Posted by: eaubeauhorn | March 16, 2008

How my embouchure dystonia manifested

This is the first in a series of posts in which I will detail how I figured out I had embouchure dystonia, and the progress I have made over the last two years to being able to play the horn again. (Many or most people who develop embouchure dystonia, never regain their playing ability, and have to give up their instrument. Not everyone finds that dystonia is fatal to their playing, though, and I consider myself one of the lucky ones.)

Two years ago, although I didn’t know it, I was in my last year of eight years of being 2nd horn in a good community orchestra. I had started playing the horn at an advanced age, 45, and wasn’t a “returning horn player” but a “brand new horn player.” Part of what I ran into was teachers who simply did not know how to start an adult student who needed an explanation of how to play the instrument; because I was musically competent on other instruments (strings) and had a very good sense of pitch, I was able to find the notes on the horn that were on the music, and my teacher skipped over the basics; she had never encountered someone who could manage to get the notes out without spending years on basic stuff. So during the course of my horn playing education, I changed embouchures on a regular basis, every few months even, trying to figure out how to do this without anyone being willing to actually tell me how it was done. It was as if horn playing were some sort of “mystery school” and only those who were naturals at it were allowed in; then those same people, since they themselves had had no specific instruction, continued in the mystery school tradition of not telling any of their students how to do it either.

But I persevered, and especially after finding one local teacher who was willing to help me out, I started getting a good sound. I was a natural low player though and never did develop a good high range. Hitting an A above the staff basically required intense left biceps involvement and although I knew that was wrong, well, if the note was in the music I had to hit it. I did very well on the 2nd horn part, getting to play major literature, including Beethoven symphonies with prominent 2nd horn parts, and a wide range of classical music with demanding brass parts. I continued, however, to pound away at practicing, trying to find the key to the high range, trying to get better and better and better at being a horn player. I loved, and still love, the horn in the way I loved the violin when I was a kid; but I lost my love of the violin over the years. I don’t think I will ever lose my love of the horn and the horn sound.

A little background that may seem not apropos, but it may resonate with anyone who is reading this whose self-identity has been tied up in being a brass player. I grew up with the goal of being a professional violinist; there was nothing else I really wanted to do, although I had other talents. I had been told my entire childhood that I was musically gifted and could be a “concert violinist” if I wanted. In my mind, a “concert violinist” was one who played concertos with an orchestra. I don’t know if that was what was meant by other people, but that was what was in my mind. So I majored in violin performance at a major, highly competitive university in the Midwest. I signed up with a famous teacher and started doing my three hours a day in the practice room. My second year, things did not go so well; I asked to play a major concerto because I liked it, but it was too hard for me. Then, at the end of the first semester of my sophomore year, midway through trying to learn this concerto, my teacher told me that because I had taken extra academic credits, I was scheduled to take my Upper Division exam at the end of that semester, which was one semester early. So I went and played the first movement of this concerto, and botched it fairly badly. Now, there were FAMOUS people in the UD committee….and they each filled out a little form with comments and whether I had passed the exam. The violin teachers all passed me, and the other string teachers failed me. My teacher told me this had never happened before, that there was disagreement among the faculty about whether a student should be allowed to progress to the Upper Division (junior and senior years as an instrumental performance major.) So it was decided that the results of the exam would be discarded and I would take it again at the end of the next semester, at the usual time.

I was assigned a much easier concerto to learn that semester. However, things were going downhill. Over Christmas of the previous semester, my parents had informed me that they were stopping financial support because of a disagreement we had had over Thanksgiving. So that second semester, I rented a room in a rooming house with a kitchen and got a job as a graveyard shift dishwasher, working nights. I signed up for early morning classes and late afternoon classes, and got some sleep in between. I had very little money and ate badly. However I continued my three hours’ daily practice. My lessons were not going well; both in the practice room and at my lessons, both of my arms were becoming stiff and I was having a huge struggle to play the violin; I felt I had to force myself to play it, and I became angry at the struggle. At my lesson, my teacher would say two things: “Darling, (he never did learn my name) you are not practicing.” and “Darling, you must love the violin.” And I struggled on. One week I simply did not practice between lessons at all. I went to my lesson, my arms behaved and were not stiff, and I could play without struggle. My teacher said, “Darling, NOW you are practicing.”

In retrospect, that of course was when the gig was up; it was over. The only way I could play was to not practice! And of course if I did not practice, I could not learn anything new. I was in a huge, horrible, Catch 22. Of course I resumed practicing, and my lessons went back to a struggle to play. I took my UD exam at the end of that semester, and passed it. But my teacher told me that the only reason that I passed it was because he was my teacher and the faculty did not want to humiliate him and have such a bad thing on his record as a student not passing the UD. He retired at the end of that semester, and if I were to continue I’d have to find a new teacher.

I did not get enough financial aid from the school to continue without working full time, and I dropped out. The deck did seem to be stacked against my continuing.

Later, after I got married, I finished up my music degree at another college.

Later still, after getting divorced, I started a music lesson business, free-lanced as a violinist, and even finally joined a good regional orchestra as a section violinist. But…. the problem of my stiff arms continued especially in performance situations; one time I nearly dropped my bow off the stage because my hand was so stiff that I couldn’t hold on to it.

