The prodigal hornist

The last few months have been an unexpected adventure as I’ve gotten back into playing the horn. If you had told me five years ago that after four months of almost daily practice, I’d be able to play Kopprasch exercises and Mozart concertos again, I don’t know if I would have believed myself. If I’d believed it would only take a few months, maybe I would have started again sooner.

When I got the horn back from the repair shop almost exactly four months ago, I was just coming out of concussion recovery. I picked my horn up from the repair shop and I could barely play above the C in the staff: the D squeaked out with a strangled sound. I wondered if there was something still wrong with the valves or if it was, shall we say, “user error.” I tried again, taking a deeper, fuller breath that time, and the sound came out more clearly.

After about a month of playing, I could eke my way through about fifteen minutes of playing time, including warm-ups, but something strange happened that stopped me in my tracks and filled me with genuine worry: my teeth hurt after those fifteen or twenty minutes! In all my years of playing, I’d never pushed the mouthpiece so hard my teeth hurt, and I knew right away that this was Not. A. Good. Thing. I tried to play more lightly on the mouthpiece. I practiced in front of a mirror, and made sure to take deep, full breaths, supporting my playing with a nice tank of air, but the tooth pain persisted.

I felt devastated. One month back into the horn, and even as I wanted to play well again, suddenly it seemed my teeth had another idea!

I called a semi-local horn teacher and scheduled a lesson-meeting. She looked at my embouchure and said it looked fine, and that it didn’t look like I was jamming the mouthpiece into my teeth. We moved the bell off my knee, since my shorter stature meant that with the bell resting there, the mouthpiece was now tilted awkwardly towards my face. Maybe that would help relieve the pressure.

I went home and kept playing, now with the bell off my knee, but the pain in my teeth persisted despite the different posture.

I soon realized I’d have to do what I’d been dreading doing for several months: getting one of my remaining baby teeth pulled. (Yes, I have several baby molars that have lasted into adulthood, and one of them had been causing problems for months. I knew it needed pulling, but hadn’t wanted to deal with it). Now, with my ability to play the horn again at stake, I acted. In late April I went in and got the tooth pulled and a temporary bridge put in. I let the mouth heal from the pulling and pushing and anesthesia for a couple of days, and tried a short practice session — no more than ten minutes.

The next couple of weeks were difficult. My mouth had been pulled and stretched quite a lot, and nothing felt quite right. I developed a cold. I had a bit of root from the tooth stuck up in my gum that continued to cause pain, and had to visit the oral surgeon to have this removed, which I did in early May after the cold subsided.

The verdict I’d dreaded came in: because the root was up near my sinus, the oral surgeon wanted me to take “sinus precautions” to avoid possibly opening a hole in the sinus membrane: no blowing my nose, lying down in bed with the affected side up, and, oh, by the way, no wind instruments for two weeks.

I’d been afraid of this, and continued to fear. So newly back into playing, I was certain that two weeks away would be a major setback in my ability to play, but I was good, and didn’t blow my nose or my horn.

Two weeks later, he suggested (without really knowing anything about wind instruments, he admitted) that I take another week off, “just to be safe.” Of course, I didn’t want to risk anything. If I thought loosing a tooth was bad, certainly blowing a hole in my sinus would b worse! So I waited another week.

On Memorial Day, with a lot of nervousness about possibly making holes in unseen parts of my face, I took out my horn and tried to play. And I didn’t sound like a dying animal. If anything, I could play better than I’d played a few weeks ago after the tooth surgery! I was amazed! With the tooth pain gone, my lips, gums, and cheeks fully recovered from the various stretchings and pokings of surgery, and my stuffy nose gone as well, I finally sounded a bit more like a horn player, with improved tone and range! I was elated!

I can’t say it’s been all roses in the seven weeks since then, but I can say I’ve been getting better. I’m getting my range back, slowly but surely. I’m getting my ability to play for reasonable stretches of time back: on a good day, I can now warm up as well as practice some Kopprasch or a Mozart concerto, or do exercises for improving range or tone. Sometimes these good days overtax my lip, and the next couple of days are fuzzy again, but it feels great to be on the way back, and I kick myself for ever having stopped.

I want to get lessons as my schedule permits, and I’m working on finding an ensemble to play with. Each time I pick up the horn, I wonder what I’ll sound like today, but I find myself thinking more that I’m so glad to have this back. I can’t tell you where it all will lead, but I look forward to finding out.

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