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.
Disclaimer: Any information here regarding the avoidance and treatment of injury is for educational purposes only. All injuries should be assessed and treated by a qualified medical professional before attempting to solve the problem at the keyboard.
The story of my eight year journey continues in this next instalment. If you aren’t caught up please read Part 1: Exposition.
Part 2: (Arrested) Development
I was desperate. Perhaps I had entered the wrong profession. But what would I do if I decided to no longer be a professional musician? Music was such a huge part of my life that I couldn’t imagine doing something else with the same amount of fulfillment. Yet the one thing I loved so much had turned against me and had become my greatest source of misery.
After a period of suffering in silence I began to open up to some people in my profession. By then the cat was already clawing its way out of the bag. It was clear there was something wrong. Why was Darryl leaving out so many notes? Why was he only playing the bass line in Messiah rehearsals?
When I finally started talking about it I began to hear of other colleagues who had also been injured. One prominent accompanist in the city disclosed to me that there was a time when her hands were so bad she couldn’t lift her own baby. I started to realize that I was indeed not alone and that there was no reason to try to be noble and pretend that things were fine.
Through opening up I learned about a professor at my university who had been injured herself and learned a technique called the Dorothy Taubman Method. She agreed to give me weekly lessons focused exclusively on my technique. Working with this professor for a number of months I was able to build my technique back from the ground up to the point that I could continue to work on a more moderate scale without worsening my injury. My hands didn’t always feel better but they didn’t feel worse either. With that my confidence and self-esteem improved, not to mention my mental health.
This professor confided to me that she wished she had known about this method 30 years ago when she had begun teaching. She now teaches it to all her students. It got me asking myself, what would have happened if I had learned this during or even before my university days? Would I have had these problems?
I was able to accompany students from the brass studio at the university music school, continue as organist at an Anglican church, as well as continue to be the accompanist for the philharmonic choir. I never made a full recovery but I was functional enough that, combined with teaching piano, I was able to still make a decent living in music.
Then the proverbial rug was pulled out from under me again. Actually, this time it was catapulted.
It developed in the first few months of 2012. I had always been very active and used to run a couple times a week but it had been a busy Fall and I had fallen out of my routine. I began to run outside again. I had always suffered from some degree of plantar fasciitis since living in Europe in 2006. It had never been as debilitating as it was then but as I got back into running this time it seemed to worsen. I remember that ultimate frisbee game I played from which my feet never seemed to recover. They were so sore after it, feeling as if they were bruised, and they didn’t bounce back as they always did. I gradually began to decrease my level of physical activity, except for swimming which didn’t affect my feet a great deal. Then came that one night when I went out clubbing with my friends from the local French club. I had spent the last few weekends at home trying to rest my feet but couldn’t take being cooped up any longer. After being on my feet for a few hours that night and walking home I remember the strangest feeling in my right ankle when I returned. Every three or four steps I would get this twinge, some kind of pulsation that vibrated in my ankle on the outside of it as if someone were running a feather up and down it. There was no pain involved but I was concerned because it wasn’t subsiding.
Days later it was still there. Gradually the tingling spread to both ankles and feet and eventually up my legs, worse on the left side. It got to the point where I could be sitting on the couch, doing nothing at all, and the floor would be vibrating like a heavy truck kept driving by. The tingling was constant day in, day out. In addition to the neuropathy (nerve pain) the pain in my feet seemed to worsen. It was evermore painful to walk and they became swollen so that my shoes didn’t fit right. I tried things like Epsom salts, self-massage, ice, as well as anti-inflammatory medication but nothing seemed to stop my feet from worsening with these strange symptoms. The hardest part was that normal walking made them worse. It became like a knot that got tighter and tighter as feet are used in most situations.
It was once again time to seek help from outside. As with my hands the experts were equally baffled and ineffective. The physiotherapist after running through her list of possible solutions gave me a bewildered look, saying, “But, but that shouldn’t…” Then I went to a more qualified physiotherapist who gave me various stretching exercises which had no effect. The problem became so chronic that if I wanted to see a friend a block away I would need to call a cab to take me there because walking was out of the question and pushing the break and gas pedals on my car was excruciating. I waiting in my apartment for three months, taking no gigs except for church and teaching. I wanted so desperately to continue working in St. John’s, in the career I’d spent years cultivating but it soon became clear that for whatever reason my feet were not interested.
