Sunday, December 30, 2012
Finding A Balance Between Tension And Relaxation
There was a point in time where I was talking about the importance of not avoiding my symptoms, but also trying to find ways to release tension in my face. I talked about finding a leverage point; a spot or setting on my face where I felt I could maneuver even just a little bit/have leverage even when the symptoms occurred. I didn't want to rely on an immobile collapsed embouchure, but I also didn't want to force a stabilized embouchure that looked stretched, I wanted to find a middle ground where I could have some type of leverage, yet work with my symptoms. This can be extremely difficult to find when dealing with dystonia. It helps to use a mirror, but even more just trying different settings and so forth to see what causes more spasms and what lessens them. Then once I found that spot, I usually found a pattern (i.e. 5 note chromatic, or scale, or low note pattern, or stretches) that helped relieve tension over time. Then once the tension had gone down I was able to rebuild sensory and movement/motion slowly back into my playing.
I felt during that point in time where I was seeking "leverage" was a very important transitional area of recovery. In the beginning I had nothing but tension in my face. I felt I could neither hold an embouchure position, nor do the opposite - relax it. So in the beginning I relied on playing on a collapsed embouchure...there was no other way I could steady my symptoms, and this was frustrating because a collapsed embouchure, though comfortable, did not offer any mobility, flexibility, I felt stuck in a ditch/mud and any movement away from that formation was like an electric fence shock.
But! The more I played on a collapsed embouchure, there had come a point where I felt my corner muscles were trying to transition more upwards instead of downwards frown/collapsed. My embouchure was in constant limbo for a while trying to move from a collapsed embouchure to a more stabilized "yet" relaxed position. I also can't stress enough that this happened naturally. I never tried to force my embouchure to be one way or the other. Recovery can NOT be forced, and believe me your body/embouchure will let you know, so it's just better to let things develop as they do and keep patience. I felt my embouchure was trying to do one or the other constantly, and sometimes I had to practice both ways - "today I feel like my muscles/embouchure wants to play less collapsed. My corners are wanting to go up, or one corner tends to." I know that sounds weird, but it is this awareness of how my muscles want to maneuver which became a key part of recovery (being aware of how my dysfunctional embouchure functioned). Another example is the change in angle of my mouthpiece. In the beginning I felt a very downward angle of the mouthpiece was comfortable, but over time this became more restricting and eventually I found myself playing less downward angled, and additionally also noticed this happened while my embouchure muscles regained their coordination and strength.
First I went from buzzing and freebuzzing to eventually playing on the horn again. Buzzing and freebuzzing helped me greatly because it is different than playing horn. I use my embouchure muscles, but there is a big enough difference in physical sensation that it allows my sensory a little more leeway. Then when I played horn, I started from a collapsed embouchure and slowly moved to a less collapsed looking embouchure with a different mouthpiece angle too; and this happened as my muscles slowly and naturally over time went from a more downward frown to a more steady support, and then the lower lip muscle started to change....I went from rolled out to more rolled in, and then somewhere in between kind of now. Then my chin muscle sensory came back, and I began to see it fluctuate between flat and bunched, and regained jaw flexibility (which is still a huge thing I'm working on right now - I feel like this is a huge area of recovery if I am to overcome it). I even felt the change in my upper lip too. I can't explain the sensations of "knowing" how I know/feel things are either working or not, or how I know if somethings changed, but I just do over time. Once you become more aware of your embouchure tendencies, you become sensitive to the changes that happen; even little changes like less of a twitch in the upper right side of the upper lip, or being able to grasp a note and dig deeper into it/bend it with air, or knowing when a spasm is going to happen.
For a long time I felt like things were so uncontrollable. I eventually went from guessing - "I'm not sure what's going to happen this time? I was doing good grabbing this note yesterday, but today it could be different," to "I know I can grab this note without contractions," or "This note is doable, but still has some tiny glitches to work out of it before I can grab fully hold the note out longer."
Sometimes I think I sound crazy when I write about the details of how my embouchure dystonia effects me. But it's just like anyone else who has a major physical change to their body or sensory....you have to think about things for once and notice things and be aware/sensitive.
I felt my recovery went from completely deprogramming my embouchure - playing on a collapsed embouchure, trying to relax my muscles as much as possible, to slowly reprogramming it - finding ways to keep strength, regain muscle coordination and new movement patterns after ironing out the spasms. How do you move your embouchure differently? Well I guess I listen to my body. An important thing to remember is don't let anyone tell you "HOW" your embouchure should look or feel when you have dystonia, your embouchure is basically shot right now and also natural abilities shot...your body will tell you, and the reason it looks the way it does right now is because that's the closest setup that works for your embouchure as it develops.
