First published: 30 Sept. 2010 on BrassMusician.com as
“Task Specific Focal Dystonia Cured: Trumpet embouchure back on track”.
Firstly some background: Cutting a very long story rather short…
I began playing trumpet at age 13 in New Zealand. At 18 I started university, and at 21 auditioned for (and was accepted for) post-graduate trumpet studies at some of the leading music schools in the U.K. – specifically the Royal Academy of Music, Royal Northern College of Music, and Trinity College London.
At 23, after having completed 2 years at the RNCM, I moved back to NZ, and began working in the orchestras there as a freelance trumpet player.
I did my first ever audition for a job in 2003 (principal trumpet in a regional orchestra) and won the audition. I then moved to Sweden later in 2003 for professional development studies. All the while, my trumpet playing seemed to be continuing to improve steadily. I began freelancing with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, and appeared as a soloist at the Concert House in Gothenburg.
First signs of task-specific Focal Dystonia
During 2004 I noticed that certain elements of my playing didn’t seem to work as well as they once used to – although I was practising just the same way as I always had done. My pp playing in the upper register seemed to be hard work – which was strange as it was something I had always found fairly easy. (In fact, in 1999 I remember playing through Don Quixote with Jamie Prophet (the now principal trumpet in the BBC Philharmonic) in our student days at the RNCM. I had a pp entry on a high C and I remember distinctly Jamie saying “How do you do that?!?” – I digress…)
A short time after my pp playing worsened I noticed my endurance beginning to suffer – which again was strange, as I had always had excellent stamina.
Task specific Focal Dystonia kicks in
I’d been playing about 1 hour each day during the Summer of 2005, just to keep in shape so I would be ready for the beginning of the next season. One day I went to warm up, and my face literally ‘forgot’ how to form an embouchure. There was no pain, and nothing was wrong away from the trumpet, but I just couldn’t seem to play. Everything had gone. My chops went AWOL overnight – it was like losing a limb.
Prior to that day I had had a range spanning about 5 octaves, from 3rd pedal F to F over high C. Not anymore. A 1 octave C major scale was about all I could manage. As for quality of sound? Well, suddenly there wasn’t any. Articulation was gone too. More or less, I sounded like a poor beginner on their 2nd or 3rd lesson.
Looking in the mirror, I could see what was going on. The muscles in the right side of my face weren’t responding, and the left side was trying to compensate. As I said, things were fine without the trumpet, but these muscles just didn’t respond when I wanted to form an embouchure.
I’d heard of Bells Palsey (a type of facial paralysis) before, but my symptoms were certainly not indicative of this.
So began the tests
Again, cutting some long stories short, I had several tests done:
Results from the dentist: “My, what nice teeth you have! But it looks like you grind them at night. Maybe you have excess jaw tension?”
Results from the physiotherapist: “I can see the problem happening, but I have no idea what’s causing it. However, it looks like you have excess jaw tension.”
Results from the neurologist: “You have a rare neurological disease called Focal Dystonia. There is no cure. You can get botox for the symptoms if you like. Oh, and it looks like you have excess jaw tension.”
My thoughts: “A rare neurological disease? But I feel fine! Except I can’t play trumpet anymore! Hmm…and what’s all this about jaw tension?”
(Just to let you know, I declined the botox treatment. And I’m glad I did, as I later found out that it is largely useless in treating focal dystonia of the embouchure…)
A symptom of a deeper problem
After quite some time, and a LOT of research, I figured out that the jaw tension I seemed to have was in fact a symptom of something else. But what it was a symptom of, I was at this point still unsure. But it had to be more than just stress…
Anyway, I practised like crazy, and managed to get my chops working to the point where I could play certain things, and even work again in orchestras. But it felt terrible to play, and I knew that there were so many things I couldn’t do anymore – things that used to come very naturally.
Time for a change
So I decided that a drastic change was needed. I needed time to practise, away from the stresses of the freelance orchestral trumpet world. So I took a job for 1 year as a teacher/conductor/trumpet player in Norway, with a good salary, and plenty of time to practise.
And oh did I practise! However what I noticed was that it didn’t really seem to make much difference. I started myself again as a beginner. 7C mouthpiece, long G’s etc. I went through the 3 – 4 month programme I normally give my own beginner students – several times I might add. And sure, some things started to work, but in all honesty I believed that at best, I’d need a permanent career change, and may need to give up the trumpet completely.
I did a 2nd year teaching/conducting in Norway, during which, after realising that I wasn’t getting anywhere with the trumpet playing, decided to pack it in. It just wasn’t worth it. (When I say “wasn’t getting anywhere”, I mean I felt like I was far from the level expected of professional orchestral trumpet players, and certainly far from my pre-FD ability level)
Well, 2 months went by and I hadn’t played a note. But one day, I got bored, and took the trumpet out – just to see how things were. I was expecting not to be able to play a single note! Well, within 2 – 3 days, I was playing all of the ABRSM grade 8 scales – yes, after 2 months off. This was WEIRD!