I decided to give up my work and life in Newfoundland and move back to Ontario to live with my parents. Surely in this province there would be resources that could diagnose this bizarre issue.
You name it, I tried it. Doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, naturopaths, dieticians, podiatrists, neurologists, holistic healers, and shoe salesmen. Nerve conduction tests, MRIs, CT scans, and blood work on top of blood work. Everything turned up negative. Not one diagnosis other than plantar fasciitis and idiopathic peripheral neuropathy (idiopathic meaning the origin is unknown). The experts were as perplexed as I was. One podiatrist simply said, “People your age don’t get problems like this.” Thanks. Although my recovery was my new full time job I was getting nowhere.
A year went by in which I had to decide if I was going to go to the kitchen for food or go to the bathroom. I couldn’t do both. It was that bad. I barely left the house except for medical business. My social life evaporated and my mental health tanked. I iced my feet constantly. I even wore braces on my ankles when I went to bed because the covers rubbing on my feet were too painful. I began to show improvement but it was at a glacial pace.
By the second year I stopped sleeping well and fell into a severe depression. It was the most stressful period of my life both for myself and my family. I credit them for getting me through this. If it wasn’t for their support, who knows where I would have ended up.
So how did this affect my piano playing?
It fell apart. Using the pedals was out of the question. So if I wanted to practice I’d have to do it hands only. But my hands had also fallen apart. The neuropathy in them was much worse. A combination of my poor sleep, being an emotional wasteland, and leading a now extremely sedentary lifestyle affected them negatively. And I had forgotten all that I learned about the technique I had learned about in St. John’s.
It wasn’t until the second or third year that I tried to get back into it. Every couple weeks or so I would slide down the stairs and try to work on my technique again. I tried to do what I was taught but it’s one of those things where if it’s not done right then it won’t help at all. (I will elaborate on this technique in part 3 but it had to do with uniting the hand and forearm and using forearm rotation to assist the fingers). I went back to the basics but always seemed to be missing something. I would play five notes and then assess. Then I’d repeat it over and over and over again until I felt like I was making progress. Sometimes I would feel like I’d gained some ground only to have my hands on fire later that night and I would conclude I had done something wrong and had to figure out what it was. It was crazy making to say the least. I commend myself for my diligence, one thing that’s never been in short supply in my family. One day I simply lost all patience and played through Brahms’ A major Intermezzo from op. 118 once. It felt so good to let loose but then I suffered the consequences of five nights of burning after that. I was devastated. It seemed I had wrecked my body and I was living in a prison of my own making.
All that said, I never lost hope. Someday, somehow I would get myself out of this hole. I remember years ago, laughing to myself when I told myself, one day I will be able to play any piece of music I want to for as long as I want without problems. It seemed ludicrous to me at the time but I decided to manifest the impossible because I had nothing to lose.
I was again so embarrassed about my predicament that I didn’t even want to teach piano. I was afraid that I would be perceived as a fraud. What if a student needed me to play a passage for them or demonstrate something? Would I do it at my own expense? Should I try to say that I’m a professional pianist who can’t play the piano for you? I now know that this was depression and self-doubt talking in retrospect, but at the time I was paralyzed by fear.
I was skeptical that I would ever be able to be a professional musician again so I decided that I would take up a new career. I applied to study occupational therapy at two Ontario universities. I figured that since I had experienced disability first hand, who would be better equipped to understand what patients were going through than myself? I got into one university and was accepted for an interview in the other. But I couldn’t get to the interview because my feet were flaring up.
And my heart wasn’t in it. I simply applied to the programs so that I didn’t feel like I was wasting all my time.
I was a musician at heart and I owed it to myself to do whatever I needed to honour that truth so I started making phone calls.
This ends the second 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 how I climbed out of the hole and became a better musician and teacher because of it.
As always, please comment and share your stories below. Are you injured? What has worked for you in your recovery? Injured musicians, know you’re not alone out there!