In this powerful guest post, professional pianist Evelina de Lain writes of her background growing up in the former USSR, the serious injury that stopped her piano playing career in its tracks, her discovery of jazz, and how she finally overcame her injury to become a successful professional pianist with a growing international career…
Early Years – and a discovery
“I was destined to be a pianist before I was born…
My mother (who was my piano teacher) always felt like she didn’t achieve the level of classical playing she wanted, and had to “settle” for being a teacher rather than performer. So she always had an idea to “make a daughter” (direct quote) who will have more talent and luck than her in achieving her dreams of becoming a good classical pianist…
So when I was born, nobody tried to figure out that I might have my own ideas of what to do with my life. I was always destined to take on my mother’s goals. I started playing at the age of 4, and I did show natural abilities straight away.
I wasn’t taken with classical music though, and it was a huge disappointment to my mother that I didn’t have as much passion for Mozart as she had. I was more interested in picking up the music I heard on TV and radio, or playing improvisations.
When I was in the first grade, my mum’s music class would give little concerts in the local kindergarten and I remember asking kids to give me themes for my tiny improvisations, and they would yell out “bear” or “lunch” – and I would play musical description of it. Or I would play something and ask them to guess what animal it was. I remember I “played” a rooster, a dog, a canary bird.
Even though my mum found my improvisations slightly amusing, she restricted me in the time I could spend doing them, so that most of my practice would be dedicated to straight-forward classical music.
But at the age of seven I heard a family friend playing “Blue Moon” and I was straight away completely taken with it. It was the first time I heard jazz and even though back then I didn’t know what it was – I had a feeling that that’s what I wanted to do. He taught me how to play it and I remember that’s the first time I started getting into music for real – the first time I felt passion for it.
There wasn’t much jazz in USSR – but this guy, Boris, knew a few jazz standards and a few soviet songs that had lovely jazz harmonies, so he proceeded to show me some other songs, which I’d pick up straight away. And after playing them, going back to classical practice was very hard, but I had no choice.
The Soviet System
Unfortunately, in Soviet piano school back then they didn’t put any importance on physical side of things. I never heard of exercising or stretching at least once during an hour of practice, I never heard that you had to develop back muscles to support your hand movement. I wasn’t doing any physical activity at all, just practising for hours a day and then doing my school homework. So it was millions of hours of sitting – and not even an awareness of how to sit correctly. Back then I was playing piano sitting on a wicker chair with a few Shakespeare books on it.
So it was only a matter of time until I started developing back and neck pain, scoliosis, and soon you could see that my right shoulder was a few inches above my left shoulder. My mum used to tap me forcefully on the right shoulder commanding me to lower it down. But I don’t think it was something I could control given that my skeleton went quite askew. Later in life I found out that I had a hip dysplasia from birth, so my entire right side was at least an inch “higher” then the left side, and it wasn’t helped by years of poor posture while playing piano and no physical exercise.
By the time I went to Music College and then Conservatory I was used to constant back pain and accepted it as a necessary evil. In college I don’t remember ever hearing that your entire body was involved in your playing, so you better keep your back in a good physical condition. And unfortunately back then I didn’t have enough sense to figure it out on my own.
The overall situation wasn’t helped when I broke my spine due to some harmless (or seemingly harmless) jokey push by my classmate; I struck my back on the picture frame and got fractured vertebrae in between my shoulder blades. Due to the same lack of physical awareness, I didn’t get any treatment for it and didn’t realise how significant it was. I just continued playing with more back pain than ever. A year later I got a further trauma to my lower back which resulted in trapped nerve.
I just had to accept that this is what my career would be – playing in pain for the rest of my life. And I still wasn’t aware of any alternatives.
The Soviet Union felt apart during my first year at college so my mum lost her salary and my grandmother lost her pension, while it took newly independent Ukraine about 10-12 years to get back on its feet even a little bit in terms of economics. So I was left with the responsibility to work during my college years to pay for my rent and food. I started playing at the restaurant during evenings when I was 15, and carried on doing it through all my years of higher education.
When I was 17, I also became the youngest ever ballet accompanist at the Dnipropetrovsk National Opera and Ballet Theatre. After that I often had days when I’d play up to 15-16 hours a day; 4 hours at college, then 4-5 hours at Ballet Theatre, then all night at the restaurant.
