by Devin Cobleigh-Morrison
Thoughts and Reflections on Accountability and Injury Recovery:
A retrospective view on a near-decade of injury cycles,
unknown accidents, self-discovery, and rehabilitation.
Throughout the last decade, the challenges presented both personally and hornistically are something I, like many others, have been no stranger to. After a tumultuous run of both personal and technical hurdles to overcome, it was at the request of Horn and More editor Mike Harcrow that I write a piece shining a light on this journey and the lessons learned from it.
In September of 2010, I was asked to make a dramatic change to my mouthpiece placement—which included my teacher telling me, “You’ll never forget where that goes!” As time elapsed, the mouthpiece was consistently reset to a painful place that drastically cut efficiency, range, quality of sound, and as a result, confidence. Being an impressionable 18-year-old student and idolizing who I was working with, I put my boundaries aside to be a “disciplined student.” This change was incredibly uncomfortable, and it was made in a way that was physically violating. It led to a plethora of serious problems. Although I knew this was dangerously wrong, I persisted and was told being a disciplined student was the only way to succeed.
Just a few days into this journey extreme pressure problems surfaced, my lips would split and bleed, and phantom pains occasionally arose. As a result, I used biting and extreme lip tension to keep my minimal amount of lower lip in the mouthpiece. My tongue and throat grew tense and pains became sharper and more frequent. Body tension to “push” air out came next. I let this worsen as the years progressed, mostly out of my lack of knowledge, lack of listening to myself. Loyalty was the word I used to justify keeping this setting and its effects. This wasn’t loyalty; it was a lack of self-discipline and respect. Muscle damage, bruising, and blow outs were inherently tied with my playing and seemed to happen a few times a month. I was consuming multiple anti-inflammatory medications 4-6 times a day to get through rehearsals. This teacher had me put on waiting lists for purchasing horns with Schmidt and Geyer wraps. I was told they were “just more efficient.” Money then became a problem.
This cycle of forcing became a normality. I would play through injuries and bruising, overworking as much as 8 hours a day. This excessive strain had put so much pressure on my sinuses and jaw that I needed invasive sinus surgery to stop chronic swelling. The mouthpiece setting still felt so foreign- after years, I still never felt like I’d worked hard enough to get used to it. This was rooted in a fear of falling (more) behind.
A few years later, I was exposed to self-respect in my master’s degree. It was a blessing to attend the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music with Randy Gardner, Tom Sherwood, Natalie Douglass Grana, and my ultimate idol—who I still refer to as Mom—Elizabeth Freimuth. I was respected by these four and met with unending trust, patience, and kindness. This kept me as stable and as present as possible during this continuing cycle. I was given tools I couldn’t use to their full advantage with an embouchure setting that was clearly VERY wrong, but those given tools and lessons of self-respect planted the seed in my heart that things needed to change. I started to relieve extreme pressure but picked up the habit of extreme tension inside the rim of the mouthpiece. My sound became very clear and extremely focused, but I still wasn’t levelheaded enough to see I overlooked true balance.
|A water key after removal. The silver shows where the solder was. Leak is in the upper left of the key.
After graduating in 2015, I moved to Kansas City. Mid-year I had 4 water keys installed on my horn, and unbeknownst to me they were installed improperly (more on this later). The Amado keys were placed on my horn unevenly and not soldered completely shut. They were patched with solder outside the key (see accompanying picture). This issue caused my horn to leak into itself from the key to a small chamber patched on the outside with solder. This caused more injuries that were derived from the re-application of extreme pressure, and body and lip tension that I used to bend pitches upward. I never once thought the actual horn was a factor in this struggle. As a last-ditch effort, I used a nickel mouthpiece with a European shank to try to receive proper compression from the horn, which I thought was a logical fix, but it was an uninformed and incorrect one.
In 2016, I noticed increasing stiffness in my upper lip and cheeks, and then in March came an extreme sharp pain and loss of sensation. My neck lost a serious amount of mobility, and my shoulders shook when I held the horn up. It was determined that a Maxillary Branch of trigeminal nerve was damaged in this whole process; my diagnosis was trigeminal neuropathy. In very intense denial, I kept pushing forward with the “help” of prescribed Xanax, excessive use of beta blockers, and heavy doses of anti-inflammatory medications which I gained a dependence on even for a warmup. Somehow, I was lucky to win multiple respected regional orchestra positions, subbed with notable full-time ensembles, and won my first adjunct position. I also used a personal trainer to attempt to get back mobility in my upper body, and re-tone muscles that were unbalanced and perpetuating injury.
