I had a lot of time to think, driving back and forth from Heartland SCOR this weekend. It’s about 12 hours round trip from Minneapolis to Le Claire, Iowa. This picture was taken after nearly running out of gas in a cornfield 20 miles down a long dusty road. I got off the highway because the sign said “gas next exit”, and like a fool I believed it. The station hadn’t been open since the 1970s: it had those cool round pumps with the kind of display that ticks as the fuel gets dispensed: it was a relic; a time capsule. I would have more nice things to say about it was I not in a total state of panic. No cell service, no GPS. No gas. I roamed around for miles with various Volkswagen warning dings sounding.

 

Ding 1: get gas in 30 miles

Ding 2: get gas in 15 miles (here is where I exited)

Ding 3: get gas in 5 miles

…or else

 

Ding 4: get gas now (now driving towards nearest barn, having struck out at the defunct pump)

Ding 5, which came like, 10 seconds after Ding 4: get gas or I’ll stop this car right now, young lady

Me: I appreciate that you think I’m young!

Ding 6: You must be young to be so stupid and let yourself run out of gas in a state where you know there are mostly cornfields. You were so smug running through Cedar Rapids without so much as a thought of filling up. That’s it. I’m just going to ding nonstop, my dinging will be the last thing you hear ding ding ding

Me: *eye twitch*

Long story short, I found a gas station about 38 miles after the car told me I had 30 miles. And I was happy. After that, it was smooth sailing back to Mpls, riding high on 3 days of incredibly edifying teaching that I’m certain meant as much to me as it did to participants.

My main lecture focused on injuries: my personal experience, how musicians tend to injure themselves, at-home treatment, hallmarks of excellent physicians, on and on. I took the students into my confidence. I told secrets; things I’ve scarcely shared with anyone else. It was emotional, and incredibly healing.

One thing I realized: I’ve never really told the whole story- here, or anywhere else. So I thought that it would be useful to add to the online lexicon of musician injury stuff. There’s a lot to the story, so I thought it would be more easily digested in chunks.

 

Part 1.

I got serious about the cello around age 11, having found a sense of belonging and expression in the elementary school orchestra that was amplified hundredfold when I started lessons with Cathy. For reasons I will go into some other time, my life was extremely scary during these years. I’d tried my hand at other art forms and failed, but the cello, positioned right in front of me, vibrating through my sternum, responsive to the heaviness in my arms, was a voice that spoke the volumes I was after. Into it, I could pour my misery and make something beautiful. It is for this reason I encourage my teenaged students not to quit: art offers us the opportunity to create something divine from the most grotesque offerings of the human experience. Stick with it, kids. There is salvation to be had.

This is also the advice I give 70 year old beginners. We’re all children to the cello.

I remember the instant it happened: I was laboring away, playing through a little pain, when a searing arrow of pain and electricity shot down my arm, exploding through my wrist in an asterisk shaped pattern of agony. My right hand dropped the bow and immediately grasped my left trapezius. It was (literally and figuratively) a shocking moment. I’d never felt pain like that before.

I don’t remember if I told my parents about it at that time or later, but from that moment on, pain has been a nearly constant companion to my playing. If I’m not in pain, I’m worried about when the pain will come, like someone with horses far afield eyeing the horizon for a squall.

Cathy was horrified when I described what was going on. She (nor any of my subsequent instructors) never let my technique slide- I was just willfully resistant to change, and there was already damage done that relaxation and improved positioning would not have solved to begin with. Her advice was sound: breathing, releasing excess tension, making sure my hands weren’t pronated, general awareness of my body, go see a specialist.

That last one proved to be tricky, as did the “general awareness of my body” part.

I went to a GP, who diagnosed me with tendinitis (o, how I wish it was spelled tendonitis). Ice, rest, ibuprofen was the plan. I played on, through pain, bracing for the lightning bolt that felt a little like the shock you get from unplugging a vacuum when it’s still on with a wet hand. It was reliable, and at that age, never signaled the end of a practice session. Ibuprofen, nor ice, never did anything. My father subtly suggested it was because I wasn’t leaving the ice on long enough: I needed to “really freeze” myself. As I moved into my teens, I developed bleeding ulcers from heavy ibuprofen use and got used to mild burns from ice; the pain remained. I played on. Sometimes I wore a splint. Very deep down, I knew something was profoundly wrong, and I was terrified.