How jaw problems can be the culprit behind poor tone…

Most musicians don't realize how their jaw position can have such an effect on their tone quality, and how jaw problems can be the secret culprit behind problems with tone.

I'll never forget my first year of teaching, where I had some talented young musicians in the 4th and 5th grade…

A young girl's experience with jaw problems

One girl stood out to me. Her name was Jenna, and she was a really good clarinet player.

How jaw problems can affect musicians' tone

She and her mom confided in me about a problem she was having not only with her playing, but that was also affecting her health.

Jenna was getting headaches every day.

She also found that she was clenching her jaw when she was playing clarinet – to the point where it was hurting.

She had a nice tone and good range (she was able to cross the break cleanly), but couldn't play very long (her endurance was affected).

She recently got braces, which was when her jaw problems started.

Her mom had brought her to a whole bunch of specialists. They first figured out that the headaches came from TMJ.

This was also my first experience with a student experiencing similar jaw problems to what I had as a teenager, so this really resonated with me, because I developed TMJ once I got braces as a child too. (This does NOT mean that everyone who gets braces develops TMJ!)

Unfortunately, I didn't have too much time with Jenna because she just opened up to me about this problem in the Spring which meant I only had a couple more months to work with her.

Jenna graduated from 5th Grade and was still having problems with her jaw when she left my school…

What is TMJ?

You may be suffering from TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint Disease) if you experience some of these symptoms: numbness of the jaw/temporal area, dull and/or sharp pain in the jaw or temporal areas or a headache in the temporal area. (The temporal lobe is directly behind the ears and is where the primary auditory cortex is located.)

For years, my jaw would click, I couldn't open my mouth wide (which made dental visits really difficult), and I would have a nagging, sharp pain on the right side of my jaw.

I just dealt with it, not thinking there was any solution.

There was no internet then, and my dentist was not very good and not helpful for my problem.

Years later, as an adult, I went to a really good dentist who told me I was grinding my teeth at night. He said that could be one reason why my jaw was hurting.

In fact, teeth grinding, stress, or even direct trauma (getting hit in the jaw) can cause TMJ in some people.

He recommended a Night Brace, which looked like some of those mouth guards I used when playing field hockey and lacrosse as a kid.

That really started to help, but for me, wasn't the total answer…

As with many people who had braces as a child, my teeth started to return to their crooked ways.

At the time, I was having problems with range and endurance on the trumpet, and I was thinking, maybe I need to look into braces again to straighten my teeth. But I would refuse to have the same type of painful braces, with the wires and metal in my mouth – there had to be something better now.

I researched and learned about Invisalign.  For me, this was a God-send.

My teeth would get straight and I wouldn't have those painful daggers in my mouth while trying to play Trumpet.

BTW, traditional braces are not bad when it comes to wires and the actual braces on the teeth sticking out for Woodwind players, even Flute. I found that many students with braces just tend to generate more saliva in their mouth while playing, so they have to continually clear moisture from their reed.

Traditional braces are definitely a challenge for Brass players, especially trumpeters; however, it can be done, and can help you play with less mouthpiece pressure.

The other added advantage, which I wouldn't realize until months later, was that the Invisalign inserts also acted as a Night Brace, preventing me from grinding my teeth at night so much.

I started to notice that my jaw was feeling better, and I didn't have to take frequent breaks at the dentist to rest my jaw.

I was also a little more relaxed while playing.  At that time, I took lessons with great teachers who showed me how to imitate nature and what comes naturally to me when setting up my embouchre. This helped the TMJ and many other facets of my playing.

Also, people started telling me about books like the Relaxation Response, Inner Game of Tennis, Inner Game of Music and Effortless Mastery. All these books were a hint that I needed to deal with my stress…

I still was of the mindset though that meditation and visualization were a little too weird, so even though I read those books, I didn't get the full benefit of the great information I was exposed to. (Luckily, years later I understood it and started to implement some of the strategies.)

When playing the Saxophones, I didn't have the same problems as Trumpet because I wasn't clenching my jaw while playing.

Any unnecessary muscular tension in the body when playing an instrument will result in tension in other parts of the body. Too much tension affects your breath support, fingering coordination and articulation (if your jaw is tense your tongue will have tension too), which affects your tone.

The combination of relaxing my mind and body, using the Night Brace and Invisalign retainers, and imitating what came natural to me when setting up my embouchre made a huge difference in my playing and also in alleviating the jaw pain.

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How can I prevent jaw problems?

Here's some questions and thoughts to consider:

1. Are you grinding your teeth at night?

  • Check with your dentist to see if there's unusual wear on your molars from possibly grinding your teeth at night.
  • There are night braces available – you can find them at a drugstore like CVS or Walgreens and make your own, or your dentist can make one for you.
  • Are you under a lot of stress? That can cause you to grind your teeth at night (as was my case).  Look into meditation, yoga, or anything that can relax your mind.

2. If you play a brass or woodwind instrument, are you clenching your jaw while playing?

  • I used to do this, and didn't even realize it!
  • Imitate nature, meaning when you set up your embouchre, think of words or letters to imitate.
    • For example, for Trumpet and Brass, I think the letter “M”. That's the general shape I want to keep while playing.
    • For Saxes and Clarinet, the letters “F” or “V”, or the words, “wolf” or “victory” to set up the bottom lip and chin and jaw position.
    • For Flute, I was taught to think the word, “Prune.” Some people think of pouting for setting up the embouchre.

3. Do you “chew” when you articulate?

  • If you notice your jaw moving up and down when you articulate, you are using way too much motion.
  • Imitate how you would naturally say the word “too” and notice that your jaw doesn't move.
  • Say “too” in 16th note patterns, and notice how your jaw doesn't move much.
  • Work towards doing the same on your instrument.

4. Are you under a lot of stress? (aren't we all!)

  • Look into meditation, yoga or breathing exercises to calm your mind.
  • Check out those books I mentioned above.
  • Many successful people write their thoughts down in a Journal every day. It helps clear their mind.
  • Every day, write (or say out loud) 3 things that you are grateful for. You can't be stressed or angry when you are grateful.

5.  Trying a different approach:

  • Acupuncture has gotten very popular in the U.S. over the past 5 years. I have used this to help with headaches.
  • In this article, alternatives to taking pain medication are explored, such as Acupuncture, stretching exercises, stretching tape, changing the diet and in some cases, and cortisone shots or even surgery.

What happened to Jenna?

I saw her years later at a high school concert (around 2008). She was still playing Clarinet and was still a terrific student.

Her jaw problems improved quite a bit but she still wasn't pain-free.

We didn't get a chance to talk long, and I honestly don't know if her TMJ was still a huge problem for her.

I wish I knew all the research and information back then that I know now in order to have helped Jenna.

But I guess that experience opened my eyes into thinking about other reasons that may not be so common as to why students may have difficulty playing with a clear tone or are unable to make progress with articulation or coordination.

It's a huge reminder how we are all different and to really try to put ourselves into the shoes of others when trying to help them.

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Comments

  1. Donna,

    Enjoying your videos very much. The jaw can be very problematic. I got so stressed out last summer, the jaw clenched and froze. I literally could not play. It was one embarrassing audition!

  2. Sax Sister Lynette says

    Donna,
    Thank you for your videos and your podcast.
    I can really relate to this post. I had to get Invisalign braces last year or I was going to lose some teeth. Although my teeth now look great, it completely changed by bite. My sax tone was awful for most of last year until I learned how to adjust my embouchure for the changes in my mouth. Very glad I got the braces (I get to keep all of my teeth!) but it was a stressful year for my music.

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