I talk to lots of musicians in pain- if there’s one thing I’m grateful for after all these years of questionable medical care and countless wrong turns, it’s the education the experience has bestowed upon me, so I can at least be a useful resource to others who are new to the “is this going to kill my career/quality of life” rumination.

I recently had a long talk with a brilliant high school student who seems destined for the conservatory as a double threat: piano performance major with a minor in violin. A colleague who coaches her had messaged me- she was inconsolable after a doctor had told her she has to stop all musical activity after a vague “rotator cuff” diagnosis.

I shouldn’t be so hot under the collar, but when I read those words, my blood boiled. Numerous doctors have blithely offered me the instruction to “find a new hobby”. Even when I was 13, cello was nothing like a hobby. Considering the amount of money and time most music majors spend on their craft before and during college, ours is as much a “hobby” as practicing medicine is to folks who have completed their residency.

When I got a hold of this student, we talked for nearly an hour, discussing referrals to specialists, symptoms, things she might try in the meantime, and what her options are if she does need to take some time off to let an irritated area calm down and heal. Her biggest concern is that she is going to miss the window for music school if this is a serious injury.

It made me think of the time I went to Italy, and couldn’t help but giggle each time we passed a bus stop: they all say “fermata bus”. Indeed, there as a feeling as if waiting for the bus that would take us back over the Tiber could in fact take forever to arrive, if it so pleased. This is what being injured feels like, a fermata that we have no control over, a bus that may never take us back to being able to play again.

During that phone call, something in me crystallized, and I kept repeating these things to her:

  • There is no one way to do everything right.
  • Many of the narratives surrounding success are driven by the people who went before you to sew doubt and fear and a crippling sense that they have something you do not.
  • There is no window for success. 
  • Waste no more time worrying about the outward appearance of your inner journey. 

After I hung up, I must have cried for a half an hour, sobbing in fits. I’m still working through all kinds damaging conditioning from my childhood, but as anyone who has done work on themselves through therapy can tell you: I am an expert at holding myself to a standard I would never expect of another person. For just a moment, as I was talking to her, I believed the message to be true for me, too.

There are expectations imposed upon us for all kinds of reasons- some of them marginally valuable, many more of them are fantasy, based on a context that hasn’t existed since the late 1970s. The narrative says you need to go to school and pick something to do, get good at it, get good grades according to a narrow set of standards (that leave some of the brightest people behind, btw) then get into a college (try to get a scholarship!), move out (because you’re ready, right? All 18 year olds are ready for this much responsibility of course), don’t take any detours, excel, find a big money job right out of college, find a person, have a family, be successful at both, be always happier, always richer, always fitter, never get sick or hurt, never appear to struggle, and make sure we all know about it via Instagram.

This narrative, at least in the US, is driven by the post-war boom time that created much of the success we’re still desperately trying to cling to, even as everything that made it possible has disappeared or been bankrupted by its previous beneficiaries. I was going to say “only the very luckiest come through unscathed” but it’s not clear that the tidy path provides a greater chance at happiness than those of us who trundle along in fits and starts.

Even if you’re like me, a weirdo who seems to march to the beat of my own drummer, when things get tough, I still sometimes hear a voice telling me that it’s because I didn’t do what was expected of me, that there was some turn I could have taken that would have prevented this injury or allowed me stay in situations that were problematic (ethically, professionally, personally) just a little longer so I could cash in on all the hard work to find my way to smoother waters.

I guess this is all to say: if you, for any reason, are trying to do this thing, and you’re getting pushback

—from your body

from your life circumstance

from your bank account

from your heart—

You are still in the game. And the rules of this game are not nearly as rigid or defined by other people as you might imagine. No matter the tumult, there are people who would love to help you.


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3 Responses

  1. When one gets as old as me (64 now), one can’t help but hear from so many friends, even non-musicians, about so many physical impairments. Shoulders, wrists, fingers, elbows, knee, hip, back, and neck pains, many of them quite serious, from people who are not musicians, or are only light hobby musicians. A social dance for seniors (I contra-dance and international folk dance) is a get-together for the walking wounded survivors of decades of life. And posture – Yikes!

    Our bodies really are more fragile than we realize in our youth. I’ve been pretty lucky, I have had to neither lay bricks, frame houses, nor pound on a piano many hours a day for decades. I have no significant issues YET! Not so many friends, or even my wife.

    I wish the medical community, musicians, and the general public had better info on how avoid repetitive stress disorders, joint deterioration, nerve entrapment, the whole myriad of things that happen to our body because we use them, But the prevention and curative knowledge, even for something as common as carpal tunnel, which was all over at my workplace, seems too inadequate. Treatments and braces just made their problems worse.

    I think the best we can do is accept that we need to be cautious if we want our bodies to last, because for many, including non-musicians, they didn’t last very well at all.

  2. What I feel needs discussing is more the maintenance that a body requires to keep going. Current medical thought disgusts me, to be honest. Many doctors seem to be shills for drug companies- more interested in easy fixes for symptoms rather than diagnostics and understanding.

    I am continuously amazed at the resilience of human bodies. What other machine just keeps going for more than half a century, through neglect, abuse and insult? I’m hoping the next generation of doctors (and the people they treat) think on a more whole-body level, and that music teachers begin to understand their role in injury prevention and overall health.

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