Friday, October 25, 2019
Philip Smith: On Upbringing, Trumpet, and Focal Embouchure Dystonia
Thank you to Alison Pesacreta (my twin sister) for sharing this! I can't tell you how many recordings I had to listen to of Phil Smith while growing up because my sister started playing cornet in the 4th grade in 1993 and loved playing along with a tape cassette of duets where he played the bottom part on side 1 and the top part on side 2. This was way before his concert studies series or hymns...don't think they publish it anymore. She actually got him to autograph the music years later through a friend and he was surprised to see it. Anyways, from then on she listened to practically every recording he came out with and I continued hearing him throughout college on a daily basis as well. His sound definitely influenced her and I hear so much of his style in her playing.
That's why it was very saddening to hear of his diagnosis with Focal Embouchure Dystonia 5 years ago. He is a legend and one of the greatest of all time.
I wanted to share an excerpt from this interview where he speaks a little about his journey. I definitely can relate here as so many with FTSED do too.
He is correct when saying to be honest there is no easy or simple explanation of what causes focal dystonia. It doesn't only occur in musicians but other fields that require high levels of repetitive accuracy, repetitive practice, and refined skill over a long period of time.
It really does feel like it happens over night and as much as you try to re-trace your steps, nothing adds up. That's because it has to do with our brain signals/wiring....you just never see it coming or crashing, especially when you're at the top of your game.
Everyone wants a simple explanation, but those of us who have lived with it for more than 10 years or even 5 years will tell you it's not like some light bulb hasn't turned on or like we're missing the answer staring us in the face or like we haven't tried everything.
Just like trying to regain the ability to walk after a stroke, knowledge does not equal understanding. Knowing how to play your instrument like a pro does not help or mean you're immune. It's not a "mental issue" or "emotional issue" or "bad habit/lack of healthy playing issue" ....it's a loss of a highly refined motor skill/brain pathway. Knowing how to walk your whole life doesn't mean you understand how to walk after losing that ability, nor even grasp how much work rehabilitation is. Some do regain close to full control, while others recover to varying degrees, and some struggle with it severely, and you can't put a time limit on recovery. However, the new pathway dug is not as natural as the original.
Phil says: Four years ago, I got hit with it, and I basically couldn’t play a note. I have had to re-teach myself how to play over the last four years, and quite honestly it has been hell.
I wish I could say what triggered it, but I don’t know. I have had people say to me “I can’t believe that you lost your lip” or “I can’t believe you lost your nerve”, and it was neither of those things. Something happened that took what I knew and wiped it off the map.
I have had to re-teach myself what to do, and in some ways, I have needed to be more ‘fundamentally’ focused, and in other ways I have had to erase everything that I thought I knew as an experienced trumpet person and approach the instrument like I am 7 years old. That has been difficult!