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You have glaucoma in your left eye.

A few months ago I had a routine eye test at our local opticians in Tetbury, part of which was the normal visual field test. I stared into the eyepiece, waiting for the machine to whirr and flash a series of tiny pinpricks of light, to which I would respond by clicking a button whenever they appeared. All-so-normal, until it seemed my left eye wasn’t quite so good at noticing the dots. This was unexpected, and very different from just 12 months earlier, so the optician asked me to repeat the tests. The results were the same.

I can still sense the whirring of the machine as it flashes lights that I ought to be able to see. There’s a rhythm to it that I can recognise. With my right eye there’s a regularity to the button clicks as the lights register in my brain. For my left eye there are gaping silences where clicks should be. I’m staring, squinting, aching to see something that means I can click. I’m tempted to cheat. The test takes longer as the machine gives me more chances, makes the lights brighter, trying to understand what’s there and what’s not there for me. And while I know it’s only minutes it feels much longer. I sense the nurse knows what the silences mean: this isn’t normal.

Visual Field Tests Glaucoma

This isn’t mine… but it’s sort of similar

 

And so last week, after further tests, a precautionary MRI scan and a couple of months of eye drops, I sat with the consultant as he confirmed the inevitable, and talked about my glaucoma.

There are fairly significant differences in the visual field tests in your left eye, notable damage to and thinning of the optic nerve…

…but your IOP (intra-ocular pressure) is normal, much lower than often is the case with glaucoma…

…you’re really quite a lot younger than the typical progression, a bit of an outlier on that graph…

…nothing on the MRI scan, so we can definitely rule out anything like a tumour pressing on the nerve…

…there’s no increase in your pressures since taking the drops, no real progression since the last tests (3 months ago), so that’s pleasing…

…you probably won’t notice anything different, until you do bump into something (joke)…

…playing a wind instrument like an oboe or French Horn can cause spikes in IOP, although I’m loathed to tell someone who loves playing music to stop…

So the long and the short of it is that I’m now taking daily eye drops (painless, no hassle at all), and will have repeated tests every 6 months. And that’s it.

Except…

The following day, at my regular orchestra rehearsal, I was acutely conscious of sensations of ‘pressure’ when playing, especially loud and high notes. We’re playing Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, which has plenty of loud and plenty of high, especially for 1st/3rd horn. In fact there’s mostly a lot of notes that are both loud and high, in rapid succession, in violently percussive chords and fanfares. In exercise terms it’s high impact, like running up and down stairs. I could feel the impact inside my head, around my eyes, behind my eyes, in ways I’ve never actively noticed before. And all the time I was thinking

Should I be doing this? Am I risking my sight?

There were moments when I wanted to play quieter, or stop. There were moments when I didn’t want to play my Horn any more, at all, ever again.

Apparently the mean time for progression from early diagnosis to loss of vision is more than 20 years: for normal tension glaucoma and for younger (under 60) patients it’s even slower than that. So I’m probably being over-sensitive. But if the visual field loss starts in my right eye, I’ll have to tell the DVLA. And then I’ll have to be reassessed for driving.

So.

I’ll take the drops every morning, and play 4th horn instead.

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As I mentioned a while ago, I play French Horn in the Stroud Symphony Orchestra, a happy group of amateur musicians who rehearse weekly and play 3 concerts a year. The immediate aftermath of our most recent concert, last weekend, prompted (almost compelled) me to write this post. The experience was almost overwhelming. We played Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with a terrific young soloist, Emil Huckle-Gleve, whose confidence and fearlessness was astonishing to behold. We then tackled the majestic 5th Symphony of Jean Sibelius. This is one of the pieces I have longed to play since I was a teenager…

In many ways I owe a lot to my school music teacher, John Willson. When I was 12, he suggested to my parents that “Christopher seems to be interested in music, and has some aptitude, perhaps he would like to learn an instrument…”. Indeed, he indicated he had a ‘spare’ French Horn that I could ‘try, if I liked…’. So began my musical ‘career’, in which I’ve regularly played as part of an orchestra for most of the last 25 years.I met my wife in the Exeter University Symphony Orchestra, and have lifelong friends from that same unruly mob of students!

I achieved Grade 7 in my late teens, but finished school too late to ever try for Grade 8. I haven’t had any lessons since leaving school, and am well aware of my technical limitations. I can get by in most amateur orchestras, and often relish the challenge of more demanding parts, as they force me to practise more regularly and indeed ‘properly’. Strangely, practising tends to make me a better player…

Playing in an orchestra is an immense privilege. I love playing the French Horn, and genuinely wouldn’t want to play anything else. It’s uplifting and moving in so many ways, the collective playing experience, the mutual respect for the talents of others, the relationships within a section, between sections, and between players and orchestra. Perhaps most of all, I can have strong physical and emotional reactions to music, especially when I’m helping to create the soundscape and it is developing around me.

