Book Review: Still Playing, My Journey Through Embouchure Surgery and Rehabilitation

Denver Dill has played trumpet with the West Point Band since 2004, a remarkable achievement for musicians under any circumstances.  What makes Dill’s experiences even more noteworthy is that he injured his lip in high school, completed both undergraduate and graduate degrees in trumpet, and successfully auditioned for his spot with the West Point Band – all with a damaged lip.  Eventually his injury began to affect his playing to the point where he could no longer work out his way through his difficulties.   He was diagnosed with a torn orbicularis oris and had surgery to correct it.  He has since made a successful comeback to playing and written a book about his experiences.

Still Playing, My Journey Through Embouchure Surgery and Rehabilitation is self published, but very well produced with color charts and photographs, well laid out, and solidly bound as a paperback.  It’s not a very long book, but since the pages aren’t numbered I can’t say exactly how long it is.  Dill writes about several topics in his book, including his history of how he injured his lip, his surgery, and recovery process.  While there is much in the text that is really superfluous to the topic of embouchure injury and rehabilitation, Dill writes so well that I found myself mostly enjoying reading passages about his personal life.  It’s the discussion about his surgery and recovery process that I was most interested in, of course, and Dill didn’t disappoint there.

One thing that I would like to give Dill credit for is something that I find lacking in a lot of other resources musicians put together concerning injuries and rehabilitation, his medical disclaimer.  Early on in his book Dill writes:

I try to avoid speaking medically, as I am not a medical professional.  My curiosity has led me to speak to numerous doctors, surgeons, and physical therapists.  I believe that hurt players NEED to seek out these experts in their respective fields.  Even if you believe you are uninjured, you should leave no stone unturned in your development!

Periodically throughout his book, Dill recommends readers consult with medical professionals for medical advice.  As I mentioned above, too often in resources like this the reader is tacitly encouraged to make a self-diagnosis or trust the diagnosis of a musician without a medical background.  Dill is very clear throughout that he is unqualified to offer medical opinions and that the reader should seek professional advice.

Players coming back from even moderate injuries will find much of the advice and experience Dill recounts helpful.  Regarding returning to practicing, for example, he notes how easy it is for experienced players to fall into a trap of expecting too much too soon.

The first mistake I made in my rehabilitation was treating myself as a beginner.  Rehabilitating is not the same as first learning to play the trumpet.  Actually, in many ways, a player in post-surgical rehabilitation is worse off than a beginner.  A beginner has very limited expectations and a very shallow understanding of how best to profess.  I have found that rehabilitating professionals have to overcome their pride and their impatience as much as their physical troubles.

I found Dill’s advice on how to practice without actually playing to be insightful enough that even non-injured players can benefit from this approach.  Using a diagram where posture, breathing, and tonguing make up the base of a technique pyramid, Dill demonstrates how an injured brass player can practice elements of technique without even needing to buzz their lips.  His advice on how to return to buzzing is similar to some of the suggestions I’ve picked up through lessons with Doug Elliott and the writings of Donald Reinhardt regarding embouchure changes, such as focusing the effort on the mouth corners, not worrying at first about the tone quality and playing softly at first.  Dill also emphasizes connecting the registers from high down to low, which is good advice for almost all players.

Dill’s advice is not just mechanical, but also useful for the psychological issues injured players will deal with during a long recovery.  I found the following passage particularly insightful and, again, good advice even for uninjured players.

The best thing a recovering player can do is fail in public – stand on stage and just fold.  It really is an empowering experience.  You are forced to admit that other aspects of life are important.  You stare your demons in the face, kiss them on the mouth and live to tell about it.  It isn’t so bad.  Sure, no one wants to play poorly, but what happens is that you learn to offer up your best and to forget the rest.

If you’re a player who has injured your lip, are going through a recovery, or otherwise suffering from some embouchure dysfunction, you’ll find Still Playing to be a useful and inspiring read.  If you’re like me, simply interested in brass embouchures and the issues that some players go through, Dill’s book is a fascinating read and even includes some gems that will apply to all players.  You can purchase it or learn more about Dill on his web site.

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