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  • Writer's pictureEvan Clifton

One step forward, two steps back... Sometimes.

Hi friends,

When working to break a bad habit, create a new one, or solidify any kind of new routine, it’s very easy to be derailed by any number of things that can steal our focus. These might include significant sources of stress, a particularly busy schedule, or any number of other things. I’ve become especially aware of this over the past year and a half since I developed Focal Dystonia in June of 2016. For quite a while, I’ve been back at it playing better than ever using a new approach to the horn, but recently those new habits have been tested.

The month of February provided many opportunities for me to improve my self-awareness as it relates to playing and life in general. It was incredibly busy with two solo recitals at Western Michigan University and Michigan State University, multiple orchestra weeks, as well as an orchestra audition. With this much going on, I became very caught up in the moment and kept moving from one project to the next with no break in between. Being stuck in “go mode” for the better part of a month without checking in with myself was incredibly difficult as the end of the month came closer. And this was only made more difficult by the fact that my bass trombone slide was damaged and ended up needing to be replaced, and the transmission blew in my car, both of which lead to short term financial difficulties and only compounded the stress.  I noticed myself relapsing into my playing habits that lead to Focal Dystonia; significant tension – particularly in my embouchure, controlled breathing while playing, and generally an internal focus on what my body is doing while playing.

Naturally, this was incredibly scary once I became aware of it, but after I took a step back and shifted my focus to where it needs to be, things began to return to normal. This involved reminding myself of the precise sound concept required for what I was playing and expecting it to come out of the bell, and also relaxing physically to the point where my body can do what it needs to do to create that sound without me getting in the way.

Now this sort of experience could happen with anything, related to playing or not. Embouchure changes, any kind of playing injury including overuse, or just managing a time of significant change in life can cause these kinds of disruptions. For me, just as I was hitting a very busy time of all great things, it seemed like right as I took a big step forward, I was thrown back twice as far by my old habits. The single reason this setback didn’t progress even further is because, with the help of people around me, I was able to take a step back and remind myself of where my focus needs to be and why this was happening. I had gotten so caught up in the business of life and distracted by certain difficulties that I lost sight of my own mental wellness. Especially as a freelance musician and music educator, my own mental wellness is absolutely vital! I am my product and if I cannot function at my best, then I will deliver a faulty product to my students, colleagues, and audience members at concerts.

With last month in the rear view mirror, I’ve definitely returned to a much better place with my playing and mental wellness. One piece of music that has been in my ear constantly during this recovery period has been “Let My Love Be Heard” by Jake Runestad. This recording by the California State University – Long Beach Chamber Choir is particularly moving since it is also dedicated to a member of their choir who was killed in the terrorist attacks in Paris, France in November of 2015. Please do yourself a favor and take a listen…

MUSIC. It’s good for ya.

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