Our lives are full of challenges. Challenges can involve striving for improvement and betterment, in life or as musicians, and they are an important part of giving us incentives and goals to work towards. I have a particular challenge and a specific goal this year.
Challenges for young horn players involve mastering various exercises, studies, and technical problems, then orchestral excerpts, and finally the solo repertoire. Learning to live with the everyday challenges and stresses of playing as a professional, where high standards are constantly demanded, can sometimes prove too much, resulting in a breakdown of the fine motoric control of the embouchure, resulting in a collapse of the embouchure and inability to play.
Task-specific dystonia, or focal dystonia, is a condition that affects more than 1 in a 100 musicians. It can arise through pressure at work, or it can appear with no warning or apparent cause. The inexorable progress of this affliction can render a hitherto great player totally unable to play within a few weeks. Focal dystonia in horn (and other brass) players usually affects the fine muscles associated with forming and maintaining a stable embouchure. Some sufferers experience a "dead" area in a particular register of the instrument; others lose muscular control and start to shake uncontrollably, making it impossible to hold a straight note; still others experience pain and contortions that preclude any further playing.
After the initial onset of difficulties, many players imagine they need to practise more. Ironically, one of the recognised trigger points associated with provoking an attack can be lack of preparation; however, more practice only exacerbates the problem, a problem caused not by faulty or unprepared muscles, but a malfunction in areas of the brain (a structure in the brain known as the sensorimotor cortex and basal ganglia, together with the central nervous system).
The affected person does not suffer any outward signs of ill-health (other than the stress brought on by the advancing condition), which can add to the frustration, distress, and despair associated with this disorder. I do not suffer myself, but have had close contact with several people showing early signs of the condition, none closer than my own brother, whose professional career was curtailed as a result of this disorder.
Research into this condition and its possible treatment is needed. The condition is still little understood and has no known cure, although some forms of treatment have shown promising results in some sufferers. For more on dystonia, read the excellent article that appeared in the May 2011 issue of The Horn Call.
In recognising this problem within our profession and wanting to do something personally to help, I have set myself a challenge to raise awareness and funds for researching the possible causes and treatments for (musicians') focal dystonia. In August, I am setting off from John O'Groats, in the northeast corner of Scotland, to cycle the 1,000+ miles down the length of the mainland UK to Land's End in Cornwall.
The ride will take about 17 days, riding up to 60 miles a day against the prevailing winds.
Some people might ask why I don't do a playing type marathon. Well, I've done enough of those in my life, and I want this challenge to be enjoyable! People who know me are aware that I am a great outdoor person – love the mountains, birding, and getting out and about, in fact taking on challenges whatever the particular pastime. After a slipped disc some years ago put an end to my running hobby, jumping on a bicycle was the logical alternative. I am already several months into a training schedule and will have ridden well over a thousand miles in training by the time you read this.
Challenges make life worth living. This is my current challenge. I hope you will join me in meeting it, and I hope you are rising to your own challenges.