Tuesday, July 27, 2010

THE YIPS (and Focal Dystonia)


One lesson I did not learn from Mr. Jacobs was how to avoid the yips. Unfortunately it was a lesson I learned for myself, the hard way. Golfers call it the “Yips”. Musicians call it Focal Dystonia. I know people who have ‘gone back to square one’ and ‘rebuilt’ their embouchures. The problem as I see it is not ‘the embouchure’. It is some habits that have become improperly ingrained, perhaps from over-use, perhaps from over-analysis. To play a brass instrument we spend years taking fine motor muscle movements of the face and training them to behave like automatic responses to demands for a musical result. (I bristle when I hear someone say “Breath from your diaphragm.” That is like saying “Pump blood with your heart. One, two, ready, go.” That was the point of the breathing tube Mr. Jacobs used. It focused our attention on the air, not on our anatomy.) When the embouchure behaves at a subconscious level, as the vocal chords do in speech, fixing a problem by bringing the action to the conscious level only compounds the problem.

Put in terms of the ‘Self Two’ computer, I would say the process has been totally turned over to Self Two but one of the files has become damaged or has been moved. Have you ever put so many programs, so many files, so many pictures on your hard drive that it bogged down? Have you ever deleted files to clean up space? Have you ever inadvertently deleted a file that was necessary for a program?

Mr. Jacobs taught “Play by sound; not by feel.” But he taught us to breathe by feel. We learned the ‘feel’ of a full breath and we ordered the body to achieve that feeling of fullness when we took a breath. One of the best golf lessons I had was about feel. My instructor got my club in position at the top of my backswing and admonished me to memorize the feel, not the mechanics of how I got it there. This freed my mind to focus on the task of swinging the club through the ball. For my level of golf, ‘See the ball; be the ball’ is too advanced. The required muscle memory has not been grooved. I didn’t take up golf until the age of 45. ‘See the club head; be the clubhead’ is a more attainable goal for me. If I can make a good move on the ball, if I can pass the clubhead squarely through the ball, I can then turn over the results to the elements. The wind, the ground conditions will do what they may. I did my part. The musician must make his notes fit into the larger ensemble but he cannot be responsible for an out of tune or badly balanced cord, only his note in it.

Anyway, my two cents worth about ‘focal dystonia’ is to practice less with the instrument on your face and spend more time training the tuba in your head. This flies in the face of our training that says to practice more. More lip slurs; more arpeggios; more scales etc. I certainly did that and I’m here to tell you one thing for sure. That doesn’t work to fix Dystonia. You must do drills, but once learned, there is only damage to be done by beating them to death.

If you think you are developing Focal Dystonia, your focus is in the wrong place. Play in spite of your embouchure, not because of it. Practice on the tuba in your head more than the one in your hand. It was this approach that allowed Lee Trevino to play a wedge shot with a two iron.

Jake often said, “Don’t ask a question. Make a statement.” Golfers say it another way. “Don’t ‘pull the trigger’ until you are committed to the shot.” In concert, musicians do not have that luxury. When the conductor gives the downbeat, they must respond. What they can do is be ready with a statement instead of a question.

Applying the lessons I learned about Dystonia, I do not spend hours putting. If I had the time to devote to golf that I used to spend on the tuba, I would study greens, I would watch others putt. I would roll golf balls on greens by hand. That’s not to say I do not go to the driving range. I have a long way to go to get my swing with the driver, fairway woods and irons automatic and repeatable. And I spent far too many formative years becoming a musician to consider myself any kind of athlete. What I do look for on the range is to memorize the feel and develop repeatability.

Golf legend Harry Vardon said “One should guard against playing too much golf. Thirty six holes a day is enough.”

Of course I can’t go back in time and prove it, but I feel that had I taken a year off to play golf when I first developed ‘Focal Task Specific Dystonia’, I would still be able to play tuba today. I think the fix for my chops could have been better learned on a golf course. At the time of writing this I saw a golf channel interview with David Duval. Duval was the number one ranked golfer in the World in 1999. He is one of only three golfers to have ever shot a 59 in tournament play. He dropped to number 260 by 2005. He said to the interviewer that he should have taken a year off when he started his downward spiral. My wife and I turned to each other with a look of surprise because it so echoed what I have so often said about my chops.

At the time I developed FD I had never held a golf club. I was 33 when I developed Focal Dystonia. It wasn’t until I was 45 that I found golf filled that void previously filled with hours of tuba practice. If I could go back in time with the intention of being a better tuba player I would work on being a better musician and less on being a tuba player. I would study more scores and attend more concerts. And I would have taken up golf earlier. As I said once before, the most important lesson I learned from Dystonia was that playing tuba was something I did; not who I was. It was my job; not my identity. Keep the other aspects of your life in perspective.
See you on the links?

Richard Barth, June 2010

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