by Rob Singer
In early august, 2008, I began noticing strange sensations.
One day, I felt a slight pain and stiffness in front of my ears. The next day, my tongue felt slightly scalded or numb, but I had eaten a lot of garlic that day so I didn’t think too much of it. My trumpet playing that same day felt stiff, but like the feeling in my tongue, I didn’t worry about it. The next day I taught a lesson in the morning and my playing just didn’t feel right. I got more tired than I usually do and I had trouble playing in the upper register. That night, I spent some time doing easy fundamentals, but things still weren’t working.
The following morning, I practiced at home prior to a rehearsal and I could barely play a C in the staff, and within minutes, I couldn’t even form an embouchure. I knew something was wrong, and I immediately went to the doctor. After ruling out the possibility of a stroke, I was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy and given and antiviral medication and a steroid to reduce swelling.
I was initially very worried as thoughts about my career and my family raced through my head. Would I ever be able to play the trumpet again? What could I do for a job? By the end of the day, however, I was a lot calmer, as I did some research and also discovered several other brass players who had dealt with Bell’s Palsy. Through the stories they shared and the advice they gave me, it seemed like just a matter of time before things would get better.
Physically, many things were difficult. The left side of my face was not responsive; I could not move it. While it did not hang down, that side would just stay limp when I tried to smile, wrinkle my nose, or raise my forehead. I couldn’t close my left eye completely so I had to tape it shut when I slept. I used eye drops to keep it moist during the day. Shaving, brushing my teeth, and eating were all difficult — and messy! Water would spew out of my mouth if I tried to swish. Over-all, I felt tired. We had a one-year old child at the time and I had not been getting very much sleep. I had also been training for a marathon that summer and the lack of rest probably made me more susceptible to illness.
I did lots of meditation and visualization, trying to imagine the nerves in my face healing
Because I needed my body to heal, I made it my first priority to get more sleep. I tried to go to bed earlier and also take naps. Open to anything that might help, I actually went to see a spiritual “healer.” I’m not sure if that visit helped or not, but it seemed like a good experience.
Instead of practicing, I used my time to explore other facets of my musicianship. I did a lot of listening and really thought about the kind of trumpet sound I wanted. I read Kenny Werner’s book Effortless Mastery and tried to boost my confidence by always thinking of myself positively and as a masterful performer. I visualized myself performing and thought about what it felt like to play — hoping to spark some kind of nerve growth.
I didn’t do anything special to facilitate the re-growth of my nerves. Some people recommended electro-stimulation (like holding an electric toothbrush to my cheek) to help regenerate the nerves, but I was concerned about “cross-wiring” them, or having them grow back in a way that may have caused problems for my embouchure. In general, I just tried to rest, think about improvement, and be patient. Less time spent practicing meant that I had more family time, which was great.
After three or four weeks, I hadn’t tried to play trumpet, but I was gaining some movement back in my face. I went to see a speech pathologist, who was very helpful. She gave me a list of facial exercises I could perform that would strengthen and coordinate the muscles in my face. Up until this point, I had avoided trumpet playing for fear of creating bad habits, but with more success with the facial exercises, I viewed practicing as just another exercise.
Once I started playing again, I was very careful to play with great form. For the first several days, all I could manage was 12 whole notes. After those long tones, I’d feel like my embouchure was going to collapse. I would stop playing immediately because I didn’t want to do something strange just to get the notes out. As time went on, I was able to do two or three sessions per day, but no longer than five minutes each! I started to introduce parts of chromatic scales with very limited range. I only went as high or as low as I could without losing a “perfect” embouchure.
Practicing became an exciting opportunity
Re-learning to play was like teaching a beginner who already had a great ear, and would do anything and everything I asked. Over the next several weeks I gradually added range, dynamics, and articulation to my practicing until I was somewhat back to normal. In fact, in some ways, I was actually better. My sound richer, my posture was better (although that didn’t last!), and I became a smarter player. I’m more aware now of the muscles involved in forming an embouchure, and I’m better at knowing when I need to stop practicing or what I need to do to get more balanced.
I was really lucky to be playing in the Marine Band while going through this illness. I was given all the time I needed to heal, and was never pressured to get back to work. I was afforded the opportunity to rebuild my playing the right way and never had to rush things to meet a deadline. When I finally did return to work, I was able to ease into the schedule. I started off playing easier parts, or parts that were often doubled. I had days of rest between my playing responsibilities so that I had time to recover and evaluate how I was progressing.
My episode with Bell’s Palsy was initially very scary, but in the end it turned out to be a positive experience. I was fortunate to be able to talk with many professional brass players who have dealt with this illness. Their compassion and advice comforted me and helped me through a troubling time. Performers shouldn’t ever feel inferior while struggling through something like this. Many players encounter some kind of physical ailment at some point in their career, and I’m always happy to offer my support and to help in any way that I can.
Rob Singer plays trumpet/cornet with the “President’s Own” United States Marine Band