My back had been aching all the time and I was used to it, but now my hands started aching. This situation had been going on for a few years and my hands eventually started swelling and were in unbearable pain. I went to the doctor and found out that I had poly-arthritis and chronic tendinitis (a repetitive strain injury).
This entire situation was brought on by a mixture of things – too much playing, incorrect posture, back problems, lack of physical activity, hence more stress on the hands and also by the fact that my hands were tiny and I had to stretch them too much in order to play Rachmaninov and Liszt.
By the time my final exams came I figured out how to bandage all my fingers with elastic bands, take a few ibuprofen and then play. My teacher was embarrassed that I’d be playing with bandaged fingers so she told me to wear long sleeves so that exam commission would be unaware of my hand problems. I still got the best grades but as soon as I finished college I felt relief that I didn’t have to play classical anymore – and I could concentrate on my true passion, jazz – and I also wanted to be a singer-songwriter at the time more than a pianist. So I pursued that for a little while, turning my back on classical completely.
Pursuing the dream
Then I got my first international contract on board a private yacht playing during educational cruises for Harvard, Yale, Stanford professors and researchers from American Museum of Natural History. I was playing mostly jazz standards then but they’d ask me to play some classical every once in a while and I reluctantly did that realising that I couldn’t play technical things anymore, my hands just couldn’t do that. I could still play non-technical things like Chopin’s nocturnes or lots of other lyrical pieces but I had to face the fact that my “Liszt days” were gone.
I continued having the back problems that had just become a part of my life. Sometimes I’d have to go to get massages or to see a chiropractor who would usually be horrified by the state of my back. I never tried to figure out what was going on with my hands, partly because they didn’t ache that much in my jazz playing. So I joyfully took on learning hundreds of standards, learning English pronunciation and figuring out my potential career in jazz while travelling the world for a few years doing jazz and cocktail piano gigs, and sometimes singing with my quartet. This and my own jazz-pop song-writing occupied me for years and I didn’t feel nostalgic towards classical music again until I moved to London.
I got resident work in London straight away and sometimes I would be asked to play Debussy or Chopin but I would usually decline saying that I’m not a classical player. Until one day one of the great jazz musicians asked me if I could improvise over Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”. This suggestion seemed a bit ridiculous and I rejected it. But it stayed in my memory and a few months later I started realising that over the years I wrote quite a few instrumental compositions that I didn’t appreciate at the time, because I couldn’t pigeon-hole them style-wise, but now I started to think how much they were inspired by my studying of impressionistic music.
I “dug them out” from my memory basement and began playing them as background music. A few people took notice and suggested that it’s an interesting style and I should write more of those. I was going through a writer’s block at the time and I took energy therapy learning how to unblock my creative potential. Eventually it worked and I started writing in this style.
Quite soon I realised that my writing is in a kind of “contemporary classical” genre with lots of my classical influences coming back in my life through my own composition. That’s when I started missing my classical roots and thinking it would be nice to play some classical as well. But trying to do that reminded me that my hands are still completely “fried”.
So I said to myself that I can use this “opportunity” to write my own contemporary classical music that would be comfortable for me to play. I started doing that and realised I missed classical more and more. And now wanting to play classical was my own choice, so it felt very different. But my back and my hands still felt awful so I thought maybe it would never happen.
During my jazz contract in USA in 2011, I was asked to play concerts of my own music – from my début album “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair. Continued…” (2009) and the same manager suggested that I mix some of the classical pieces into the recitals as well. I gave it a thought and started figuring out what kind of classical music I could play so that my hands would be able to handle it. I came up with a programme of lyrical and polyphonic pieces, Mozart’s Fantasies and other not so strenuous programme material.
The recitals were very well received and it made me think even more about my former glory as a piano prodigy during my student days, and how I finally can appreciate the depth of the tragedy that happened to my hands.
On my return to London I was in thoughts of releasing my second album “12 Colourful Preludes” when out of the blue an awful back spasm hit me one morning. I couldn’t move, I could hardly breathe, and it would take me ages to even get to the kitchen and make a cup of tea. None of the over-the-counter pain killers would work and tiger balm would give only a very short temporary relief. All I could do is lie on my couch wrapped in a woolly scarf and moan. My back felt like it was literally falling apart.