Eventually my body shut down from the strain I was knowingly putting on it. The personal and physical baggage made breathing, let alone playing, feel impossible. The years building up to this and during this incident were met with many dangerous mental health episodes that were paired with a very scattered and damaged persona which was exhausting and uncomfortable to be around. The horn had fully taken over my life. This incident held a mirror up to me and showed remnants of the person I was, and that image was not easy to take in.
It was with the help and encouragement of my colleague and retired principal horn in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Bill Lane, that I determined that I needed to take a long break and take back my power. I immediately drew up a tattoo with a date on it and had it put on my body to hold me accountable, and I never looked back.
When I came back to the horn, I tackled things exactly where they went wrong. I changed back my embouchure to where it was so long ago, and immediately started experimenting with air instead of clamping my lips and jaw to keep my old setting from falling apart. Almost immediately the well-known “path” started to make sense. I had been given so much information but had no idea how to use it. I found myself being incredibly technically minded as I sifted through all this information that I was so thankful to have. Before, were so many parts of the body that were working against themselves that it was exciting to slowly see how parts of my body started to work WITH each other. Powerful tools from Liz, Tom, Natalie, and Mr. Gardner started to become clear, and eventually signs of progress started to manifest themselves physically. My mobility work off the horn started to show and I could move my neck slowly when I played, my arms and back stopped tightening and shaking, and I started to release air more freely at the beginning of each day. Eventually, full feeling in my lips returned. I still felt as if things weren’t quite right, but I was mostly just thankful to play.
As time elapsed, I overplayed continuously to “catch up” and tackle this looming feeling of being behind. I justified this habit by telling myself that I needed to know what it’s like to feel everything on this new setting. Technical thinking was used to slowly dig myself out of the different pits I’d dug, but there was always a new pit to climb out of due to overuse and changing technique. It was stimulating, but exhausting. The constant changes were all ways to continue overplaying but showed no distinct progress or stability. What this period did do, however, was make me that much more in touch with teaching and what habits led to what sounds. I started to compile these in a large book and was able to teach very effectively. If a student was working through a bad habit, at this point, I’d been through it. I could identify it quickly, discuss it, and students started to grow quickly and optimistically.
In 2018-19, I left my work to pursue my DMA as a requirement to teach full time at the college level. In this time, I was able to get professional mental help that I desperately needed with the help and guidance of my good friend, Bernhard Scully. This empowered me to tackle bigger challenges with a healthy mental state and gain inner peace and understanding of myself which was not possible previously. As I worked with mental health professionals, my nervous energy and instability started to dwindle. As a result, the dependency on beta blockers and Xanax were dwindling, and things were truly heading in the right direction.
A few months later, I made a bold decision to enter the International Horn Competition of America. To my surprise, I was met by a few horn technicians who said my horn didn’t sound quite right. I couldn’t tell how they could distinguish my playing flaws from the flaws in the horn, having heard my fatigued chops, but I learned as time went on. After these people tried my horn, the consensus was that the horn was leaking somewhere. I tried many other horns at the competition, and everything felt so much more natural and easier, predictably.
When I got home to Madison, Wisconsin, I took the horn to a technician who was highly recommended and had him look it over. He found a curious buildup of solder around each water key, so he took one key off as an experiment. He discovered the keys were not installed properly and covered up by solder on the outside of the key to cover this up. The horn was leaking into ITSELF, in four places. This was yet another wake-up call to me: I was still not working smart enough and taking accountability for my comfort. By telling myself that everything was completely my fault, I was covering up a problem that was literally, in front of my face.
A while later I purchased the first horn I chose by myself, a Lukas horn by Dan Vidican which I call my ‘forever horn,’ and I got to work readjusting. I’d then used the horn to record various multi-tracks for a doctoral project to track my growth in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. This shined yet another light on overworking and taught me how to be kind to myself when evaluating to my playing. With less overall playing and no gigs, the overuse injuries dwindled, as did more bad habits.
