Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tendonitis of the brain

I took classical music history this past semester in order to fufil one of the musicology diagnostic exams I failed (I failed all of them). I felt like I was learning everything for the first time, which makes sense given my less-than-stellar undergraduate study habits. It wasn't until we got to Beethoven that things began to feel familiar again; I didn't start paying attention in my undergraduate class until Beethoven.

In musical academia, we tend to idolize Beethoven as the tragic hero of romanticism--a man who fought poverty, addiction, and ultimately his own loss of hearing, and was still able to express his artistry through music. His famed Heiligenstadt Testament provides us with a direct account of Beethoven's struggles from the composer himself:
Oh, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the hightést perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed. – Oh I cannot do it... (full text here)
I remembered this quote vividly from my undergraduate class. In fact, I remember the profound emotional reaction I had when reading this quote. You see, the reason I started paying attention when we got to Beethoven in my undergrad was because that was when my injury had fully manifested itself. I could no longer play, so my attention turned towards my academics. Reading this document hit close to home because frankly, I felt the same way.

There are some fairly significant psychological implications of tendonitis and other musical-related injuries, and affects students and teachers alike. I've gotten to a point in my career now that I have been on both sides of this fence.  When dealing with an injury, whether it be your own injury or a student's, there are a couple of things I want to bring to the surface.

1. It's not your fault. 

 For some reason, we human being have a funny fixation with needing to find a scapegoat for all circumstances in which we find ourselves. Identifying the cause of the injury and blaming somebody for it are not the same thing.  More often than not, an injury like tendonitis is rooted in "too much playing."  For a student, that means they are practicing quite a bit.  This puts teachers in a really awkward place.  Is it the teacher's fault for making his or her students practice too much?  Or is it the student's fault for not practicing more responsibly?

From personal experience, let me assure you that I never once blamed my teacher for what happened to me.  My injury stemmed out of a combination of an incomplete understanding of technique, poor practice habits and a whole lot of enthusiasm.  As a teacher, you have to push your students to work hard.  If your student develops a repetitive stress injury because they are trying to do well, the only thing you can be held accountable for is not providing them with proper guidance to heal their injury.

That being said, the worst thing a teacher can do is come down on their student, or allow the student to place the blame on his or herself.  Tendonitis should not be a punishment for working too hard.  Remember, more often than not, this injury came about with the best of intentions.  You want your students to practice a lot, so for a student to feel at fault for practicing too much can be extremely detrimental to his or her success.  Remember, placing blame is irrelevant--focus on identifying the problem and healing the injury.

2. There's nothing wrong with you

When I was injured, I spent way too much time looking for answers in the wrong places.  Instead of searching for a solution to my problem, I spent too much time searching for the cause.  Remember that whole "placing blame" thing I was just going on about?  I was trying to figure out why I was having problems, while nobody else was.

Look, the fact of the matter is getting injured isn't really that unusual.  It is concerning, alarming, even devastating, sure, but it's not unusual.  This is something that I feel like a lot of teachers haven't come to terms with yet, especially those who did not grow up in the digital age.  Society today demands a lot more use of your fingers and arms than ever before--texting, typing, and clicking are all repetitive stressed that get added on top of your regular practicing.  To sustain a repetitive-stress injury is a big deal for a musician--but it's not uncommon.

Don't forget--as musicians, what we do with our bodies is on par with Olympic athletes, just with smaller muscles.  If an athlete injures themselves while training, it's not terribly surprising--in fact, it's so common, that "sports medicine" is a viable career option for many aspiring physicians and therapists.  No matter how young you start playing, or how strong you are, or even how responsibly you practice, you are not invincible.  If your rely on athleticism in your career, whether it be running, constant computer use, or playing marimba, you are asking your body to perform to it's extremes.

So, why is it that some people deal with injury, while others never do?  The answer is simple enough: everybody's different.  I can't really say for sure what it is that prevents person a from sustaining person b's injury, even when they are following the exact same course of study.  Once again--placing blame isn't going to help.  There are instances where a pre-existing condition may cause somebody to be more prone to injury than others, but chances are you would already know about it before you became injured.  For this reason, teachers can have a hard time understanding why their students are dealing with injuries that they never had.  Just remember--your students are different people, growing up in a different time.