This is slightly different for hornists who don't have embouchure dystonia. Though they can go through embouchure changes (a scary thing), and have natural abilities, they can get messed up physically if not careful, or if their teacher or professor requires an embouchure change to happen in a set limit of time or REQUIRE it. Though I believe knowledge on embouchure form and function is necessary for every brass musician, and also important to know when going through recovery/setback or an embouchure change; however, I REALLY don't like it when changes to a persons embouchure are not taken seriously (teachers forget that physical changes are PERMANENT, and forced movement/changes can be more damaging than helpful. Think of it like surgery; don't risk it if it's not a career-ending situation), or seen as a "fix", or as "necessary" because it looks abnormal ....I think that if a person wants to work on their embouchure, they need to take their time getting to know their own embouchure and it's tendencies, learn about form and function/knowledge of their anatomy/muslces and the different types of embouchures there are, and what their natural setting is, then slowly taking their time with building a healthy embouchure. It should be on their own time...and not rushed. Even if it takes years. I hate it when a teacher "requires" something like this, and ESPECIALLY if a student sounds great and doesn't struggle, yet they change their embouchure just because they think it looks weird.
It's a touchy subject. So word of advice, just stick to what your body is telling you to do...if you have to play on a bunched chin until your chin flattens out 12 years into playing, or have to take your time, so be it! I'd rather see someone playing comfortably and sounding great than knowing they are in physical pain or awkwardness trying to keep up their stamina with an embouchure that isn't natural fit to them, or forcing an embouchure change just to please their teacher.
Yes, there are commonalities of good brass playing embouchure form and function; a flat chin, and relaxed yet firm corner muscles that leave flexibility in the upper lip, and good breath support to resist damage/pressure....but if these are not common in your embouchure, don't force it. Take your time building a healthy embouchure, and don't force things or tell yourself there's something wrong with you, or that it MUST be achieved now...especially if you already feel what you are doing is natural and feels good and isn't harming you, don't mess with it. Don't fix it if it isn't broke. My phrase of my lifetime is, "KEEP IT NATURAL. TAKE IT EASY."
Am I trying to blame my dystonia on an embouchure change? No. But when I became injured I did avoid the signs my body was telling me. There were a lot of things that contributed to my injury, but I do think this lack of awareness of my embouchure was a key factor. Even when I was injured I did not like the thought of playing on a collapsed embouchure (as it kept collapsing on me ALL the time) because I had heard it was harmful...so I kept trying to force a stabilized embouchure (but it was more of a stretched one because I was forcing it) while I had little endurance left already, and hold it/tape it all together with pressure, so it hurt...and I believe this led to my muscle tear. I should have taken the drastic changes in my face as a sign that I was losing physical control/abilities fast.
It takes a long time to for the body to work out/allow that natural release of tension, and a lot of time to naturally rebuild more fluid/coordinated muscle movement without slipping back into tension. If you think about it, embouchure dystonia is like hand dystonia or writers cramp; you can only practice specific movements so long and repetitively in a certain way before it becomes too much of a strain on your body, especially if you don't get a break. I felt I never got long enough breaks, I also had a bad habit of practicing too much without breaks during that intense year, but then again, after being injured, I'm not sure any break would have helped in college, unless it was a long-term break...and I didn't get around to that until after I graduated.
Think about if you were a professional typewriter - you might practice typing fast all the time. Let's say you usually have good fluid movement that isn't cramped, but over time as you get older or during an especially intense season, you are overdoing it, and you realize the more you type, the more you feel that strain on your hand, but you kind of ignore it because it's not too noticeable. Then over time your hand movement changes to accommodate the tension, and you don't even realize it. Some people are able to recover from slight setbacks, and others it's more serious. Then lets say you get injured and this just adds to the extra strain, and all of a sudden your hand can't type without spasms and flexes. You don't know what's going on or how all of a sudden this all happened? It is a bit scary. But my point is to try to explain why that tension got there (it usually is because of a variety of contributing factors) is important to recognize, and that it is (like someone else very well put it) like an overexerted muscle. An overly used muscle. An overactive muscle! It should be viewed like this, as if you are an athlete, a master of fine delicate movement of a small group of muscles.
Anywhoo, the point of this blog was suppose to be about finding a balance between tension and relaxation. I feel once my embouchure finds this spot (and I still have to search for it on some notes), it is my doorway/point of focus in recovery. Like I said in my video; It's as if you want to flex your arm outwards away from you, but your involuntary muscle contractions cause it to flex inwards towards you. You can't FORCE your arm to move outwards because it will just cause the contractions to happen more violently and fight back more. So you have to EASE your way into it. You slowly push resistance against the contracting muscle by pushing outwards very gently and not pushing out very far, and then let your arm contract back inwards. Then you keep working on that until your body allows you to flex outwards a little more...and eventually...day after day, month after month, year after year, you're able to flex your arm outwards all the way and hold it there. Sometimes for a long time, and maybe there's a slight twitch in the muscle, but you've almost resolved it!!!"
That's how I feel about my embouchure dystonia and leverage. I find that leverage point where I can work both with the symptoms and against them. I'm able to test them, but gently, just by being aware of where/when they happen and finding that transitional area between tension and relaxation. Then there are external factors that also contribute to my well-being; such as taking vitamins, stretching, ice-packing, aleve, playing on my leg, playing on a comfortable mouthpiece, and also the specific exercises that I do that I find help relieve tension or help build coordination and strength back. All of it goes hand-in-hand. But I wanted to write about this awareness of the state inbetween tension and relaxation. It's a HUGE part of recovery to me.