DISCLAIMER: I am NOT a medical doctor. From time to time, I might offer insight into exercises for good "chop health" as it pertains to the instrument, but nothing I say in this blog should be considered a substitute for a proper medical diagnosis!!!
A couple of weeks ago, I officially became a Candidate for the Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Alabama. This is particularly poignant for me, considering that not too many years ago, I thought I had permanently lost the ability to play the trombone. My friends know the story of "The Wreck," but few, if any, really know all I went through to find my face again. The journey itself has done a great deal to help define me as a musician and a man, and if sharing this journey can help one person out there, it's worth sharing.
To set the scene...Y2K was coming, and everyone worried if their computers would stop working at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000. Russian President Boris Yeltsin survived impeachment proceedings and shook up his cabinet, firing his Prime Minister. It was the summer of Ricky Martin and Christina Aguilera, with "Livin la Vida Loca" and "Genie In a Bottle" being played on the radio NON STOP. Let's go back in time to August 1999. :)
I packed my car to the roof with everything I owned. Summer was coming to a close, and I was excited about starting another year of college. At 6:00 AM I started the 8 hour trip to Canyon with Lesley, my good friend and fellow trombone major at West Texas A&M University. Sometime mid morning, I believe it was around 8:30 AM, the itinerary and my life changed forever. By 12:00 Noon, I had been admitted to the emergency room in Gatesville, just north of Fort Hood.
Long story short, I fell asleep behind the wheel, veered off the road and into a concrete drainage ditch in excess of 80 miles per hour. Contrary to the state trooper's data, which pointed clearly to a single car fatality, I survived. The Pontiac Grand AM was totaled, and most of my belongings were destroyed beyond repair. Despite losing almost everything I owned, my Edwards trombone, in a black leather gig bag, made it through more or less unscathed. My injuries included cuts from glass shards in my back and scalp, a bruised sternum, a right ankle that required reconstructive surgery, and my face, specifically my right cheek and side of my mouth, were left with swelling and partial paralysis that lasted for months. Below are pictures of the car as it was the day of the wreck.
For the next several months, I laid either in bed or on a couch while my injuries healed. I knew that my face was in bad shape, because I couldn't drink from a water glass without half of it ending up on my shirt. Halfway through September, I put my trombone together to see what I could do, and it did NOT go well. I tried again in October and November, with similar results. By the new year, while I had learned how to walk and maintain balance again, I had not yet found my trombone face.
Many people would walk away from this experience with a neat story to tell their kids and grandkids about how they used to play. I've played enough bandstand gigs to have met many people, mostly elderly gentlemen, eager to talk about the night they played with the Woody Herman Band or with Tommy Dorsey, until their "lip gave out" and they never played again.
Each time I tried to play, the future seemed more and more vivid to me. My scenario involved my fictional granddaughter, rummaging around my house, finding my trombone in the attic or basement and asking me to play it. The scene plays out something like this:
A young girl, 4 or 5 years old, drags a heavy leather bag into the room behind her. She plops down in front of an elderly man reading a book, with the bag between them. He smiles down at her.
Little Girl: "Grandpa, is this yours?"
The old man takes off his glasses and looks at the bag. His name, though faded, is in large block letters on the name tag. His smile fades for just a second.
Old Man: "It sure is. I haven't seen it since we moved here, back when your mom was a little girl! I used to play, you know?"
Excited, the little girl hands the bag to him, and after placing it squarely on his lap, he starts to unzip it.
Little Girl: "REALLY?!?! Can you play it for me?"
The old man brings his fingers to his chin and rubs his lips. His voice goes soft, and breaks up a bit.
Old Man: "No. No I can't. Not anymore...."
It might seem trite, but these kinds of "cut scenes" play out in my head this way time and time again. It's part of an artist's creativity, and more importantly, part of the "dark side" of my giftedness. The reality is that the trombone was a HUGE part of my identity...too huge. I was confident...maybe too confident. I had incredible natural gifts, and they were taken away (or I THOUGHT they were taken away) in the blink of an eye. Because of the leak on the right side of my mouth, the only note I could play was a middle F that registered about 40 cents under pitch. In layman's terms, if hitting a note is like throwing a dart or shooting a gun, my aim was, at best, somewhere in the outer rings of the target, and musicians need to be as close to the bull's eye as they can be for each note. After more time to rest, it was only marginally better. I had to make a decision...is this worth trying to learn again, or should I pack it in for good? Did I want to be one of those old timers telling stories about how it used to be, or was I going to fight for my playing? Time has shown that I made the right decision, but the journey is what's really important.
Future installments will discuss how I got from there to here, and how, after all these years, I am thankful for the many things that this experience taught me. If you've ever struggled with your playing, or had trauma that made you wonder if your playing days were over, I think you'll appreciate my journey. Who knows, maybe you're like one of the old timers I've met, and maybe, just maybe, something you read here can help you find your face again. My trombone and my musical experiences have taken me across this country and abroad. My life is infinitely richer for it, and I believe that I was put here on Earth to help people find that richness, too.
That's my hope, anyway. :) See you soon!