The Comeback Tango: Mistaken Steps

A little under a year ago, I wrote with promising news for my attempts at getting back into playing the French horn after injury. I was making progress, I suggested, and my “comeback tango” seemed headed in the right direction – one step forward rather than two steps back.

Then I never wrote part II, because I realized that what I’d thought were steps in the right direction weren’t, and my lip wasn’t actually improving in any substantive way, so I stopped playing again, and never wrote part II.

This attempt at a Part II is thus an explanation of how I got where I thought I was going, even though I didn’t end up where I thought I would. Let me explain.

Back in January 2016, roughly six months after my initial injury to my lip, I visited the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Performing Arts division. A doctor in the division confirmed that my lip was not torn, and I met also with a physical therapist specializing in the jaw and face (TMJ/TMD, or temporomandibular joint disorders for the – thankfully – initiated.) She diagnosed me with ridiculously tight facial muscles, and showed me exercises and massage techniques for loosening up the muscles of the face. Those minutes I spent lying down while she gently massaged my cheeks, my neck, my temples, showing me how the tension in one place made another place tense, was revelatory. I knew my facial muscles were tight from how awful my face felt when I woke up in the morning, as if I’d been clenching everything into an anxious grimace all night, so it was no wonder I couldn’t play the horn without pain.

Both she and the doctor reasoned that, if my lip wasn’t actually torn, I could play the horn, which I tried to do, for a few minutes at a time. I’d play, and the tone would have a double buzz, or my lip would feel full and swollen for an entire day afterwards. Even when I wasn’t playing, the area above my lip felt tingly and strange when I tried to do ordinary things like smile. It often helped to the massage before playing, but my lip still felt strange. I’d use ice and heat afterwards, take an ibuprofen, and nothing seemed to help. I spent a lot of time massaging my cheeks and lip and jaw, hoping that one day, I’d wake up without my face in pain and tension. I think this happened, eventually, but not while I was trying to play.

I thought things were getting better, so I stopped going to the PT sometime last April, made an appointment for a horn lesson, and realized that the apparent one-step-forward was more of a meander down a side path, and that after almost 5 months, the problems were still there and I wasn’t improving in any practical (read: not painful) way.

So I stopped playing towards the end of last May, and haven’t picked up my horn since. I waited until I could, say, smile without the odd sensation, and after a few months, this got better. The tension came back to my face in the mornings, too, though, and I’m having a tough time getting rid of it. My smile feels lopsided, as if the injured lips of my face is looser, less well-controlled, than the unaffected side.  Or, maybe it’s always been this way and I’ve just forgotten what “normal” is.

A few weeks ago, I thought maybe I’d pull out the mouthpiece and try to buzz a bit. I’d been able to do small amounts of isometric exercises for the lip without any of the odd sensations, so I thought I’d risk some buzzing into a mouthpiece. All it took was a couple of minutes of that for everything to feel strange again.  I’m back at square one.

I would love to be able to play the French horn again, and miss it dreadfully. I just don’t know how to get there.

One Comment

  1. It’s good to see an update on the horn front, Emily!

    My seven-year “injury anniversary” is coming up in May, and I’ve had a lot of the same experiences you’re describing. I consider myself 80-90% “back to normal,” though I still have days where I want to bend my trumpet in half over my knee. 🙂 Do you mind if I share a couple ideas that have helped me? I don’t know if they’ll work for you, but they might be worth considering.

    When it comes to “strange” sensations, I was experiencing a veritable bevy of them back in 2013. I couldn’t play for more than a couple of minutes without tingling, sharp pains, and a little numbness. At the advice of Alan Siebert, I decided to do two things: Play for just 1-2 minutes each day, and ignore unpleasant sensations (unless they were truly painful), focusing on the SOUND instead. For me at that time, this was key. After a while, I gradually increased my playing time. The sensations lessened. I rarely have them now, and when I do, I try to ignore them.

    Another idea that has helped me is to play every day with no exceptions, even if it’s for a minute or two. You might not be at this stage yet, but once your lip feels a bit better, you might see how daily playing affects things. I committed to this idea on 12/24/15, and I have been amazed at the difference it’s made in how my chops feel. Things just feel more consistent, day to day, and I have many fewer bad chop days. Again, even playing 60 seconds of long tones counts here.

    I know it can be hard to believe when the chop outlook is bleak, but if you persevere, you WILL figure this out. It may take longer than you like, but you will get there.

    Hang in there!

I'd love to hear your thoughts!