Searching for a cure
I went to a GP begging for them to get me an appointment with a physiotherapy specialist, and was told that I would be on a waiting list for at least a month. After this I didn’t know what else to do. I felt like I couldn’t afford a private chiropractor or a physiotherapist. I only got a letter saying I was on the list to get an assessment physio only after about 4 months!
A few weeks into my agony one of my great friends called me and told me that her friend from Moscow was staying in London for a while and she was a masseuse and could see me very cheaply, because she was building a client base. I went with a bit of scepticism, because I didn’t know if massage was the right thing in this situation. But this woman, whose name now will forever hold a special place in my heart, Larisa Gagarinova, appeared to be so much more than a masseuse: also a physiotherapist, a chiropractor and a specialist in quite a few body alignment techniques, from the ones that heal sports injuries to some Japanese practices that release trapped nerves. She was also famous in Portugal where she was based for a while, for helping people to regain movement after a stroke.
Straight away she told me that my back spasmed in at least 7 places and I had a nerve inflammation in my lower back. She said she was prepared to see me as many times as needed and virtually for no money. After a first session with her I felt like I could breath again for the first time in weeks, but she warned me that in 24 hours it would get worse than before. So I started a gruelling process of physio with her that lasted about 2 months. During this time we became good friends and talked about everything.
One day I mentioned my hands problems saying that if my hands were okay, I would go back to playing classical again, but it was impossible with my history. To my surprise she said that no, chronic tendinitis and other professional injuries are very treatable with massage and she could give me a guarantee that if I wanted to start this treatment my hands would get at least 70% better, and the rest could be fixed with a special hormonal injection that athletes use to heal their torn tendons. Also, part of my hands problems were due to the wrong healing of my middle spine fracture that resulted in some problems in the nerves under my shoulder blades and she showed me that they go down your arms affecting my hands. Also, the muscles in my neck and shoulders were overstrained my entire life, which added to hand ache as well.
She also mentioned that I could use props when practising – like a special back brace and snake poison ointment to rub on my hands and arms. I felt very hopeful and I trusted her to go ahead with this process. And I started feeling and seeing the benefits almost straight away. It was very painful, especially the work with shoulders, and sometimes it felt like she was going to rip my arms off … thankfully she allowed me to “complain loudly”, and she had no mercy on me explaining what’s going on under my shoulder blades and how that affects my playing.
Larisa truly was a real Magic woman, because two weeks into this treatment, I sat for my practice and realised I could play classical for 3 hours and handle it. Not without pain, but the pain was very bearable and completely under my control.
She also showed me personalised back exercises that I was supposed to do before and after my practice, but my will power only lasted for 2 months in doing them, and then I started feeling so well that I dropped them – and I feel guilty now and am going to make myself start them over again! She explained that with my kind of injuries I have to do them every day for the rest of my life and I hope to stop being so self-destructive and motivate myself to do that. In writing this text I’m declaring it to more than just myself, so I hope it will give me more will power.
Three months after our treatment I gave my first “comeback” classical concert in 13 years. Another two followed during the next two months. And so it seemed like I became a classical player once again, this time confidently combining complex classical programmes with performances of my albums.
The continuing journey
And now after completing my first classical tour that consisted of nine concerts, six different programmes and four and a half hours of classical music, I can say that I am about 70% back to my college potential. My hands and back still ache during practice, but now I know that it’s a bearable pain and I know how to handle it and I’ve got my snake poison (which I have not even used during preparation for my latest concerts), so it’s fine.
I never took an option of using the hormone injection, but I know if I ever get worse I could do that. So far I feel I am dealing with my present condition quite well. I am very aware that I probably will never be able to play Liszt’s ‘Campanella’ or 2nd Rhapsody again. Big form in technical pieces is still a struggle for me, but I’m ok with this notion, and I know how to build my programmes now so that they are comfortable for my physical state as it is.
Larisa is back in London in 10 days and I’m looking forward to some more “torture” from her and a good scolding due to the lack of my exercise. I think, I need a good push from her.
And also I am looking forward to playing more classical concerts very soon. So this is a story about my classical journey so far, and overcoming my trauma.
For more information visit Evelina’s Website »