The Clarinetist’s Guide to Braces
Braces can do wonders to help create the perfect smile, but let’s face it – they’re a real pain in the…mouth.
The majority of people will have braces at some point in their life. A common age to get braces is during the preteen or early teen years, which is coincidentally around the time many clarinetists begin their musical journey!
Fear not – braces don’t have to put an end to your clarinet career! Here’s everything you need to know about playing the clarinet with braces, whether you’ve already played for a while or are planning to start after you get braces.
Can you play clarinet with braces?
Yes, although it might be uncomfortable at first. Proper clarinet embouchure dictates that your lower lip should cover your lower teeth and act as a cushion between your teeth and the mouthpiece. Braces can cut into your lower lip, but this should only hurt for a few days after you get them. It’s also normal to feel discomfort any time you have your braces adjusted or tightened. Fear not, because there are several ways to avoid the discomfort (see “essentials” below).
Keep in mind: If you play any instrument with braces, there will be varying amounts of discomfort. I’ve seen too many younger students dissuaded from playing clarinet or even joining band because they were afraid it would hurt too much. While it might be uncomfortable at first, remember this – there are virtually zero activities which are pain-free. Don’t let braces stop you from playing clarinet or participating in music programs!
Something to consider: Many professional musicians use Invisalign or other teeth-correcting devices to avoid a mouthful of metal. Talk to your orthodontist to see if an alternative correction is right for you.
- You have to change your embouchure with braces. False! The fundamental embouchure remains the same, although it might feel different for a while after first getting braces. Clarinetists, even younger students, are trained to become hyper-focused on the micro-muscles used in the embouchure. When you add something like braces, even though they are relatively small, it will feel strange in the mouth of a clarinetist. Check with your band director or private teacher to make sure you aren’t developing any bad embouchure habits.
- You should choose another instrument to play which is better suited to braces. For the love of clarinet, don’t go to the dark side! Clarinet is actually one of the instruments least affected by braces, and there are so many products and solutions to avoid pain (see below for my recommendations).
- You can’t start learning clarinet until you’ve had braces. Nope, nice try! You can start learning clarinet at any point, whether you currently have braces or are planning to get them in the future.
- Brush your teeth before you play. You should be doing this even if you don’t have braces, but it’s especially important if you do. Food particles easily get trapped in braces, so make sure you brush thoroughly each time before you play to avoid blowing chunks of food through your clarinet. (Gross, I know.)
- Schedule orthodontist appointments around band activities. Because you’ll likely experience mild discomfort for a few days after every adjustment, make sure you don’t schedule appointments too close to band concerts, auditions, or recitals.
- Consider using softer reeds. If you’re having difficulty producing the same sound you had before braces, try going down a half strength in reeds. For softer strengths and younger players, I recommend using Vandoren’s JUNO reeds, which are softer than other Vandoren cuts and are great for beginners.
- Check your embouchure. Your embouchure shouldn’t change with the addition of braces, although it might feel different at first. Have your band director or private teacher check to make sure you aren’t developing any bad habits because of braces.
- Check your articulation and tongue position. Some braces only have correctors on the front side of your teeth, but some corrections require hardware on the back of your teeth. This will feel strange on your tongue at first, but good news – it shouldn’t affect clarinet articulation, which requires the most minimal of tongue movement. Make sure that you aren’t developing any bad articulation habits to avoid making contact with any behind-the-teeth hardware.
- Be extra careful with your reeds. Who would win – sharp, expensive, metal orthodontia or delicate sticks of cane? Be careful every time you put the clarinet in your mouth not to chip reeds on your braces.
- Wear your retainer. There’s a reason your orthodontist (and maybe your parents) nag you about wearing your retainer. In addition to maintaining that pretty smile of newly corrected teeth, you don’t want to reverse these corrections and have to go through the entire process of braces again!
Suggested practice routine when you first get braces:
- Start slowly. Begin with a few minutes of practice a day, gradually adding 10-20 minutes each day until you are comfortably back at your normal practice time.
- Practice soft long tones in the lower register to adjust to how your embouchure feels with braces.
- Take frequent breaks. Don’t push yourself too much to avoid a sore mouth.
- Stop if you experience severe pain or discomfort.
Essentials for the clarinetist with braces:
- Something to protect your lower lip. My favorite lip protector (with or without braces) is EZO denture cushions. You can cut a section of the denture pad off, fold and mold to your lower teeth, and it lasts for several weeks. You can also use wax, folded cigarette paper, floral tape, or anything else which serves as a barrier between your bottom teeth and lower lip. Some of these are more impervious to saliva than others, so find a cushion which you don’t have to replace every five minutes.
- Travel toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss. Oral hygiene is always important, even more so for musicians, especially those with braces. (Fun fact: I keep a tube of Vademecum toothpaste in my clarinet kit as a superstitious nod to Jeanjean’s method book of the same name. Every time I use it, I like to think it’s giving me secret technical powers.)
- Mouthwash. If you need to clean your mouth but don’t have time to brush, mouthwash is a great alternative. Mouthwash can also be used in a pinch to sanitize reeds. Pro tip: Cover the top with cling wrap before securing the cap after each use to avoid leaks or spills.
- Numbing gels. For elevated braces pain, you can use over-the-counter numbing gels to helps relieve discomfort.
- Painkillers. Great for braces pain, altissimo-induced headaches, and lots of other uses!
Many people have their wisdom teeth removed around the time they have their braces removed, so here are a few pieces of advice:
- Schedule your wisdom removal appointment carefully. You shouldn’t play for a few weeks after they’re removed, so make sure you don’t have any important auditions or concerts too close to the procedure.
- Don’t play too soon. Most doctors recommend taking 1-4 weeks off from practicing after wisdom teeth removal. The pressure and air can cause dry sockets, so you want to follow their directions carefully! (Here are my suggestions for ways to practice without opening the case!)
- Gradually rebuild your practice routine. As with braces, start with only a few minutes a day of quiet, low long tones. Gradually add time over the course of a week or two until you’re back to your pre-procedure practice routine.
For all my braces-wearing readers out there, do you have any advice for playing clarinet with braces? Leave a comment below!