How to Combat “Stiff Chops”

From time to time we all have gone through the sensation that our trumpet playing lips are too stiff and feel uncomfortably ridged. Each time you put the mouthpiece to your lip you seem to have the same reaction, “Oh no, here we go again”. When this condition develops, there are several ways to address this problem-

  • What is wrong with my lip?
  • How did I get this way?
  • How can I get relief?
  • What do I need to do to prevent this condition from coming back?

What’s wrong with my lip?

A stiff or inflexible embouchure is usually caused from one of two actions (1) Practicing the wrong material or (2) Playing too long at one time. Some of the symptoms which go along with the overly stiff embouchure are- difficulty playing soft passages, uncertainty when starting notes, and an airy sound to your tone. If you are experiencing any or all of these symptoms, you might be suffering from an overly stiff embouchure.

How did I get this way?

Practicing the wrong material– Trumpet playing is very similar to any other athletic event. Both disciplines require a regular and balanced conditioning routine which should include the following-

Warm-up period- The purpose of this practice is to gradually warm the muscles involved with your discipline. An athlete will gradually begin a session by stretching, which gradually warms and stretches the muscles involved with the up coming actions. Without a warm up, both athletes would run the risk of injury to their bodies. Trumpet players usually have their own method of warming up and this will eventually be decided upon through careful evaluations on your part. Some player feel that softly played long tones is the best method. Some regularly buzz without the mouthpiece for five to ten minutes. Some players feel that ten minutes of buzzing on the mouthpiece is best. I remember one of my former teachers felt that he needed to buzz on a trombone mouthpiece for ten minutes before he was ready to start his trumpet practicing. Which method you decide upon will be your first step towards better lip conditioning.

Correct practice material- There are two extremes when trying to build your embouchure. The first is flexibility and the second is strength. Each is reached through different means. Flexibility is what you will need to perform rapid changes in the different ranges. It is also this ability which will affect your ease with which you move from one note to the next. Flexibility will also determine the openness and fullness of your tone quality. To achieve flexibility, every player should spend time during his practice period  doing flexibility exercises. One of the best books I have used to achieve this goal is Twenty-Seven Groups of Exercises by Dr. Earl Irons. This book will guide you through many interesting exercises which will not only increase your flexibility but will also increase your upper range. Be sure to follow the written material as well as the written exercises. It is very important that you follow the suggestions for dynamics. Consistently playing too loud will negate the benefits of these exercises.

Practicing too many flexibility exercises can begin to create another problem which is; developing too much flexibility and not enough strength. Building strength usually requires the playing of long tone exercises. Effective exercises for increasing strength can be found on pages 11 and 12 of the Arban Complete Method. Playing these very simple exercises at a slow tempo, beginning soft and gradually increasing the volume and finally returning to a soft dynamic will help you increase your strength as well as improve your tone quality.

What can I do to get relief?

If you are now experiencing a “too stiff” embouchure, there are several techniques which will improve your condition.

  • Soft playing
  • Buzzing on only your mouthpiece
  • Buzzing without your horn or mouthpiece
  • Flapping your lips
  • Warm compresses
  • Brush your teeth
  • Lip ointments

Soft playing

If loud, sustained playing tends to stiffen your embouchure, it seems only logical that soft playing in short intervals will lessen the stiffness

Buzzing on only your mouthpiece

Buzzing on your mouthpiece tends to loosen the muscles within the cup. Remember to keep the volume down and concentrate of the fullest, richest sound you can create.

Buzzing without your horn or mouthpiece

The vibrations created with this method will increase the area which will be affected. The embouchure area will now include more of the lip and consequently will begin to loosen more of your embouchure.

Flapping your lips

This exercise will start to relax all of your facial muscles. To get the proper results, you will have to create the sound of a horse flapping its lips. The lower the pitch, the more benefit you will achieve. Gradually you will begin to feel a tingling sensation in your facial muscles. At that point, you have gained the benefit from this exercise and you should be fully relaxed and ready to put your instrument away for the day. One thing to be aware of is the fact that if you have completely relaxed your facial muscles, you should not start playing again for several hours. If you immediately begin to play after a complete relaxation exercise as you have just done, your lip might be too relaxed and could be susceptible to damage if forced to play too strenuously.

