A long-term debate exists among brass players regarding the advantages and disadvantages of dry and wet lips when playing. Some insist that playing is easiest when the lips are relatively dry, while others prefer that they be moist. This is largely a matter of personal preference, and in any case the debate, such as it is, is between two forms of a moderate position; most players would agree that excessive moisture becomes problematic, and practically no one wants a completely dry mouth and oral cavity. Far from being desirable, the sensation of dry mouth is an experience dreaded by players when it occurs.
Dry mouth is not an unfamiliar phenomenon. It is a common symptom of various forms of performance anxiety, and is usually considered harmless. Those experiencing dry mouth during public speaking, for example, can take a glass of water with them and usually continue without difficulty. For the brass player, though, dry mouth can cause serious difficulties in performance, hampering tone quality, response, and flexibility. While having water on stage can help, drinking water during rests can be distracting. More importantly, the water can rinse out what remains of the mouth’s natural moisture, ensuring that the first drink taken will not be the last. I am therefore perhaps too reticent to have a bottle of water with me on stage, and recently found myself in quite a bit of peril because of it.
When performing at the recent International Trombone Festival at Ball State University, during the third movement of a four-movement piece I felt as if all of the moisture in my mouth was simply gone. Having no water on stage, between the third and final movements I stood and silently chewed the sides of my tongue for a couple of minutes to stimulate salivation, and then continued the performance. That was a disappointing experience, especially because I was certain that without the dry mouth my performance of the third movement would have been considerably better.
Later that same day, some of my students attended a performance by a prominent trombonist and one noticed that he periodically sprayed moisture from a small bottle into his mouth. Intrigued, the student found that player later and asked what the spray was. He told him that it was a spray used for dry mouth, with which he had become familiar when a relative experienced dry mouth during treatment for an illness. Knowing of my own dry mouth experience the same day, the student sent me a text message about this, and later that day I found a bottle of Biotène Dry Mouth Moisturizing Spray at a local store. I used it before later performances at the ITF and had a much better experience. I have continued to use this product, even before and during my solo recital last night at Ole Miss. It is an effective product, and similar formulations are available from several manufacturers.
The advantages of a spray like this are two. First, it is discrete. The bottle is small, can be easily carried in one’s pocket, and is used very quickly without drawing much attention. Second, and perhaps more importantly, these sprays stimulate salivation, rather than providing only a brief period of moisture before another drink is needed. Indeed, only a small amount of the dry mouth spray is needed at any particular time, and I am still using the bottle I purchased back in July.
Are dry mouth sprays a total replacement for water? No, and I still advocate hydrating generously on the day of a big performance. I even had a bottle of water to drink a bit between pieces last night. But do such sprays provide one more “tool in the box” that can help to improve performance? Absolutely, and I am thankful for the discovery.