He remembers the moment it happened. He was playing horn in the Camerata Orchestra. It was during the final movement of Third Symphony by Aaron Copland.
"At the end of the piece, he inserted the Fanfare For The Common Man at the end of the last movement, only it's a half-step higher than when you just play it as the Fanfare," he says.Â "So, we were just having at it and I felt this thing happen, and it was kind of terrifying actually."
He immediately stopped playing because he knew something was terribly wrong. It was his lip.
This wasn't Richard Seraphinoff's first experience with lip pain. Not too long before that concert, he got hit in the face while he was playing his horn.Â "Basically my upper lip was trapped between the mouthpiece and my teeth, between a rock and a hard place, so to speak. And that means that the injury was described as a crush injury," he says.
Despite some pain, he kept playing per usual.Â "As a brass player, you think âI should be able to get out of this. I should be able to somehow practice my way out of it or fix it somehow.'"
What happened during that orchestra performance is the crushed muscle in his upper lip finally tore,Â "and then I was essentially out of business."
Tales of injury can reach legendary status amongst musicians at Indiana University. Take the story of David Baker,Â Distinguished Professor of Music at Indiana University.
"I've know that story since coming here in 1981 as director of bands," saysÂ Janis Stockhouse, director of bands at Bloomington High School North. She's a Jacobs School of Music graduate, and she plays trumpet. She had known David Baker as a great jazz cellist.Â "And then someone would lean over and say, âYou do know he was an even greater jazz trombone player in the 1950s,' and I was like, âWhat?' âWell, you know the story.' So, everybody knows the story."
And I can remember the day that I won the New Star Award on trombone in Down Beat was also the day that I found out I was going to have to quit playing.
David Baker was in the passenger seat of a car, driving home from a performance in 1953.Â "I'm not sure whether a tractor hit us or another car hit the car, threw me â I don't know â some 25 feet out the front window, through the front window," he told an interviewer, as part of the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program.
He was badly hurt, and he spent much of that summer in the hospital. After a while, he went back to playing his trombone. He thought everything was healed.
"But toward the end of 1960, I started having trouble with speech, trouble with trying to play the horn. On examination by the doctors, they found out what had happened is that I had been playing on a dislocated jaw for almost seven years," he says.
He underwent several procedures to try to fix his jaw, but nothing worked. "And I can remember the day that I won the New Star Award on trombone in Down Beat was also the day that I found out I was going to have to quit playing."
So, he started looking for another instrument to play. He tried piano not for him. Bass wasn't challenging enough (as the story goes). Then he picked up the cello, and the rest is history.
Seraphinoff's story isn't nearly as well-known as that.
He didn't talk about this injury with anyone at first. He was a professor of horn at the Jacobs School of Music, after all, a job that required him to play his instrument in lessons, in faculty recitals and sometimes in orchestras. He wasn't able to do much of that anymore, so would his job be at risk? That fear kept him from speaking publicly about his experience until this interview.
The upshot is my playing has come to a certain level where I can play actually for a few seconds at a time without pain, until it starts, and that means that in lessons I can sort of play a little bit and sort of sound like me.
He eventually told his students so they would understand why he doesn't play much in their lessons. As word started to leak out, Seraphinoff noticed other students were showing up at his office to talk about their experiences with pain. Suddenly, he had become this unique resource to them.
"Somebody will knock on my door and say, âHey, I've been rehearsing with orchestra, band, brass choir, my brass quintet,' and I'll say, âWait a second wait a second, how many hours are you playing?'"
It's not just collisions brass players have to worry about. Problems can also develop if you play too much.
"We'll talk about what they're feeling. If it's the sort of muscle pain above the upper lip, which is a good indication of an overuse injury. Then the first thing it rest," he says.
Which is exactly what he did not do immediately following his injury. Would the muscle have healed itself if he had taken time off? Who knows. Over the years, he's had three medical procedures to try to repair his lip, but none of them worked like he'd hoped.
"When you play the horn, your lips hit together at high speed, and the nature of the soft tissue that I lost makes that painful," he says. "The upshot is my playing has come to a certain level where I can play actually for a few seconds at a time without pain, until it starts, and that means that in lessons I can sort of play a little bit and sort of sound like me."
He does still play in orchestras sometimes, when an easy low-horn part for, say, a Haydn Symphony comes along. But most of his music-making these days is on another instrument the flute.Â "This is something I do nowadays as music that doesn't hurt," he says.
While he's not playing the horn as much as he used to, his life is still deeply entrenched in the instrument. He's been making historical reproductions of horns for over three decades. That part of his career takes him all over the world. He's writing a couple books.Â And, there's no doubt that he is a valuable member of the brass faculty at the Jacobs School of Music.
In fact, he says this experience has made him a better teacher.Â "I've learned actually that the muscles of the face are really important, but they're not as important as the air that you use in your instrument, and really it's changed my focus a lot in how I think a brass instrument runs," he says.
Seraphinoff seems content with him musical career, but he hasn't given up hope that maybe someday he will be able to play horn to his full ability again.
"I think that all along I have had this thought that, âOh, maybe somebody will come up with something.'"