The decision to have braces during childhood can be a difficult decision to make… even before you consider how it will affect your trumpet playing! While teaching I have lost count of the number of times that I been approached by students or their parents to tell me that their orthodontist has told them to stop playing.
I have also encountered a number of stories and experiences shared online by people that have really struggled to the point of having to give up the trumpet. Another huge issue that often gets overlooked is what happens when the braces come off!
The purpose of this article is to give some advice and hope to young players, that not only can they continue to play, but that they can possibly even use this as an opportunity to really develop their trumpeting.
I have included here the thoughts and invaluable experience of Alan Thomas. Alan is the Principal Trumpet of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and had braces aged 15-18, right up until commencing studies at Music College. Here is a little of Alan’s experience in his own words!:
“I was lucky to have a very conscientious teacher in Richard Baker. He moved my embouchure to the middle and got me going on progressive exercises. Despite my protestations, he never allowed me to give up. He teaches for East Sussex and now runs the very successful Hangleton Youth Brass Band (50+ young brass players), the band where I started. I achieved grade 8 distinction as well as double A level in music, and had a range safely up to a top C by the end.
At my Birmingham Conservatoire audition, Andy Stone-Fewings remembers my audition with braces. They asked me to demonstrate my range and apparently I got up to only an E or F?! Out of all the UK colleges, I only got into Trinity College of Music and Birmingham. What was interesting was that I was in-and-out very quickly at the other colleges, but Norman Burgess at Trinity and Andy and Jon Holland at Birmingham took time to analyse my playing. It was interesting that these colleges were looking for potential more than a finished article and showed faith in me. I try to do the same when I’m on audition panels now.
My original intention was to do these auditions as a dry-run for the following year without braces, but after a positive experience at audition, I decided to give Birmingham a go. I started there 6 months after braces were out. I then had plenty of time to work on my playing for the next 4 years.”
The first and most important adjustment that you need to make is one of thought process and attitude. The big positive with adjusting to playing the trumpet with braces is that the focus HAS to be on the air. The discomfort of the braces digging in and also the added strain on isolated parts of the inner lip will most likely have an effect.
Alan: “You must also not forget about the positives that you are getting out of this: you have an opportunity to learn to play with minimum pressure, reset a less-than-ideal embouchure… and get a set of nice teeth!”
The second big change needs to be one of routine. Be slow and patient. Listen. Slowly find a comfortable range (even if it is just one note to start) and gradually build on it. You will also find that practicing in short bursts is far more beneficial.
Alan: “Concentrate on the basics and do not push the range too early. You should use this opportunity to hone other techniques such as double/triple tonguing, low flexibility with low resistance, and pedal tones can be very useful. Nice tunes are essential as just playing exercises can be so demoralizing.”
Thirdly, it may be worth considering gadgets! There are a number of interesting products on the market that may help to make playing more comfortable. Some players have found that using wax straps or brace guards have eased the problem of the braces digging in. Others have found that they actually make playing harder as the lips get pushed that bit further forward. It is certainly worth trying though.
Alan: “I never used any of these. I found that the strips and guards interrupted air flow and increased the size of the braces on my teeth.”
Finally, you need to plan for the braces being removed. This can feel as alien as when the braces first go on.
Alan: “This needs to be judged carefully as you can easily go back to using excess pressure. Again, take a bit of time off usual playing to get used to things. I think that I went onto the back row at band again for a while. Build your range steadily. Concentrate on getting the lips to vibrate well in the mouthpiece. I still have a cut off mouthpiece that I use to visualize this.”
Through all of this process, it is obviously incredibly important to consult closely with your orthodontist who can guide you through the different options. I have come across an interesting article online from the British Orthodontic Society giving a good overview, which you may find useful too.
Alan: “I definitely feel that the braces helped my long-term development. It is easier to keep my teeth clean and I now have a fabulous ‘Wallace & Gromit’ smile! I have a good central embouchure, which I have been told looks effortless. It was very difficult at the time, but I had a lot of support from family, friends, bandmaster and teachers.”