Warm compresses

In an extreme case of lip stiffness, a warm wash cloth placed over the embouchure can sometimes help. This would only be necessary in extreme cases. The warmth will increase blood flow and eventually flush waste products from the effected areas.

Brush your teeth

I am a firm believer that the practice of brushing your teeth immediately after playing will speed up the recovery process tremendously. I brush after every segment of my daily practice routine. I start my practice for the day with a warm up which takes about ten to fifteen minutes and then I brush. My next session will last about an hour and then I brush. If I can get a third session in that day I will play again for about an hour and then brush. The action of the bristles on the inside of the lips and the minty element of the tooth paste seem to hasten the circulation in the lip muscles and it tends to ward off stiffness as well as helping to keep your instrument clean and your teeth white.

Lip ointment

Many of my brass playing friends use ointments on their lips after playing to keep them in good condition. I need to warn you that trying new medications on your lip can be hazardous and for that reason I will share with you one of the most difficult days in my playing career. Our faculty brass quintet was to perform at another college in Iowa one Sunday afternoon. The day before our concert I participated in a hunting dog field trial with my German Short Hair Pointer. When we left the music building to travel to the afternoon concert, I mentioned that my chops were dry and one of my colleagues offered a new lip ointment. I put some on and found the product very stimulating. By the time we reached the concert hall, my lips had begun to swell and as I started to warm up, I realized my mistake. I was allergic to the lip cream. By the time we mounted the stage, I was in stark terror. Before we had played half of the first number, I could not get a note out of my horn. The concert was cancelled and we returned home not playing the concert and not getting paid for our afternoon. Take my advice, “If you are going to try something new, don’t do it before a performance!”

I have used several products which I have on hand for lip conditioning. ChapStick® original is helpful when you’ve out in the wind. Another product is Blistex, but I have found that there is material in this product which relieves pain and in doing so will tend to numb your lip. The danger in this is that any area which is numbed can run the risk of excessive mouthpiece pressure. If you can’t feel your lip, you might begin to apply more mouthpiece pressure than you are accustomed to. You won’t realize this mistake until the medicine has dissipated. A friend recommended L-Lysine for lip conditioning and I have a jar at home for tired lips. I would like to repeat that “these conditioners should only be used in extreme cases. If you are practicing properly they may be helpful in adverse weather conditions. Anything more than ChapStick® for exposure to wind should not be needed.

Bruce was a member of the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa, School of Music in Cedar Falls from 1969 until his retirement in 1999. He has performed with many well-known entertainers such as Bob Hope, Jim Nabors, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Anita Bryant, Carman Cavalara, Victor Borgie, the Four Freshman, Blackstone the Magician, Bobby Vinton and John Davidson.

24 thoughts on “How to Combat “Stiff Chops”

  1. Isaiah

    This helped tremendosly thank you

    • Bruce Chidester

      …glad we can help.

      Every trumpet player has to go through this problem from time to time.

      For the last two days I have been recording solos for my new solo CD and finally finished at 1:00AM this morning. At 2:00 this afternoon, we have a concert with my trumpet ensemble. When I finished last night, after six hours of recording, I picked up my PBone and jammed for about twenty minutes. This morning my chops feel great. If I did not cool down on the trombone last night, I would have some major stiff chops. “All’s well that ends well”.

      Thanks for stopping by and have a great week.

  2. Guy Mitchell

    I have just recovered from a rather long dose of cold or flu. It developed into bronchitis and I was given antibiotics. When I picked up my trumpet I found my lips very inflexible. I had a hard time playing any notes well even in the low range. Funny enough when I tried to play a scale up to Bb above the staff I had less trouble with the high Bb than the lower notes. Is this normal?

    • Bruce Chidester

      Drugs can have differing effects on trumpet playing. Read my post on this.
      Also I had my throat close on me once and they gave me a shot to open the air way which had a side effect of ringing in the ears.
      Because of that shot I now have constant ringing in my ears.
      Good thing I’m in a profession that doesn’t require listening!

    • Callum

      I’ve just started taking antibiotics and The next day after taking them my lips became really stiff.

      • Bruce Chidester

        Same with me. Too bad Doctors know nothing about brass instruments.

        I had to go into the hospital one time for a restriction in my throat. While there, they gave me a shot to open the air passage without telling me that one of the side effects would be a permanent ringing in my ears!

