My teacher told to me:

Don’t ignore any pain, especially pain that playing seems to make worse.

My left arm started acting up when I was about 11, and I have a feeling that the doctors and my parents thought I was faking it just to get out of practicing. True: I didn’t like practicing, but mostly because I had little idea how to do it effectively, and also because it hurt like hell. Chronic pain is very hard to diagnose and treat, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not murdering your long-term arm health because you don’t have a satisfactory diagnosis. I have 3 students who are out of commission right now because they hid the pain and were in various forms of denial about the ache in their palm, elbow, and wrist.

And then there’s me! I am so frustrated with the medical community at large for pinballing me from one specialist to the next. The arm guy says it’s arm, but could be neck. He doesn’t work with necks. The neck guy says it could be both, but has no clue about arms. The only person who sees me as a whole is my GP, but of course she can’t tell the specialists what to do. Pretty frustrating, but TOO BAD! It’s my body, so I have to keep going and not stop until I have some positive result, even if it’s taken 20 years to get there. On that ride, there are 4 performances I had to abort mid-course, including an Elgar concerto competition that I was a shoo-in to win. I had just started the 4th movement and felt the familiar electric explosion in my wrist and then my ring and pinky fingers went slack. I turned to the pianist and said, “I can’t keep playing” and then ran offstage and hid under a grand piano for a few hours. I’ve had some real heartbreak in my life (and I’m sure I’m in for more) but that was the hardest I’ve ever cried. In disappointment, in pain, in defeat. The good people at CSUN allowed me to get credit for the semester I had to take off while my arm tried to heal, and even let me play my senior recital 5 minutes short, as I limped my way to a degree in performance. I can’t even imagine what college would have been like if my arm had been taken seriously at an earlier point in time.

If you hurt: see a doctor, be brutally honest with yourself about the level of tension you play with, and then for Pete’s sake modify your technique. Otherwise, I will find you and…um, well you’re hurt already, so I’ll probably just give you a stern look for a while and then take you for ice cream. But only one scoop, just to make a point.

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3 Responses

  1. Great post! It fits perfectly with the book I just finished, "Playing (Less) Hurt" by Janet Horvath. Musicians need to pay more attention to what their body is saying and doctors need to give musicians more credence when they talk about pain.

  2. True! That's a great book, as well. Do you have Vic Sazer's "New Directions in Cello Playing?" It's not just for cellists.

    I want to make clear that this isn't about bashing the medical profession (which I can easily do if I am in pain). I know that doctors are people too. Some are better than others, some are more intuitive, some are not equipped to deal with subtle and challenging issues like chronic pain. Few people get into medicine because they hate dealing with people and want to get even. I do realize this. The only thing I can't abide is the lack of curiosity some MDs have. If a student came to me with a weird habit, or some bobble in their sound, etc. I would be very curious about it, and anxious to get my teach on. At Kaiser, it sometimes seems like the bottom line and corporate culture discourages docs from researching and being adventurous. Which is a shame, because there are few more satisfying experiences than solving a mystery.

  3. Thanks for this reminder to take care of ourselves! I am a pianist and have been struggling with tension issues and working on refining my technique for years, trying to undo habits that a former teacher had no idea how to fix. "Your arm hurts? Rest and ice it for a few days," she would say, but with no instruction on how to use my arm weight, etc. I try not to be bitter about lost time, and try to stay positive. Good luck to you!

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