3. Do something about it

I'll tell you more about what to do in future blog entries, but what I need to make clear now is that your injury will not go away on it's own.  This was probably my biggest mistake when I first began dealing with my injury.  Taking time off from playing does not heal you.  I can't stress this enough.  In fact, I'm going to say it again, in it's own paragraph:

Taking time off from playing does not heal you.

David Shulman, the Towson-based physical therapist who was largely responsible for healing my injuries, would always tell me: "If taking time off could fix your arms, I wouldn't have a job.  You would go to the doctor, be evaluated, and the doctor would pull out his book, and say 'you have tendonitis--I'm prescribing three months of rest.'  But that's not how it works."

Time does not heal all wounds.  Our bodies are equipped to handle healing things like a cut or a scrape or a bruise or anything else that happens in the daily struggle to survive.  However, playing an instrument is not natural and our bodies aren't equipped to naturally rectify the ailments associated with it.  When you sustain a music-related injury, it is something you have done to your body over a long period of time.  Therefore, you need to do something to your body to get rid of it.  If I had known this from the beginning, my injury would have been much less severe, and would have healed much more quickly.

That being said, it's important to consider the distinction between being sore or tired from a long day of practicing, and actual pain caused by an injury.  If you've been practicing a lot and your arms feel really tired, than you need to stretch, rest, and let them recover.  If you are experiencing pain and discomfort for an extended period of time after practicing from an isolated area, especially if it is painful to touch, you have reason to be concerned.  I'm not a doctor, and I can only speak of my own experiences.  The best I can do is tell you to listen to and trust your body.  It will be very clear when enough is enough.

4. Don't be afraid to play your instrument

This is really a post-injury concern, but is certainly worth addressing.  One of the longest side effects of tendonitis I dealt with was being afraid of having any tension in my body at all.  As I became able to play for longer periods of time, it took me a while to be willing to get a lot of sound out of my instrument, or conjure up more violent and tense spirits in my music that I was able to perform before.

It takes a certain amount of tension to play your instrument.  As I recovered from my injury, I spent a lot of time focusing on reducing the amount of tension in my playing.  I had a lot of really bad habits, and over a long time, managed to get rid of most of them.  However, when it came time for me to play music that demanded a more agressive, violent, or otherwise emotionally tense character, I was pretty unwilling to do this.  Tension is something that needs to be harnessed, not feared.

There are certain parts of your body that hold tension better than others, and there are more appropriate times for those parts of the body to hold that tension.  This is something that I'll go into more detail in when I talk about different muscle groups and their uses.  What needs to be avoided is constant, unnecessary use of tension.  This tension, more often than not, stems from poor technique, and can lead to an injury.  However, proper and efficient use of tension is not damaging, and more musically effective.

Remember that there are ways of reversing the effects of tension, such as massage, stretching, and exercise. The most important thing to know is that while tension should be avoided, do not let the fear of tension negatively impact your playing.  We are musicians first and foremost--even if you recover from your injury, you haven't really fully recovered if you cannot play your instrument the way the music you're playing demands.

Anyway, I want to leave you with one thought.  And it was my thought, during the midst of all of this:

This is what you get for trying too hard.

All of the points I brought up can go back to feeling this statement.  Trying to place blame, trying to understand why I was injured in the first place, trying to figure out what to do about it, and even after I began to heal--it all came back to this idea.  But, I consider myself fully recovered now because I've gotten over this attitude.  My injury, and the process of recovery, lasted about two years.  But without confronting this attitude, it could have lasted for much longer.

I'll leave this here for the time being, but I'm sure there is plenty left to be discussed.  I would love to hear your input!  This is part of a larger project for me, so any ideas, criticisms, and suggestions are welcome.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Back in that chair in the sky...

I guess doing this whole blog thing doesn't really work if all of my updates happen once every few months. Sorry 'bout that.