So I thought, “What’s changed?”
The light starts to come on
I began to realise that my approach to the trumpet had changed – not so much on a conscious level, but on a sub-conscious/emotional level. Now, this is something I won’t go into here, as we really would be here all day!
(Suffice to say if you also suffer focal dystonia, or if you have suddenly ‘lost your chops’, there may be a very straightforward solution. Get in touch and I may be able to help!)
However, a few weeks later I heard about an up-coming audition for sub-principal trumpet in a Meditterranean orchestra. I figured I would go for it, but mostly just to start getting back in shape, and re-enter the orchestral world.
Well, still with some strong dystonia symptoms (mostly endurance and upper register affected), I travelled to the audition…and won it! I’d been more or less out of the game for 2 years by this point, and I’d suddenly just won an orchestral audition – with an “incurable neurological disease”! Hmm…get’s you thinking doesn’t it?
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), after a very short time with the orchestra, several of the players, including myself, decided that we needed to leave the orchestra, due to various problems there.
Performing in The Zone, and BrassMusician.com
So at the end of 2008 I moved back to Sweden, and suddenly had a lot of time on my hands. I wrote my 1st book “Performing in The Zone” – which is yet another long story!
However, to find out more about that book, how it helped me and a lot of other performers to feel calm, confident, and in control in high-pressure performing situations, check out the website here: “Performing in The Zone”
Since Performing in The Zone was released in July of 2009, I’ve been busy giving lectures about performance psychology, as well as starting this website, BrassMusician.com
Working on a cure – and a new definition
So…over the past few months I’ve been practising various exercises, as well as refining my conscious and subconscious/emotional approach to playing. In other words, I’ve been working on curing this so-called “incurable neurological disease”.
Actually, based on my experience and the other musicians I have helped rehabilitate, in my opinion it seems that a more accurate description for Musician’s Focal Dystonia is this: “A task-specific neuro-muscular disorder which seems to comprise a combination of faulty mechanics, inefficiency of direction (in the Alexander Technique sense of the word) and the emotions.” This may explain why traditional ‘nuts and bolts’ approaches do not seem particularly successful in solving the condition. In my opinion, with the right approach however, it seems that the condition can be solved. I’m living proof – and there are others that have also conquered FD.
Now for the video:
As I said, I’ve been working on a cure for my own focal dystonia for quite a while. I now understand the condition, its causes, and how to put it right. Due to so much time spent on basic exercises and a change of approach to trumpet playing, I hadn’t played any pieces or excerpts for many, many months.
So, last night I thought it would be fun to get an idea of just how far things have come since I was stricken with this so-called “incurable neurological disease.” I wanted to take stock of how things have been going, and to see if I have truly been making a recovery from Focal Dystonia.
I brought my minipc into a practice room, and recorded a few excerpts with the in-built mic and video camera. I didn’t bring any music with me, and just decided to play whatever excerpts came to mind. Here are the results. The excerpts you’re about to hear are:
Sibelius Symphony 2, Mahler 5, Ein Heldenleben, Carmen, Romeo and Juliette (Prokofiev), Il Pagliacci.
Please note that the idea of this video is not to give a definitive rendition of any particular excerpts, rather, to give proof that musician’s focal dystonia can be cured.
These excerpts are 1st takes (except for the Mahler, where there are 2 versions on the video as I was testing record levels for louder excerpts). I have not practiced these for what seems like aeons. What I found amazing and encouraging was that I could still remember them!
(For all you gear-heads, I play a standard Bach Strad 43 Bb trumpet, and a standard Bach 1½C mouthpiece. Nothing terribly exciting or ‘out-there’ I’m afraid, but it works for me
Chops back on track
I’d say that now, my chops are about 95% of what they used to be before the Focal Dystonia struck, 5 years ago. What is interesting is that many aspects of trumpet playing are easier now than they ever have been. I can see that things will continue to improve over the coming months, and that I’ll almost certainly end up a better player in all respects than before I was afflicted with the FD.
Do you have Task Specific Focal Dystonia – or suspected Task Specific Focal Dystonia?
Firstly, if you have suddenly ‘lost your chops’, there can be several causes, of which Focal Dystonia may be one. My advice to you first is pay a visit to a neurologist experienced in focal dystonia in musicians. If you receive the diagnosis of having Focal Dystonia, you’ll probably hear also that it is ‘incurable’ and is a neurological disease. Don’t be discouraged. I am living proof that Focal Dystonia can be overcome – with the right mental, physical, and emotional approach.
I offer help in overcoming focal dystonia in musicians.
To get in touch, use the contact form HERE.