With a healthy but fuller playing load of recording, I occasionally, then consistently, encountered severe swelling, my lips cracking when I played, and my tongue and throat swelling up. Nothing seemed as bad as it did in 2010-2017, so I kept working with it and trying to become that much more efficient. This was fine, until I had to make 2 separate emergency visits to my ENT when my airways began closing. It was then discovered that I had built up a high tolerance to silver by constantly overplaying, and with the time off in the pandemic, that tolerance had become nearly as strong. My ENT referred me to immunology and dermatology at UW-Madison and a metal allergy was diagnosed almost immediately.
|Prokofiev with the Cincinnati Ballet. Front to back: Elizabeth Freimuth, Devin Cobleigh-Morrison, Dr. Margaret Tung, and Charles Bell.
Over the next 12 months, my lips and surrounding tissue slowly showed their normal size and contour. As such, I changed mouthpiece alloys and changed rims more than a few times, adapting to this contour that was revealing itself in time. I learned first-hand how equipment can or cannot complement the body and the horn. Throughout this time, I consolidated my thoughts and experiences as a teacher, performer, and person. Dan Grabois was an amazing sounding board and guiding light as I finished my doctorate under his tutelage, letting me process so many horn-centric tools and life experiences. Near the end of this journey, it is now a reality to live through a clear lens, a healthy outlook, and with balance. I have enjoyed working again with ensembles such as the Cincinnati and Milwaukee Symphonies, giving recitals and masterclasses with Wingra Faculty Wind Quintet at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching and performing as faculty at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, and enjoying opportunities to play again with many colleagues that have supported me during this journey.
Thoughts, Reflections, Accountability, and Recovery:
While lessons sometimes need to be learned the hard way, nobody should go through the ordeal I have experienced. We do best when we hold ourselves accountable for our own well-being, but we must address this on our own terms. While everyone deserves to have a good experience in the arts, it is imperative that we support our colleagues and their journeys, both in success and in tribulation.
–It is never too early to take accountability for yourself, your comfort level in playing, and your needs. If you need help in doing so, take advantage of your university or community’s resources such as psychotherapy, life coaching, or even personal training. When we seek help depends on many factors: personal events, lack of confidence or respect for oneself, etc., but the earlier it is addressed the better.
–It is paramount to stay rooted in your needs and your curiosity. Fostering a safe space for learning is the instructor’s responsibility, and this means creating a space for the student to speak and think freely. This freedom can inform the instructor further on where and how to proceed as student and teacher grow together. As students, we spend most of our time away from lessons gathering data. We should be willing and eager to come prepared with these discoveries, questions, and experiences, instead of just the music itself. As a student, if you feel trapped or silenced do NOT ignore this and seek help or different instruction if you are able.
|John Williams with the Milwaukee Symphony. Right to left: Matt Bronstein, Darcy Hamlin, Devin Cobleigh-Morrison.
–If you are in a space to speak freely and choose not to, this can make the instructor’s job that much more difficult. You are the one that experiences your life, and your instructor is getting a small snapshot of one given day. This can be influenced by a multitude of factors such as sleep, fatigue, hydration, personal struggle, use of beta blockers or medications, and much more. It’s important you bring your average balance of your product and progress to lessons. Communicate with your instructor. Learning “how to be a student” is just as important as learning how to teach or be the best colleague you are able.
–Application is everything. Check in with how you feel and respond to higher-pressure situations and your ability to focus and channel feelings within them. Is something getting in the way mentally, physically, or in training? This is a very good time to gather important data for growth. Do not ignore these signs.
–Staying in touch with your health at large does indeed affect those around you, especially in something as intimate as the arts. By ignoring your own health, we can unknowingly shut out those who are trying to help you. While it is also the responsibility of those around us to give grace, there is indeed a balance of grace and accountability. This lesson is hard to learn.
–It is important for us as humans to focus on the “why” instead of the “what” in all circumstances. “Why” is X happening (is there a reason?), vs. “what” is occurring. As an observer, colleague, professor, etc. it is easy to take a surface gesture or turn of phrase personally. Focusing on why this is happening vs what might be causing the behavior is helpful for the observer to gain a sense of peace. This is often helpful in circumstances with a person with low confidence, high stress, different schools of thought, or interacting with those in personal struggle.
–Compatibility is sometimes difficult. There are many factors that go into this equation, but it is important for all parties to approach any conflict with a level head, accountability and understanding. Answers or closure will often come as we grow.
