How I Lost My Chops

(Andrew Gilbert wrote me up  in the SF Chronicle!)

The summer before I lost my chops, I was playing tenor sax at a fancy wedding at a vineyard in Napa, California. A few minutes before the downbeat, the P.A. gave out a blast of feedback that startled the bejesus out of me. I’d been hugging the bell of my horn, and jerked the metal mouthpiece straight into my forehead, leaving a deep gouge. I went through the gig looking (if not playing) like Eric Dolphy in the last year of his life, with a huge lump front and center. When the wound healed, it left a scar in the shape of the tip rail. I joked that I’d been kissed by the tenor. What I didn’t know is that it was a kiss goodbye.

Ever have a serious crush on someone who was indifferent, maybe even hostile to you? I loved, still love, the woodwinds, but that love was not reciprocated. All the ingredients for serious trouble were there from the start: a stubborn and determined guy with a grandiose plan, a pulverized front tooth and a profound lack of experience and tutelage. It went badly from the start.

I bought a flute when I was 14, applied to Berklee for fall 1972. There was no other school I was interested in. God bless the open admissions policy! Unable to read music, with three years of garage band gigs and a few lessons under my belt, I was admitted, 16 years old. I intended to be burning by 18. In my second semester, I bought an alto.

At that time Berklee was still very much a jazz school. I was in ensembles with guys who had been on the road with Woody Herman. Paul Moen and Percy Marion, Jim Odgren, Bob Zung – these were some of my classmates. Incredible players. I studied with Joe Viola. I never heard that man make a mistake.

All this was very intimidating, and I scuffled, big time. I had no concept of jazz, no foundation in the rudiments of playing winds, and, to top it off, real problems with my lower front teeth. Two were congenitally missing and one of the remaining ones had been broken and was the shape of Utah. I’d come off a practice session with a painfully blistered, chewed-up lower lip, The next day I’d apply some tincture of benzoin to the blister, pop in a plastic tooth guard, and go at it again.

It was no fun, and I did not make the kind of progress I wanted to make. The pitch and sonority were deficient, there was no natural vibrato, and it hurt to play. I did my best to compensate, learned tunes and certainly learned to solo. I bulled through my recital and graduated. I worked around town, playing jazz and functions, studying and practicing. There was improvement, but I still couldn’t come close to producing the tone I had in mind.

Moving to California, I started studying with a wonderful teacher. He had an M.A. in clarinet from Julliard, was a student of Bonade, Allard, Abato, and Julius Baker, and had had a very successful career. Woodwind embouchure held no secrets for him. He was a terrific teacher and player, and I hoped I could finally get over my difficulties and begin to enjoy playing. I practiced his exercises faithfully, drilling vibrato with a metronome, comparing breath attacks with tongued notes, trying to produce a centered sound with comfort and simple efficiency. I made some small improvements, but still…

Things fell apart completely in May, 2002: during a lesson, my teacher pointed out that I’m tensing certain facial muscles unnecessarily, impeding the airflow and sound. I released them, and voila! The air started flying through the horn, the octaves come decently in tune. While not a full transformation, it was a significant step in the right direction, and I felt elated.

Within a week of that lesson, I was no longer able to play.

When I’d attempt to play, my jaw would drop down and back of its own accord, cutting off the air. If I forced it to stay up, it would tremble. There was no pain, just a loss of control. I figured it was a result of the embouchure change, and practiced all the harder, to no avail. If anything, the condition worsened.

I persisted for a year. Ironically, right before I lost my chops, I’d released a CD, “Three Tenors No Opera – Deconstruction Ahead” (Seabreeze) and scored a nice jazz festival gig to promote it. Over the course of the year, I had to demur on all the gigs I would normally have taken, refusing offers from all the connections and friends I’d built up over twenty years in the Bay Area. I’d just say “Sorry, I can’t do the gig” and no one asked why. I played the jazz festival, though. I felt that I could not renege on the commitment, and that the other guys in the band deserved the exposure. It was one of the longest hours of my life, and I did the set knowing that it was probably the last time I’d play my horn.

