Injury. Recovery. Redirection.
Hi friends, welcome to the initial post of my blog, “MUSIC. It’s good for ya.” This saying started out as a tagline that I would use when I shared recordings on my personal Facebook page and has now become the focus of my new blog! This saying has taken on new meaning for me recently because of a playing injury that came terrifyingly close to ending my playing career. But out of that injury, I’ve become motivated to share what I’ve learned over the last year and a half during my journey back to playing trombone in a healthy and efficient manner. What follows here is a very personal overview of my journey from summer 2016 until now. I strongly believe that playing related injuries and healthy playing habits are not talked about openly enough, so this blog will serve as my own effort to help change that.
One day in early June 2016, I woke up and the muscles of my embouchure were in searing pain. When I tried to warm up later that day I was unable to produce any sound on the horn, let alone play with any degree of control. I immediately sought out the advice of several of my current and former teachers and the resounding consensus was to stop playing right away or risk even more severe injury. Just for some perspective, at this point in time I was 23 years old, had just won a second regional orchestra position in Michigan, and had subbed with The Cleveland Orchestra for the first time the previous April. I was on a huge wave of professional success and it all came crashing down literally overnight. I would later learn, through research and the help of many teachers, that this occurred as a result of unhealthy playing habits such as massive amounts of tension, overuse, and having an internal point of focus while playing. I did not consult a neurologist, but once I began the recovery process, trusted teachers and my research came to the conclusion that these symptoms were early signs of focal dystonia, but I’ll get into more detail about that in a future post.
After putting the horn away for two full weeks, I attended the Southeastern Trombone Symposium at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia where I met and worked with Colin Williams from the New York Philharmonic and Brad White from the Houston Symphony. These two gentlemen were a huge inspiration to me during this fragile time in my musical journey because they had previously recovered from very severe playing related injuries and come back playing at an extremely high level. At this point, I was still a complete mess to put it bluntly, but just knowing that it IS possible to recover from very severe playing injuries gave me hope. Even though at this point, I was still very uncertain what was actually going on, I at least saw a thin silver lining.
Once the initial fear of this injury had worn off, I finally began the process of looking how I was playing the horn and rebuilding those mechanisms of operating the instrument. Tension had completely manipulated and warped everything from my slide technique down to breathing. Once again, I’ll break this down further in a future post, but quite literally every facet of my operation of the trombone was malfunctioning and I had to relearn how to play in a different way from the ground up. More than the physical state I was in, my mental state had deteriorated even more and I had become incredibly stressed and irritable as a result of potentially losing my ability to play and the career path that I had worked incredibly hard towards. Seeing a therapist became the key to my mental recovery. When I tried to work through everything on my own, I was unsuccessful to say the least. My mental symptoms (according to my therapist) were actually consistent with mild Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); Sleeplessness, extreme irritation, lack of ability to focus, and just generally not acting like myself. This was easily the most difficult part of the recovery phase of this journey and something that I still have to keep in check to this day.
And now for the best part of this journey… Redirection! This has been a journey on its own because I’ve gone from accepting that I needed to find something else to do that didn’t involve playing, which is when I explored opportunities in Arts Administration, all the way to returning to my goal of the previous many years of winning a full time orchestra job. Now that I’ve returned to playing even better than before my injury, I’m at peace with where I’ve ended up which is a place of flexibility and openness that is somewhat undefined; but one thing is certain. I have a very strong need to teach what I’ve learned through my journey with the hope of helping others avoid going through what I had to and make music in the healthiest manner. As a result of arriving at this conclusion, I have a number of related projects in the works, the first of which is this blog. My hope for this medium is to be a journal of my thought processes and tools that I learned throughout my journey that will be accessible to anyone at any time who might find them helpful. I have also begun sharing these tools with students of all levels through private lessons and masterclasses, particularly at the high school level.
In addition to teaching what I’ve learned, “the proof is in the pudding”. Solo playing has also become a focal point of my career and a method of putting what I teach on display. Moving forward, I very much plan to share my music through solo recitals and concerto performances. This season I performed a concerto, Wim Bex’s “Vademecum”, with the Michigan State University Wind Symphony, and have two solo recitals coming up at Michigan State University and Western Michigan University, in addition to a concerto performance with the band at Lakewood High School in Lake Odessa, Michigan. This is without a doubt the direction I will be taking my career; helping prevent these types of injuries through teaching healthy brass playing habits and showing how well this type of teaching works through performance.
Well, there you have it, a very general overview of my journey from a debilitating playing injury to a place where I feel like I have a true purpose and direction for my career in music. As I mentioned previously, there will be much more expansion on certain parts, which I can’t wait to share, but this blog entry hopefully gave you an idea of where I’m coming from with everything I do in my musical life. And in keeping with my original purpose of the saying “MUSIC. It’s good for ya.” Here’s an incredible recording by Jacob Collier that has been constantly in my ear for the better part of a year.