When fear gets in the way of progress

Over the past week, I’ve returned to playing the French horn, and the world hasn’t ended — or rather, my face hasn’t  collapsed in further difficulty or pain! Just over a week ago, I reached the six-week mark since the rehearsal where I screwed up my “chops,” as we brass musicians call the lips, and decided to take time off for a couple of months until those chops felt normal.

The chops did not return to normal. I kept having odd aches and tingles, so I kept wondering if something was really wrong: a pulled or torn lip muscle, nerve damage, you name it. Despite fearing such rather drastic outcomes from a single too-long rehearsal, I kept doing funny diagnostic things with my face. I puckered my lips to see if they hurt. I smiled widely in a effort to stretch them out. I slathered pain-relieving arnica gel all over the lower half of my face just to stop thinking, for a while, about what felt odd or different.

In short, I waited for a magical moment when everything would just feel normal again, as if there’d be no need for change, no new normal.

With encouragement from a GP who felt my lip and pronounced the muscle not torn, plus a few people with whom I’d been trading emails, I started thinking I needed to either do exercises to stretch my face muscles, or play again.  Not playing — and the fear of playing, and causing further damage — clearly did me no good: I spent more time thinking about the lips, the horn, the lost time, than I did actually resting and making progress. Six weeks in, and I knew I’d make life a living hell for everyone around me if I tried to take six more weeks off.

It began to sound entirely possible that the aches and pains were not actual symptoms of something wrong, but symptoms of my own anxiety about playing. Fear, in other words, had gotten good and in the way of any genuine progress.

Last Sunday, I removed my horn from its case and played a few notes. My face felt weak, particularly on the right side, where I’d felt the most strange twinges and aches over the weeks. My lips, too, felt weak and unfocused, but not damaged.  The tone sounded terrible, thin and gritty, but it was sound, coming out of the horn, and my face did not feel worse.

I couldn’t believe it. All that worrying (just ask my husband!) for weeks and weeks. All the fear that I’d never be able to play again, so soon after getting the horn back. With just a few notes, all the worst-case-scenarious that I’d built up in my mind dissipated, replaced by a now-familiar sense of elation that I’m playing this instrument at all.

Over the past week, I’ve played a few minutes every day, sometimes even up to ten. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but at least I’m both playing and not dissolving in worry and fear. I’m focusing on middle- and lower-range long tones and arpeggios, and trying to make sure I’m supporting my playing with good breathing.

The strangest thing of all is that with each passing day, it seems that the tingles, the burning sensation in my lips, the tight muscles in the right side of my face when I smile… all of these things have gotten better, not through rest, not through exercise, but simply through playing my horn even just the littlest bit.

It’s this fact that playing has helped which convinces me that my fear and anxiety, more than anything else, made me think that if I played, everything would be So. Much. Worse! I know I have a lot of emotion tangled up in learning to play again (what was effortless is now much more complicated), but I’m starting to see how too much emotion (too many expectations, or even too few) can in fact pose a serious hindrance to any progress at all.

Instead, as I now start on “take 3” (or is it “take 2”) of playing the French horn, I realize that rather than being afraid, I have to take it one day at a time. All I can do is my best for that day (and remember not to over-do it), and to be glad/grateful that I have this back in my life at all. What will be will be, as they say, and I can’t let fear get in the way.

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