Me at Jazz on the Hill 2003, last time I played sax

I went home and put the horn under the piano. After a year with no improvement, I was forced to conclude that the situation was permanent and I set about finding out what was really going on. Google is my friend: in reading up on TMJ, a painful affliction of the jaw, I found a link to an article on focal dystonia that described my situation perfectly.

Focal dystonia is a loss of motor control in the execution of a skilled task. There are various theories about the cause. Mine is that, if you consistently compel your body to do something it doesn’t want to do, there will be a breakdown. It might be a repetitive stress injury. Those are difficult, but they do heal. Alternately, the motor centers in your brain, distracted by the discomfort caused by the action you’re insisting on, short-circuit, linking neurons that never should be linked and firing muscles inappropriate to the task. (If you want details, Google is your friend.) The article went on to say that, to date, no remediation has succeeded. I consulted with musicians with FD and with doctors, and was indeed diagnosed with focal dystonia. It’s not a common affliction, but not as uncommon as you might think.

As I analyzed how things could have gone so wrong for me, it was hard to see, in fact, why I hadn’t gone off the rails sooner. I started late, had unrealistic expectations, a bad physical setup, and was too stubborn to admit that the horn was just not the best choice for me. I’d practiced for years in pain, probably devising all sorts of subtle embouchure compensations to avoid that pain. The embouchure change I’d made in my lesson must have been one thing too many to ask of my beleaguered motor cortex. It threw sparks and smoke, something fused and melted.

We are told that we can do anything we put our minds to. It’s not true. I was forced to accept that my woodwind-playing career was over. Losing my chops meant losing access to all sorts of playing situations I loved – big bands, small bands, dance groups – with players I’d known for ages. On the other hand, I was finally freed from the struggle with the horn, which, to be honest, was a huge relief. In any event, what’s true is true: the horn, for me, was over.

The ensuing divorce was easy logistically but difficult emotionally. I wanted to be very open about what had happened to me. I’d just spent a year in the dystonic closet, concealing the problem, and the dishonesty of it felt awful. I sold my horns, doing my best to see that they would be played by people who appreciated them. Letting go of that alto flute hurt. I made a round of phone calls to the folks who’d been hiring me, explaining why I could no longer work with them. Reactions ranged from true understanding and sympathy to silent disengagement. If you’re wondering how hard it is to end a career, it’s pretty easy, in fact. The phone went silent right quick. I went dark for months.

I contemplated my next move. I considered bailing out of music altogether. That notion lasted about five minutes. I still wanted to be part of the proceedings. I couldn’t thing of anything else that I wanted to do that held a fraction of the attraction of playing, even were I never to achieve the level I’d achieved on horn.

But I’d always kinda dug the guitar. I’d played a bit in high school. On the bandstand, I had guitar envy. Those guys could play in any style, had no intonation worries, and the instrument had an appealing logic. I started studying classical and jazz guitar, and here I am, three years later, beginning to gig again. It’s like a second marriage, not the headlong passion I had for winds, but a stable and solid relationship. I practice and I progress. No mysterious limitations, just the natural limits of my own coordination and imagination. I’m really enjoying the woodshed and grateful to be feeling that way, for the first time in my musical life, almost forty years after first setting foot on the path.

[EPILOGUE]

The preceding was written a few years ago, submitted to Berklee Today, the alumni publication of my alma mater (it never ran). In the ensuing years, I've launched a quintet, FivePlay, with my wife pianist Laura Klein and our dear friends Dave Tidball, Alan Hall and Paul Smith. Since taking up guitar, I've recorded several CDs, both with the quintet and with other groups. During the ten years of ramp-up, I wrote a bunch of big band charts and am now attempting to get the Torquestra off the ground, and am shedding M3 guitar and drafting a method for it. (Stay tuned.) Most of all, I feel accepted by this instrument in a way I never felt from the woodwinds, and am finally finding simple and genuine joy in playing. So, to all the folks confronted with a similar crossroads, I want you to know that your musical mind is what counts. The instrument is just a manfestation of it. And second acts are where it's at!

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