This past weekend, I took two steps back in my ongoing French horn “comeback” tango. I don’t mean comeback in any kind of extravagant manner, but the simpler prospect of coming back to something after a number of years away.
When I last wrote about playing the horn, I’d bit the bullet after six weeks of semi-rest, and tried playing again, despite the odd sensations that remained in my lip, the primary playing apparatus. I tried for most of September. I started a “playing journal,” recording what I did each day, how long I played, and what the effect was on my chops. I expected a slow, but steady, sign of upward progress.
That’s not what happened. I’d sound better for a few days, but the lip would hurt, so I’d take a day off. The tone would sound weak after those few days, so I’d feel discouraged. If the main tingling sensations were doing better, then the immediate place where the mouthpiece rests on the lips would feel smushed and bruised. Two steps forward, I hoped, one step back.
By the end of the month, though, it was clear that I was making no clear progress. One step forward, two steps back. The lip soreness remained, now coupled with a very obvious (and not very positive) swelling and discomfort around the mouthpiece, with a related feeling of pressure on the teeth (bad idea, pressure on the teeth!)
I spoke with a local ENT doctor who recommended taking more time off. He wasn’t familiar with brass players’ chops problems, but could offer some assurance that I didn’t have obvious neurological damage. At the time, I wanted badly to be playing, to be coming back, and it took a few days for me to decide that he was right, I’d need to take more time off.
With frustration, but a sense of determination, I wrote in my practice journal at the start of October, “no more playing, no more buzzing until the chops [lips] really do feel better for normal things like, you know, eating, smiling, or talking.” It seemed like sensible advice.
I also figured I’d be fine to work on strengthening the lip muscles, and took more seriously to Dr. McGrail’s exercises as described on the Lip Rip Blues. All went well, mostly, for about three more weeks. I started to be able to smile normally! Talk normally! All this was great because we went to a family wedding, where lots of smiling and talking ensued, and it was nice to be able to do this without discomfort. Things were looking up. Maybe in a few weeks I’d be confident enough to try playing the horn again!
That is, until last Sunday, when I took two large steps back. My chops felt kind of tired from the stretching, but I persisted. That morning, while doing the exercises, I felt something “pop” or twinge in the same spot as back in July. “Damn,” I though, “that pop is how a lip tear is usually described.”
And we’re back to the upper lip feeling various amounts of discomfort, or numbness, or tingling, or soreness. I’m not ready to give up yet. I’ll likely be visiting one of the few specialists in brass players’ lip problems who have expertise in this area, but it might take a couple of months to get an appointment. Until then, I’m resting the chops. Since I have the option, better to rest than make a possible problem worse. I need the chops. I can’t play the horn without chops! So let the chops rest.
I’m also finally at a point where I can say this, and let it be true: I took long enough off before coming back that a few more months off isn’t such a big deal. At least this time, I’m back in the dance, back playing the horn, in theory and intention in not quite actual fact. I hope it won’t happen that I’ll have to stop playing all together, but I’m still willing to try, and that, I hope, will make more than half the difference.