–It is indeed possible to be too close to a situation to gain clarity. Distance (rest), as upsetting as it may be, is a necessary part of growth. This is especially helpful for consolidating thoughts, physical rest, and approaching challenges with a clearer and better-informed lens.
–A “side hustle” does not make you any more or less of a musician. Personally, I own a business in the kite industry. I’ve been involved with this with for many years and my designs are now flown all over the world. This is not a means of taking away from your craft, but rather adding to it. Balance is a relative term: Find it for you.
On the Horn:
–Technique is also a mindset. In Frøydis’ book, Thoughts on Playing the Horn Well, she states:
The story of the centipede, who was asked with which foot he started and who then had problems walking, is not completely inappropriate. Many horn players develop problems because they spend too much time thinking and analyzing their techniques. (Ree Wekre, 30)
Technique contains all components of efficient playing, but also the maturity to free oneself from multiple physical components that make up this broad term. While it is important for all (especially teachers) to be able to analyze the components that make up efficient, comfortable, and authentic playing, a part of this efficiency is allowing yourself to be free from inner workings and prioritizing the music at hand.
–Being in touch with different ways to play and understanding their resulting sounds, viewpoints, and personal/creative solutions to jump over a proverbial hurdle is crucial. However, this must be paired with the following:
–While your sound is a great guide for information, a full spectrum approach needs to be taken. How sustainable is this during your playing day, and most importantly, is the sound comfortable? In Frøydis’ words, “Many larger issues can be covered up with strong musical strategy and active breath control, but it doesn’t hurt when the lips cooperate.” (Ree Wekre, 30). A good sound to some, might not be the most comfortable for the player. The balance of comfort and sound could be considered your authentic sound or voice. Give yourself the grace to explore this balance; it is indeed hard work. In my opinion, this is where time off is especially helpful to let your mind rest.
–As we improve, we must make peace with removing information that doesn’t work for us, reorganizing what does, and simplifying it. By organizing our mental space, we have more brain power to get off the page and into our message. Try to recognize this time when it shows itself to you.
–While having access to multiple pieces of equipment is exciting, too many options can be a liability. Adaptation must be met with a sense of knowledge and personal boundaries. If you are curious about equipment, there are many reliable businesses that can help arm you with knowledge as you shop. Houghton Horns, Stork Mouthpieces, Osmun, are some examples. As a buyer, be prepared to ask specific questions and take advantage of your trial periods if available. If someone puts something on you with a firm but vague reasoning, for example, “it’s just more efficient,” it is advisable to get a second opinion or find an alternate source of instruction. Custom horn makers are also a great source of information and will tell you why the horn is or is not a good fit for you. Equipment that helps work with you can feel different as time passes, and as you become more informed.
–Foster a healthy relationship with your horn repair/craftsman. Think of these folks as primary care physicians for your instruments. Great shops such as Houghton, Pope, Balu Musik, B.A.C., and individual trusted technicians like Ron Pinc, Dana Hofer, David Smalley, and of course your horns' creators should be available, willing to answer questions, and examine your instrument. If geography is an issue, ask to be referred to trusted source in your area. Things happen and we may unknowingly adjust to something like a leak over time. This is where both a high level of self-awareness and a good working relationship with a technician are crucial.
–Coaches are becoming more readily available and talk of injury/overcoming bad habits is becoming less taboo. Some well-informed resources are Austin Pancner of The Functional Musician, Dr. Jena Gardner, Alexander Technique teachers such as Stacia Forsythe Siena, etc., as well as anyone that has overcome a vast number of hurdles in their career. While having access to a multitude of resources can be an asset, be advised that juggling too much information can be a liability. Take the time to observe what works for you on this part of your journey and make peace with the fact that this may change over time. Allow your relationship with your craft to grow as you do.
A warm thank you to Mike Harcrow for asking me to write this piece. Keep in touch with yourself, your needs, and be grateful for your support systems and your journey. Heartfelt thanks to my family, Elizabeth Freimuth, Dan Grabois, Tom Sherwood, Randy Gardner, Natalie Douglass Grana, Aaron Brant, Margaret Tung, Matthew Bronstein, Amy Krueger, Darcy Hamlin, Josiah Bullach, Wayne Lu, and business partner John McCracken for their unending support and belief in me.
Go chase your dreams.
With every good wish,
Devin Cobleigh-Morrison, DMA