Posted by: eaubeauhorn | March 24, 2008

My understanding of what embouchure focal dystonia is

In my personal study of what is “going on” with my own embouchure dystonia, there were some key mental light bulbs. The first one was that although my horn playing was trashed in a certain range, my euphonium playing (larger mouthpiece) was working just fine in that same range. Therefore….certainly this was not a “muscle problem” because it if were, then the muscles should function less well, not better, with the larger mouthpiece. What, then, was going on?

I started trying to discern what was different, for me, about playing euphonium as opposed to playing horn. I had played horn for quite a few years before I took up the euphonium and tuba, and my brass technique was at a more advanced level when I started on these larger cups. I wanted to see what I did on euphonium that allowed it to work, and also if I could then transfer that to playing horn. What I figured out was that the way I put attention on my embouchure was different between euphonium and horn. Specifically, it was how I focused on my upper lip.

An example of what I mean by mental focus: as an exercise, put all of your attention on your right big toe. You weren’t aware of it before you read this sentence, right? But it was surely there; you just weren’t focused on it. Now…how warm or cold is it? Can you feel it touching your shoe? The toe next to it? I’ve never met a brass player who didn’t put some kind of mental focus on their chops; for me, it just happened to be different for euphonium than it was for horn. I can’t tell you what was different, only that it was.

I have called this special kind of mental focus an “intent path.” The intent path is mental. It’s what your brain does when you intend to do anything physical…when you intend to stand up from a chair, when you intend to bring your fork to your mouth, when you intend to play a note on your instrument. I know one fellow with dystonia who has no problem until his instrument gets within an inch or two of his face, and then his head begins to wag back and forth from side to side as if he were emphatically saying NO! His intent path is corrupt; it’s got wrong signals in it. The more strongly we try to control the malfunction, the worse it gets, because we are focusing even more intently on that same, corrupt intent path. All of us with dystonia need to change our intent path.

How do you change an intent path? I can only tell you how I have changed mine, slowly over time. I introduced slightly different sensations into my playing, by putting attention elsewhere than my upper lip (a lot like you changed your attention when I asked you to focus on your right big toe.) I introduced slightly more pucker into my embouchure, because that changed the sensation of forming an embouchure. In addition, I stayed away from playing the horn until the old intent path started to be less “grooved.” You’ve heard the phrase “grooving your golf swing,” right? You groove a path for a physical motion by doing that motion over and over. With dystonia, that groove gets messed up and doesn’t work for you any more, and you have to do two things: you have to un-groove the faulty path, and you have to make a new groove in a new path. The new path doesn’t have to be dramatically different from the old path, but it does have to be different in the ways that count. Sort of like if you have ruts in the ice going up your driveway and your wheels spin in the ruts, but if you drive right next to the ruts in the snow, you can go just fine. You just can’t get up the driveway if you try to drive in the ruts.

It has now been two years since I realized I had dystonia. I quit playing for pretty much six months, with only occasional tests every few weeks to see how things were doing. I had to let that deep groove that was the corrupt intent path, melt a little bit before I put a lot of effort into making a new grooved intent path. My embouchure is not entirely reliable at this point in time. I only play twice a week because if I play more often, I tend to slip into the old rut. If I have the time to do a slow, careful low-range warmup, I can almost guarantee that I’ll have a dystonia-free rehearsal. And on the days when my chops do act up, I have the tools now in place to find a fairly immediate work-around because I’m pretty familiar with my new groove. I get into trouble when I go on auto-pilot and fall into old focus habits. All I have to do is yank myself out of those habits and jump out of that groove.

It was a long haul though. If I had been pro….I think I would have been toast; as it was I did lose my position in the orchestra I was in. But I am still playing horn, not quite as well as I used to, but well enough. My sound is still there, but if I try to do very fast 16th-note passages, my chops get unstable. Right now, I’ll take that instead of the alternative, which was hanging up the horn. I love it too much to hang it up.

 The next post will be some information I learned about the personality characteristics of people who develop embouchure dystonia.

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