This is one of a series of six posts covering my lip injury and surgery. Here’s Part I.
With my recovery from my six-month-old lip surgery an apparent failure (judging by the the shooting pains I regularly experienced while playing) and an interesting new career as an academic advisor, I put the trumpet down for a while. Now, it would make for a much better story if I could say that, after much anguished soul-searching, I confidently left music behind and began a new phase of my life, but the truth is I just didn’t pick up a trumpet for a lot of days in a row. Instead, I poured my energies into my new job and focused on other things. It really was refreshing, and while I wish I could say that every day I was painfully aware of an aching hole in my soul that only the trumpet could fill, in reality I discovered that a human being can be happy doing a lot of things, and music is just one of those things. I did miss having music in my life, but not in the way that a person would miss having, you know, water in their life. There’s an idea in our culture that all musicians are tormented artistes who would throw themselves off of buildings if not for their music, and although I kinda felt like that for a while, I got over it. I did make a few attempts to get back on the horn. I dug out Lucinda Lewis' two books (which had helped me greatly in the past) and made some progress using her ideas. I ordered Denver Dill’s excellent book Still Playing and had some success employing his methods as well. I had used Carmine Caruso’s teachings extensively in the past (and had taken a phone lesson with Caruso disciple Laurie Frink just a few days after my very first injury), and I even developed a routine based around his ideas. I met with my undergraduate teacher, Greg Jones, and got a helpful tune-up from him. Each of these helped, but none was a cure-all. In every case, I found myself confronted with either shooting pains in my lip or the realization that I just wasn’t sounding good. If you’re doing the same thing for six weeks and not getting results, you’re unlikely to see any magic in week seven, you know? This continued for about a year. I would pick up the horn for few weeks, try some new idea and put the instrument down for a month and a half. I was convinced that any pain I felt at the site of the injury meant I’d torn the muscle again, and that promptly took the wind out of my sails. Though I was working outside of music as an academic advisor, the trumpet was lingering in the back of my mind. This unresolved situation was bothering me subconsciously, and though I wasn’t completely convinced I was done playing forever, it was kind of eating away at me because I wasn’t doing anything about it, either. About a year after starting my new career, I decided that in the interest of my own sanity, it was time to fish or cut bait. Besides, I was sitting on about $8,000 worth of trumpets and trumpet paraphernalia, and if I was done playing for good, I might as well admit it and use the money for something else. I’m a huge fan of personal development guru Jim Rohn, and one of my favorite quote of his is this: “To solve any problem, there are three questions to ask yourself: First, what could I do? Second, what could I read? And third, whom could I ask?" One person whom I’d been aware of for years was Dr. Richard Cox, a trumpet player, medical doctor and expert on performance anxiety. I dug up his email address and decided I had nothing to lose by contacting him. Dr. Cox got back to me right away and instructed me to give him a call. I explained my situation, and though he said he’d much prefer to see me in person, he walked me through some exercises and lip manipulations over the phone to evaluate if the muscle was torn again. None of these manipulations caused me any pain, to my great relief - the injury hadn’t recurred. How to explain the shooting pains, then? Well, any surgery leaves scar tissue, both at the incision site and inside the lip where the muscle was repaired. The thing to keep in mind, he told me, is that scar tissue isn’t like muscle or fat. It doesn’t stretch, it doesn’t give - it’s very inflexible. The pain I was feeling was likely the scar tissue pulling on the healthy muscle it was connected to. It happened to feel very similar to the pain I felt when I tore the muscle, but it wasn’t the same thing. Furthermore, I realized, occasional pains were just going to be part of the deal for a while. Another big idea I took from our conversation was this (paraphrased): “I think you’re not practicing consistently enough or with enough discipline for the lips to begin to feel good. You want to be able to play something, to make music, and instead you need to be focusing on getting the lips to respond. You’re not at the point where you can focus on trying to make it sound good, so don’t worry about air in the sound for now. Focus on retraining the lips to buzz.” This advice was exactly what I needed to hear at the time, and I made a lot of headway on the trumpet after talking to Dr. Cox. I didn’t sound very good - choked and strained - but I could feel some muscular development happening, and at least I could at least play for more than five minutes a day now. It was my first “immediate win” since the surgery - that great feeling you get when you try a new idea and it just works, right out of the box. Inspired by the progress I’d made since contacting Dr. Cox a couple of months prior, I applied the Jim Rohn quote once more and emailed someone Dr. Cox had suggested I contact next: a prominent teacher and player who’d undergone the same surgery as me. This person also got back to me immediately, and I took a weekend and went out for a lesson with him. It was hugely helpful. Dr. Cox had told me what I needed to hear at the time, and this person did the same thing. He took me in the opposite direction and got me focused more on the sound. Here’s what I took away from our conversation (again, not a direct quote):
“Look, you’ve gotten the muscle back into reasonable shape and it’s been almost two years since the surgery - it’s time to stop worrying so much about how it feels and focus on the sound again. You can’t go run and hide every time you feel a twinge of pain or you’ll never make any progress. Focus on making a good sound and let that guide you.”
I had talked with other folks in the past who’d told me that exact same thing, but I needed to hear it from someone who’d gone through what I had. Someone to whom I could say “Yeah, but what about _________?” and get a response based on an experience similar to mine. That lesson was just over five weeks ago, and the progress I’ve made since then is incredible to me. Six weeks ago I sounded like dog poop, and today I sound pretty good from low F# to G above the staff. I’m playing about an hour a day, and though some days are definitely better than others, I sound like me most of the time. That hasn’t been true in two years. Those of you who are musicians, think about that. Two years! I feel like I just found something very valuable that I misplaced a long time ago and had almost forgotten about. That takes us to the present day. Now, five weeks is not a long time, and it’s just the start of my journey back to trumpet competence. This is neither an easy nor a sure road, and I’m hyper-aware that there’s no guarantee things will keep going well, but I’ll tell you what: I am excited like a little kid at Christmas. Let’s do this!