Surgeon seeks a cure for lip-sore trumpeters

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The Independent Online
Jazzmen, take heart. A British surgeon has set out to cure trumpeter's lip, the secret curse of musicians which may have prematurely ended the top-class performances of many legendary jazz figures, including Louis Armstrong.

Richard Canter, an ear-nose-and-throat specialist who runs the South West Performing Arts Clinic at the Royal United Bath Hospital, has developed a transparent mouthpiece so that the lips of brass players can be observed in action.

Trumpeter's lip is a failure of the embouchure, the ring of muscle that over many years develops in the lip to control the high-speed jet of air.

Freddie Hubbard, widely seen as the greatest jazz trumpeter after Miles Davis, was apparently affected by the condition during a performance at Colchester arts centre last month.

It is on the increase. Long recording sessions, wider musical ranges and greater workloads for professional musicians have combined to load the lips of players with extra stress. But now Mr Canter's clinic is offering help, counselling, re-education and, in extreme cases, surgery. Mr Canter, a keen trumpet player himself, has carried out the first operation of its kind in Britain, to try to restore the playing power of a professional brass player.

No one really knows how lips behave when they become united with a trumpet, and a group of musicians is now being equipped with the see-through mouthpieces so doctors can see exactly what happens.

Trumpeter's lip, or "blowing the chops" as it is known in the business, can have a devastating effect on careers.

"What happens is that all of a sudden nothing works anymore," said Mr Canter. "They may be playing one night perfectly well, and then the next day they have lost their range, can't hit the high notes and no longer have any durability. A lifetime of having a high-speed jet of air going through a very narrow part of the lips under high pressure has had such an effect that the tissue cannot take it any more. Our lips weren't designed to do that kind of thing."

Physical damage can include scar tissue in the lips created by years of wear caused by the mouthpiece, or herniated fat, a twisted lip or a torn muscle.

"It is something people don't talk about because brass players don't want it to be known that there is a question mark over their playing," Mr Canter added. "My suspicion is that it is very common."

So far he has treated 12 people at the clinic in Bath, including one who needed surgery.

"Louis Armstrong was a great artist who developed a problem in the Fifties," Mr Canter said. "Perhaps now there would have been an opportunity to do something for him."

In the jazz clubs of the United States it was not uncommon for musicians to use oils and ointments to soften up lip tissue.

The jazz singer and writer George Melly said: "Anyone who does blow a trumpet, trombone, sax, can suffer with the lips. It can stop them playing ... I've blown my lip or my chops."