From rude health downwards
I’m on tour with the Philharmonia Orchestra as guest Principal horn. This is a wonderful thing to be doing but, unfortunately, I have been struck down by illness. The tour started in London with rehearsals at the Royal Festival Hall for Wagner’s opera, Tristan and Isolde, and for three other concert programs. We then travelled to Lucerne and gave three concerts there.
In the four days we spent in that beautiful Swiss city I made good use of my plentiful spare hours, practicing my horn in the wonderful backstage facilities of the KKL concert hall and jogging around the beautiful lake and up and down verdant hills. I was a smug but short-lived picture of rude alpine health and vitality.
Next, we all took a train ride to Milan, during which time I noticed the sudden appearance of a sore throat which seemed already to be moving downwards towards my chest. This struck me as curious because usually it takes much longer for bugs to get themselves installed down there, if that’s where they’re heading. The next day I woke up feeling pretty ill, hints of a high temperature, partial deafness, generally weakness and uncontrollable coughing. By the evening concert I needed Paracetemol and decongestant to get me through Night On a Bare Mountain, The Miraculous Mandarin and Symphonie Fantastique.
From alveoli to ravioli
The following day I was woken up by extremely painful coughing and a severe headache with fever, weakness and partial deafness – so by now it was a full blown chest infection. We left the hotel by coach, heading for Turin and I asked the Philharmonia’s management if they could arrange for me to see a doctor when we arrived. Eventually, we checked into the hotel in Turin and a doctor duly appeared in my room. He stuck a stick down my throat, took my pulse, listened to my chest with his stethoscope and tapped my ribs here and there. He also made me say “trenta-tre” seven times while he listened to the lack of resonance in my chest using the palm of one hand …or maybe this was a way of simultaneously calculating his fee and demanding payment. He concluded by somberly pronouncing that I was in a very bad way and that my lungs were “chiuso!” – closed. Yes, that summed up exactly how it felt. My lungs were trying to shut down under the stress of being eaten alive by aliens. Great – who needs lungs, or even ears, to play the horn?
And how remarkable and mysterious to go from no symptoms to a multi-media chest infection in less than two days!
Le Sacre du Cortisone
The doctor started me on antibiotics and dosed me with a hit of cortisone – apparently a steroid. This drug had the amazing effect of switching off the illness (although it did not unmute my ears) for just long enough to get me through Le Sacre du Printemps that evening.
I have to say that however dangerous and harmful cortisone must be (for it to work THAT well) it was jolly well worth the risk. That Rite of Spring, the only time it got played on the tour, was incandescently fabulous. Esa-Pekka Salonen could not have done a better job and the orchestra were just miraculously great. It drove our Italian audience into a wild frenzy of unstoppable applause and roaring.
Travel day from hell
That concert in Turin finished at 23:15, which is late even by Italian standards. In keeping with Philharmonia tradition, rather than waste any time sleeping we left the hotel by bus at 05:30 for a two hour drive to Milan Airport. From there we flew to Dormund and then had another coach journey before arriving at our hotel. It was during this final stretch when the bus broke down that I did more or less the same myself. My resolve to fight the illness and continue playing each night shattered and I found myself asking the management if they could manage without me for that evening’s concert. Thankfully, they were extremely kind and accommodating and I was granted leave to go to bed and froth and cough myself half to death in privacy.
There is an explanation for most things and I enjoyed a small “eureka” moment when I realized what had been the cause of my meteoric decline. A colony of lung-eating monsters had taken up residence inside my horn! What is worse is that this was my own fault. I had put the little villains there myself and, six months later, I had invited them back into my chest for a return holiday visit of feasting and multiplying.
The clue here was in the exact match of symptoms to those of my previous chest infection last spring. There was no mistaking the specific awfulness of the sound of my hornplaying! Whatever those little devils did to my ears made ME sound AWFUL to ME. It made me hear my hornplaying sound at best muted (with no mute in) and at worst like a wasp playing a kazoo. Also, I found it impossible to gauge how loudly or quietly I was playing.
The hoards of tiny monsters had been reluctant to leave me six months ago and so I’d resorted to antibiotics as prescribed by my doctor. The first course had almost worked but it all came back again as soon as I finished so I had to have another, different course. This time the monsters were all killed, BUT only those in my chest. The ones I’d blown into my horn were still in there, alive and kicking …and waiting. This fabulously clever theory explains perfectly how the infection had come upon me so fast. The mob of hungry bugs already knew what to do when they got in there, and I had given them all free passes, cutlery and plates.
Dowsing for spit
Now, I have some explaining to do about how I brought the naughty bacteria back into my lungs for their return visit.
I have two horns which I use for most of my modern hornplaying work. They were both made by Engelbert Schmid and are both very fine horns indeed. I have only ever had one complaint about both of these horns – it is that the drains don’t work.
Horns fill up with water. It’s the same as a warm kitchen on a cold day. The warm moist air inside forms condensation on the cold inner surface of the windows which runs down to the sill below where it starts to rot the woodwork. In horns the condensation runs down the inside of the tubing and pools in the lowest parts of the hoops and loops, and when there’s enough of it you get a bubbling, crackling sound when you play anything. It’s most unmusical and very annoying. As in kitchens, it’s worse in cold weather and it makes the horn not an ideal choice for playing outside.
There’s something about the design of both of these horns which makes it very difficult to get the water out. One of them (a full triple horn in F, Bb and Eb) even has four water keys. Yes, FOUR, and I still can’t empty it! I swear some of it has been in there for years. During concerts when I get the dreaded crackling sound and start frantically tipping my horn this way and that to remove the water – which is pretty much all the time – it drives me utterly nuts. I can usually get about half of it out but never more than that. I seem to spend my entire hornplaying life frantically searching for water. Unlike the Mars Observer, though, I KNOW it’s in there.
One of these days I’m going to lose my temper with one of my Schmids and hurl it at a wall or a conductor. I never had any such problems when I played an Alex 103.
I totally suck
Sometimes, in desperation, or when I think I know the water is in a particular place and needs to be moved backwards a little to get it around a corner and nearer to a water key, I suck. Yes, I will admit to the fact that I align the horn so it’s mostly horizontal and give a good hard suck. So, that’s a disgusting foul wind, laden with bacteria and rotting carrion, being injected deep into my lungs. Now that I think about it, it’s really disgusting.
There’s something else, too: sometimes I like to play notes by inhaling through the horn instead of blowing. These sound almost exactly the same as normal notes. I do it sometimes as a kind of party trick and at other times to confuse my students EVEN MORE about breathing techniques. But this is a much slower flow of air than in my water-shunting maneuver so is probably not quite as dangerous ….but it’s still disgusting.
Either way, I’m now faced with the possibility that this could even be my third visitation by the same lucky troupe of carnivorous gremlins. I had a previous chest infection about 18 months ago which I picked up in India…
Before I think about sucking air backwards through my horn again I’m going to make sure there’s not one critter left alive in left there. I’m going to have my horns irradiated by British Nuclear Fuels. Then I’m going to pour gallons of bacteriacide through them both. Then, to make absolutely sure nothing could possibly still be alive in there, I’m going to play a load of music by Sir Harrison Birtwistle.
Sep 18, 2010 | Categories: hornplaying | Tags: antibiotics, bacteria, chest infection, condensation, coughing, deafness, Esa-Pekka Salonen, hygeine, Le Sacre du Printemps, Lucerne, Milan, Philharmonia, Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, Schmid, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Stravinsky, triple horn, Tristan and Isolde, Turin, Wagner, water-key | Comments Off on Infection and sickness, the horn, its drains, sanitation and bacteria