Sonata Deformed: An Injured Musician’s Chronicle Pt.3

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.

The story continues in the third instalment. If you’ve been waiting for the good news then wait no longer. For those who are just discovering this chronicle, please read part 1 and part 2.

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Part 3: Recapitulation

So how did I extricate myself from that hellish sinkhole? Well, a multifaceted problem needs a solution with just as many faces.

To start, I had put on a lot of weight over the past few years and as a consequence was suffering from sleep apnea. Food had always been a safety blanket in times of stress and I can’t recall having ever been that stressed out for such a prolonged period of time. Thanks to the wise words of a friend I gained the will power to begin reducing my body weight through eating less. It wasn’t as simple as I may be making it sound, but one very useful quality I inherited from both my parents was discipline. I was able to train myself to eat less and go to bed moderately hungry. I never thought I had it in me but I did it. The weight came off at about 4-8 pounds a month. After a few months I was 50 pounds lighter and had returned to my healthy weight of years ago.

Losing the weight, in turn, improved my sleep quality, so that I no longer had sleep apnea. My feet also benefited from being significantly lighter. Combined with constant orthotic adjustments and physiotherapy my feet gradually (I can’t stress that word enough) began to improve and I became more mobile. I was able to drive again and go out to social events that didn’t require much walking like concerts in cafes where there was ample seating.

My mental health also began to improve. After receiving treatment via medication and counselling I started to truly sleep better and convalesce. To this day my energy is still returning to what it was before 2012, but after a period of treatment and better sleep came a mental clarity which I had not had for many years and quite frankly was doubtful I’d ever regain. It amazed me how directly mental health was connected to energy. Until I started the medication it didn’t matter how much I slept. I always felt like a grenade had gone off inside my skull and no one could feel its reverberations but I.

As my mind returned to a semi-normal level of functionality it finally became time for me to find someone who could help me fix my hands.

I had heard about a woman in Kingston, Audrey Marshall, who was a certified Taubman teacher and got in touch with her.

Before I continue, I cannot stress enough how important it is to work with a physical teacher when learning a technique as intricate and nuanced as the Taubman Method. I tried for many years to get it right on my own but was always missing a component. I have ofter heard that it’s better to not learn this technique at all than to learn it only partially as it can lead to other problems if done improperly.

Also, I can only write about what has worked for me. I’ve read that this method is controversial for some pianists, probably because it flies in the faces of everything we are taught. If you want to learn about it more the best thing to do is to find a Taubman teacher and experience it first hand.

I know I’ve talked about it a bit already but what is the Taubman Method? I would say it’s life-saving for musicians whose careers have been derailed by injury. Visiting the Golandsky Institute is a good place to learn about it in depth. Edna Golandsky worked with Dorothy Taubman very closely and is considered to be the leading pedagogue of the Taubman Method since Ms. Taubman’s passing in 2013. There are a few freely offered videos on YouTube that provide an excellent demonstration of some of the basic principles. However, videos can only go so far in teaching this so I will reiterate that you need to find a Taubman teacher to learn the technique properly!

The basic principle has to do with forearm rotation. I didn’t even know the anatomy of my arm until learning Taubman. We have two bones – the radius and the ulna. When we supinate (hold a bowl of “soup”, when the palm faces up) the two bones in our arm are parallel. When the hand pronates, palm down, the radius crosses overtop the ulna. What’s key to understanding this is that the ulna is fixed to the elbow. It does not move. The radius, as the name implies, rotates around the ulna as if the ulna were the spine of a book. In short this motion of rotation, which is initiated from the muscle near the elbow, is foundational for every movement in piano playing.

For situations such as tremolos, when you are alternating an octave between fingers 1 and 5, it’s obvious how rotation applies. However, in Taubman there is a rotational movement behind every single motion of the fingers. Be it a broken chord or a scale, there are rotational movements supporting each note. Fingers are working and moving, but with the added support of the forearm.

The second aspect to this principle is that every motion must have a preparatory motion in the opposite direction. You may already be familiar with producing a dropping motion when playing chords for example. Each drop can only work with a preparatory motion upwards (no matter how small) otherwise you are pushing. A similar principle applies with Taubman, however the preparatory motion is part of the rotation so it’s somewhat circular, rather than up and down.

