Surviving Focal Dystonia by Ron Munson
The tuba remains today the single J ) most important aspect of my life, and if anyone had told me that 1would not be playing tuba at age 60,1 would not have believed them. My goal in present- ing this story is to help others make an early discovery of this most devastating condition in order to avoid wasting valu able time in getting on with their lives. From the time 1began playing the tuba at age 12, 1have loved its sound; the way it looks; the curious variations in its development; and the feelings of accom plishment it has provided me. Performing on tuba in solo and ensemble provided a high for me that has never been approach ed by any drug or other activity that 1 have ever experienced. As a kid growing up, 1was very fortunate to have had excellent band programs in my schools that made playing fun and exciting. Through junior and senior high school, 1 was first chair in my band and soloed every year with that band. I was very fortunate to have been a camper at National Music Camp at Interlochen and to have my first lessons with Arnold Jacobs at Gunnison, Colorado. It was hearing his incredibly big and beautiful sound that got me excited about the potential that could be realized on the tuba and how much 1 wanted to be a part of that experience.
I became Principal Tubist of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra in my sophomore year at Wichita State University. I also won the audition for the U.S. Marine Band in Washington DC in that year, but 1opted to stay in school as orchestra was my main interest. 1was totally consumed in tuba playing and spent the majority of time practicing, playing in every group possible, listening to recordings, and studying scores. Commuting to Chicago for lessons with Mr. Jacobs was a fairly regular occurrence and my summers were spent at Pierre Monteux’s Domaine School for Conductors and Tanglewood. Lessons with Arnold Jacobs, William Bell, and Abe Torchinsky were arranged during those summer trips. After my third year in Wichita, 1went to New York City to perform. I was very fortunate that 1became the tubist in the Brass Arts Quintet and subsequently appeared in Carnegie Recital Hall with them. Between the quintet, the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, and other freelance work, I was able to make a living with my tuba. The offer of Principal Tuba with the San Antonio Symphony came after, and 1 spent two seasons with them. I was one of three finalists for the Boston Symphony Principal Tuba position in 1965. The escalation of the Viet Nam War led to my auditioning for the U.S. Marine Band in Washington DC for a second time. Prior to my engagement with them, 1had the opportunity to substitute as Principal Tubist with the Minnesota Orchestra in their first seven-week summer season.
After four years with the Marine Band, I had determined that the symphony orchestra and the major military band were not the route that 1desired for my future. 1was by no means finished playing and was taking a serious look at college level teaching and solo playing. The next two years were consumed in obtaining both my bachelor and master’s degrees from Emporia State University while per forming with the faculty quintet, teaching tuba, and performing solo recitals.
In May, 1972,1 was offered the faculty quintet/teaching position at the Univer sity of Northern Iowa and was looking forward to performing with their very active quintet and working with their students. One morning toward the end of May, 1started warming up for a quintet job. Something was wrong. My low C was weak and intermittently cut in and out and there was now an involuntary tremor in my sound in the low register. 1played the quintet performance that afternoon, avoiding the low register and got through without the audience knowing that anything was wrong. Within a week, 1could not play below bottom line G in the staff. 1avoided playing in the low register because 1foolishly did not want anyone to know I had a problem.
By the time 1arrived in Iowa, things had become considerably worse. 1was able to get through the first two concerts of the Waterloo Symphony, which consisted of Revueltas’s Sensermyaand Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, but 1was now experiencing articulation problems as well. 1had no idea what was going on or what to tell my colleagues. None of us knew what was wrong. The panic 1was beginning to feel was overwhelming. I went to Arnold Jacobs and he told me to start from where I could make a good sound and bring it down from there. By second semester, I could not play below fourth line F and it was necessary to bring graduate assistant in to finish the quintet and orchestra obligations for me. While the music department was willing to stand by me, I was too devastated by the experience to continue there. I sold my favorite tuba, an original five-valve Holton CC copy of the Arnold Jacobs York, and bought a Rudolph Meinl thinking that I needed a smaller tuba. It made no difference, it was not the horn. I fled to the Seattle area, sold the Meinl, and did not try to play for a while. I was too ashamed to face my colleagues and for the first time in my life, felt as if I were on the outside looking in.
