How your creative outlet survives an injury…
Guest Post by Simon Reich
Putting a brand new blade in a window scraper demanded concentration, as the surgically sharp implement would slice the end of a finger off in a millisecond. Unfortunately I didn’t give my scraper the respect it demanded…
While trying to multitask, taking a mobile phone call (with it wedged between my chin and shoulder), holding the scraper, and attempting to close the back door of my van, I accidentally sliced so deeply into my left hand, that I could see my bones and severed tendons.
Although not feeling pain straight away, the sight of the inner workings of my hand caused me to collapse onto the footpath, holding my skin together to stem the flow of blood.
As I sat in the back of an ambulance, it suddenly dawned on me I may never play piano again.
The paramedics informed me that because the blade was brand new and incredibly sharp, the cut would have made a surgeon proud. Amazingly I was still not feeling pain in my hand, but the thought of losing my musical outlet was causing me enough ache as it was. I knew this situation only too well, as my brother (while serving a cabinetmaking apprenticeship) lost three fingers to an electric wood buzzer. This severely curtailed his drumming career.
We as human beings are incredibly resourceful, and can overcome difficulties through sheer determination. I’ve seen a one-handed piano player, people who play with their toes, or even one who played with her nose!
Despite this human tenacity, news that you may never play again would be a huge punch in the stomach!
Having broken a finger and tearing tendons off the bone while playing basketball, I know how close I came to never using my little finger again. Many pianists decide not to participate in sports for that very reason. I know a few who have also given up bike riding to avoid the risk of injury.
As a young person I never really thought about the potential long-term effects of not looking after my fingers, but I think as I get older, they’ve become much more important to me.
Coping with bad news
I quizzed a number of piano players on how they coped with the potential bad news of a career ending injury or condition.
In the case of one, it wasn’t a hand injury, but a loss of hearing that lasted for 2 weeks. I can only imagine how horrendous this would have felt, but just think how sweet the sound was when the hearing returned! In this case the condition was not brought on by abuse, but I know of many musicians (including myself) who wear earplugs to concerts that reach high decibels.
Once our ears have been damaged from exposure to loud noises they cannot be repaired. Protect your valuable asset!
Other pianists I quizzed shared the devastation of hearing unwanted news. As I found with the microsurgery repair to my hand laceration, the medical profession are loath to give any prognosis, so it was typical that patients expressed extreme disappointment that doctors couldn’t answer their concerns about what the future held in regards to music performance.
Most doctors realise the power of the mind in assisting healing, but I think in this overly litigious society, doctors don’t want to put themselves out on a limb, in case their diagnosis fails, so it’s unfortunately left to the patient to find that inner strength to help the healing process along.
A fellow musician shared with me how her childhood injury, accompanied with excessive practice, lead to a period of pain that not only took away the ability to play, but also the simple joy that music brought to her life.
After not having a piano in her house for many years my friend moved addresses and decided to purchase a digital piano. She was hoping for the joy of music to follow, but unfortunately the pain came with it. This time, through surgery and the tenacity to keep going (despite doctors’ negative prognosis of her future at the keyboard), she took the baby steps to get back into her true love, composing and recording original tunes in her studio.
I know if I was told to stop playing, because continued use would hasten the demise of my hands and fingers, I would forge on to make music despite the protestations, much like Beethoven sawed off the legs of his piano to at least “feel” the music he was making.
Other respondents to my questions detailed how back problems had led them to cutting short playing time and ultimately connecting music making and performing to an actual painful experience.
Rather than the immediacy of an injury, often back problems can be a “slow burner” and build overtime until it’s a total chore to sit and play at the keyboard. Genetic conditions or minor injuries began the descent to pain, but respondents also noted that their poor posture and possibly extended practice times had led to an escalation of their pain.
This was especially devastating for those creative musicians who had a much deeper connection with music than just “playing notes off a page”. It was a part of their life that brought them joy and solace from difficult situations that rose from day-to-day. So the thought that this expression would be taken away, was a hard bit of news to take.
Exploring posture options is a great choice to make, and obviously starting early is the best way to allow for a long piano playing career.
Brain injuries also featured in respondents answers. But in these cases, playing musical instruments was actually a source of healing, as neural pathways were restored or transferred to other parts of the brain.
Pulling out “musical files” from memory can help to start the healing process, and then playing new tunes or composing again enable the brain to “reboot”, and attempt to get back to what it performed in the past, starting the memory process again.
Obviously not all brain injuries have these positive outcomes and once again it’s always a great idea to protect your assets, like the brain. Wear helmets when riding bikes or extreme sports and basically think before you do anything risky.
A Support network
Another aid to recovery frequently noted from my interviews was the support of fellow musicians, family and friends.
These external people greatly helped in reviving the spirits of the injured pianists, and provided much-needed encouragement to keep going despite the odds. I know one respondent, when having rather devastating health problems, was greatly encouraged by the comments left on SoundCloud and social media. This external support created a seed-bed of strength to grow from, and inspiration for composing tunes in the future.
One thing that surprised me in the replies people gave was how injuries, or the thought that music could be taken away from them forever, caused an escalation of their skill level.
Having possibly meandered along without direction in music, suddenly the thought of losing it brought on a mindset to beat the impediment and this lead to an increased ability and focus.
This article has brought up a number of issues in regards to injuries, and how they can rob us as piano players of a musical outlet.
Unfortunately some are self-inflicted, and possibly you’re not even aware of them. Take for instance incorrect posture, practicing to the extreme, and pushing the boundaries of your physical limitations, but not heading the bodies pain warnings.
In the case of protecting your ears from permanent damage, there are many sources this can come from, not just the obvious listening to loud music while playing or going to concerts. Workplaces can also produce the decibels that can permanently damaged your inner ear lining, or even listening through headphones.
One would like to think that injuries we can avoid would be squarely on our radar, but maybe now is a chance to assess your own exposure to potentially ending your music career.
Sometimes injuries just happened, like all accidents. Think of the case of Django Reinhardt, who was severely burnt during a fire in his caravan as a young man. His fingers on the left-hand were fused together, which would have spelled the end for many guitarists, but his sheer grit and determination made him a world superstar, still admired to this day, more so because of his handicap and the way Django not only worked around his disability but used it to his advantage.
This is where a fork in the road occurs between those who play music because it’s something to do, and those who really have a total desire to keep producing music in their life.
To those that live and breathe music , there is no choice, they’ll continue striving to find a way to produce their art.
I hope none of you ever get the devastating news that your musical playing days are over, or that any of your friends suffer in this way, but the reality of life may not be so kind. If you’re young and reckless, just remember injuries to your body can come back to haunt you later in life, and as I’ve said a number of times “protect your assets”.
Until medical technology advances to the point of growing limbs, these are the only fingers, toes and brains we’re born with, so treat them with respect.
You deserve to have music flowing from your fingertips; don’t take that away by something you have control over, as you will regret it for the rest of your life.
Simon is a pianist and award-winning composer from Victoria, Australia.
Further information : Simon Reich Music
photo: Benjamin Ellis