Saturday, June 15, 2013

Welcome Back!?!?! (Some Observations)

The view from my balcony!
My visit to DU with a friend.

Between my place and Boulder

Part of my work is in Glendale.

Hey everyone! It's been forever  since I've updated my blog. I started work in Denver on May 5th. It's been a little over a month since I last was on blogger. A lot has been happening, and I'm definitely busy still getting all my ducks in a row here. So far things are going great!!!!!! I'm all moved into a beautiful townhouse near red rocks, have been meeting/playing guitar with some local musicians, have lost 15 pounds (Yay!!!!), got a couple of students, and will be coaching a brass section in the fall. I'm excited!!! Especially for next year too at CU! :)

As far as my dystonia, things are still going good! I haven't been able to practice as much as I've wanted to, but this has been beneficial as it's paced out my practice/playing schedule; a break is always good now and then as long as I feel physically it doesn't makes things worse...and at this point in time, a break doesn't hurt me. It's like my friend Rhodri says - Recovery is up and down, but in general it's constantly on an upward scale. As I've slowly recovered, I'm obviously more of a believer now than ever before that I'm able to overcome embouchure dystonia. I can rest assured that improvement is on it's way every step I take and that there is no need to rush or worry like I had definitely done in the beginning/past. Yes, it's been painstakingly slow, but I look back and see how far I've come...and I know it is not all for nothing. I'm halfway there or more! :)

Today I was practicing, and I have some observations to note. I'm still working on my paper by the way! I had to post this on here though since I can't record. I don't have a practice space where I can play openly and record. I'm practicing with my silent mute at home, and because I have very close neighbors. I'm hoping I can find a place to practice openly and record again soon! It's been way too long without a video.

Anywhoo! Observations...

Right now a lot of stretching and freebuzzing has been my focal point. Huge emphasis on stretching though.

This is hard to describe. In the very beginning there was so much tension in my embouchure that I felt like it was STUCK in a very fixed tense position or was either stuck in an extreme pucker, or a extreme collapse/frown. I couldn't find a middle ground. The tension and contractions were so intense that I literally had no control or flexibility or sensation in my upper lip or around my embouchure. Slowly over time I started to iron out the tension and contractions by deprogramming my embouchure. I did this by playing on a collapsed embouchure at first for a very long time, with no tonguing, and focusing on just slurring chunks/sections of chromatics in my pedal register. The low register because the vibrations were less intense and allowed the muscle around my aperture to relax, and allowed me to build things from bottom up. I literally had to derive the movements/settings of my embouchure as far away as possible than the embouchure that I had known for so long and played on for so long. Basically a ton of miniscule painstaking frustrating adjustments in the way I played over a long period of time....I mean things as tiny as being aware of how contact there is between the lower lip and rim of the mouthpiece and if there needs to be less pressure or a tish more to allow the upper part of it to vibrate. It's like learning how to walk again. If you're an Olympic runner, your muscle memory and coordination is so entwined and ingrained over the years that you'd don't have to think about things....but once you have a huge injury/setback, it's literally like learning how to go from crawling to walking with a crutch, to literally being aware of every movement you make along the way towards recovery - like noticing what foot you should put more weight on, or if you have to bend your knee a little more to move forward, or how your hips play a huge role in movement, etc. You become so much more highly aware and in tune with your body - in what it can and can't do, and what it's ready to do.

Eventually I got to that point where I moved from a less collapsed embouchure to a more flexible embouchure...where my corners were naturally wanting to transition more on their own than me slowly nudging them while trying to not trigger a bomb of contractions. As my corners started to naturally relearn how to move on their own, the flexibility of my lower lip and jaw/chin started to kick in too and was a struggle too; since it controls so much more than what I was aware of. Anywhoo, soon I was able to control my lower jaw and lower lip support better.

Now I'm at a point where my embouchure is drawing me more towards focusing on the flexibility around my aperture, rather than corners or lower lip or jaw etc. I don't know how to describe this....'s like I'm focusing on the gracefulness/flexibility that develops between movements. Like in my stretches - the movement between point A and point B is the most important thing to be aware of. A good example is like watching a ballerina. They are very muscular and there are specific moves that require a great deal of control, tension, but also they are required to go from a very intense move to a very graceful delicate move...they have to be able to portray body language that requires both tense muscle movement and also graceful movement.

It's that release of the contraction that I'm talking about. If you squeeze your fist as tight as you can and then relax it, the tension goes down pretty fast as soon as you release your fist/grip. But with dystonia it's like that tension is stuck try to release it and relax but it won't go usually requires a ton of exercise and stretches etc to move it back into a more relaxed feeling/position.

This ability to move from tense to relaxed feeling in the embouchure is very difficult with dystonia. It's the one thing I feel is the biggest obstacle to overcome with dystonia. I think that's why dystonia is so noticeable in the middle/low register; because the embouchure muscles are required to have the most about of control and flexibility in this register.
In my pedal register my lower and upper lip are more relaxed and vibrate like a flag and my corners allow me to adjust to changes. In the upper/treble clef range I feel like here it's easier to play even though it seems tighter playing, my embouchure is more able to adjust to the smaller aperture opening easier....and I know this is just an assumption...but I think it's because of the way we are built/designed to eat food and drink....when I go to drink out of a straw, or chew something, the muscles around my mouth/embouchure are similar to the setting I use to play in my upper register. I have a small upper bite, so when my teeth align when I blow into my horn, the upper lip is curved over the surface of my upper teeth...(I know I'm over-exaggerating) it reminds me of a beak on a bird. Or like how I see flute players embouchure when they blow out.

In the middle register/lower register it's difficult to play because it requires the duality of being able to adjust the tiniest feelings/things here and there. It's like I have to be able to relax and tense up in certain areas more often, and depending on what movement/pattern I'm playing. It's like the middle register/lower register requires so much more of the small details and adjustments of the embouchure to come into play. Sometimes I'll be holding out a low F# or low A and I notice the corners of my embouchure need to feel relaxed yet stable/tense, and my aperture needs to be able to relax but also squeeze in sometimes.

I don't know how to describe this...

...the middle register/low register is like a bringing together of opposing muscle groups, the synchronization of relaxation and tension..the synchronization of opposing muscle groups...and this is exactly where dystonia has the most difficult, because dystonia is a war between two opposing muscles. So to try to get them to work together in a register where they're both required to work together fluidly...not going to happen so easily! So frustrating!!!

Anywhoo, I'm now at a point where the fluidity and sensation in my upper lip is more focused on. The area around the aperture can relax and contract this is an area where I'm now observing how it contributes to the fluid movement between point A and B. So lets say I'm playing a slurred passage from upper register down into my pedal register; before my upper lip would just sit there and let the rest of my embouchure do the work...and I'd end up with a double buzz....but now I notice the muscles around my aperture are doing there part to contract as I go into the upper register and relax/let go of that tension immediately as I descend into the lower register.

To normal players, the ability to contract and release a muscle while playing is not even thought about...but with dystonia, this is the focal point of my's all about learning how to reprogram my embouchure, which requires relearning how to contract and release/tense up and relax my embouchure throughout playing, and to regain the ability to do it naturally over time...just like a person learning how to walk again...eventually it will be natural, but for a long time it requires a high awareness and observation of miniscule movements and redefining the way you move/play or adjust. It is frustrating to have to think about it...but there are moments where I don't have to...and it's those moments where I know I must be doing something right or on the right pathway to recovery! :)

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