where's the concert

I still keep a paper calendar. Then, at the end of a year, no matter what sort of tire fire I’ve created, I can physically leaf through the months and see that I was doing stuff. Even if, like these past few months, stuff is less like swashbuckling and more like maintaining the car and bothering local cellists for advice on building my studio and finding the right literary agent.

November’s events were written in my favorite LePen color, oriental blue. Gopher game with Jason and Trish. Register cars/new plates. Interview 10:15 on the 4th. The 18th at 9:45; music doctor. I booked the appointment while driving to Lake Elmo airport, an uncontrolled field about 30 minutes out of the city whose tenants don’t seem to mind me clambering up the hill just short of the runway to watch the comings and goings. Music Doctor’s name escaped me, or I misheard it. I thought she’d said Paul Shafer. But that’s the guy from the Late Show, and I doubt I’m being seen by that dude.

I go to the airport and self-soothe to the sound of radial engines and the smoky chirp of planes landing. Whenever I move to a new place, I seek out the nearest GA field the way more sensible people would look for the nearest pharmacy or gas station. Watching planes brings me back to my 7-year-old self, who thought that life was going to be simply marvelous and knew that if you were patient, sometimes the pilots would wave at you or even wiggle the wings back and forth as they passed.

On the drive back from Lake Elmo, I began rehearsing what I would say to Music Doctor and the nurse.

Well, it’s not just my arm: I think there may be some back and neck involvement.  

I think that scale needs adjustment/These are 12 pound boots. 

Yes, I have tried ice and ibuprofen.  

It’s important to practice a cool and calm demeanor, which gets increasingly difficult as the years go on. The questions are the same, the same pokes and prods, the look of disinterest, being foisted onto a physical therapist with no actual diagnosis, and the best part: “It’s probably a good idea to stop playing the cello. Try something new!” Guffaw, guffaw, thousands of dollars a year, nice to know you. November 18th loomed large on the calendar, and I was only able to foster an academic kind of hope, my guts having long since given up the practice of emotional optimism in these matters.

November 11th, I received what looked like a very complicated lease from Music Doctor’s office. It was an in-depth health and well-being questionnaire, a request for all previous medical records, as well as detailed instructions on how to get to the office and what to bring to the appointment: health insurance, braces and other stuff, my cello.

This was only the second doctor who had asked to see me play.

November 18th, I arrived -as usual- pathologically early to the Courage Kenny offices. As I made my way through the halls, I got the familiar friendly heckling, “Hey, where’s the concert?” “Haha don’t you wish you played the violin” etc. Over the years, these well-intentioned jabs felt more like barbs. I wanted to yell back, “I don’t know if I’ll ever play again! Isn’t that funny? Isn’t that hilarious?”

The nurse saw me almost immediately, believed that my boots were unusually heavy, and winked as she said “Dr. Schaefer will be right in. Go ahead and warm up- he wants to see you in action.”

I unpacked and played for a few minutes. The instrument felt clumsy in my hands: I’d been playing minimally, at the behest of the last MD I’d seen in DC. The doc came in, and thankfully, he was not the guy from the Late Show. Instead, Dr. Paul Schaefer was a young-ish guy who confessed his roots in trombone performance and choral conducting before turning and saying “Let’s not get off topic. I need to know everything. All of it.”

So I told him everything. All of it.

It took about 70 minutes of brisk conversation and clarification. Who am I? What hurts? Does it ever feel better? Well of course you’re anxious: you’re a Type A who can’t do what they were born to do. You’re probably going crazy in there.

The tears welled in my eyes. Dr. Schaefer is the first doctor to look at me as a whole person, who didn’t penalize me for having a complicated injury and chronic pain, who had no time for any horseshit, and had clear and expansive ideas about a regimen for getting my playing career back. Step one was to start playing again. “You’re not going to make it worse, and you need to be a cellist again. It’s who you are.” So that day, I started playing in 10 minute chunks, twice a day. The next week would increase to 15 minute sessions. The next, 20. I’m up to about 30/35 minutes now. It hurts a bit, but it’s not worse, and I feel a little less like a sham. Not completely, of course- you can’t call yourself an academic if you don’t foster at least a little impostor syndrome.