I’m biased towards the ‘bigger’ orchestral pieces. There’s not a lot like a meaty symphony to stimulate body, mind and soul. I love the complexities, the layers of orchestration, the shifting harmonies and melodic invention.

I love the thrill as the brass really go for it and belt out a chorale or fanfare, like this one: 20 (unamplified) musicians filling The Royal Albert Hall. Forget Phil Spector’s produced ‘wall of sound‘, this is the real thing.

Some composers write cracking symphonies for huge orchestral forces, which can be exhausting and exhilirating to play. While it’s by no means my favourite piece, I was left literally breathless at the end of Mahler’s First Symphony. More than an hour long, it’s intensely demanding for every section of the orchestra. It ends in typically bombastic fashion, with tunes bouncing around all over the orchestra. Every instrument is playing hell-for-leather, everyone is exhausted, lips are at melting point, fingers and wrists aching, lungs burning. And then in an act of lunatic stagecraft, the composer notes in the score that the Horns should stand up, so as to rise above the rest of music. It’s adrenaline-pumping like few things I’ve experienced.

(this is quite a long clip which I really recommend for the full experience, but the climax kicks in at around 10 mins…)

It’s not all ear-bursting stuff though. This is another reason I love playing the Horn. I’ve never played this one outside of my own practice room though…

And then there are the parts I’ll probably never play, mostly because I don’t have the time for lessons, reconstructing my technique, the required hours of practice, or indeed the natural ability. But I can still bask in the amazing glow that such music offers me.

To aficionados out there, I realise I’ve selected a very partial set of clips and excerpts here that don’t even do justice to my full experience of playing music in an orchestra. They’re the ones that come to my mind. I would love to get other suggestions and recommendations. Thanks.

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I started playing the French Horn when I was 13. I recall my parents coming back from a meeting with the music teacher, with his request / recommendation that I might like to start having lessons, and as luck would have it(!), the school had just come upon a cheap second-hand horn I could use while I decided if I liked it. And there was soon to be a vacancy in the school orchestra.

Apparently I did like it, as I’m still playing in amateur orchestras and groups today. I also ‘self-taught’ myself to play saxophone, and played for a few years in a Big Band at university. My wife has played piano since she was 8, and oboe since she was 12. She took a music degree and we both played together in the Exeter University Symphony Orchestra.

So it’s not that surprising that we’re keen for our daughters to enjoy music, and ideally play an instrument. But which one? We’ve got our own preferences and prejudices, but recently chanced upon what might be a valuable book to help us…

The right instrument for your child was first published by Atarah Ben-Tovim and Douglas Boyd in 1985, and has now reached its 4th edition. It recommends a fairly rigorous (although I’ll stop well short of suggesting it’s scientific) approach to assessing your child, their physical attributes, mental characteristics and other things, alongside the different instruments. So far, so-so. Why not? There’s probably something in it.

Naturally, we started off by having a look at what the authors have to say about our own chosen instruments. Forgive me for reprinting extensive segments of their work, but I want to make it clear that these are entirely their ideas.

Oboe

In the hands of an outstanding professional musician… the oboe can sound exquisite. Played by most children who are learning, the sound is unpleasant and rasping…

The most important physical requirement is the shape of the lips: they must be thin and tight… The aperture between the two pieces of reed is so tight that the player has to force the breath through. Children may experience headaches from the back-pressure  which this causes, even in a healthy teenager.

Not an instrument for frail children… it must not be attempted unless the child is physically fit, even athletic… The oboe should never be played or even practised by any adolescent with a head-cold, respiratory or virus infection. The inter-cranial pressure can spread the infection into the eyes and the brain causing complications and even disability…

The oboe is not for generous extroverts; determined, tight-lipped stubborn children do best… Oboists tend not to mix well… [they] make a little clan and keep to themselves.

French Horn

The French Horn is not recommended as a first instrument. It is not for fun…

Thin to medium lips are called for by the mouthpiece. The small bore through which the air has to be directed produces back-pressure which can cause dizziness and headaches even in quite mature learners…

You can never relax playing the French horn; each note must be achieved; there is no letting up…

French horn children are not gregarious… The horn-players in an orchestra or concert band make a definite clique and do not mix much even with the other members of the brass section…

The playing position seems to suit, and even comfort, children who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they do not get enough attention at home or at school… With excellent justification, they feel special about playing the horn, for only a very unusual child can.

Well, I can’t keep a straight face while I’m reading that. Irrespective of whether the descriptions reflect Rachel or myself, I find it almost impossible to believe that anyone could write or read this and take it seriously.  Playing the oboe seems life-threatening, and apparently both horn-players and oboists are borderline sociopaths.

Why would any parent suggest these instruments to their children after reading this book? It’s the musical equivalent of Gina Ford and her infamous parenting manuals. While I’m sure some people do benefit from such prescriptive methods, to me it smacks at least slightly of lunacy to tick boxes about your child and to categorise musicians based on the instrument they play.

If any other players are keen to know what this fount of knowledge has to say about them, do let me know…!

 

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