Michael Russell who was then Principal Tuba of the Seattle Symphony kept trying to get me to start playing again as there were several concerts requiring two tubists in the schedule. I bought a CC tuba and began to practice. Using Mr. Jacobs’s original advice, 1 worked on stretching my range back down and was able to slowly get it to work down to E below the staff without losing control. I discovered a new embouchure that made it possible to play the low range, but 1could not carry this embouchure above third space E without the tone thinning out and cracking. There was much confusion as to whether to try to develop the new low register embouchure into the high range or con tinue to try to bring the old embouchure down to the low range. At least, I could overlap the two embouchures. The transition between the two embouchures was difficult at best and not very flexible. I was able to clear the articulation problems to an acceptable level for large ensemble performance. I started doing extra work with the Seattle Symphony with adequate success. At first, Michael would switch parts with me in order to accommodate my difficulties. As I progressed, I started to practice more and more until I was at five hours a day with no days off. I was able to control it well enough to perform the Wagner “Ring” with the Seattle Opera over the next three summers. I also did a series of solo recitals during that time that were at best mediocre.
By 1978, it was obvious that 1could only control my embouchure well enough to get by in large ensemble. The concept of growing as a player and achieving the soloist level I desired was not going to happen. If I let down the slightest from my practice pace, the symptoms would come back. The radical two-embouchure approach I was using could not provide the flexibility necessary to accomplish the new solo literature that was emerging. At this point 1was angry and beginning to feel suicidal. I felt as though I had already done what I wanted to do and was having great difficulty in believing there was a future for me. Playing was not fun anymore and what was once the most exciting and fulfilling experience in my life became the most painful experience of my life.
Escape through alcohol and drugs were never my way of dealing with life’s difficulties. 1turned to hiking deep in the Cascade and Olympic Mountain Ranges and often went out with the determina tion that I would keep going in one direction and never return. I burned off much of the anger I was feeling and because I never seemed to be able to complete the suicidal act, determined that there must be some greater purpose that was yet unfulfilled. I sold my tubas and dropped out a second time.
I started considering other interests as alternatives. I had been on the varsity golf team in junior and senior high school and a serious look at all aspects of the golf world took place. I grew up as an Air Force dependant and always had an interest in aviation and space exploration. 1went back to school and took math, science, and engineering courses. I also completed my instrument pilot rating and all but the flight test for my commercial pilot license. None of this exploration led to the discovery of anything that was on the level of tuba performance for me.
The one thing that did fit was teach ing private brass students and with the exception of one year, I have made a living from this media for the past 30 years. I teach all brass as developing enough tuba students to make an adequate living would be nearly impos sible in our area. All of my students are aware of the greatest players on their respective instruments and how they sound which makes it unnecessary for them to hear me play. It has not been easy building students as there are many who do not understand how I could teach without demonstrating my horn. When I first built my studio I went to the public schools and presented free clinics for them. 1had to be very careful to choose things that I could make sound good without letting on that I had a major problem. I wasn’t always successful. Due to my success at encouraging young players to explore their instruments and achieve high levels, my reputation as a teacher has remained high. The system continues to feed itself without my need to play for them.
From 1978 to 2000, I continued to try again and again to get my chops back with no real success. 1had breaks of five years at a time where there was not a tuba in the house, and periods of three or four years where I did everything I knew to be able to play again. The problem always returned. I tried playing trumpet and horn and within two months on each instru ment, the symptoms were back. It was obvious that the only way I could perform adequately was to practice excessively as 1 had done in the mid-seventies. I made several solo appearances and played on recitals, where I went to the moment of walking on stage unsure of whether my embouchure was relaxed enough to allow me the freedom to perform. Each of these performances had good parts but all were marred by sudden, uncontrollable spasms and involuntary cramping in my embouchure. There was no way to predict when it would happen. It made no difference whether I was in the privacy of my own studio or on stage, it could occur at any moment. My final attempt to play was at a summer brass camp for adults where 1 coached and was required to play at the end of the final concert in a large faculty brass ensemble. It was necessary to leave the recital often and warm up again to insute my embouchure would not fail me. I got through the performance, but the event marked the end of ever trying ; to play any brass instrument again.
