These entries are written for musicians who have faced injury. Injury not only strikes our bodies but our identities too. By sharing my story I hope that other hurt musicians will feel part of an increasingly vocal community and will be motivated to seek the tools necessary to heal and flourish again at their craft. I believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel for every musician facing injury. Yet there is no magic wand. It’s up to you to be the expert in your own recovery process.
This story is an eight year journey chronicling my personal experience as a pianist with severe injury in my hands. It begins with my life as a confident professional pianist who had the rug pulled out from under him via a debilitating injury. I suffered for many years thinking that I’d never play again, but through perseverance and the proper guidance I rebuilt my technique and am able to end the story on a positive note as I now play music I never thought possible. It’s much easier to write this from the other side of my journey. These are the words that I needed to hear when in the depths of despair and uncertainty. Perhaps you need to hear them too.
If you are an injured musician of any kind may my story be a source of hope and inspiration. I encourage dialogue about this often taboo topic so please share your stories in the comments section below.
Part 1: Exposition
There have been so many reasons why I haven’t come out about this until now. What prompted me was learning that the great Lang Lang has been cancelling his concerts for the past year because of tendonitis in his left arm. It’s my understanding that he was learning Ravel’s left hand piano concerto on a tight deadline and didn’t listen to his body when he knew he needed rest. If one of the greatest pianists of our time can be open about his injury then surely my story is long overdue. I’ve learned many beautiful and unexpected things can come out of these dark nights of the soul which I will discuss in a future entry. So thanks, Mr. Lang for sharing your experience because it has moved me to share mine.
Back in the Fall of 2010 in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada I was finally ready to leave the security of my masters of music program and be a career musician in the real world. Although I had just completed a degree in conducting, my heart belonged to the piano. I had studied performance in my undergraduate days and had done a lot of outside accompanying during my masters program. I decided that I would start out as a collaborative pianist, a pianist who, as the name implies, works with musicians of all different kinds. It wasn’t long before the calls came in for accompanying gigs with churches, choirs, instrumentalists, and singers. I was a strong sight-reader and prided myself on my ability to be prepared for gigs with relatively little practice. I simply loved the stimulation of learning and performing such variety of music on a tight schedule, not to mention the privilege to work with so many high-caliber players. Soon I had enough work that I was passing nearly half of it onto colleagues. I was indeed living the dream.
Some time went by and then that one Saturday came in the Spring of 2010. Eight years later I remember it so clearly: a morning of accompanying players in the undergraduate concerto competition; an afternoon playing for Kiwanis students; and a two hour evening gig playing at an officer’s club with a violinist. The discomfort in my left wrist emerged during our last few numbers. At the time it seemed minor, like nothing a good night’s rest couldn’t fix. But the next morning I awoke only to be greeted by the same lingering feeling that something wasn’t right.
You know when you’ve made a regretful decision that ended up affecting the course of your life and you can pinpoint it to that one moment that you will never forget, where you could have gone a different path? Well, that was that moment.
I knew I needed to rest my hands then and there but out of fear I decided I didn’t have time to deal with it because it was a Sunday and Sunday was usually my busy day. I didn’t want to lose the income. It could wait till Monday, I decided. After my church service on the organ and my two and a half hour rehearsal with the philharmonic choir I anxiously returned home to ice it. Thankfully I didn’t have anything on Monday in my schedule. I could finally rest. But a day wasn’t enough. It turned out there was never the time I needed to heal. There was always another gig around the corner and what started out as a mild discomfort escalated into tingling, numbness, swelling, and stabbing pains in both hands that would haunt me day and night. It wasn’t long before my dream job turned into a kind of hell.
The hardest part emotionally was not that I couldn’t play without pain, or that I spent every waking moment worried about my hands and my future. It was the feeling like I couldn’t talk about it to anyone in my professional world. I had a physiotherapist who called it carpal tunnel, who told me that we are more prone to these things as we get older (I was 28). (I never did get an official diagnosis. It’s also been called thoracic outlet syndrome). He offered a few tips about posture, but as I’ve learned over the years medical professionals don’t understand the intricacies of a musician’s craft. I had a counsellor and a supportive base of friends and family who were always a phone call away. However, when it came to talking to my colleagues, to professors, to my employers, or even my students I was afraid to say anything. I was candid with one colleague who advised that I keep things under wraps lest I be perceived as weak. So I behaved as if there wasn’t a problem and that I wasn’t on three extra strength Tylenols everyday simply to keep functioning.
