Music to the Teeth: How to Play Your Best while Protecting Your Pearly Whites

Playing an instrument has plenty of benefits. It can stave off dementia. It can improve literacy in developing brains. And it fosters creativity.

Music may be the language of the soul, but some instruments might not be the best on your teeth.

Obviously, guitar and piano aren’t going to have a negative effect on your teeth (At least we hope you aren’t playing them with your teeth!). But some woodwind instruments (like clarinet, saxophone and harmonica) and brass instruments (like trumpet) could cause issues.

For example, in jazz, when some trumpeters retire, musicians refer to them with “He lost his lip.” Because so much of playing uses the lip, improper technique can hinder you from your full potential. It can also cause problems to your teeth. In some instances, players have ended up with gaps in their teeth, as well as teeth pointing outward.

Generally, these problems have a root cause.

A Technique that Can Be Dangerous to Your Teeth

When it comes to brass and woodwind instruments, you practice embouchure. Embouchure considers what you do with your mouth and tongue when you bring the mouthpiece to your face.

Improper embouchure can lead you to clamp down on the mouthpiece. This is problematic for three reasons:

  • It can cause your teeth to shift. For a similar reason to why braces straighten crooked teeth, clamping on the mouthpiece can shift straight teeth. In the case of braces, wiring applies pressure to the teeth, which straightens them over time. But with the mouthpiece, undue pressure is being placed on a few bottom teeth. Over time, those teeth can shift.
  • You produce more saliva. Producing saliva isn’t a bad thing. In fact, the only time people say bad things about saliva is when not enough is produced, as this can lead to bad breath. Saliva is produced when we chew. The harder we chew, the more saliva we produce. With an instrument, the “chewing” happens on a mouthpiece, which is a non-food item. We’ve written about how chewing on a non-food item is bad for teeth. In regard to saliva, saliva can be rough on your instrument, as it can build up and cause pads or reeds to stick.
  • The tone will be inconsistent. You might inadvertently hit more flat or sharp notes, or you won’t be able to keep the volume at a consistent level, or you won’t be able to hold out notes for as long as you’d like.

Are You Making this Mistake?

Why might you clamp down on your instrument’s mouthpiece? Well, it depends on which musician you ask.

Some will say the problem is you aren’t resting enough. As a result, your lips become weak, because they’re pursed to the mouthpiece for too long, and you clamp down.

Others say you’re exerting too much pressure to hit the notes. Musicians have a tendency to clamp down when they have to hit high notes.

Whatever the case, the issue hearkens back to an old saying: Less is more.

If you aren’t sure if you’re applying too much pressure, ask yourself the following questions. After you finish playing…

  • Do you have a ring on your lips from the mouthpiece?
  • Do your teeth ache?
  • Do your lips feel numb?
  • Are your lips swollen?

If any of these are true for you, the pressure might be too much. But a couple of solutions are available:

A Couple of Solutions to Push Off the Pressure

  • Perfect your embouchure. It’s all about how you use your facial muscles and shape your lips to the mouthpiece of the instrument.
  • Use an athletic mouth guard. You might benefit from using the bottom half of a mouth guard. You could also use a denture pad or dental wax. If you use a denture pad, you’ll need to change it regularly, as a lot of disgusting buildup can occur if you don’t.

It’s a good idea to take your oral health into account when you play. And good oral health can also keep your instrument in good shape for longer.

Three Ways Good Oral Health Can Keep Your Instrument in Good Shape

  • Brush your teeth before playing to avoid food particles in the reeds. If you practice multiple times a day, don’t over-brush. Rinsing your mouth out works just as effectively. You’ll especially want to brush/rinse if you’ve had something sugary. Sugar and saliva make a sticky combination that can cause a lot of damage to your instrument. For this reason, if you’re out playing a gig, you might want to avoid Grandpa’s “ol’ cough medicine” before the show, as drinks like beer and whisky contain malt sugar. Maybe stick with water with lemon instead.
  • Wait 30 minutes after eating before playing to neutralize your mouth’s pH levels. This in effect renders your saliva a lot less volatile on the reeds. You can also rinse your mouth with mouthwash to loosen particles on the teeth.
  • Don’t close your instrument case immediately after playing to allow remaining moisture to dry. This doesn’t have to do with your oral health per se. But depending on what instrument you’re playing, you might have a cleanup routine. For example, you’ll want to swab a saxophone, tap out the saliva from a harmonica and empty the spit valve on a trumpet. Even if you clean your instrument thoroughly afterward, a little moisture will remain. By putting your instrument in a case and shutting it, the moisture might cause damage to the reeds.

Playing music has a lot of benefits. And with the recent observation of National Saxophone Day, we don’t want to downplay those benefits. So keep playing and practice good oral health, for your and your instrument’s sakes!

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