This was significant for me because I had a few fundamental flaws in my technique that, despite working with a number of highly qualified teachers, no one had addressed during my many years of instruction. In some ways I don’t blame them because the difference between a healthy vs unhealthy technique is not always readily visible. Even in Taubman the motions eventually become so small that they may become indistinguishable from any other technique. However there will be a world of difference between how they feel. And no one ever asked me that.

What exactly was I doing that culminated in the inability to play for more than a few seconds without pain? There were concrete reasons why I had a problem. It wasn’t some mystical curse, a disease, or simply bad luck. It had nothing to do with how good a musician I was. It came down to simple anatomical reasons why I could barely play anymore and this method was my saving grace in understanding them.

The first thing was pushing. Every note I played I pushed down. Chords I pushed even more. Hopping octaves? Pushing. I had always been a very physical, muscularly driven male. I was naturally strong and used to lift weights. So whenever the sound needed to be big I muscled it. I even pushed when the sound was small. I remember in my late teens feeling tension in my forearm so intense that it made me feel like Popeye. I liked the feeling and thought perhaps my wrists would get thicker because of all that banging around. I’m serious, this is what I thought.

I powered from my extremities. I think this can be said for my feet too. I always thought the hands were responsible for doing everything when it came to piano playing. The rest of the body could just sit back and watch. Perhaps it was partially due to the influence of clothing. I often wore long-sleeved shirts and turtlenecks. My hands seemed separate from my arms this way. I also realize now that I was always someone who suffered from some form of anxiety but I never admitted it to myself. I think I tried to hide it physically by always appearing strong in my core; inert, like nothing could phase me. I loved to perform, no doubt, but I wonder how this affected my movement. I know now that I made my poor hands do all the heavy lifting while the real power and weight of my body and arms were inhibited from assisting them.

I twisted my wrist a lot too. This is a cardinal no-no in Taubman and it’s something that I now address with my students from day one. If you put your hand out in front of you you’ll notice that your thumb is much shorter than the rest of your fingers. It attaches at a lower part of the hand. Maintaining this alignment while playing is paramount to having a healthy technique. This is also known as ulnar deviation. It means that the hand is twisting or “deviating” towards the ulna, in the direction of the pinky. When twisting,  like when our thumb wants to play a black key while the 3rd finger is on a white key, not only does this strain the hand, it constricts the nerves and tendons traveling through the carpel tunnel. With the fingers moving as much as they do, the tendons should move back and forth as freely as possible. Yeah, no one told me that. Would have been nice to know. This is facilitated in healthy playing by a steady “in and out” motion in which the fingers always stay “north of the thumb” by coming “into the woods” of the black keys. These are all sayings I use when teaching now.

Another common area of twisting is simply playing close to the keyboard in the mid-register of the piano. This can be mitigated by sitting further away with the elbows closer to the torso as well as playing the keys on a slight angle. When I think back my awareness of my hand was always dominated by the thumb and index finger, as if I thought the centre of the arm moved through those two digits. In actuality, centre is is between the third and fourth fingers. Learning this helped make my hand more evenly strong.

Another thing I did that wasn’t good for my hands was I stretched them open, pre-forming the hand when I was proceeding to play an octave or solid four-note chord. Abducting the fingers creates tension in the hand and makes them harder to move freely. Try it. Open your hand up, pinky stretched in the opposite direction as the thumb and then move your fingers. Now have the fingers come together naturally and see how much easier they move. In Taubman, we say, “let the keyboard do the work for you.” When playing an octave, for example, position your fingers at the width of close to a 7th and let the keyboard open them the rest of the way.

