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Am I Still A Musician If I Can't Play?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) has affected almost every part of my body. I have brain lesions in the periventricular white matter. What symptoms they cause is not clear to me.

Most of the nerve damage is in my cervical spine. I live with balance problems, dizziness, movement issues, bladder dysfunction, numbness, weakness, and neurological pain.

In this piece, I will describe how nerve damage has diminished my ability to sing and play the flute and piano. After MS took control, I learned more about how it likely played a part in all the problems I describe leading up to then.

Difficulties singing and playing instruments

First, it is important to mention a non-MS cause of my musical decline, too. Before MS took hold, I stopped playing flute and singing every day. The need and desire fell away when I stopped teaching, performing, and studying with a private teacher. I have always wanted to find my creative voice, and pursued music to that end. But I felt something was missing.

Eventually, I decided that music had not provided the best vehicle in which I could develop and express myself, both in style and substance. Always at ease with writing, however, I turned to writing literary fiction and essays. I quickly developed my style and an innate sense of humor, and my writing really took off.

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But I remained haunted by my shortcomings as a flutist and pianist. I had always struggled with articulation. Producing a big, fat, clear tone on my flute was another challenge. Although my tone was fine, it sounded hollow and a bit strangled compared to that of my favorite classical and jazz flute players. What’s more, my last private teacher noted that my embouchure was a bit too tight and got me started on relaxing the tension in my lips. Immediately my tone got bigger, rounder, more sonorous. But I also lost control in my transitions from one register to another, and the ability to accurately hit and sustain high and low notes.

This was normal in the beginning, my teacher told me, and I would soon regain control as I practiced. Some players bounce back in weeks, others in months. But my tone control never returned. Strapped for cash, I stopped taking flute lessons. Had I continued, there might have been a different outcome. But I doubt it. Here’s why.

Noticing something different about myself

Another limitation I struggled with was fingering technique. I practiced scales for hours, trying to perfect the transitions between registers, and smoothing out the clunky transitions between certain notes. Despite practicing for hours, it improved by only a minor degree. I tried breaking it down.

First, hand position. I observed that my fingertips didn’t cover the center of the keys, like those of other flutists. I reasoned that my fingers are short with small diameters, so I was limited by my anatomy and doing the best I could with what I had. Next, I pinpointed the clunky fingerings even further. B-flat to B-natural to C to C-sharp were not only clunky, the intonation was off, too. I always thought I played too sharp, until my teacher told me it was a bit flat. Now I couldn’t trust my own ear!

Realizing MS was likely connected

Years later, after MS took control, I realized how it likely played a part in all the problems I described. Diagnosed with temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) in my late thirties, this explained the tight throat and jaw muscles I had all the way back to my early years. I also discovered that TMJ can be a comorbidity of MS.

What’s more, I was 41 when I had an officially documented flare of suspected MS. Gathering evidence towards what would be an eventual diagnosis, my neurologist asked me to describe all my childhood illnesses, and anything else that happened that defied explanation. I had an excellent memory for them all.

Here are several. A bout of pneumonia at age 12 left me with left-sided foot drop and my first awareness of having a lazy tongue. A bout of scarlet fever at 21 caused a temporary limp. I recalled other odd things, too. Childhood migraines, leg pains, and yes, throat and tongue problems. Finger technique on both flute and piano. He nodded knowingly as I ran through this litany.

So in retrospect, I believe MS played a part in my limitations as a musician.

Music still lives in me

Am I a musician if I can’t play anymore? Yes, I am! I never lost my ear for music. I sing along to Miles Davis’ BIRTH OF THE COOL album every day. I tap and clap out rhythms along with my fave jazz albums.

Music lives in me. It always will.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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