On Mouthpieces and Metal Allergies

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Of all the horn playing topics out there perhaps the most under reported and significant could well be the topic of metal allergies and mouthpieces. The longer I teach the more I recognize that many more horn (and brass) players have issues with this than one would guess.

Kelly-MC-Farkas-LawsonBacking up, in late 2012 I posted a review of the Lexan (plastic!) Kelly MC mouthpiece [UPDATED: see here], a really very decent mouthpiece in which I state,

The other use that comes to mind is as a cheap way to see if you have a metal allergy. Some students do have issues with silver and gold allergies. Temporarily try one of these and see if the problems go away.

Those were prophetic words as that next summer, gearing up for playing at the IHS Symposium, the surface of my lips became rather irritated. I had noted this before, and it was not what I would think of as seasonal chapping. With the Kelly MC in hand I switched to it for a couple weeks but after that was able to go back to my gold rim I had been using. Conventional wisdom is that most people don’t have allergic issues with gold rims, but some people do have contact allergies with gold. I played on the gold rim successfully through the fall. Then, gearing up for the semester again after Christmas it happened again! So I am back on the Kelly MC and am exploring options.

This led to my contacting several former students and colleagues for their thoughts. What is interesting is in the big picture there seem to be two general types of allergic reactions to metals on the lips among brass players.

  • surface irritation/redness that is not just a normal, seasonal chapping of the lips; may include bumps.
  • muscle control issues which could either manifest as stiffness or could be more of a strange “rubbery” feeling, either of which precludes good embouchure control and range.

DEG-Kelly-plasticOne of my former students who now uses a Delrin rim has had extensive metal contact allergy testing and is allergic to basically every metal including stainless steel (which contains chrome) and titanium! When he was a student at ASU the switch was made from silver to gold which worked for a number of years but then the allergic sensitivity progressed. Delrin is an industrial plastic that can be machined and has been a viable option for screw rims for a number of years. This second photo shows another Kelly Lexan cup and also a vintage DEG Delrin cup.

Another former student, Derek Wright, gave permission to quote his recent history with the topic, which follows:

My symptoms involve itching and small bumps right where the skin meets the red of the lip. In my case it was easily tested. Whenever I play a silver-plated mouthpiece for more than a few days the symptoms return and continue to get worse until I stop and return to my Titanium coated stainless steel mouthpiece. I thought it was a brass allergy at first, but I get the same symptoms when I use an uncoated stainless steel rim as well. In my case gold does not help at all.

Read more background on his story in his blog here, which looks at his status with rims as of 2010-11.

Turning back to the muscle control side of the symptoms, I strongly suspect that many brass players actually may have borderline metal contact allergies but they just attribute the symptoms of feeling stiff or rubbery or general loss of control on just being “a bad day.” There are bad days to be sure, but the point to make very clearly to readers is that not every bad day is the result of overplaying or a bad warm-up or whatever. It really could be a metal sensitivity kicking in.

Back to myself, as I write this I am doing a more extended trial of the Kelly MC. One suggestion I originally received was that the plating could be starting to go on my normal gold rim so I switched to a freshly plated example but that did not do the trick. My lips really seem happier on the plastic rim, particularly the clear Lexan Kelly MC.

I have a titanium coated rim on order and will follow up more on that after I have a chance for a fair trial period. I suspect that I may end up playing the Kelly mouthpiece on my triple (see the UPDATE part of the review for more on that) and a H-Kote or Delrin rim on my normal mouthpiece on the double horn.

What about horns?

n739871348_1240638_3517.jpgI think perhaps better known in the horn community is that some players have nickel allergies and are allergic to nickel silver horns or parts on horns. Lacquer and hand guards can help greatly, but in the longer term you are best off playing a nickel free (brass) horn. Several makers offer custom horns that are completely nickel free.

If you know you have sensitivity to nickel, probably you would be wise to think about moving to at the least a gold rim and perhaps more exotic materials before you notice larger issues in your playing. At least keep a few options around such as a plastic mouthpiece.

For more info:

This article just scratches the surface of this topic and there is much more out there. The Wikipedia article for example has good, general info on Allergic Contact Dermatitis. A quote:

The symptoms of allergic contact may persist for as long as one month before resolving completely. Once an individual has developed a skin reaction to a certain substance it is most likely that they will have it for the rest of their life, and the symptoms will reappear when in contact with the allergen….

Once an individual is sensitized to an allergen, future contacts with the allergen can trigger a reaction, commonly known as a memory response, in the original site of sensitization.

To close, this is a serious topic that is certainly not much reported or understood in the horn and brass playing community. I believe that many readers may have borderline metal contact allergies; it is a topic very much worth exploring further.

UPDATE: I have settled in to use a Moosewood Delrin rim on (mostly) Moosewood cups. I wish it was a little “slicker” feeling, but then again it feels great to not worry about metal allergies when I am playing on the plastic rim.

UPDATE II (2017): I have moved on to a different Delrin rim, the Osmun replica rim for the Conn 5BN. I like the feel of the black material they use better, and the shape suits me better as well. Currently using it on a Houghton H-2 cup.

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