Articulation Conundrum/Focal Dystonia?

Discussion in 'Trumpet Discussion' started by FrenchHornGal, Sep 20, 2014.

  1. FrenchHornGal

    FrenchHornGal New Friend

    Aug 16, 2014

    I am actually a french horn player that is requesting a little bit of advice. I was speaking with a former french horn teacher of mine and she had been discussing some of what I was going through with her husband who recommended that I ask for some advice here on this website. He is a trumpet player who is a member of this forum. He suggested I ask Rowuk for advice since he knew that he has a lot of experience with articulation and breathing and that if anyone knew what was going on with me he thought it would be him.

    A little bit of background about me. I have been playing french horn for 9 years and just graduated from the Boston Conservatory and am very serious about making music my career. Within the the last year I have developed a very serious issue with my playing. I have been having a nearly impossible time articulating the first note in phrases. I would breath in and as I would exhale my tongue would go to the right place for the articulation but instead of releasing it would get stuck and trap the air inside my body. If I was able to release the air it was usually a good articulation but was generally delayed and sounded after I initially intended it to. After I had gotten passed the initial attack and the air was flowing I was able to articulate all of the other notes in the phrase. This was becoming very troublesome as I was becoming more and more responsible for producing professional level quality music in many situations. I became very well versed in "breath attacks" and was able to hide my articulation hangup to most of my colleagues, but I knew that this was just a temporary solution and felt really guilty about just getting by. This hangup started about a year ago and progressively became worse to the point where no matter what tempo, dynamic, style, or range I was playing in I physically could not play the first note.

    After I graduated in May I decided to devote my time to finally figuring out what was going on with my articulation since all of my musical obligations were over. To make a long story short, I explored every option to try and learn different ways to get around my hangup. I have been taking Alexander Technique Lessons and had even went to see a Cranio Sacral Therapist for a time. I started biking everywhere and taking yoga classes to try and maintain a more healthy and relaxed lifestyle as well. The most influential advice that I received was from a Flute teacher that is very well respected and is an incredible musician and human-being. She realized that when I was breathing, I would inhale and I would wait for a few seconds at the top of my inhale before I would release it. I worked with her for a long time to try to reduce this habit. She suggested thinking of
    breathing out as a sigh. She was also very concerned about the possibility that I was developing Focal Dystonia. The disease had ended her amazing career and the way I talked about what I was going through and some of the symptoms that I had really reminded her of what she went through. She of course is not a doctor and I don't label myself as having Focal Dystonia at all. Have you ever heard of anybody having Focal Dystonia of the tongue? Is it possible that this hangup in my tongue could lead to something worse?

    While working for a couple of months with all these small discoveries, I have noticed a definite improvement in my playing. My tongue rarely gets completely stuck now and am mostly able to release the air right away. However, now that I am able to release the air, most of the time I make a double articulation on accident. This sounds like a stutter, which I am of course not intentionally doing. If I don't get a stutter I can get a very fluffy articulation as if I am using to much of the tongue for the articulation or as if I am pulling it away to slowly. Then about 33% of the time I get a very clear, beautiful, articulation right away. Which is much better then the 2% chance that I had earlier in the year. Is there anything that you could think of to help me?

  2. Sethoflagos

    Sethoflagos Utimate User

    Aug 7, 2013
    Lagos, Nigeria
  3. amzi

    amzi Forte User

    Feb 18, 2010
    Northern California
    And I'll direct you to Greg Spence. He has a teaching technique called Mystery to Mastery--first 5 lessons are free, and might be all you need. Anyway, look for them on YouTube and his website.
  4. gmonady

    gmonady Utimate User

    Jan 28, 2011
    Dayton, Ohio
    Focal Dystonia of the tongue is a real phenomenon. Usually foal dystonia involves the hands. Focal Dysotnia results when two opposing muscle groups contract at the same time. In theory, it is possible to relearn the control of these groups. Here however is an article that studies Focal Dystonia involving the embouchure. Perhaps getting the article may be of benefit to you:

    Mov Disord. 2009 Sep 15;24(12):1752-62. doi: 10.1002/mds.22550.
    Embouchure dystonia--Portrait of a task-specific cranial dystonia.
    Frucht SJ.
    Author information
    Focal task-specific dystonia (FTSD) is an unusual disorder of motor control, which typically affects the hand but may also involve the face, jaw, and tongue. We report 89 musicians with dystonia of the embouchure (ED), the muscles of the lower face, jaw, and tongue used to control the flow of air into the mouthpiece of a woodwind or brass instrument. Symptoms of ED began at an average age of 36, were typically painless and only rarely were preceded by trauma. Specific musical techniques commonly triggered dystonia, often in one instrumental register. Task-specific embouchure tremor and lip-pulling ED phenotypes were common among high-register brass players (trumpet and French horn), whereas lip-locking occurred exclusively in low-register brass players (trombone and tuba). Jaw and tongue ED phenotypes occurred predominantly in woodwind players, and once present, frequently spread to speaking or eating. Six percent of all ED patients had coincident writer's cramp, suggesting a possible genetic predisposition to develop dystonia. We assessed two-point sensory discrimination in the upper lip, lower lip, and hand in ED patients, normal musicians, and nonmusician age-matched controls--there were no differences between groups. Once present, symptoms of ED did not remit and often disrupted careers and livelihoods. Better treatments are urgently needed for this unusual disorder of oral motor control.
  5. strad116055

