Playing with pain. We’ve all heard about it in regard to the world of sports. However, symphony orchestra audience members rarely, if ever, hear about it pertaining to the people who make the beautiful music they have come to hear. It just doesn’t fit into their highly romanticized conception of what it means to be a classical music performer.
Yet many of us play with pain on a daily basis. Repetitive limited range of motion, combined with muscle tension, for hours on end, often twisted into unnatural positions—day after day, with rarely a day off, for decades—leads to a host of physical problems: arthritis, tendinitis, bursitis; neck, back, arm and shoulder problems . . . the list goes on and on. Treatments range from long term relationships with chiropractors, to therapeutic massage and yoga, to acupuncture, to steroid injections and surgery – all done to keep us playing.
I, myself, was recently sidelined. Those are difficult phone calls to make—to the personnel manager and the music director—to say, “I can’t play.” It’s a sobering moment. However, the compassion and understanding with which the news was received was heartening.
Ironically, it wasn’t pain that was the cause—quite the opposite—it was loss of feeling in the index and second fingers of my right hand. It would merely be an inconvenience for a non-musician, but for a bassoonist it’s devastating. I can’t feel two of the holes on the instrument that those two fingers cover. I knew it felt numb—I had been dealing with it off and on for a couple of years—but it had never been this bad before. I could only play for a few seconds before wrong notes started to appear.
I immediately called my hand doctor. (Yes, I have a regular hand doctor.) Some unpleasant testing of the electrical pathways (nerves), with a device quite like a stun gun, yielded a diagnosis of “severe carpal tunnel syndrome.” The nerve that runs to those fingers was being choked off at the wrist. The only solution was surgery—take the pressure off the nerve and allow it to heal.
I’m writing this two weeks to the day after surgery. The incision is healing very nicely—but the numbness persists. My doctor told me that intact nerves regenerate from where the nerve is still healthy, toward the tip of the fingers, at a rate of about an inch per month. Both he and I are optimistic for a full recovery—it will just take time. I should have about 80% of my hand strength back in three months; 100% in six.
But still, I wonder, “what if it never gets better?” I hope to be back on stage in October. Only time will tell.
Note: Several ICSOM orchestras publish newsletters, including the musicians of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. This article from their October issue, by FWSO bassoonist Kevin Hall, reprinted by permission, exemplifies the fine writing one can find there. To subscribe, visit www.fwsomusicians.com/links–contact-us.html.