As a horn-playing orthodontist, it saddens me to hear of fellow musicians who are desperate for braces to straighten their teeth, but who are having severe doubts because of the effect the appliances may have on their music playing.
In fact, music students are often discouraged from seeking orthodontic treatment by their music teachers. The great news is that these fears are generally unfounded! With my 45-years experience of playing the French horn, and 20-years as a specialist orthodontist, I am able to share advice that will enable musicians to get the fabulous smile they always wanted, while continuing to play the instrument they love!
There is no doubt that playing wind and brass instruments after having fixed braces fitted is very tricky and frustrating. I will always remember the first time I tried to play after my dad fitted fixed braces (he was also a horn-playing orthodontist!!). The noises I created while tuning-up before a county youth orchestra rehearsal were extraordinary. This was both embarrassing and demoralising. Amazingly, my playing quickly returned to relative normality. The advice in this blog will ensure it will be the same for you.
How can you get the timing of treatment right?
Despite my reassurances that you will adapt to playing wind instruments with fixed braces, it does take a few weeks. Therefore I certainly would not advise starting treatment too soon before a grade exam or audition. We can be flexible about when to fit your braces and will work around important musical commitments.
What variations can be made for embouchure differences?
The variation of embouchure between instruments mean that the experience of wearing braces will differ depending on the instrument being played. A brass player’s mouthpiece pushes directly on to the front of the brackets causing the main discomfort on their lips. This is less of a problem for reed-instruments, where the instrument lies between the front teeth. The main discomfort here is at the side where the cheeks contract against the brace. Flautists will again have a different experience due to the nature of their embouchure.
I always remember an instance where my knowledge of embouchures got a young flautist out of a tricky situation! I was asked to see her a few days before a grade-exam. In between her tears, she explained how she had her upper brace fitted by her orthodontist a few weeks earlier and this had had little effect on her playing. She returned the week of her exam to have her lower brace fitted and highlighted her concern that she had an exam a few days later.
The orthodontist, probably understandably, suggested that she would be fine because her playing was unaffected by the upper brace. This was without the knowledge of the flute embouchure where the instrument is held specifically against the lower incisors. This meant it was the lower brackets that affected the patient’s playing. All I had to do to allow her to play normally for her grade-exam was to temporarily remove the brace from the lower front 6 teeth.
This knowledge of embouchures means I can adapt my advice according to the instrument played.
Can the treatment aims be flexible?
As much as I would always aim for the ideal orthodontic result, it may be appropriate to agree a compromise treatment plan where you achieve your desired result but reducing the affect on your instrument playing. This could be deciding to treat only one dental arch or simplifying the aims so that the braces are on for less time.
How does the choice of brace-type make a difference?
As a specialist orthodontist, I would recommend fixed braces as the gold-standard. They are, however, undeniably harder to play instruments with when compared to a removable appliance, such as Invisalign aligners. If the malocclusion allows, I would try to adapt my treatment recommendation towards using these more sympathetic options!
What are the top-tips Wind & Brass Players wearing fixed braces should follow?
There will be circumstances where fixed braces are the most appropriate treatment option. There is no doubt that it will be really hard at the start so please stick at it and together we will get you through the initial difficulties.
The following advice will help you adapt to your braces.
1. Use wax over the brackets
I will show you a special technique for covering the brackets that most affect your embouchure. This makes the brace feel smoother and improves comfort. You will probably stop needing the wax after a few months.
2. Adapt your playing register
As a brass player I am aware that the pressure of the mouthpiece on the lips tends to increase as you go up in the register. Certainly at the beginning, I would suggest concentrating on the low register and to move to the higher notes as things get more comfortable. I certainly played more 2nd or 4th horn when I had my braces fitted and found this easier.
With brass players having to push directly on to the brace, the more lip muscle they can get between the brackets and the mouthpiece, the less uncomfortable it will be for them. The more lip puckering you can achieve the better – and we all know that is good for technique as well!
4. Practice more not less
The final piece of advice is obvious – however demoralised you may feel when you first have your brace fitted you need to face the challenge by practicing more, not less. You will overcome the difficulties quicker and get back to playing as before.
If you follow this advice and continue to play your instrument, just imagine what it will feel like when the brace is removed. I still remember the day my dad removed my brace. Not only did I have an amazing smile, but the standard of my horn-playing had continued to improve throughout my orthodontic treatment. A brilliant win-win!
Good luck to all you wind and brass players out there. If you have any questions you would like me to answer please do get in touch.
HAPPY MUSIC MAKING!