Here’s a good one. This is something it seems like everyone learns: playing with curled fingers. I once took a piano pedagogy course and learned a method of strengthening the fingers by creating “a claw” shape and gathering a towel on a table. Since then I had always taught my students to do the “cat scratch” and boy did they have beautifully curled fingers. Years later I learned that nothing could be more injurious. Curled fingers are the definition of tension because they are the product of co-contraction between the opposing muscle groups of the forearm. The extensors on the outside of the fore arm extend the fingers, raising and opening them. Flexors on the arm’s underside flex the hand, closing the fingers. When we curl our fingers we are engaging our flexors, and when we proceed to raise them as we do in playing we are using our extensors at the same time. Try it this yourself. Curl your fingers making “the claw” and try to move them. Now let your fingers return to a natural position of no work and see how easily they move. Learning this was a significant aspect to my recovery. In Taubman it’s called “releasing the non-playing fingers”. The fingers playing are naturally curved (not curled), supported by the second knuckle joint, while the other fingers “have a holiday”. I say, “they get to be themselves”, neutral and relaxed.  The whole principle of Taubman is for the hand to be as neutral as possible. Always moving from a place of no work.

To summarize, these are key flaws in my technique that resulted in injury:

  • I played only with the hands with no support from the forearm or the rest of the arm/body
  • Every motion was a push rather than being assisted by some kind of preparatory motion
  • I twisted, making my hand feel “thumb dominant” 
  • I played with curled fingers; I thought they were strong and faster that way
  • I “preformed” my hand before playing octaves and chords instead of having the piano do the work for me

There are other things that contributed to my injury. I sightread way too much as an accompanist. I was constantly under pressure to learn music and it meant that, although my brain could handle it, my poor fingers were scrambling to keep up, never playing with ideal fingerings. I often played with the “flying wings” in which my elbows were constantly held away from my torso, often for expressive purposes. This can tire out the shoulders. I never leaned to the extreme registers of the keyboard even while playing there, as in playing a four octave scale for example. Now I try to always be in the centre of what I do and it helps a lot.

CODA

So where am I today?

I live a very different life than the one I had envisioned years ago. I no longer seek the life of a performing pianist or conductor. Teaching piano has become my new and sustainable passion. My life is a lot simpler. Although this knowledge has healed me a great deal, I will probably never have the same level of function in my hands and feet as I did before all this happened. Yet, part of me is at peace with that and feels gratitude for what I was able to get back. I can go on walks but will probably never run again. I can use my hands for day to day things but I will probably never rock climb. All pretty minor in the grand scheme.

If it wasn’t for my own perseverance combined with painstaking work with a very nuanced and able teacher I wouldn’t have been able to come to the place I am now. I must give myself a huge pat on the back for staying the course as I could have given up countless times and my life would have looked very different. Learning how to play again is arguably harder than learning how to play the first time (from a technique perspective) as I had to unlearn, to deconstruct, before establishing a new way of moving and of being.

As for how much I am now able to play: the the past six months I have been learning all of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, practicing 1-2 hours a day and hope to perform them when they’re ready. Sure, learning them has been hard, yet none of my struggles with it have had anything to do with technique or pain. It’s just because it’s a really hard work, and that’s my choice to tackle it. If I had told myself two years ago that I would be learning this piece I would have thought I was crazy. Now through all my diligence and this literally life-saving technique not only am I able to play again but to play something which, even at the best of times, I never would have thought possible.

Lest this come across too much as unicorns and rainbows I do have flare-ups. If I have a problem with my hands that’s starting to develop I must pay attention and diagnose the reason why it’s happening. Since I’ve been doing this for so long now I can often figure it out on my own, but sometimes I need the help of my teacher. Similarly, my feet flare up from time to time. When they get really bad it’s very difficult to walk and to function on my own. Fortunately that doesn’t happen a lot but I constantly have to be paying attention, especially if I’m going out of town for the day. In short, I’m responsible for my own level of function. If I do all the things I’ve learned and follow all my programs and am constantly be willing to problem solve then I am doing well. There’s really no alternative to consider anymore. There is no leeway. If I ignore my body problems happen incredibly swiftly. My power is that I know how to manage all this now.

What I have learned through all of this has helped my students. They are getting a much better foundation in technique and healthy playing than I ever did. Though I wish it wasn’t under these circumstances that I came by this knowledge, I’m able to offer something unique as a teacher and wisdom is not something you get through a university degree but through life exerperience.

It sounds cliche, but never give up. Never surrender. If you are stuck in your own hellish sinkhole then know that you’re not alone. I’m writing this to help stir the pot, to get people talking in the music and health communities. Now that you’ve heard my story, what’s yours?

We as professional musicians owe it to ourselves, each other, our students and our audiences never to give up and never to be silent.

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