INJURY and HEALING
A colleague recently suggested that I blog about my history with injuries because, in her words, “it’d be great for others to know that you overcame them so well.”
Well… not so well, if I were to be honest.
Here goes ----
I was about a week into my Masters degree in piano performance at the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri – Kansas City when I turned left in front of oncoming traffic that all looked like it was turning left. Sadly, a big pickup truck gunned its way around the turning traffic and ran into my car (luckily no one was sitting in the passenger seat), spun it around 2.5 times and it landed in a heap. Car was totaled, I was shaken, there was broken glass in my hair.
I seemed fine, headache for weeks but I was young and didn’t think anything of it. My body hurt, but people said that it was normal.
At the Conservatory, I had a new piano teacher, Joanne Baker, who was shocked to find out I had never really practiced like a real pianist. She demanded a good six hours a day, and so I set off practicing those hours (three in the morning, two in the afternoon, and one late at night after opera rehearsal.) I was also playing evening rehearsals for the fall opera (double bill of The Medium and Gianni Schicchi). That’s a lot of playing, and for me it was a huge change. (Honestly, never practiced more than a few hours a day, and that was rare.)
My literature wasn’t that demanding, frankly. A Haydn Sonata in C, some Chopin Mazurkas, Copland’s Piano Variations, and reading through some Ravel pieces. But by the time Christmas break rolled around, I was waking up with pain shooting down my right thumb and through the outside of my pinky finger.
Two different specialists said two different things about the same diagnosis: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome of the right wrist. One said 65-75% damage and advised surgery, the other said 75-80% damage and suggested physical therapy, not driving, and not playing. (Years later I discovered I probably had whiplash that went untreated…)
Here's a link about Carpal Tunnel Syndrome:
Dear Mrs. Baker told me “no surgery!” We stopped playing for a semester. I couldn’t fulfill my graduate assistantship playing for the opera either. We worked on my left hand – scales and a short sojourn with the Ravel left hand piano concerto. We also talked about music A LOT, and we talked about listening to music A LOT, and we talked about how to learn music.
She challenged me to learn a piece without playing it, so I did.
I also entered the Conservatory’s Concerto/Aria contest with a concerto I learned without playing it. I’d gone almost three months without playing the piano with both hands. An Eternity! About a week before the contest I tried it all out. My right wrist was not, in anyway, shape, or form, the same. But the pain was gone. It was weird to play with this foreign right hand. It didn’t move quickly as before. It was stiff and didn’t sing the same way. I was pretty devastated.
But I entered that contest and I won that contest. That summer I also performed another concerto with a chamber orchestra in Kansas City. My fellow students had no notion that anything was different. I did. I still do. I miss those pre-injury days so much.
But life moved forward. It was clear to me that my piano soloist days were pretty much over and I happily graduated with my masters and moved to New York City to begin my opera fellowship at The Juilliard School. My right hand was obviously good enough for opera!
And life moved forward. I started conducting as well. It was an incredibly fulfilling musical life during the 1990s!
Everything was fine until one night I woke up and my right arm was paralyzed. Not “asleep” mind you, it was DEAD. I freaked. Once it became alive, there was a lot of pain. The pain wasn’t like before, either. It was also in the neck and in my forearm, and in my hand, my right hand.
This was after the birth of our second son and he was a hearty lad who slept in the same bed as his parents. I was fresh from losing an opera company (see previous blog about my education on treachery), was returning to run the young artist program at Glimmerglass (where I coached everyday from the piano), was running the opera/musical theatre program at Ithaca College (where I conducted the shows as well as coached everyday from the piano), while trying to be a father and husband. Something had gone wrong.
It wasn’t a regular thing either. I thought that maybe I was sleeping on it wrong. I thought it was my posture. I thought it was stress.
Guess what – it was all of those things, plus that old car wreck injury to my neck back in my masters degree. I saw a great chiropractor and he (along with another PT) diagnosed me with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. (Sounds like something a T-Rex would get, yes?!)
Here's a link about Thoracic Outlet Syndrome:
Posture was key here. I walked around with a yardstick down the back of my pants to keep my spine upright. I had to learn to drive with a LOT less stress (we drive stick shifts in my family…) I had to sleep on my stomach with my arms in positions to open up my collarbone. I went to the gym for the first time.
But the damage seemed done. Plus when I conducted, it was hard for me to get my right hand any higher than my shoulder. Hard to do when conducting opera singers from the orchestra pit.
I persevered in secret. Only my wife really knew the extent, and she was certainly the only one who knew my inner panic. I told a few close friends, but was so fearful that if anyone in the business found out, I could be out of future jobs. Who needs a conductor with a right arm that sometimes can’t move?
And then the phone call came from Stewart Robertson asking for my advice on finding Florida Grand Opera a new Director of Artistic Administration. We talked and the next thing I knew I was being flown down to Miami for an interview. That was a dozen years ago.
But here I am now in 2015 playing in public with my students (most recently a Sondheim program) and getting set to conduct Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore in January. What happened?
I give credit regarding my healing to 1) Nick, my trainer at Ithaca College; 2) my wife for insisting that I sit up and watch my stress levels; 3) a friendly local chiropractor and 4) South Beach!
1) Nick – I wish I knew his last name. Nick was great. Nick was a tyrant about me being in the gym as much as possible. He asked me at our first meeting “how big do you want to get?” (Of course, I wanted to lose weight, he wanted to know about my biceps I think!) Getting my body in shape really helped right away.
2) It’s impossible to thank Elizabeth so I won’t. (Thanks honey.)
3) Chiropractors aren’t for everyone, but for me it was terrific. He got me walking and sitting up, he made me think about my posture at the piano, and he gave me great exercises that I still do today.
4) South Beach. The Ocean. I can’t recommend it enough. Floating in the ocean is incredibly healing and therapeutic. There were days that I’d leave the office and drive fifteen minutes to South Beach. I’d walk onto the beach and take my suit and tie off down to my boxers and get into the ocean and float. Then I’d dry off standing on the beach, put my suit and tie back on, and return to the office. I didn’t tell people I was doing this, either. (Another reason to have super short buzzed hair!)
So that’s it, really.
It’s important to remember that life throws you curves. We all get thrown curves. Injuries are serious, for musicians they can be devastating. But the human being is a remarkable creature and healing does take place. With patience and with determination to change your ways, injuries can be managed. Many come back stronger than ever before. I came back different, with a different skill set.
I’m certainly a stronger musician thanks to my time spent away from my instrument, thinking and listening to music instead of playing it only. I’m certainly a VERY different conductor now. I don’t wave my hands unless I need to. Most find it way too economical and rather not all that inspirational. Showing the sound is important, yes; making sure the singers understand where they are in the measure is important; beating time is important; but I’m not into the massive arm waving anymore.
Most importantly, my decision to leave Ithaca College and Glimmerglass Opera was a decision that truly hurt me – it was a very difficult decision and sometimes I regret making it. However, my time at Florida Grand Opera was absolutely integral to my career path. I would not be at Opera McGill, I’m sure, if I had not had the experiences balancing millions of dollars of artistic budgets, being part of the administrating to open downtown Miami’s half billion dollar performing arts center, and casting, scheduling, contracting, coordinating all those wonderful operatic pieces of the puzzle. I bet I might still be at Ithaca College if I hadn’t woken up that night with a dead arm.
But then I’d not be typing these words, I’d not be living in Ontario, I'd not have turned to directing operas instead of conducting them (something that is tremendously fulfilling!), I’d not be running the best opera program in Canada, and I’d not have gotten to know so many very wonderful students, colleagues, and neighbors here in Montreal and in Canada.