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19. I have a son/daughter/friend/student who wants to pierce his tongue. What can I tell him?

The world is a changing place and you never know what will come across your plate. Recently, a student asked what I thought about having his tongue - yes, his tongue - pierced with a metal rod. I gave him some things to think about which I include below which may be helpful should you or someone you know either be thinking about doing such a thing or know someone who has already done so.

It is self-evident that there are obvious physical problems which can occur from tongue piercing. Let's stop there for a minute. My wife is a nurse and I have daughters who know people who have pierced tongues (they don't). The stud that goes through the tongue is positioned at a particular place where, allegedly, the tongue has fewer nerve endings. If the person doing the piercing gets it "right" the pain and discomfort is not unbearable - if they miss the "spot" the pain is excruciating. In any case, there is significant swelling of the tongue from the injury and, despite the fact that the pin and balls (on top and bottom of the tongue) are made of surgical steel, the risk of infection is high. Dentists now are reporting a high incidence of chipped teeth and damaged teeth enamel as a result of tongue piercing.

The physical ailments and risks of tongue piercing are greater than those of ear piercing (how many people have had infected ear lobes - answer: many). Despite the fact that the mouth is the fastest healing part of our body, the size of the hole required for the post is significantly larger than for an ear pierce and the tongue post is under constant irritation. Every time you eat, swallow, talk or articulate a note on your horn you are moving the post. It does not get "forgotten" like a pierced ear is - it is always with you.

As to tonguing on the trombone, it is true that the post and balls are not at the "tip" of the tongue. But if you are going to have the full palate of articulative syllables (including toh, tah, tee as well as doh, dah, dee and noh, nah, nee) you will have the ball encounter the roof of your mouth frequently. Remember, too, that the post and balls have weight - it doesn't SEEM like much but it IS significant.

These are all important considerations, but I think there is something that is far more important.

What I do not often hear discussed is the answer to the question WHY.

WHY do people pierce their tongue?

I think it's safe to assume that piercing your tongue is not going to provide any BENEFIT to your trombone playing. At best, a pierced tongue will have a neutral impact on playing, at worst it will have a ruinous effect. But I have not heard anyone suggest that it improves your playing.

I understand the desire to be "different," to buck the crowd, to "up the establishment," to shock your family and friends, to be cool and "in." For years, people have grown their hair long, or short, or painted their fingernails black, or worn bell-bottoms, or tie-died their shirts. All part of the growing up scene for each generation. But then lines get crossed. Some decide they'll smoke dope. Others will smoke 3 packs a day of cigarettes, others will get plowed every Friday night on Budweiser. All of which have a deliterious effect on ones body in the short and long term. Tongue piercing (self-mutilation) is part of the new "different" ethos. It is a step beyond black fingernails or long hair. It is a permanent disfiguration of the body.

Now, this is a PERSONAL choice. It effects only YOU. Unlike driving drunk or stoned, you will not harm someone else with a pierced tongue. But the question that rarely gets answered is WHY? When you are 20, it's hard to imagine being 40. But we need to look ahead and understand that our actions today DO have consequences tomorrow.

"Because I want to" is not a "reason" to so something, especially something that has the potential to have lasting negative consequences.

I had long hair when I was in my late teens and 20's - it went past my shoulder (you can see a photo of me with this hair in the booklet to my solo CD Take 1. It was an act of rebellion against my father who made me, when I was living at home, get a haircut every month. When I went to college, I let it grow, and grow, and grow. And while I washed it every day and kept it clean, I was happy to be "bucking the establishment." Of course, when I was trying to be "in" I was really "out." My desire to be non-conformist had made me conformist (a fact lost on most people who jump on bandwagons...). One day, I woke up, looked in the mirror and said, "You look stupid." So I got it cut. And that was it. My act of rebellion had no permanent or temporary physical consequences. No changes to my person took place (changes to persona are a different thing). Tongue piercing is not like this. It is permanent (yes, if you take it out, your tongue heals, but it is never the same. AND it has immediate, temporal consequences as well.

Let me conclude with this final bit.

If you are trying to succeed at the highest level of ANYTHING - if that is truly your aspiration - then you understand that you are in for a life of discipline, sacrifice and self-control.

Discipline, sacrifice and self-control

These are not popular words, but that is the truth. I have spoken about this extensively on my web site FAQ Number 1, the subject being "How good is good enough?" Playing your instrument GREAT may mean you don't do everything everyone else is doing. It may mean you can't eat that spicy meal the night before a concert, it may mean you don't drink that hot drink before a rehearsal since you might burn your lip, it might mean you wear a scarf around your face when it's cold while your friends call you a dork, it might mean you get a little extra sleep the night before an audition when others go out to the movies, it might mean you buy one less six-pack so you can afford that Mozart Requiem score. Discipline, sacrifice and self-control.

Yeah, if you're going to be great at something, you get there by being a dork. Michael Jordan didn't get to be the greatest backetball player of all time by just hanging around the 'hood with the brothers. No, he busted his butt on the court - and lots of time when nobody was looking. Of course, NOW we see that it looks so easy, but it wasn't always so. And the same is true for anyone who does ANYTHING well. Behind the "easy" exterior of excellence were years and years of hard work, slaving away, suffering, sacrifice and discipline.

Final question: If I want to be the BEST at what I do, would I do ANYTHING that might possibly, even in the smallest way, interfere with that?

How does tongue piercing fit into the answer to that question?

YOU have to decide whether you want to have that life of discipline, sacrifice and self-control. If you don't, that's fine. If you do, that's fine. But it's all about goals and how you get there. Don't point to the exceptions - look at those that prove the rule.

Let me close with a quotation by my teacher Edward Kleinhammer, from our new book Mastering the Trombone. Ed Kleinhammer is arguably one of the finest trombonists our time has known, playing in the Chicago Symphony for 45 years. In his preface to our book, he wrote:

"World class trombonists do not just happen. Their talents are forged in the dual furnaces of determination and diligence."





And when you get there, when you reach the top after all that time of sacrifice and hard work, you look back and say, "Ahh, it wasn't so bad. Look what I GOT!"

A pierced tongue is more than a physical change to your body. It represents an attitude, a way of thinking. If you want one, do it. And when you win a job in a top orchestra or top-flight jazz band, if you begin making your living daily at the highest level of music making, then drop me a note and say, "In your face, Yeo - I told you so!" You can write the article in the International Trombone Association Journal which tells the world how having your tongue pierced was the reason why you succeeded.

But you first have to answer the question WHY with a good, HARD look in the mirror and a level of honesty you may have never had before.

For me, I'll put food and my toothbrush (and sometimes my foot) in my mouth. That's it. And I'll keep working so I can single tongue Scheherazade and Finlandia, and I'll still use my varied tonguing syllables so I can give a conductor anything he wants. And I'll keep experimenting with how to become a better and better player. But you won't find me putting more holes in my head.

I have enough.

And have said enough, too.

Tongue and blow, kid, as former Boston Symphony Orchestra bass trombonist John Coffey used to say. He didn't have a pierced tongue, either.

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