Step two has been physical therapy, which involves intense evaluation and precise soft tissue release followed by stretches and muscle retraining at home. I’ve learned that my pain is much more about misuse of my physiology than overuse- although there is some of that, too. Over the course of several decades, my body has tried to accommodate the repeated subtle traumas it’s been subjected to, resulting in a left shoulder and ribcage that are considerably higher and more concave than the corresponding right side. My scalene muscles have tried to account for this by becoming stronger, pulling the shoulder even higher, pinching the clavicle against my top rib, which is already a bit on the high side. As a result, my nerves don’t glide through the thoracic opening, and the muscles on either side of my shoulder (lats, traps, scapula stuff, pecs, delts, biceps) have been working overtime, doing things they were never meant to do. Essentially, they’ve been under a small amount of additional stress constantly for most of my life, and the result is non-functional, painful muscles, tendons, and nerves. You should hear the sound the knots in my back make. I’m a walking trigger point.

I experienced several days of pain relief (for the first time since February!) right after my first appointment. After my second, I am getting fewer headaches and sleeping a little better. My third is tomorrow. Soon we’ll be starting Pilates for alignment and core training, and biofeedback with the cello to keep an eye on tension that may not be easy for me to perceive due to the diminished sensation on my left side.

For the first time in many years, I have a sense of optimism about recovering. Next time, I’d like to get into some of what I’ve learned in just these few short weeks, hold myself accountable by promising a bit of practice footage, and give some props to cellists Janet Horvath and Corinne Morris, who have both overcome tremendous injuries when all hope seemed lost.

Cello hope

I’m not sure when or where the concert will be, but it’s nice to be relieved of the certainty that there won’t be one. 🙂


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18 Responses

  1. Emily, Emily, I am almost in tears. This is wonderful. What a crime it has been to have to wait so long to find a doctor who listens and who evaluates you holistically. So much love going out to you right now. If I could hug this doctor, I would.

  2. I’m so happy for you. That someone finally “gets” the whole you, and that you are finally getting proper treatment. Yay! Thanks for sharing this.

  3. I do know this has been heartbreaking for you. I am very glad that you have hope again. I hope always there is never no hope. You know that I was injured before. Although I can’t begin to presume that I know what you are going through, I somewhat understand the fear. Remember first and foremost you are a musician. Yes, you are a cellist, but you are a musician, always a musician. Hang in there Babe.
    By the way I know another cellist named Corrine. She is blind and dang that gal can play. Life is funny, not always funny funny, and not always fair.
    Good luck and please let us know how it goes.
    California misses you.
    Love and hugs

  4. Great to hear! I happen to be getting familiar with these sorts of issues because my wife has had them, and recently I developed some neck stiffness. What my wife has learned is that there’s huge differences in the skills and results of physical therapists and doctors, especially in regards to fascia and soft tissue release, because a lot of the knowledge is only recently coming to light. So far it seems like you have a winner, there.

  5. I cannot imagine how affirming it must have felt to have him say, you are a cellist, we need to get you playing again. Nor can I understand the fear you’ve been experiencing not knowing if or when or how you’d play again. I sincerely hope that the new approach and treatments have positive results, and that you are back to regular cello playing soon.

  6. Very glad to read this pos (and hear your distinct voice again! I love the way you write. Yay Dr. S. And horray for you.

    1. We’re a perfect pair: I didn’t catch any of the typos upon first…or second…reading. So long as we have the same amount of caffeine, I think we’re good. By the fourth cup, we’ll just be able to beam thoughts directly. 🙂

  7. Congrats on finding a REAL music doctor. They are pretty damn rare. I accidentally got an appointment with one on an emergency consult with a randomized doctor when I was in the early stages of developing a practice related nerve injury. Lucky for me, this doctor worked in a hospital across the street from a musical conservatory in England for 15 years, and even luckier for me decided to move to my town on the west coast of the US (presumably for the weather? or maybe the american MD paycheck?). If I hadn’t met this doctor, I don’t know what I would done.

    So happy you found a music doctor too!!! And I wish you all the best in your therapy and healing process 🙂

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