Road to Recovery
What two brushes with nerve damage taught me in the last year.
This not something that I’ve shared outside my closest friends during the past year, however a recent performance had me reflecting on my own road to recovery and what comes next. This past year I have reset my embouchure twice and had to rebuild my playing all while chasing that elusive DMA and the job that we all hope follows it. I am in the midst of compiling my materials to apply for a job that I really would like to get and while my playing isn’t where I want it to be, I am immensely thankful that it is there at all.
In January of 2018 I suffered nerve damage on my lower lip. I developed 2 spots where the mouthpiece contacted my lip that would go numb during playing and not respond at all. To say it made me nervous is an understatement. It was terrifying. I immediately wondered if my career was going to be over before it started. I spent the better part of Jan and Feb analyzing my playing and trying to find a solution. I spoke to doctors, teachers, and anyone I knew that had suffered anything similar. I eventually purchased a new mouthpiece that was purported to alleviate stress on the embouchure. While it did not work for me as intended (I still use the mouthpieces I’ve been playing for years), it did make me aware that I had been playing with my corners too far back since the beginning and that was causing the nerve damage. I began focusing on retraining my corners to a more forward position while trying to find time to be off the horn to let my lip heal. I was partially successful but still not back at my full capacity by June when I decided to put the horn down for 2 months and take a serious break. Also to study for my comprehensive examinations. And play a LOT of golf, it was summer after all :)
After exams I began a practice routine to rebuild my embouchure with forward corners and being mindful of the pressure on my bottom lip. I began to see solid improvement and even gains in tone, dexterity, and dynamic range. Needless to say I was very excited and plowed ahead, rapidly lengthening my practice sessions while diving straight back into orchestral excerpts and solo repertoire. What I didn’t realize is that I was pushing too hard too soon and was so concerned with keeping pressure off my bottom lip that I was having to push it forward in a pucker to make a seal on the mouthpiece with my upper lip.
This slipped by me for two reasons:
1. I was already trying to adapt to a new embouchure set I thought any odd feelings at setup were related to just not being used to it yet.
2. I was excited by the progress and ignored any warning signs.
Well, you can probably guess what happened. I injured my lower lip again. This time, in early October, was different. I could play ok, but as soon as I took the mouthpiece away from my embouchure my entire bottom lip would go numb. What really worried me was that I would feel it go numb for no reason, hours after I’d played, and I could see the muscle twitching on its own in the mirror. I stopped cold. I couldn’t believe this was happening again. I went back to the drawing board and with the help of my teacher we discovered that I had changed the balance of pressure on my embouchure from too much on the bottom to too much on the top. I was now faced with retraining my embouchure for the second time in a year. I went back to fundamentals again, but this time I only played a few minutes a day with very slow increases in time and material. All this was going on as I was trying to finish my coursework at Shenandoah and reach that mythical status of “all but dissertation” or ABD. I was constantly worried about what I would do with a DMA in trumpet performance/pedagogy if I couldn’t play.
In early November I was given a specific goal. I was invited to perform with a middle school band on their winter concert. “Trumpeter’s Lullaby” is not a difficult piece, but to me it seemed to be the Brandenburg. I could play the part, but the consistency just wasn’t there on a day to day basis. It was as though my lips were confused and unsure of what I wanted from them. I kept my head down and focused on small gains everyday.
Concert day came. The first run through was rough, as was the practice session the day before. I was scared but I reminded myself to just enjoy the moment and forget about what comes out of the horn. I realized that I had spent so many months worrying about the mechanics of my playing that I had forgotten to just make music. The second run through I felt like I was myself again and I managed to keep a hold of that feeling for the concert. I got many congratulations and thanks you’s as I was leaving so I take that as a good sign.
This year had shaken my belief that I would ever achieve my goal. But one performance of a simple, yet timeless piece by Leroy Anderson has changed that belief and reignited a fire I thought was lost. It was not a perfect performance, but it was the performance I needed. It let me know that while I’m not 100% again yet, I’m still in the fight and gaining ground quickly.
I’m Brandon Loos, I’m ABD, and I play trumpet.
I can’t wait for 2019, it’s gonna be a hell of a year.