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  • Writer's pictureEvan Clifton

Where the Rubber Met the Road: Meltdown.

Hi Friends,

In the last few posts on this blog, I’ve been sharing my thoughts on several characteristics of a healthy mindset for a musician – awareness of perspective, authenticity, and communication. This month I’ll share the story of an experience I had while I was dealing with what turned out to be symptoms of Task-Specific Focal Dystonia and my mindset resembled none of these characteristics. This is not to say that this mindset caused my dystonia because it certainly didn’t, but it definitely didn’t help me navigate difficult situations like the one I am about to describe.

The summer of 2016 began with the thrill of winning the Bass Trombone position with the West Michigan Symphony, a regional orchestra in Michigan. Shortly after that audition is when my dystonia symptoms reared their ugly head and derailed my playing for about a year before I started feeling comfortable again. The main event of the summer was when I was asked to play a week with The Cleveland Orchestra at their summer home, the Blossom Music Center. This was in July, about a month after the symptoms first showed up, and shortly after I had worked with Brad White of the Houston Symphony at the Southeast Trombone Symposium. Brad helped get my playing back on track, at least temporarily, so when I got the call from Cleveland, I accepted it. This would turn out to be a situation where I would learn an important lesson the hard way; accepting a high profile gig (like this one) when you’re not playing at your best for whatever reason, is risky.

Fast forward to the week of the concerts; It was three different programs in four days. Day 1 was two rehearsals on the Grieg Piano Concerto, Sibelius Symphony no. 1, and a Stravinsky piece that I didn’t play on. At this point, things felt and sounded pretty good, I had prepared well and didn’t hit any significant snags. Day 2 was a rehearsal and performance for the final round of the Cooper International Piano Competition at Severance Hall. This is where the bulk of the story is, so I’ll come back to it. Day 3 was another rehearsal and performance for the Grieg/Sibelius program at Blossom, and Day 4 was a rehearsal and performance of a program of film music also at Blossom.

Back to Day 2 of this week. Since it was a competition and the finalists were determined in days leading up to the finals, we didn’t receive the repertoire for it until the night before. It ended up being Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2 for two of the finalists and the third finalist was playing a piece with no trombone parts. This meant it was crunch time to prepare for the rehearsal the next day, but at least I only had one piece to learn. So I found a good recording, pulled up a score on IMSLP and got to work. Rehearsal the next day was difficult for one primary reason, The Cleveland Orchestra plays this piece quite often, as I later found out, and this was my very first time playing it. Still, I felt prepared and got through the rehearsal reasonably unscathed. Between the rehearsal and performance is when issues began popping up. I did some practicing for other events I had coming up as I normally did around rehearsals and concerts, but I became hyper aware of my articulation and lost PERSPECTIVE on the rest of my playing. Tunnel vision became a big issue that would come back to bite me later in the performance.

In the Rachmaninoff, there are a few spots where the bass trombone plays on its own with the low strings and it was in these spots during the first performance where this tunnel vision caused issues. Chipped notes, unstable pitch, and near missed entrances were significant issues because I was so worried about what was going to come out of my horn, I essentially withdrew entirely within myself and lost all awareness of what was happening around me. I can see all of this in hindsight, but in the moment I was frantic inside my own head. Afterwards at intermission, I went downstairs to the dressing room and hid myself away in the corner to meditate and get myself together. It was also a rare situation where I took a beta blocker for an ensemble performance. I usually only take them for auditions to help keep my nerves together but I knew if I was going to get through the second performance of the Rachmaninoff, I was going to need it.

I got through the second performance fine and promptly treated myself to an adult beverage afterwards… This is still the moment I realized exactly how far gone my mindset towards playing had become and how badly I needed to seek out help from experts to address these issues. What I didn’t know at that time is how long it would take to get back to a healthy mindset when it comes to playing trombone. It took seeing a therapist weekly, help from a number of trombone teachers and musicians, and about a year and a half before I truly felt like I was in a comfortable place. Even now, nearly two full years later, I still have moments where I become hyper aware of a certain aspect of my playing and lose sight of the bigger picture, and since I have the previous experience I do, that can send me down a dangerous path. The difference now is that I have a certain level of awareness that this happens on occasion and I know ways to shift gears and see the more sides of the situation (perspective), make sure that I’m being honest with myself in the music I’m trying to make (authenticity), and that the music being made is conveying what is intended to the listener (communication). This has also helped be build a much more healthy relationship with the instrument so that I don’t get so down on myself when I have an off performance and I value the ability to make music so much more than I did prior to this whole experience.

Whew… well that was tough to write. Thank you for taking the time to read this story and hopefully it was impactful for you in some way. I can’t speak for others, but in my case, this just shows how severe playing injuries can be beyond the physical side of things. As much as it might seem logical to share a recording of the Rachmaninoff 2nd concerto with this blog post, I’m not going to. Instead, take a listen to this recording of Italian guitarist Pino Forstiere playing his piece Ripresa. I rediscovered this recently because (it seems like) in past lifetime, I played guitar and fell in love with this style of music, and I actually worked with Pino in a workshop before one of his concerts. This piece is incredibly calming and grounding for me and it just helps get me outside of my overactive mind. Give it a listen!

MUSIC. It’s good for ya.

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