In January of 2000, I made contact with Dr. Steven Frucht, a New York City neurologist who has taken a great interest in focal dystonia as experienced by musicians. He is an amateur violinist of some skill who has been actively research’ ing this devastating condition. Ellis Wean, Principal Tubist of the Vancouver, British Columbia Symphony, helped me make a video utilizing one of his clear mouthpieces that demonstrated my embouchure as I played from the bottom to the top of my range. I further filled out an extensive questionnaire regarding my symptoms and experiences. The conclu sion is that I am in fact the victim of embouchure dystonia and there is nothing I could have done to change the situation. It was a relief to know what went wrong. Embouchure dystonia, as experienced by brass players, is characterized by abnormal movements in the embouchure that are often very subtle and occur only while the musician is buzzing into the mouthpiece. Symptoms may include air leaks at the comers and involuntary, abnormal contractions of the muscles of the face. These contractions include I involuntary puckering, closing of the mouth, and excessive elevation at the I corners. Difficulties are sometimes limited 1 to specific ranges or certain passages at specific speeds.
Embouchure dystonia is not psychologically related and is not triggered by other traumatic events although its symptoms can be aggravated by depres sion or stress. It generally does not show up until atound the age of thirty although I personally have had two students who showed symptoms in their early twenties. It is not contagious and you cannot get it from another colleague. A good example of a form of dystonia is writer’s cramp. The muscles involved can, without warn ing, cramp or tremor involuntarily. It is not visible except during attempts to per form, and it does not cause physical pain. As of this writing, there is no medication, surgery, or other cure for this affliction.
If you are experiencing difficulties, the problem you may be experiencing may not be focal dystonia, and if unrelated, you may be able to work through it. Only about 10% of brass players with embouchure problems are actually victims of focal dystonia. Cindy Lewis is currently working on The Embouchure Handbook and describes many other common embouchure problems and injuries that can occur. Her web page can be accessed at http://www.embouchures.com. Embouchure dystonia is emotionally devastating. When one has put in the necessary practice to be competitive at the professional level much else has been sacrificed in this preparation. There is no way to know how many careers and lives have been destroyed due to this affliction.
If you are experiencing similarities to my experience, have it checked out by a neurologist who is involved in research ing focal dystonia. The Dystonia Medical Research Foundation web site can be accessed at http://www.dystonia-foundation.org. You can find a further description of embouchure dystonia and other forms of dystonia on this site. There is a sub-group called Musicians with Dystonia co-founded by Dr. Steven Frucht and Glen Estrin, a New York horn player. The Musicians with Dystonia Advisory Board contains an impressive list of professional musicians. A free pamphlet. Musicians with Dystonia subtitled “Understanding Dystonias Affecting Musicians,” is available through the Dystonia Medical Research Founda tion. Dr. Frucht has graciously offered his e-mail address (email@example.com) for those who are experiencing the symptoms of focal dystonia.
If embouchure dystonia is confirmed, let your colleagues, conductor, or department head know immediately that you are experiencing the problem. They will most likely work with you in managing your difficulty. This will remove much of the stress. As I learned, I was able to perfotm adequately with much practice and some radical changes. Do not avoid practicing in the affected area. If your case is mild enough, you may be able to continue playing and learn to manage the affliction. If your situation is more difficult than that, remember that the brilliance that got you to yout position can also be used to spawn new areas that can be very rewarding. Use your imagination, as it does not mean the end of your life. It opens new possibilities for other things you never thought could transpire.
My private teaching is very rewarding and makes me happy. There is much joy in watching young players grow and help ing them through their difficult times. I have also gained much positive feeling by being a facilitator in organizing tuba events such as the Harvey Phillips Northwest “Big Brass Bash.” The only thing that would make me happier would be if I could play my tuba the way I want. If I could do that, I would be doing solo recitals and going to schools to expose as many young people as possible to the particular beauty and joy of playing our most noble instrument. You too can find a way to survive this loss. Ron welcomes and encourages further questions and inquiries regarding his experiences. He may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.