I gave up. I went back to school and got my engineering degree; I did not play the violin for very long stretches of time, and over time I changed how I thought about it. I spent literally decades trying to stop struggling with the violin and do as my teacher had said, “Love the violin.” I can’t say I got back to where I loved the violin, but I did reach a point where I could play it with friends, and in informal situations, and not have my arms and hands become stiff. People would always try to get me to play violin in various situations, after they heard me play ( I was still very competent and you could tell I used to be professional ) but I shied away from such situations.

To bring the story back to focal dystonia’s effect on professional musicians: The biggest impact of this series of events was the psychological necessity of having to re-define who I was. A part of me literally died when I had to give up my self-definition of being a “concert violinist” and become someone else. (An engineer.) To give up your own definition of who you literally are, and take on another definition, is a huge process, one that took many years and which had immense grief associated with it. My lesson business gave me sufficient income to get me through the first couple of years of engineering school, and then when I transferred out West, I got sufficient financial help (through co-op jobs) that I didn’t have to work during the school year. I graduated with my BSEE when I was 39.

All during engineering school, which took me seven years to complete because I had to keep dropping out for a period of time to work and save money, my self-definition was gradually changing, ever so slowly to being “an engineer.” I got a job right out of school and settled into “being an engineer.” After six years, I got the musical urge again, and I took up the horn.

Which brings us back to the where I started, which is how the dystonia first manifested on horn. From about January of 2006, I noticed that when I warmed up before rehearsal, I got kind of a funny sound on certain notes. Well, it was more than a “funny” sound….it was awful! My upper lip would sort of “flutter” inside the cup, and a really, really bad sound came out the bell. Like most people, I decided I had a practice problem (despite the fact that I practiced daily and hard) and I intensified my practice. What is weird is that I was playing the best I ever had; other than this weird thing that happened on a few notes, I was playing very, very well. To keep my lip still, I simply used more pressure to hold it down, as it were.

I had two closely spaced performances in March of 2006, with different groups. They were on a Sunday and the following Wednesday. As luck would have it, I was going to be on vacation for the next set of performances in May, and already had engaged a sub for both groups. During the following Friday’s practice, basically things went to hell; I could not stop the fluttering of my upper lip, and a muscle in my neck started twitching uncontrollably. It was a very, very uncomfortable feeling, and the harder I tried to control it the worse it got.

I have a horn-playing friend who developed embouchure dystonia ten years ago, and I had researched the problem trying to find information for her. Because of this background, I suddenly realized what was happening to me (her dystonia manifested quite differently from mine, which is why I didn’t make that realization sooner.) I knew that the advice when one starts to get dystonic symptoms was to stop playing immediately, to keep the symptoms from spreading throughout the range. So I did that; I was lucky to be able to do that, already having a sub for my last concerts. Pro players often do not have this luxury of stopping playing on the spot, and have to find a way to take time off without letting the cat out of the bag; since dystonia has a reputation of being incurable, it brings professional careers to a screeching halt, and once management finds out a player has dystonia, they likely are on their way out (as happened to me with the community orchestra I had played in.)

When a pro gets dystonia, they go through complete panic. Not only their career but their entire self-definition is on the line. My dystonia on violin was never recognized as such, by me or anyone else. It was seen by my teacher as a practice problem, and that is how dystonia usually is perceived both by the person who develops it, and by other people. When the muscles stop doing what you tell them to, both your and other people’s response is “well, just stop doing that!” They would never walk up to someone having a grand mal seizure and say “Just stop doing that!” but teachers will tell their students to “just stop doing that.” Neither the student nor the teacher understands that trying more intensely to make the muscles behave in fact makes them behave worse in precisely the fashion they are trying to put a stop to.

The next post will be an explanation of my own understanding of what eFTSD is (embouchure Focal Task Specific Dystonia.) It will address what must be done to overcome it, and how I have gone about that to the point where I am once again playing the horn, in a decent concert band and in a brass quintet.



  1. Good article. Its just what happen to me. 2 years ago I started practiceing more to get better and the reverse happened.

    I need to stop playing and let my lips heal but each day I pick up the horn and see if its back. A few bars are ok and then it goes down from there.

  2. Have been playing the horn for about 2 years after a long absence. Now I think I have embouchere dystonia. It started after heavy practice for a couple of concerts with an unwanted vibrato and now I cant seem to play anything. Looking forward to your next post.

    • Hi…how are the chops? Sorry I don’t get to my blog very often. There is a yahoo group that I moderate/own, called embouchuredystonia. It is not very active but if you have the time to read the archives there is excellent advice. I don’t agree with all of it but think people should have access to “all” opinions anyway.

      There are people who have recovered: Go find and read Dave Vining’s page on how he recovered. (I have heard him play, and he *is* recovered…) He is the trombone prof at Northern Arizona University.

      Regards, Eaubeauhorn

  3. It is so sad to read this article. I hope you did recover.
    I started playing horn at age 47! Similar to you, I had played music before, though not anything like your level.
    I am always conscious to not “overdo” practice, and would sometimes find that “more” is not good. Less, but with focus, can be great. I think as adults, we tend towards being over-conscientious anyway.
    I wonder about the Alexander technique in all this.
    I was at a Leon Fleisher concert last year, and his recovery from dystonia is inspirational.
    Look forward to reading more of your story.

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