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Dystonia: A Trumpeter's Story


Copyright 2024, Mark Alan Wade

Primary Author: Phelps, J.
Journal Title: ITG Journal
Date Published: Mar-02
Language: English
Category: Nervous Disorders
Key Words: dystonia musician instrumental trumpet
Full Citation: Phelps, Joseph F. Dystonia: A Trumpeter's Story. ITG Journal 26, no. 3 (March 2002): 45-46.
Full Abstract: Some performance problems in trumpet playing can be explained by a nervous disorder called a dystonia. This disorder is characterized by involuntary twisting or repetitious muscle contractions. Dystonia are classified by causation, the part of the body affected and by the action that triggers the movements. Joseph F. Phelps, professor emeritus of trumpet at Appalachian State University, developed a dystonia in his trumpet playing at the age of 49. The musical symptoms included: response problems, articulation misfires, and an unpleasing tone quality, especially on Bb trumpet. His performance on high horns (piccolo and Eb) was not impacted to the same degree. Symptoms continued for several years and the professor no longer was able to play during students' lessons. Other symptoms of dystonia developed outside of his trumpet playing, such as twitching around the mouth, difficulty in eating and talking. These symptoms were later diagnosed as Oro-mandibular Dystonia and possibly Meige Syndrome. The professor retired from university teaching and stopped playing trumpet for nine months. Dystonia is six times more prevalent than Huntington's Disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), and muscular dystrophy. Fewer than 5% of the 200,000 people afflicted with this disease in the U.S. are correctly diagnosed. Brass players are usually afflicted in the corners of the mouth and the jaw. Playing your instrument triggers the muscle spasms, which are not present when at rest. Over 98% of doctors have never seen a case of Dystonia during the time they practice medicine or while attending medical school. A few years ago, most people with any kind of Dystonia waited six to eight years for a correct diagnosis; today, the average is about two years. A support group has been set up by Steven Frucht, M.D., a specialist in the field, and Glen Estrin, a professional horn player who performed with the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera of Chicago before being disabled with this condition.