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[icon] Dystonia - Keith's Journal
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Current Music:Overture to Tannhauser - Richard Wagner
Time:01:54 am
A long, long time ago...
I can still rememeber

How that music used to make me smile.

I guess it's time for me to explain myself. What my last post was about. Why I may seem somewhat out of it.

To make things easier, I'm just going to post an email I wrote earlier today. Going over this once was hard enough. It took me about five hours to write, and I felt like I was either actually or on the verge of shaking uncontrollably throughout the process.

I probably should have sent mail about this to you all a couple weeks ago, but I didn't. Something about putting things in writing makes them more real, and I really wanted this to not be real.

Anyway, the short of it is that I think there's a good chance I won't be able to continue playing with EWSB through the summer. I'll try to make it to the next two rehearsals, to see if things might miraculously improve in the next couple weeks, but at this point I'm no longer very hopeful.

I think I have embouchure dystonia, which is a neurological disorder that causes spasmodic muscle movements in the face. I think in a lot of cases it gets exacerbated by psychological factors as well. It's not very common, but there have been some high-profile musicians that have it (e.g., Warren Deck (tuba), Bob Hughes (bass trombone)). Dystonia can also happen (apparently more commonly) in people's hands (e.g., Alex Klein (oboe), Leon Fleisher (piano)).

Some say it is not possible to overcome dystonia. Others say that it is. The first group argues that the people that overcome it weren't really dealing with dystonia. In my opinion, that's somewhat of a moot point. I will try to overcome my problem, whatever it is. Since the symptoms seem like dystonia, and others have overcome symptoms that seem like dystonia, I figure there is some hope.

The abbreviated background of this is that I'd been having some trouble with my low-register since last summer. The notes just didn't come out as easily, and it seemed like I was missing them rather frequently. Even with some notes that aren't really all that low, like low B-flat, for example. At first, I'd just assumed that it was because I was out of shape. When I was in California, I was only playing once a week; I didn't take my horn with me, and was able to borrow somebody else's for rehearsals with a community band in Palo Alto.

Things mostly stayed the same, or perhaps improved a little until late March or early April. At one EWSB rehearsal, I discovered I just couldn't play low notes. And that was somewhat of a generous statement; I couldn't hit notes below the E below the staff, which included some notes that aren't really very low at all. Things fluctuated a little bit between then and mid-May. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. I switched to playing high when the part would split, and would even take some things up an octave. I was convinced that I'd somehow unlearned some important aspect of tuba-playing. Presumably though, once I figured out what I was doing wrong, I could fix it, and my playing would be back to normal.

With that in mind, I met with Jan Duga, my old tuba teacher in late May. I was doing even worse then. I had trouble with notes below the middle F below the staff. And I was having a hard time starting notes below the second space C (presumably my mind doing weird things to try and compensate for not being able to hit the lower- and lower-middle-register notes, since harder articulations definitely made hitting them worse). Unfortunately, my teacher didn't have any advice that helped. However, she mentioned dystonia, and that one of her colleagues had suffered from, and now mostly recovered from it.

That evening, Jan emailed me a bunch of information on dystonia from the Internet. I read it. It sounded exactly like what was going on with me. The next week, she had a chance to talk with her colleague, and he said it sounded very much like I had embouchure dystonia. Jan gave me his contact information, and I called him and got some advice. Hopefully at some point this summer I'll get a chance to go down to the D.C. area and work with him in person.

I'd hoped that I'd be able to overcome the problems quickly. Things hadn't really gotten very bad for me until March. Many people have no idea that their problems may be due to dystonia for years, and get to the point that they can't play at all. So I'd thought maybe I could reverse my problems more quickly. So far, it doesn't seem like that's the case though. I think several months to two years is typically how long it takes people to recover, if they recover.

Needless to say, I'm very disappointed. I'd really been looking forward to playing with EWSB this summer (I had SO much fun my first summer with the band). It's also a really terrible feeling, picking up my horn, and just not being able to play music. Notes below the second space C feel like mud; I feel like I have no agility getting around in those ranges, and all the notes end up starting late due to the articulation issues that have developed. Not very fun...

Sometimes though, things seem better. Maybe the tubas will have a moving, melodic part in the upper-middle-register. I'll get into the music, and play well for a little bit. It will feel more like my old chops are playing again. Apparently a big part of overcoming the dystonia is not thinking about it; by avoiding the problematic neural pathways, playing improves. This has the strange characteristic that I have the hardest time with the easiest parts; I think too much about the notes, as opposed to the sound or feeling of a melodic line.

I'm sorry for the bad news. I figured you all really needed to know though.


Right now I don't think I can say very much more. Other (mostly good) things have happened, but this issue has probably been the foremost thing concerning me recently.

One of the things I always thought was wonderful about my passion for music and playing tuba was that I believed it would last forever. But now it doesn't seem like that's necessarily the case. And that thought's haunting me.
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Time:2009-06-21 12:03 am (UTC)
I'm really sorry to hear about this. :( Dystonia is definitely scary--I've had a lot of experience with it from the professional side (I studied with Warren Deck last summer)--but I can't imagine the stress for ANYONE going through this...

Two points from my experiences with dystonia: 1) one of my tuba friends developed dystonia while in school (I can put you in touch with him if you'd like; he's really friendly). He didn't play at all for a while, but is now extremely active in New Orleans-style brass band playing. I think his major shift was CC orchestral tubas to old BBb sousaphones--the whole "changing neurological pathways" thing seems to be a very powerful tool.
2) Speaking of changing pathways, our trombone professor at Kentucky developed dystonia in the 90s I believe, and has had really good success (he's gigging at churches again, no Mahler or anything) studying with a woman named Jan Kagarice (link). From what I know, it involves a complete overhaul on how you approach the instrument. Honestly, I would suggest e-mailing her (she sounds pretty friendly?)--ask for advice, books to read, and if any of her friends/students are living in your area...

While I hate to suggest it, have you given euphonium or trombone a try? That might be significantly different enough to allow you to play...

Good luck, and I really hope you can play again soon. :(
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Time:2009-06-24 11:14 pm (UTC)
Thanks for your comment, Beth.

The bit about the BBb sousaphones is kind of interesting. Back last fall (before I suspected anything was going on other than me being out of practice), I noticed I was having some trouble with low Bbs, As, and Abs on my CC tuba in EWSB, but not playing sousaphone in Kiltie marching band. I didn't think anything of it, other than, "That's weird."

The guy Jan [Duga] knows from the Air Force who had dystonia studied with Jan Kagarice. I've talked on the phone with him a few times now, and hopefully will be able to meet with him in person in the beginning of July. At some point though, I guess it would be useful to see if there's anybody closer to Pittsburgh that could help me.

I borrowed one of the Kiltie Band's baritones back during winter break. However, that was also probably when my tuba-playing was least affected. I could probably ask Mr. Gerlach about borrowing one again. Although I think it would probably be best to wait a bit more. It seems like that could be a good way to confuse my face even more...
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