up. No blood or anything like that, but it was beginning to become difficult to play my horn.
So I continued to apply the chap stick. I used this stuff for almost five days before I finally broke down and took a trip to Walgreens to get the Neutrogena stuff. In that five days, the raw patch on my lip refused to heal.
In contrast, after using the Neutrogena Lip Moisturizer, that raw spot on my bottom lip healed within twelve hours. I do not believe that Neutrogena is the only brand that does this. I have used other brands successfully. But the traditional, normal, chap stick clearly does not have the same healing properties as the Neutrogena does. That’s why I use it and why I try to avoid the cheaper products.