I have a secret.

Well, it’s a secret to most people.
Maybe you know this secret, or maybe you don’t.

I used to be ashamed of it.
I used to be afraid you’d find out.

I didn’t tell anybody about it for a long time.
But eventually, I found some people who I could confide in.
I trusted their discretion, and I was grateful for their advice.

As time went on, I learned there’s a good chance I’d have this forever.

A pug laying on his left side against a white bathub with his tongue out. Under him is a blue, beige, and brown rug on top of beige and brown tile. There's a small what trash can on its side by the pug's feet. The pug is faun.

I’m talking about the Valsalva Maneuver.

“Oh no, the Valslva Maneuver!” some of you exclaim.
“What is the Valsalva Manuever?” others ask.

The above link goes into much greater detail, but in a nutshell, here’s what happens.

I pick up a brass instrument. I take a breath. And when I’m ready to play a note, my body “locks up.” No air can reach my lips to produce a sound, even though that’s the exact opposite of what I want to happen.

Eventually, I do start playing. Sometimes, it takes a split-second. Sometimes, it takes more than a few seconds.

The Valsalva Manuever doesn’t happen to me when I play in an orchestra. It has only occurred in the absence of a conductor, a metronome, or other instrumentalists.

For example, taking an audition.

It’s completely psychological. It’s a “Fight or Flight” response to fears I’ve developed over time.

“What fears?”

The fear of not playing perfectly.
The fear of how the listener judges my playing.
The fear of not being “good enough”.
And eventually, the fear of the Valsalva Maneuver kicking in.

It’s a vicious cycle.

“Where is he going with all this?”

      Stigma.

My motivation to write this article isn’t to address the Valsalva Maneuver.
I simply wanted to give a brief–but sincere–account from my life that sends empathy out into the blogosphere.

No one is alone.

Given how many readers seem to be brass and woodwind musicians, I wanted to reach out and say that if you deal with the stigma I’ve described…you are not alone.

I’ve decided to embrace this vulnerability.

I’ve been grappling with this for over ten years now, and only just recently did I realize something. The Valsalva Maneuver has been absent in situations in which I genuinely don’t care about how “good” the listeners think I am.

This was a moment of clarity.

In order to give an unaccompanied solo performance in which I don’t hesitate before the first note, I commit to giving an unaccompanied solo performance in which I might hesitate before the first note.

Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.
-Dr. Seuss

Whatever our stigmas,
Whatever we do with our lives,
I hope we both have strength in our convictions,
the persistence to make thoughtful choices,
and the curiosity to see where these choices take us.

About Doug Rosenthal

No one told Douglas Rosenthal to give up playing music. Not even his patient siblings, who endured many early-morning practice sessions; even they encouraged their brother to follow his passion. As the years passed, that passion evolved from simply playing music to advocating for music, musicians, and music-lovers. Douglas is based in Washington, DC. He is the Assistant Principal Trombonist of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra/Washington National Opera Orchestra. He currently makes his home on Capitol Hill in DC with a pug named Jake, who serves as a constant reminder to relax, eat well, and sleep plentifully.

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