In 1997, after a very successful 20-year career as a professional trombonist, my playing started to deteriorate - it was the strangest thing. While on a Boston Symphony tour to the Canary Islands at the beginning of the year, I had difficulty controlling the sound of the instrument. I noticed it a few months later, while subbing as Principal Trombone in the Detroit Symphony, and then again during a Boston Pops tour to Japan. It would come and go, which made it even stranger. My lip would quiver, I’d get air leaks, and notes would just stop speaking. As you can imagine, I started to get very concerned.
After meeting up with some doctors who had no idea what was going on, I met Dr. Michael Charness who diagnosed me with Focal Dystonia on our first visit - with almost no testing. He later told me that my symptoms were quite consistent with Focal Dystonia, and that he could have diagnosed me over the phone, but preferred to see patients in person to be sure. It was nice to have a name for what I was dealing with, but the information I could find about it was not reassuring. There was no known treatment.
I became a test subject, trying out everything to see if something might work. We tried rest, drugs (Sinemet, Artane and Gabapentin), Botox injections (no not in my forehead!), acupuncture, Alexander Technique, Rolfing (massage), physical therapy, and chiropractic intervention. I thought about getting a biofeedback machine, but had already lost momentum by that time. Trying to sort this out was emotionally exhausting. None of the treatments seemed to have much effect on the dystonic muscles. The doctor was happy to keep trying things as long as I was willing, but I wasn’t sure how much longer I had it in me to try.
Unlike most classical musicians, I was raised in a household of folk singers. My father played guitar, and my mother played banjo, so picking up guitar at age 6 was natural. I remember performing with my father, and singing in harmony at that ripe young age. When it came time to pick an instrument in 4th grade, I chose trombone – or rather, the director chose trombone for me. I wanted to play trumpet.
In Junior High School, we were very lucky to have Joseph Sugar – aka Mr. NYSSMA – as our band director. What a pleasure to work with someone who cared so much for all his students and did whatever he could to encourage their abilities. He was President of NYSSMA (New York State School Music Association) for years, and seemed to know everybody involved in education in New York State.
High School was another matter. We had a pretty tough band director - Steve Work. Not the nicest man, but a great musician with incredibly high standards. For those of you who have seen the film Whiplash, you'll understand what I mean.
By the time I graduated from high school, I had taken private trombone lessons from the Principal Trombonists of the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Boston Symphony. In college, most of the Chicago Symphony low brass section became my teachers and mentors. What I learned in those lessons is still being passed on today to my own students. When I look back on my training, I realize that it was top shelf, which explains some of the success I had very early on.
I attended Northwestern University, and loved it there. The music buildings are right on picturesque Lake Michigan, and the instruction was exactly what I needed at the time. My teacher, Frank Crisafulli, was the 2nd trombonist in the Chicago Symphony. One of the gentlest, kind, generous and supportive men I had ever met. Having lacked a father figure for much of my teen years, he was exactly what I needed to thrive. I worked hard for him, and he was very committed to me – meeting for 8am lessons most weeks before he went off to CSO rehearsals.
In the middle of my sophomore year, at the age of 19, I won a position as Principal Trombone in the Hamilton Philharmonic – the fourth largest orchestra in Canada at that time. I stayed for 3 seasons, moved on to a one-year position as Principal in San Francisco Symphony, and then to the Empire Brass Quintet for 2 years. I was quickly taken in by the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops - spending 13 wonderful years playing with them for much of the year. I was a substitute player, but first call, so some years I worked as many as 30 weeks a year.
During my 20-year career, I traveled to many countries, made numerous recordings with major orchestras, was on MTV, played in great halls including Boston Symphony Hall and Carnegie Hall, and got to work with some of the most amazing classical musicians in the business. I am forever grateful for those opportunities which molded me into the musician and educator that I am today.
However, all good things must come to an end. In the late 90s, I realized there was something very wrong with my playing. It was a slow decline, taking about two years to figure out what was going on. By then, it was clear that my career as a performer was slowly coming to an end.