        Sorry for your problem but be reassured, it will work out of your system. Be sure to limit your gigs in the meantime. If you can…..
        I have used Carmax sometimes when I have that problem but don’t try it if you have a gig in the next day or so. You need to know what reaction you might have.

        Meanwhile, “keep up a stiff upper lip”. Did I really say that?

  3. Mark

    Hi, I recently have hit a low point with my trumpet embrosure. I lost about a quarter of my range as well as my endurance. My embrosure feels foreign and my lips feel as though they are twitching and tired all the time. Like when you do that last pushup and youre struggling to finish it, but I feel like that all the time on the trumpet. It started about 5 months ago and has not gotten better. I am starting this routine and hopefully this will work for me.

    • Bruce Chidester

      Thank you for contacting me about your situation.

      The symptoms you have described are not normal and for that reason, please take my suggestions seriously.

      “I recently have hit a low point with my trumpet embrasure”.

      How long have you been playing trumpet?

      “I lost about a quarter of my range as well as my endurance”.

      How much were you practicing just before this happened and were you working on your high range at that time. If you were working on high notes, how much time were you giving to this area of your practice?

      “My embouchure feels foreign and my lips feel as though they are twitching and tired all the time. Like when you do that last pushup and you’re struggling to finish it, but I feel like that all the time on the trumpet”.

      Is this condition only when you are playing your horn, or does it happen at other times?

      “It started about 5 months ago and has not gotten better”.

      Please send me an outline of what you have been regularly practicing as well as any performing you have been doing during this 5 month period.

      “I am starting this routine and hopefully this will work for me”.

      Before you start this routine, take the time to answer these questions for you may be experiencing more than just stiff chops and I would like to help you in other ways than just working on stiff chops.

      The sooner you can let me know this information, the quicker we can try to solve you temporary problem.
      If you would like to discus this off line contact me at
      if you don’t mind sharing information on this site, I’m sure some of our readers have a similar situation and would like advice also.
      Contact me either way.

      We’ll get this worked out…..

  4. Joey Johnson

    For some reason the first time i practice during the day my lips feel stiff and i have trouble going from note to note and no matter how much i try to warm up or buzz my lips it doesnt seem to help. Later in the day i usually feel great. It doesnt always happen like this but ive noticed that most of the time it does. Is there any reason why and can you recommend something i could do.

    • Bruce Chidester

      Your description of “early morning chops” is very common with all of us.

      Here are two reasons we all have this condition-

      1. When sleeping, we exchange our breaths over and around our lips which tend to dry out our lips to the point that they are dehydrated and not easily moved.

      2. After we have been up for a while, we hydrate them as we begin our typical actions, ie. speaking, drinking, chewing and for that reason our lips become more hydrated.


      1. when you get up, drink water and slush it throughout you mouth.

      2. Chew on something before you start practicing.

      Both of these actions tend to help me.

      Another idea would be to rinse your mouth with Biotine before you go to bed.

  5. STEELFIRE3698

    There is something called Gosling’s Chopsaver. It’s a lip thing, like ChapStick, but created by musicians, for musicians. I haven’t tried it, but people say it’s good. You can buy it at CVS pharmacy for like $4

    • Bruce Chidester

      Thanks for the heads-up and I will pick some up today and try it. I’ll let you know what I find and the very best to you and yours this beautiful day.

    • Sammy Franklin

      Will Gosling’s Chopsaver help restore a tired lip between long performances 5 hours apart? If not (since longer rest is not feasible), which of these would you recommend: warm cloth application, teeth brushing, Biotene rinse, and/or chewing and buzzing?

      • Bruce Chidester

        Very interesting choices you have listed.

        For me, I would do the following-

        1. Pedal tones right after the first gig for ten minutes.
        2. Chop saver after the pedal tones.
        3. Take a hot shower just before you go to the next program.

        The pedal tones will get the blood flowing at once, the Chop saver will help with the muscles and the shower will give you more energy and a more positive attitude for the job.

        Option #3.
        Take fewer jobs.

