One Day at a Time

Member to Member

Volume CI, No. 10October, 2001

Steve Knight

Friends have often advised me to appreciate the fact that music-making is something you can do all your life, even into advanced age. Look at Vladimir Horowitz, they say. Look at all the musicians who kept it up into their 80s and 90s! Never mind that they may not put it out there with all the power they had in their youth; they were able to hang on to something of special value to them, to the end.

I’ve been making music of various kinds for all but the first five of my 66 years, as an amateur and as a professional, and I’ve found comfort in the idea that, no matter what else happens, I’ll be able to go on making music until my end.

So when I came back to my home town and semi-retirement (I’ve been elected to the Town Council), I was looking forward to concentrating on one of the many instruments with which I’ve worked. I’ve played keyboards, fretted instruments, bass and trombone, but I’ve been wanting to settle down and become really excellent on one instrument: the tuba. I’ve actually played Eb tuba on and off for years, but I wanted a long-pants Bb, and a particular one – a Conn 20J. After years of wishing I finally got it together to get a used one that has the voice of God.

I have a knack for picking up an instrument and getting the hang of it in short order, and the time I put into mastering my 20J should have put me in gigging condition. But in a very strange and unfamiliar way, this time my practice wasn’t paying off. I could get around in the upper register all right and the bottom of the horn was manageable, too, but right in the vital belly of the range – between Bb and F, the second and third harmonics – I couldn’t make a clear tone. No matter what I did, just in that fifth of space my notes would wobble and break up. I tried long-tone mouthpiece warm-ups. I called up every tuba player I knew, plus some I didn’t know, and picked their brains. I went to a famous teacher. Nobody knew what to make of my problem.

I’m pretty good about taking care of my health, and I’ve lucked out in having a doctor here who’s an ace diagnostician. I went for a checkup and told him about my bizarre lip problem. He asked me a bunch of questions, looked at me sideways, and suggested we try beta-blockers first. When that was no help, he referred me to a neurologist. He wouldn’t say what he was thinking.

It took the neurologist one minute flat: “You have Parkinson’s Disease,” he said.

That was two and a half years ago. Since then I’ve gotten to know all about an aspect of “Michael J. Fox Disease” called bradykinesia – like a brake restraining my movements, like struggling through invisible mud. I’ve also gotten to know a surprising number of fellow PD sufferers. (Support groups can be very helpful. You can find one or start one, as I did.)

So far I’ve been lucky that my Parkinson’s has advanced very little, and I have medications that are quite effective at keeping the monster at bay. If I time my dosages with great care, I’m still functional on bass with a band that’s been important in my life for 26 years, and I can handle some local performances on guitar where I can tailor my part to what my hands will do. But the timing is everything. I need to know exactly when I’ll be on, and much delay can mean disaster.

I’m sure there are many players out there with stories like mine, and worse – musical artists whose lunch is getting swiped by arthritis, or physical trauma, or maybe even M.S. They can be glad if they’ve made the most of each day along the way, and if they’ve racked up pension and Social Security credits – not to mention an IRA.

One of the supreme pleasures of my life has been the magic of live performance with good players, the kind for whom the music plays itself. I count my blessings, and I’ve always been grateful for whatever I can do whenever I can do it, one day at a time. Now that goes triple.

When I’ve got my mojo working, on a good day I can still put something of particular value into the mix. But I know that if I live long enough, my musical output – if any – may become limited to what I can assemble bit by bit on a computer for playback. You know, even that might not be so bad. I’d like to think it could be a little like sex: when it’s good, it’s terrific; when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

P. S. Who wants to buy a Conn 20J with the voice of God?