I was so embarrassed. I had a strong ego as many performers do. I was in demand and was often told I had a knack for being an accompanist. It became a big part of who I was. I was afraid that if I was open about my injury that the work would slow down to a trickle – that I would be seen as too risky to hire and unreliable. When I knew I could no longer take on the same amount of work as I did before I would say I was “booked that day” or had “a busy week ahead of me” where in actuality I would be sitting at home resting my hands. Even when I wasn’t working I was working – trying to make my body heal faster; always trying to figure it out. It was exhausting.
I was also ashamed. How could this happen to me? I have all this training. I’m a capable musician. I have a degree in performance after all. I thought I already knew about technique. People tell me I am doing all the right things when I play for them. There must simply be something wrong with me. There must be an intrinsic weakness in me. That must be why this is happening to me. I simply don’t have what it takes to succeed at this.
But it wasn’t my fault.
As I reflect on this time years later I now see it in a bigger picture, one in which there is systemic failure in how well prepared classically trained musicians are for the real world in respect to avoiding and dealing with injury.
In my reading I learned that 70% of Classical musicians will deal with some form of injury during their career. 70%??? That’s a terrible survival rate. Do 70% of dentists and surgeons injure their necks, arms, and hands too? What’s even more disconcerting is that not once during my performance program did I hear the word injury used in the otherwise comprehensive curriculum.
As professional musicians we are being trained in a highly stressful, nuanced, and repetitive craft; sent out into the world with very little knowledge about the risks entailed in making a living that is entirely dependent on our ability to move our bodies safely and effectively. I had a minor injury in my right thumb when beginning my second year in undergrad. It didn’t help that I worked in a box factory doing 12 hour shifts on an assembly line during the summer before, but I knew it began on the piano right after I was accepted into the performance program.
Looking back now, the solution to fixing it was quite simple. Given a time machine I could have offered myself advice about how to heal it. I would have said, stop pressing so hard on the keys – in fact don’t press on them because every motion has a preparatory motion in the opposite direction which eliminates the need to press. If you are pushing you are doing something wrong. Instead of teaching me how to move my hand differently so this problem wouldn’t keep coming back, what I got from faculty members included: simply resting it until it was better, playing more left handed repertoire, and even observing how my hand moved while running water over it – not one piece of practical advice on how to change my technique. And I didn’t know any better as a young undergraduate student.
This points to a larger issue in how music is taught in universities. In my youth I never had anyone teach me proper technique. I just played. I can understand that students playing at the university level should be expected to already have a well established technique. It may well be the case for the majority of players accepted into music programs. But what about people like myself who had musicality and ability to tackle challenging repertoire but didn’t have the same technical foundation? Shouldn’t university be the place where we catch up?
Technique was addressed but always in a very generic way. I was often told that I had a lot of tension in my hands and I needed to release it, but that was it. There was no method on how to do that. What do I replace the tension with? If we’re going to take something away shouldn’t it be replaced with a new approach? Not to mention that one of my profs was suffering from an injury themselves. When I asked about it, they explained it had occurred a few years back. They rested it for three weeks and now everything was fine. Clearly it wasn’t fine. Their left hand was still visibly swollen. That was the end of the conversation. What kind example does that set for the young student? That he shouldn’t listen to his body? That he could push through a physical problem and he’ll still have a career as a performer? I started to think that in this field when it came to injury a don’t ask, don’t tell policy prevailed.
Why was this the case? In many performing arts programs movement methods like Alexander Technique are taught for actors who, like musicians, also depend on optimal functioning of their bodies for their livelihoods. It should be no different for Classical musicians, however we seem to have lagged behind in that area.
How are we not having a serious discussion in college and university programs about what to do if students become injured? What resources are there? What kind of financial and emotional support is there if they do have to stop playing for a time at some point in their careers? What is the contingency plan if they can no longer rely on performing to make a living? Responsibility falls on everyone’s shoulders but young people are filled with life and ambition and not usually thinking up sober what-if scenarios. Institutions should at least facilitate dialogue through masterclasses, courses, private lessons, and clinicians. It’s an uncomfortable topic but not nearly as uncomfortable as being in the real world facing a serious problem by yourself.
I did work with a massage therapist at that time who specialized in treating musicians and credit a great deal of my recovery from this 2nd year injury to their treatment. In regards to prevention and repairing technique the rest was up to luck as I did go on to complete the program successfully.
So that’s what it came down to? Luck? My luck ran out years later in St. John’s when I became a full time pianist whose rent and food depended on how much I played every week and couldn’t make the burning in my hands go away.
This ends the first instalment of my story. Hang in there. Things will get better. But as they say in order know the light we must first know darkness. Next time I’ll discuss opening up to my colleagues, learning the basics of a new technique, and how my recovery was sidetracked when a second major health problem crept up.
As always, please comment and share your stories below. Are you injured? What has worked for you in your recovery? Has your institution been proactive in informing young students about the risks as well as tools for recovery?