    strad116055 Pianissimo User

    May 27, 2014
    i am the aformentioned husband. this immediately made me think of rowuk and the circle of breath. we wish you all the best, steph, and i cannot think of anyone i would recommend more highly to help you with this than rowuk.
  6. Cornyandy

    Cornyandy Fortissimo User

    Jan 9, 2010
    East Yorkshire
    Rowuk will I would think weigh in with some ideas but could I ask a few of questions.

    At some stage of your playing have you relied on hard tonguing to either get range or further your playing?
    How do you breath in, lift your shoulders, allow tension to creep in that you are not really aware of? Then in holding the air in are you adding more tension?
    Is there any chance this could be a mental issue rather than a physiological one? Are you mentally ready to play, hearing the note first etc
    How bunched is your lower jaw lip chin area. I have a reason for asking.
    Finally do you always tongue in the same way. I again have a reason for asking this but more of that later.

    By the way I'm not sure a little blue pill will relieve this ED G-man, I wondered what you were on about for a moment there. Embouchure Dysfunction?
  7. rowuk

    rowuk Moderator Staff Member

    Jun 18, 2006
    Hi Steph,

    what you describe is what I am going through right now (and I am slowly but surely winning). I had an operation in February for a torn diaphragm (there is a thread here with the gory details "Rowuk is the biggest idiot here"). They had to sew a net on top to keep it from tearing again. I had to lay off for 3 months and on the 91st day I was in the practice room and playing long tones. What I notice is that the coordination between my first articulation and exhale are not always synchronized. I believe this has to do with the net and the muscles not behaving in the way they have for the other almost 50 years that I have been playing.

    So, now to you. There are a couple of telltale things that make me think that you don't have an issue with focal dystonia. You mentioned inhaling, waiting, exhale or play. This is the number one evil that creeps into trumpet players playing and represents about 90% of what I have to teach. If you have googled the "circle of breath", you already know what is coming......... I see the inhale and exhale process as one activity with no interference between them. Watch a baby sleeping. Really look closely at their breathing! That is my model. Inhale-exhale without tension in between.

    To get that relaxed inhale-exhale, we need a prepared body. Yes, yoga is good for this as is some sports activities that our bodies can perform with medium to low tension. I generally start with NO ARTICULATION. As you are "advanced" in your approach, you should be able to simply exhale a note at will. In a lesson, I would observe that process starting with the inhale-exhale-long tone to see where there may be other body activity in the way. You see, if we can simply exhale the tones and don't need the tongue to jump start the buzz, we can use far less "attack" and get superior results.

    I am surprised that your teacher did not pick up on the asynchronous breathing. The problem is that we compensate and if there is a deficiency, the body goes to great lengths to "patch" the problem. What else in your playing that my be suboptimal can only be seen on a one to one lesson. I would refrain from internet lessons. Because you practice a lot, the current end product will be very good and the nuances can hardly be audible with the limited resolution of a skype session. The chance of a major investment of time and no progress is great. The frustration would build.

    You could try something: the day after an evening with little intake of salt, take a 20 minute hot shower, dry off as relaxed as possible, pick up the horn while standing up, big inhale and immediate exhale into a long tone, do this a couple of times to get the feel of the sound starting immediately at the exhale. After 10 or so successful random long tones with no articulation - add the softest "D" at the point of exhale. If it doesn't work at the beginning, do not stop the long tone - play it with the deficient start, do better NEXT time. Why? ANALysis mode keeps us from playing with abandon - we are more concentrated on in front of the horn rather than the product coming out of the bell. Be sure that you are at the beginning of developing new habits. Your playing is a complete process and now you need a minor tweek that will change what is needed everywhere else. Your body use will change, what and how you hear will change.

    As you are in the Boston area, you could try and get a lesson with Charlie Schlueter, the former principal trumpet of the Boston Philharmonic. Explain exactly what you told us, and let him know what I said. He understands this combination better than anyone on the planet. One lesson with him could determine how much is physical, mental or habitual. It would be money well spent for sure!

    Feel free to PM me. I am not here 24/7 and a PM sends me an E'mail so you will generally get a faster answer. I do not give internet lessons and don't charge for advice. You are not the first one to describe this "problem" and I think that there are some safe things that you can do to adjust the path that you are on.
  8. trumpetsplus

    trumpetsplus Fortissimo User

    Jun 11, 2006
    South Salem, NY

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