  6. Steve Stassi

    I have been playing for decades and have faithfully used the Caruso method for years as taught by Bob Findley, but recently experimented and supplemented Doc Severinsen’s warmup available on web. However, due to recent heart procedure, I have not played in almost 3 weeks. I have a week to get in shape for a high $ gig. I now buzz, mp warmup, slow chromatics, extended scales (Bill Adam) and Schlossberg. Flexibility severely impaired except when played very very slowly. Upper register has virtually disappeared on me, though the gig doesn’t require an abundance of high notes (occasional high F# which I can play down an octave). Any suggestions?

    • Bruce Chidester

      First of all I apologize for not responding to this message in time but it slipped by me for I am in the middle of our final rehearsal for a new show in town and did not check my mail in time.

      Very sorry.

  7. Steve Stassi

    Well, I barely crossed the finish line on the above gig. Played a few air balls on just a few ensemble parts and took a few things down an octave, but still not a lot of fun. Like Doc once said, “the trumpet is a very jealous mistress!” Most of us have to put in the time, and there are no shortcuts. But I don’t know how the late great Mic Gillette of Tower of Power fame practiced an average of only 3 days a week, according to an interview. But as some fans know, he split his lip when he took a gig after not playing for 14 years. I guess there are exceptions to every rule, but only to a degree, in terms of our allotted practice time.

    • Bruce Chidester

      I’m back…..

      Being able to live through tough gigs tends to make us more conscious of quality and regular practice.

      What kind of gig puts you on high F#? You must be a better player than I!

      Your story of Tower Of Power reminded me of a gig I had a couple years ago on the Les Elgart band. It was a one time concert and as we all introduced ourselves in the trumpet section, a very nice trumpet player introduced himself. “Hello, my name is Bobby Brown”. Apparently he noticed my shocked look as I blurted out “Bobby Brown of Tower of Power”? I asked. “Yes” he said shyly, “have you heard of me”? Great guy and a very fine player.

      Now back to your story.

      Doc once said, “the trumpet is a very jealous mistress!”

      ……..reminds me of another situation. Doc performed at the University of Northern Illinois and as a trumpet major working on my Masters degree, I was assigned to escort him around campus for the day. The only thing I remember about Doc was how interested he was to have me introduce him to the beautiful co-eds… that and the very uncharacteristically executed octave shakes at the end of his performance on the Haydn Trumpet Concerto.

      Mic Gillette of Tower of Power fame practiced an average of only 3 days a week.

      There is a difference between “practicing to improve” and “practicing to sustain”. Also in the Spaulding’s “Double High C in 37 Weeks” the practice was to do the material every other day.

      Now that I have learned the book in the new show in town, I have to make sure that my chops are always feeling good. The routine I have been having great success with lately is a chromatic warmup in the morning followed by two times through the show in a “play a line rest a line” routine. Then at the end of the day, run through the show again on trombone. The next day, my chops feel great again. The time spent on the trombone mouthpiece is getting the circulation back into the lip sooner and I have been very consistent in the rehearsals.

      You might pick up a trombone mouthpiece from a friend and do about fifteen minutes of buzzing at the end of the day. It works for me and let me know if it works for you.

      Very sorry I got to the party late….

  8. Myles Twitty

    My chops feel kinda rubbery and they just won’t vibrate right for me, but I think they will get better because this has happened before but as I’m sure you know it’s incredibly frustrating

  9. John Davis

    I am currently a sophomore in high school and find it harder to play my trumpet in the morning. I use the play/rest routine in my practice, and I practice about every day, taking a day off every other week or so. I find trouble with tone and my sound in general. I wake up at 4:45 and play at 6:30 for jazz band. Later, I play at 8:30 for band. I drink lots of water in the morning and flap my lips. Any suggestions?

  10. John Davis

    Well now I wake up at 5.

  11. John Davis

    I’ve been researching about it on the internet and have found that drinking lots of water, getting up a few hours before you play, flapping lips and mouthpiece buzzing in the morning helps but I’m not sure what else to do that can make morning playing as good as later in the day in the afternoon cause it’s still not that good, with decreased range and worse tone.

  12. John Davis

    Can you please respond soon because my jazz tryouts early in the morning are coming up next month

    • Bruce Chidester

      Sorry for the delay. I just ran across your original message.
      The very best advice I can give you is to do a cool down when you are finished with you playing for the day. If you have an unusual problem with stiff chops, ask a friend if you could borrow his/her extra trombone mouthpiece and at the ensd of your trumpet playing, buzz on the trombone mouthpiece for ten minutes. It has always worked for me.

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