Most people associate them with earthquakes; however, ten million people in the United States have tremors in their head, voice, lips and hands.
“Every time I picked up my horn and wanted to play an example [for my students], it would not come out right. Even though I had accepted the fact that it was going to shake, it was really tearing me up inside,” said Jennifer Sholtis, professor of horn at Texas A&M University-Kingsville (TAMUK).
Her high heels announce when she is about to enter a room. When she walks into class her students wonder if she is going to teach music or fashion.
“The first time I saw her I thought she was really fashionable she always wears the cutest shoes,” said Carolina Guerrero, music education major. “She always walks with a smile and says hi to everyone.”
Her smile hides the circumstances life has thrown at her.
In 2002, Sholtis was diagnosed with a neurological disorder called essential tremor. It induces involuntary shaking in her hands and head, quivering in her voice and trembling in her lips.
When she tried to play she could not control her airstream, which led her to use more pressure on her mouthpiece. The pressure she used would cause her head to shake. She was stuck in a counterproductive state.
“If I could relax my head, if I could relax my neck, then I could possibly play something, but I was really limited in my range on what I could play,” Sholtis shared.
Sholtis used to be one of the only faculty members to give a faculty recital every semester.
After 2002, Sholtis continued playing but
she noticed the quality of her performance was not the same. She was limited.
“I played last spring semester, and I was shaking all over the
place,” Sholtis said. “I was so frustrated during that whole performance because I knew that wasn’t me.”
Her tremors would keep her from playing to the best of her ability.
Eventually, about three years ago, she had to quit her symphony job as principle horn in the Laredo Philharmonic. The intense rehearsal schedule and dealing with her disability made her stress pile up.
“I would be a knot by the time I got through,” Sholtis said.
Shortly after, she quit her principle horn position she held for 15 years with the Victoria Symphony.
This past summer Sholtis attended the International Horn Society Symposium in Denton, Texas.
Little did she know, something was about to start up inside her.
“… I saw all my colleagues up there. They were the same age as me; I even went to school with some of the people. I would see them up there performing, and I did not realize it but I had been depressed,” Sholtis shared.
She thought she had accepted the position life had put her in, always having to apologize to her students for not being able to demonstrate musical examples.
When she returned from Denton, Sholtis found herself in deep sorrow and went straight to her neurologist.
“I went to him, he walked in the door, and I said, ‘I want to have the surgery,’” Sholtis said.
Her neurologist always warned not to get the deep brain stimulation surgery (DBS) due to the many side effects it may cause. Sholtis always asked for new treatments for her tremors, but none were ever developed. She took a leap of faith and decided to get the risky surgery.
However, she still needed to convince her husband that having the surgery was the right thing to do. Aware that death was one of the many negative possibilities, her husband was completely against it.
After a talk with her family at Christmas time, they all agreed to let her go through with it. Her husband was not excited, but she was happy with the decision, so he was happy for her as well.
Sholtis did not fear having a speech problem, ending up blind or dead. She was mostly concerned that the surgery would not grant her the chance to be happy doing something she loved, playing her horn once again.
“The only thought that was going through my head was, ‘This is going to be very invasive surgery. What if it doesn’t work?’” Sholtis said. “I have spent thousands of dollars of my family’s money, put them through an emotional rollercoaster and put my body through this. What if this doesn’t work?”
She had been struggling with tremors for 11 years and felt like her life was stuck in a holding pattern.
Today, three months after the surgery, she finds herself in a happier state.
However, Sholtis recommends trying non-invasive practices first.
“I would recommend for people to do the drug therapy first… don’t wait all those years that I did,” Sholtis said.
Sholtis always wanted to have a solo, orchestral and teaching career; she had it, until her tremors held her back. Now she has let go of her chains and takes big breaths of freedom, with no shakes.
“I think it’s great [that she had her surgery]. It was very brave of her to do, and it shows she is really dedicated to her students and her performance career,” said Ann Fronckowiak, assistant professor of oboe and music theory.
Sholtis is scheduled to perform in the upcoming International Horn Symposium in July. After sitting in with the audience, she now gets to perform for the audience free from limitations.
She also plans to perform on a faculty recital, faculty woodwind quintet and is going to attempt to get back into an orchestra. She plans to program a recital and visit her colleagues to assemble for an exchange recital.
“I would love to be a spokesperson for musicians who think they don’t have any hope,” Sholtis shared.
She believes musicians give up a career because of tremors and might not be aware of what is holding them back.
“There is hope,” shared Sholtis.