Braces Or Brass? Professor Tells How

Released: 28-Jan-2008 3:30 PM EST
Source Newsroom: South Dakota State University
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Newswise — For South Dakota State University professor emeritus of music John Colson, the pressing issues of life include Beethoven, Sibelius and how do you play a brass instrument when you have braces, anyway?

Colson isn't just offering theory and opinions on that last topic. He wrote the book — literally.

John Colson's "Braces & Brass" is specifically intended to help trumpet and French horn players — those who tend to have the most difficulty — continue to make progress with their chosen instruments after getting orthodontic braces.

"When you first start playing with braces on, it's very difficult," says Colson, who still gives private lessons in trumpet and French horn. "The tone gets very fuzzy on the instrument, the high range drops a good deal, and the flexibility — that is, getting around on the instrument — is also very difficult."

Colson, who spent 34 years as the conductor and music director of the South Dakota State University-Civic Symphony Orchestra, said the difficulty is enough to derail some promising musicians. But it doesn't have to.

A number of guard devices are available to protect the musician's lips when playing a brass instrument with braces. Colson said such protection is absolutely essential for the trumpet or French horn player who has braces.

"What can happen, if you don't have protection on the braces, is that it develops calluses on the back of your upper lip," Colson said. "Those stay there forever and you can't get a good sound, you can't get range, you can't get flexibility that you need to be a good trumpet player or a good French horn player."

Colson's book offers study materials and practice procedures and an assignment guide that leads the student through gradually more strenuous stages.

The focus is on French horn and trumpet because musicians who play other brass instruments don't have the same difficulty coping with orthodontics.

"It's not as bad on the larger mouthpiece instruments because you're dealing with a larger surface. Most trombonists or tuba players who want to continue, they'll be OK. But with the trumpet or the French horn, the mouthpiece is so small and you're dealing with just a little bit of lip. It's crucial that that lip be as good as it can be."

Similarly, musicians who play woodwind instruments can get along better with braces.

"It doesn't feel good to them, but at least they can still play, and play fairly well."

Colson began to study the issue of playing brass instruments with braces back in the 1970s while pursuing an advanced degree at the University of Iowa. He built on some earlier research that showed that "adjusting" to braces while continuing to play the instrument as usual simply doesn't happen for some — musicians on some instruments were still dealing with problems such as bleeding lips even after two years.

Figures from the American Association of Orthodontists show that as of 2006, the orthodontists who make up the association's membership were treating more than 3.6 million children in the U.S. ages 17 or younger. Because not all orthodontists belong to the association, and because some dentists who are not orthodontists also apply braces, the number of young people wearing braces is likely larger than that.

The association says most young people are fitted with braces between the ages of 9 and 14 — also the ages when young musicians are making important progress on their chosen instruments.

Colson developed materials to help the young musician make the transition to playing with braces, and also the transition to playing without braces once the braces are removed.

"I worked on the idea that I would develop some studies that the player with braces on could play, which meant then that I just limited the sound volume at which they played because that's hard on the lip, and the higher range because that's difficult on the trumpet or the French horn. Gradually I got them back to where they were playing before."

In the 1990s Colson worked with triplet sisters, Mary, Kristin and Sarah Stoneback, who had been fitted with braces and were experiencing difficulty in playing. Known today as the Stoneback Sisters and Stoneback Brass, they are now acclaimed professional trumpet players — and they say Colson's exercises helped them through the difficult time they had playing with braces.

"Our dad, Ron, was our primary trumpet teacher in our elementary through high school years. He would arrange mentorship meetings with Mr. Colson whenever we had done something really well, worked very hard and or occasionally when we encountered special problems in playing. The day we were fitted with our braces was one such day," said Kristin Stoneback.

After working with the girls and using the materials for about a week, Ron Stoneback contacted Colson and suggested that he consider preparing the manuscript for publication. Stoneback, who had already written two books of his own in instrumental music studies, contacted his publisher, RBC Music of San Antonio, Texas. The two men worked together on the book, "Braces & Brass," and it was published with Colson as author and Stoneback as contributing editor.

"'Braces & Brass,' to my knowledge, is the only book out there. I see nothing that resembles it at all," Colson said.

"Braces & Brass" is available online from RBC Music, http://www.rbcmusic.com/. Click on "RBC Publications" and then on "Instrumental Solos & Ensembles."

Colson photo: http://agbiocom.sdstate.edu/photos/Colson6930.JPG


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