This past Saturday was the first day of the rest of my life. I know that's a bold statement (and maybe a corny one), but I’ve only experienced a change this profound in my work life a handful of times. Retiring from playing Trombone was certainly one of them. And now, after 15 years in a blended position at Boston Conservatory as the Associate Director of the Music Division as well as Brass Chair and a Faculty member, I am moving over to a single position as full Professor of Music in the fall. Friday was my last full day in the office and I must admit, it felt pretty weird. Over the last month, I have been slowly moving things out of my office, until Friday when it struck me that there was almost nothing remaining.
Due to our merger with Berklee, I needed to choose between administration and teaching - you can't do both in that universe. In the end, my choice became clear: teach students and work 9 months, or administer for the Faculty and work 12 months. Not only am I following my passion by continuing with the students - but for me it's also a quality of life issue. Time is a finite commodity, and I saw my chance to get a bunch of it back.
Going forward, in addition to my teaching and conducting schedule, I hope to read and travel more, as well as work in other places. Having taught for so many years, I believe that I have something to offer as a guest clinician and conductor. I'm also planning to slow things down a bit. I've been in overdrive for many years and may initially be stumped as to how to handle so much down time. Saturday, I started with a long bike ride, a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts and dinner with a friend. It already feels better.
During my time as Associate Director, I was involved in many projects and I’m pleased to have helped the school and Music Division move forward. I'll miss not having that type of impact with my faculty peers, but I'm glad to be following my passion by directly teaching the musicians of tomorrow. I want to thank the Boston Conservatory community for allowing me to have this opportunity. It came at a time, soon after my retirement from playing, when I was searching for a new direction. It couldn't have been a better fit for me.
Focal Dystonia is a neurological condition that affects a muscle or group of muscles in a specific part of the body - in my case, the lip. It’s a pretty new diagnosis, with mentions in books, newspapers, and online increasing over 400% since 1980. At my most recent visit in December 2016, I asked Dr. Charness how many people with correctly diagnosed finger dystonias had recovered enough to get back to playing, and he said that there had been a handful (pardon the pun), including Alex Klein who recently won his chair back as principal oboe of the Chicago Symphony. When I asked him about lip dystonias, he said that there were no recoveries that he was aware of. I shared that I knew some folks who said that they had recovered, but he felt that they may initially have been misdiagnosed. In his practice over the past 20 years, he has not seen anyone recover from facial focal dystonia. Whether there are a few people out there or not, it clearly has been a career-ender for most.
I was 40 when first diagnosed, and it became increasing clear to me that it wasn’t fair to my peers to continue and it was also draining me emotionally. Going to work was traumatic. After two years of looking for answers, I decided on March 13, 1999 at a Boston Pops concert in Lowell, MA to let it go. I hadn’t planned for that to be my last concert, but from Keith Lockhart’s first downbeat, I couldn’t control my playing. It was embarrassing and stressful. I cried through most of the concert because I knew this was it. I went to see Keith after the concert, and asked to meet with him that week. In that meeting, I asked for, and was given, a sabbatical from the upcoming Pops season to see if I could get a handle on this, knowing full well that I had just played my last concert ever.
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.
Who would have thought I’d need a doctor in Prague? This morning I did just that. I had thought about going home early to see my physician there, worried about the intricacies of insurance abroad, the expense, and wondered if a doctor here would even let me fly, with what was now clearly some form of pneumonia.
Three weeks ago, I visited my internist in Boston about an incessant cough, fluid in my lungs, general lethargy and recurring headaches. She assured me that it was nothing to worry about, but that I had acquired asthma in my 50’s. What? I asked several times and said, “are you sure?”. It seems odd that it came on so suddenly. She insisted though, so off I went with my two inhalers and began using them with little relief before heading off on my European vacation.
Now, three weeks later, I’ve had one of the most awful trips of my life. Incessant coughing, numerous pounding headaches, fatigue and dizziness. I saw maybe half of what I wanted to see in each city because I moved slowly and couldn’t stay out long.
This morning, Sunday, at 7am, I set out for a local clinic. When I arrived, the person at the front didn’t speak English, so I had to wait until someone came by who did. Once he arrived, it was translated that they only do Dentistry there on the weekends. Oy, I thought, but then, for some reason, I was sent to (what felt like the "magical") third floor. Of course the woman at that desk also spoke no English. I should have brushed up on my Czech before coming on this trip! The office looked like the set of a 50’s Soviet era medical unit. No machines, bare walls and only this one woman at the reception desk. Would they be able to help me? She called to someone who could speak English, who turned out to be the doctor, and I was soon speaking to someone who understood why I was there.
The doctor asked if I had insurance and I showed her all of my US insurance cards. She brushed them aside and asked for cash, explaining that I could be reimbursed at home for the visit. I asked for the cost, 500 Czech Kronas, she said. Reader, you should know that 100 Kronas = $5 US. This visit was going to cost $25 in cold, hard cash. I was ecstatic.
The exam was short and sweet. Not like at home. “Do you have a fever?” (What? You aren’t going to probe me and poke for my temperature, weight and blood pressure?) Yes, I believe I have a fever – as I was sweating into a pool in her office chair. “How long has this been going on?” For over three weeks, I told her. She listened to my chest and moved the stethoscope around like I have never seen. Probably 25 locations in a minute. “Yes”, she said, “this is definitely pneumonia”.
I was given a prescription for an antibiotic, something my home doctor would not do since the x-ray (the x-ray!) they took of my chest showed no pneumonia! Thank god for technology.
You’d think that would be the end of the story. YOU try to fill a prescription in a foreign country at 8am on a Sunday morning! The clinic suggested two pharmacies on a map – both of which were closed. After wandering around for a bit, I got lucky and found one near a grocery story and breakfast place. I had breakfast, did my food shopping and waited until they opened at 9am.
I cannot tell you dear reader, what a relief it was to pop that first pill into my mouth and start to say goodbye to the blahs. I spent today in bed resting up and I was told that I would start to feel more like myself tomorrow.
All of my fears were unfounded about getting medical attention here. They were nothing but respectful and helpful. The language is an issue, but just continue to speak softly and wait for someone to show up who will understand. Someone always does. The cost was $25 for the visit and about $8 for the medication. I think I may not even submit them for reimbursement!