This is one of a series of six posts covering my lip injury and surgery. Here’s Part I.
It was November 2010, and I was sitting on a stool in a doctor’s office in Toronto while an elderly surgeon probed, poked and palpated my upper lip. After a thorough examination, Dr. McGrail, the expert facial surgeon I’d flown to Toronto to see, took off his latex gloves and uttered perhaps the sweetest words I’d ever heard: “Well, I don’t think you’ve torn it.” I had been convinced that I’d torn my orbicularis oris (lip muscle), but Dr. McGrail diagnosed me with only a stretched muscle. He prescribed a set of physical therapy exercises to restore proper muscle tone to the lip and sent me on my merry way. After leaving his office, I called pretty much everyone I knew, shared the good news, and went galavanting around the beautiful city of Toronto with my wife.
I started playing more and more, resuming my freelance career and preparing for my graduate recital (which I’d had to cancel after my original injury). I continued to seek out advice regarding lip injuries, taking a lesson with fellow McGrail patient Brad Goode and corresponding with lip injury expert Lucinda Lewis as well. Oddly enough, I felt I was playing better than ever, but I was still suffering from “embouchure collapses” – my top lip would give way suddenly, leaving me with a feeling of complete thinness and slackness in the lip and an inability to form a proper embouchure. After about two weeks of gradual strengthening, the lip would be more or less back to normal, and I could play just fine (until the next collapse). This went on, as it already had, for months. It was maddening.
Several days before my rescheduled graduate recital in June 2011, I endured another embouchure collapse. I was forced to give my recital on a mushy, half-useless upper lip, and you can imagine how fun that was. (The Telemann Sonata on piccolo trumpet was particularly enjoyable.) Surprisingly, and perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern here, my sound and technique were intact despite the injury. My chops felt awful, but I sounded fine. To this day I consider it some of my best public solo playing, especially considering the circumstances.
After my graduate recital, things really started to go downhill. I was plenty busy with freelancing, and before long I had developed a bad case of “gig chops” (having just enough endurance to get through that night’s performance, and no more). Before long, I was even having trouble making it through rehearsals and performances. My lips were starting to feel worse and worse, and my embouchure collapses were becoming more frequent. It’s clear to me now that things were coming to a head, but at the time I really was just focused on getting through the next week’s playing commitments – I gave little thought to the big picture.
On August 26th, 2011, the other shoe finally dropped. I was finishing an outdoor gig in Albuquerque’s beautiful Old Town neighborhood with my regular salsa band, and by the third set I was limping along. As I began to play an A in the staff, I felt a sharp, searing pain in my top lip, like it had been pierced with a red-hot needle. The pain was so intense that I involuntarily pulled the horn away from my face. I tried to make an embouchure, but something deep in the structure of the lip didn’t feel right. Not even close to right. I knew right away what had happened, and the dull, throbbing ache that followed for several days seemed to confirm things for me.
I flew to Toronto in October 2011 to see Dr. McGrail again, almost a year after my first visit. Unlike the first trip, which had become a happy mini-vacation, this one was no fun at all. Dr. McGrail examined my lip a second time, and with a sigh, confirmed that the muscle was torn. I didn’t call everyone I knew this time; just a few friends and family. I flew home to Albuquerque and began preparing for lip surgery in December.
I’ll be back next Friday with another post, and this one’s gonna have pics. Of lip surgery! Gross, you say? I prefer to think of it as educational. Don’t miss it!