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Blowing My Own Horn

        Me and middle school band director, not my prom date. 1994

Although I’m an intense music lover, I never even thought about the possibility of playing in a school band. But when you hear a top ranked group of 8th graders play “Louie, Louie” with precision and power, something deep and primal within you stirs. Especially when you could be a part of it in the near future.

I signed up for band for the next year when I would be in 6th grade, in a new school. I barely knew anything about reading music, never even known anyone who played an instrument or touched one myself. The first week, we had to decide on an instrument. I hadn’t thought about that, either, but we discovered my mouth shape worked best for trombone…an instrument that was as tall as I was, and with the case probably weighed half as much as I did.

My CF related problems until that time were primarily GI issues including the discovery of liver disease, which was top priority. My lungs were still somehow basically unscathed by CF, so having the lung power to play an instrument of that size didn’t cross my mind, but I think others worried about it initially. When I first tried playing, I thought it sounded okay. Maybe not as loud as the others, but hey, I was smaller than they were, right? I took my trombone home for the first time and tried to practice in front of my parents. I did what I knew, but playing solo I heard how weak I really sounded compared to the others. 

A few weeks went by and we had our first test, which was playing a short solo piece in front of the class. Mrs. Brown wrote the grade in our music books. In mine, she wrote “60,” and that was probably with 20 “I don’t want to crush him too soon” points. It was the lowest grade I had ever made on anything in my life until that point. That didn’t last, however, because I managed to get a 40 on my next one. I forget how it came about, but Mrs. Brown could tell there was something untapped in me. She put me with the best trombone player in the advanced band one morning before school. Turns out, I missed the part about how to actually blow the thing and didn’t understand proper embouchure. That was an easy fix.

While I played my next test, the students turned around with open mouths and wide eyes. On “Camptown Races” I made an 80. I couldn’t believe it. I continued to improve throughout the year. At the final performance of the year, I was voted “most improved” by my peers. That small trophy means as much to me as my Masters diploma. I played throughout middle school, making advanced band, and two years in high school.

So how does this relate to CF? When all this was happening in 1993, Pulmozyme had just come on the market, and that was really the only treatment that was specifically designed for CF. The original “Flutter” had just come out a few years before, as well as the Vest which was not widely used like it is now. Playing the trombone was probably the most beneficial coincidence that has ever happened.

It was a form of “PEP” therapy…positive expiratory pressure, but a more intense form of it than traditional PEP therapy devices like the Acapella. High notes, low notes, long ones and short ones, different rhythms, tempos, playing softly, loudly, crescendos, decrescendos, and proper breath control for proper musical phrasing made it  the “CrossFit” version of PEP therapy, and also made it fun. 

 This was an hour a day every day for 3 years, and then 1.5 hours for 2 years in high school. This comes to around 1080 hours of therapy, not counting practice and performance hours outside school. All this time, exercising the strength of my lungs and getting air forced behind the mucus in the tiniest parts of my lungs so that it could be coughed out. I admit, I coughed a lot during those years and raised a lot of suspicion around my health. But it was well worth it. My doctor was a huge proponent of its benefits, and even over 20 years later he still asks where my trombone is when my numbers start to slide.

If you are the parent of a CF patient, I hope you find this information useful and would perhaps discuss it with your CF center first if your child shows interest in playing a wind instrument, especially brass. It’s a great way to work in extra treatment during the day that doesn’t seem like a chore that also offers social and personal satisfaction.

**this does not constitute medical advice. Please consult your physician before playing a wind instrument.

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