Thoughts from the bench…

In May of this year, I started experiencing numbness and tingling in my left hand, and severe pain in my left shoulder.  The pain was not caused by any trauma. After spending six months abstaining from playing and seeking weekly treatment from a handful of specialists, I’m still searching for an answer to why I am in pain.

It’s hard to believe I’ve been without my viola for half a year.  This whole experience has been so difficult and overwhelming, it’s been a challenge to see it with any clarity.  It sounds dramatic, but I’ve sort of just been meandering through the Five Stages of Grief.  To musicians, our music is an extension of who we are.   It’s our passion, our means of expression, our inspiration, voice and self-worth. It’s also how we pay our bills, put food on the table, and survive.  You could ask anyone who knows me, I am such a violist.  It’s weird, you know, not to be for a little while.

A string quartet is already such a delicate entity, without the burden of dealing with something like this.  Like a lot of challenges my quartet has faced, we realize there is no manual. We’ve had to be strong, and creative to navigate this tricky situation.  I have to say, I am humbled and spoiled by Ellen, Kate, and Sara.  These girls have been such incredible troopers, you have no idea.  I kinda secretly wish we could make our group tag line: Chicago Q Ensemble, rolling with the punches.

So now I share with you the top 6 shocking discoveries I’ve made while being injured:

1. Musicians work REALLY, REALLY hard. Looking back on the months before I started having pain in my shoulder, my schedule was just plain stupid, to steal Kyle Vegter’s phrase. No days off, running myself absolutely ramped, no time to relax. I watch my roommates now (they are both wonderful musicians) and I can’t believe how much they’re doing.  It plays with your head to be an observer.  We don’t realize how hard we’re working while we’re in it, just like I didn’t realize how important downtime was until I had a some.

2. It’s really important to evaluate your self-worth away from your instrument.  As musicians, we spend our lives mastering this one craft. We put so much of ourselves into it, that our self esteem often goes hand in hand with our playing. Not being able to play has made me explore strengths I have away from my viola and other ways to feel good about myself.  I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me last year that public speaking could actually be fun!

3. Making music is a PHYSICAL thing.  I remember my old teacher and mentor, Roger Chase saying “We’re athletes of the small muscle groups”… and its true.  We are!  We also use our big muscle groups, even though we’re not always supposed to… (Errr, like my pectoralis minor). Music schools are letting down musicians everywhere.  Teaching us to play our instruments is NOT enough. I’ve often complained that music schools have failed at giving us enough entrepreneurial skills to survive as classical musicians, and now I feel they’ve failed at teaching us about our bodies.  Anyone who plays for 3 or more hours a day should be getting regular deep tissue massages at the very least!

4. Everyone you talk to will recommend treatment.

5. I’d be totally screwed if it weren’t for my family.  Not just emotionally, but monetarily. Seriously. What do people do without the luxury of families who are able to help out financially?  Seeing doctors is EXPENSIVE, especially when you can’t work. But that’s a whole other issue.

6. Taking care of yourself mentally is just as important as eating or sleeping. Meditate, see a therapist, keep a journal, do whatever…  but keep in touch with your feelings.

As you can see, I’ve made lots of good discoveries despite all the crap. So while it’s true that dealing with the artistic and practical challenges of an injury is an uphill battle, I kind of don’t have a choice. I think there is more good I can get out of this situation, and since I’m stuck here, I am determined to find it.

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