Greetings! It's the end of a fun summer and it's time to shop for back-to-school supplies and reacquaint ourselves with that Sunday night pit-in-the-stomach. All-in-all, I've had a pretty productive and successful summer, and I've taken a lot of lessons with me. I even had a couple of weeks where I had to prove my worth as a horn player to my most cynical critic: myself, of course.
I'm talking about playing through an external, but purely physical, injury. Don't get me wrong, most sane, successful freelancers would recognize an injury and sub out a job because they don't want to push themselves and possibly screw up their face for a future job. In my case, after almost 15 years of freelancing, I still haven't found myself in a position where I can turn down work and not risk being pushed to the bottom of a sub list. I can't pick and choose when I'll get called to play on someone else's show or be given the opportunity to learn someone else's book, so I make do with what I have. And yes, sometimes that means playing through extreme pain that ISN'T a muscle injury that occurred from overuse of my embouchure.
I could preface with a gory explanation of what exactly happened to me, but let's just say that this was the most severe of canker sores that happened to find its way onto the inside of my upper lip, precisely where the mouthpiece rests when I play. Here are the steps I took to make sure I could get through the month as responsibly as possible:
1. Warm-up. ALWAYS.
Trust me, it really SUCKS when you have to spend the first two minutes on your instrument waiting for the tears to subside and the wincing to stop before you can commence with your day. In those moments, it's so easy to say "well it's going to be awful, so what's the point in warming up?" Don't listen to that voice, ALWAYS warm up, ALWAYS, even if you have to play it twice as soft, twice through, with half the strain. It gives you an idea of which part of your face is working, and what you can do to make the other parts go with you. It redistributes your air. It also reminds you that the other parts of your face are still operating under normal parameters, and you have to care for them too, even while other parts are melting down, which is a scenario I'm all too familiar with these days. In fact, this is a rule that no one should ever neglect. Always warm-up, no matter what!
2. Know your embouchure.
When you get past your warm-up and start testing what you can do that day, it is immensely important that you're familiar with which parts of your embouchure carry the pressure of your mouthpiece, and which parts of your embouchure change in order for you to play high or low. In this respect, I'm incredibly lucky that I switched to an inverted embouchure while doing a grad diploma. It's an embouchure that is very high maintenance and prone to breaking down, but in dire situations like this, it's a total life-saver because you intimately know how your face works when you play. In my case, I had to adjust where the pressure was going, which places had to move in different ways, and I had to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to make sure I remember what I changed and, most importantly, how to reclaim what I did before the canker sore.
3. Be careful!
If at any point, you feel the side of your face shaking or getting sore, play softer and use more air. It's a safety gauge that you would never use in any other situation, but this is survival mode and we're just trying to get through the day. In my case, I had no choice but to adjust the pressure points and move the horn, but I took great care in remembering where I went and how I was going to get back after the cut had healed. I personally never felt anything close to muscle soreness, but there's a clear difference between a stinging canker sore and the feeling of a muscle strain. When I feel strain pains on a job, which has only happened twice in my life, I immediately back off and burn fewer lip calories while increasing my air.
4. Take time off
After all of this is said and done, I put the horn in the case and enjoy the healing time as a forced vacation. If I have no other work requirements, I enjoy the time off and cancel everything elective. This year, that meant giving up on auditions that I had prepped for months. Preserve your future and enjoy the time off!
5. Get back to normal
So when the wound has healed and your eyes don't water when you try to play again, take stock of how you feel and compare it to your norm as much as you can. Things always feel puffy after some time off, but if after a few days things are still out of whack, examine those pressure points and angles very carefully, and adjust them to where they were before sore-pocalypse. Those breadcrumbs really come in handy when you need them!
Let me reiterate here: I would NOT do this if I felt muscle strain. That can be career-ending and, even though I don't have much of my own trajectory going, I can't risk the happiness that I get from playing the horn I have had some tough weeks where I've come out of it feeling that way, and it feels like someone has taken a vice and tightened it around the side of your corners. I've never gotten to the point of feeling muscle quivers, but I have come close, so be honest with yourself if you have any doubt. And I should probably write a disclaimer here as well: if after warming up, I realized that I wasn't able to play the things that were required of me to play the music on the stand, I would immediately drop out and find a sub, because the worst thing is to risk someone else's chair because of your own strife.
My career boils down to this: whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I've lost, been rejected, turned away, shot down, talked down to, been gossiped about, but I'm still here, and for what? Because I love the horn, and the only person that will take that away from me is me. The last thing that will take all of that away from me is a cut or a sore. So more power to you if you are in a position to opt out of work when you're not feeling great! I'm still toughing it out...and maybe I always will be, so this is how I get it done when it's feeling impossible.