Professor Jason Bergman and student Neal Hillam hope that others in the brass community benefit from their experience with Hillam’s metal allergy
An observant and invested professor can change a student’s life. For trumpet performance major Neal Hillam, the mentorship of professor Jason Bergman meant the difference between thriving in the School of Music and putting aside a longtime dream — possibly forever.
It’s difficult for Hillam to pinpoint an exact moment when playing the trumpet became a physically painful experience for him.
“I’ve played the trumpet for most of my life, so I think I was just kind of used to it,” said Hillam. “I would feel this tingling or stinging when I put the metal mouthpiece up to my face, but I played through it because it always felt like that. It was really during the last two years when I started to feel serious pain, where it hurt to play or even touch my face after I’d been playing.”
By the time Bergman joined the BYU music faculty last August, Hillam was already developing compensation injuries, including muscle and nerve damage in his face.
“Imagine if you were a runner and had a sore ankle. You might run a little bit differently and consequently tweak your back, or your hip might start to hurt,” explained Bergman. “We spent our first time together trying to problem-solve the secondary issues that came from Neal compensating for that initial pain.”
With no explanation or solution for the root cause, Hillam’s future in the School of Music was in question. He finally reached a point during winter semester where he physically couldn’t continue, and Bergman told him to take a break and work on recovering while they assessed his options.
Then it hit Bergman: Hillam could have a metal allergy.
“We had a breakthrough day where it finally clicked, and we ordered a special acrylic mouthpiece,” said Bergman. “I had thought a lot about Neal and how we could solve his struggles. I had these prayers in my heart while I read various sources trying to figure out ways I could help him. Neal wouldn’t ever admit this or say it out loud, but I could tell he was about done. This knowledge about his potential allergy was a merciful blessing from God at just the right time.”
With his first glimmer of hope in two years, Hillam made the switch to an acrylic mouthpiece in Bergman’s office. The change was immediate.
“From my perspective, the difference was tremendous,” said Bergman. “Just as instantaneous as the experience Neal had when he played on the mouthpiece and a lot of that pain dissipated, I saw a change in his happiness with his connection to the trumpet. That was the first time I’d seen a smile like that on Neal’s face in a long time.”
Later in the semester, Hillam was able to play through his entire junior recital — something that seemed impossible only months before.
Though his recovery is still ongoing as he works with Bergman to heal his compensation injuries and unlearn bad habits in his technique, Hillam is grateful to be finding joy in his instrument again.
“I’m glad that this happened,” said Hillam. “You could make a strong case that there was some kind of divine intervention, in a way — I think there absolutely was. For whatever reason, it seems like the Lord wants me to play the trumpet, and He’s keeping those paths open for me. It was frustrating to know that I was not as good as I knew I could be, and now that we have this huge barrier removed, I feel like I can fix things and get back on track to playing my best.”
Hillam is also grateful for the mentorship he has found in Bergman.
“We’re very lucky to have a professor like Dr. Bergman here at the School of Music,” said Hillam. “He is world-class. He is a good enough player to be full-time in an orchestra, but he teaches because he loves it, because he cares about students and their progression on the trumpet. I’m grateful for his interest in aiding my progression in this craft.”
Both Hillam and Bergman hope their experience will help others in the brass world.
“I wouldn’t say a metal allergy is a super common issue, but it’s common enough that there are other people in the broader trumpet community who deal with this,” said Bergman. “We’re hopeful that down the road, our experience can help other people identify it better.”
“I hope that we can open people’s eyes to mental health in music as well,” added Hillam. “And the importance of taking care of yourself and not injuring yourself when you play, because that’s a real thing in the brass world; there are a lot of people who get injured, and we don’t always do a good job of addressing that and how to cope with it. But there’s absolutely hope.”