Pictured: Cathy and Doug (middle two) on their wedding day. Oxford, England, 1967.
Through high school, things got worse. My parents had Kaiser, so I was confined to the Kaiser system, and I don’t think they even considered going outside for other opinions. It’s possibly a generational thing; they trust doctors implicitly, no matter how vague or specious the opinion. This was stressful, because my instincts were being ignored by the two sets of people charged with my care. I bounced from specialist to specialist, collecting gems like “Well maybe you shouldn’t play the cello.”, “This is likely a figment of your imagination that will go away with maturity.”, and the disheartening but at least accurate “Chronic pain is really hard.” I went to a LOT of physical therapy, most of it lifting weights, swinging TheraBands, kneading plastic-y stuff. It was all geared towards strengthening my hands and wrists. The pain was always worse afterward. More ice, more NSAIDs, into a splint. None of it helped, and when I changed instructors, I found new ways to play without showing how much it hurt. I’d managed to become a Ron Leonard student, and I wanted that sound. A superstitious part of me thought it might have been a test, sent by the Fates to see if I was a worthy candidate. I would demonstrate how badly I wanted this. Nothing would stop me.
Some time around my sixteenth birthday, I went to San Francisco to see a Kaiser orthopedist who specialized in musicians and dancers. Sounds promising, yes? I dared to hope, that weekend. He performed a nerve conduction study, did all of the manual tests, palpated my clavicle and shoulders and said, as an aside, “I wonder if it’s thoracic outlet? Hmm…*poking around* you don’t have an extra rib, so probably not.” My nerve study came back with inconclusive results. He recommended surgery on my wrist.
He offered no diagnosis, but recommended surgery– and he would not be the last to do so.
I did not have the surgery. Yet.
I limped into college, where I finally got serious about retrofitting my technique. There were a few things going on:
- left hand pronation, which was more pronounced when I would do extensions or lots of 4th finger stuff
- both thumbs were cram-jammed against whatever they touched
- my shoulders crept towards my ears
- my torso was twisting to the left
- I arched my back trying to sit up straight in chairs that were low and slanted backwards
- everything was tense: it’s as if the intensity of my personality, with all the excitement, anxiety, verve, dread, hope…was expressed in the way I physically interacted with the instrument.
Over the course of a winter break and very light spring semester, I made substantive technical fixes, squaring my hand to the fingerboard and re-learning where the notes were again, releasing the tension by having a “zero tolerance” policy for it. I sounded dreadful as I learned how to play with a quiet, efficient hand. The sound was barely there, my fingers hardly touched the strings, but such are the necessary measures when you’re serious about undoing bad habits. While I still had pain, for the first time in my life, I had a taste of a still mind. It was an addictive experience. With a calm presence, the music could impose itself upon me better: interpretation came from what was on the page, not whatever my idiosyncrasies dictated. My instructors’ words made more sense; and I still hear Gary Pratt, David Aks, Andrew Cook, Hans, Cathy, and Ron when I sit down to practice- and when I teach others.
Things were looking up. I became more proficient and started sitting principal more frequently, and I remember playing for Cathy during this time, having not seen her in perhaps 5 years. It was Haydn D, my competition and audition warhorse, and I sat in her lovely front room and ran through the first page as she pottered about in the other room.
“Oh my, you have such technical facility!” came from beyond the doorway.
In that moment, it felt like the sun burst out of my chest. I can still recall it, if I close my eyes.
We had lunch and talked about all of the things we couldn’t tell each other when we were teacher and student. Cathy will always be one of the great loves of my life, to whom I could confess anything and always feel safe and acknowledged. It’s important to have someone like this, to witness you with informed compassion.
She and I stayed in touch through my move to the UK, where I tinkered with an audio engineering certificate and managed to win (or rather, tie with an incredible pianist) a concerto competition with the Rococo Variations. I was still playing through occasional pain, but London suited me. My body relaxed, I took long walks, got into yoga more seriously, had massages, and was exposed to all kinds of different ways of looking at life. This is more influential than you might imagine: wellness is something of a cocktail. The way you live and what happens in your mind are responsible for the tone of everything else that happens. I was talking with a physical therapist friend (who is a fine cellist, herself) about this, and she agreed 100%: “Even the placebo effect is good medicine. A patient’s belief that something will work just means that their body is taking an active role in the healing process.”
I came home from London to finish my degree, which would end up being much more difficult than I’d expected.