I could type for days and days about my adventures in Germany, as well as my adventures in school this semester. Things have finally drawn to a close now, and I'm typing this sitting in the Chicago Midway International Airport, one hour into my three-hour layover. I've done all the grading I can do away from an internet connection, so before I arrive home, I thought I would jot down some thoughts I've been wanting to share for a while.

In preparing for my recital next semester (as well as a number of other auditions and competitions I will be pursuing), my professor finally gave me the o.k. to take a stab at learning Joseph Schwatner's Velocities. For those of you not familiar with the world of advanced marimba repertoire, Velocities is a very popular piece that a lot of marimbists attempt to play. It is extremely difficult; it covers the entire range of the keyboard, features numerous rapid interval changes, requires for the performer to use both the head and the shaft of the mallet against the bars, and to top it all off: the piece is a moto perpetuo—the performer isn't allowed any breaks for the entirety of the work.

Normally, I'm not one for showy pieces—I'm certainly impressed when I see one played well, but I'm much more interested in the artistry and musicianship of a performer than his or her technical capacity. A lot of the repertoire that shows off technique normally doesn't suit my fancy particularly well, but Velocities is an exception. Schwatner's intervallic continuity is consistent and precise—resulting in lots of open sonorities that I've always been attracted to. The first time I had ever heard a really well done performance of Velocities, I fell in love.

My love for Velocities wasn't free from complication, however. My first experiences listening to velocities were during the beginning of my encounter with tendonitis—an encounter that would ultimately claim two years of my undergraduate experience. As I watched one of my classmates play Velocities in a studio class (and quite well, at that), I found myself thinking “wow, his arms must be killing him!” about halfway through his performance. It was then that I realized that, no, his arms didn't hurt, because he didn't have that problem. I did.

This was one of the first times that I began to question the reality of my career choice. What kind of a percussionist am I expecting to be if I can't even play my instrument for five minutes? I had to leave the studio class for a few minutes to regain my composure.

Well, as far as my experiences are concerned, that was a long time ago. As far as I'm concerned, I've made a full recovery. Or at least, enough of a recovery that I can be a functional percussionist again. I've made a lot of changes, both in my practicing and in my lifestyle, to facilitate my career goals. I've been fortunate enough to have found some great help along the way, but ultimately, I had to learn for myself how to fix my problems. And now, I've got the score to Velocities in my stick bag pocket, ready to devote this winter break to learning it. For me, Velocities is the final boss in my battle with tendonitis. If I can play this piece, I can play anything.

Now all of this isn't for me to lament my “eternal struggle” with repetitive stress injuries. Rather, it's to share what this journey has inspired me to do. In trying to overcome my injuries, I was presented with far more obstacles than solutions—ignorance, misinformation, and to a certain extent, even malpractice. I couldn't believe how little information was available to a musician—especially a percussionist—who was dealing with an RSI. I should stress that the information I needed wasn't along the lines of “stretch, take breaks, use heat/ice,” and the other suggestions I received ad infinitum from only somewhat-informed percussionists and medical practitioners. Though these folks had the best of intentions, their advice was too little and too late for someone in my position. What I needed was someone who was fully aware of what was going on in my arms, and what needed to be done to fix it.

Now, don't get me wrong—I'm not a doctor, or a physician, or a therapist, or a brain surgeon, or anything else it might sound like I'm claiming to be in my writing. However, I've learned through my own experiences what my problems were, what caused them, and how they can be fixed. The amount of literature available to percussionists who share my situation is remarkable limited. Therefore, I would like to try my hand at writing an article about the injuries percussionists can get, and what can be done to prevent and fix them.

Hey, look at that! This plane has wifi too. Looks like I'll be posting from a chair in the sky again. Anyway, for the next few blog entries, I'm going to write a couple sample portions of this potential article I would like to write. I also my accompany them with some video instruction as well. With enough detail work, perhaps I can generate enough content to provide a fairly comprehensive guide for percussionists to help cope with, treat and avoid injuries altogether. It will be tough to find time for this... I've got a lot of music to learn, and not a lot of time to learn it. But—I think I'm pretty fortunate to get to try learning Velocities this year, and I would be humbled to help ensure that all other percussionists could have that opportunity as well.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Well, the internet situation here has gotten better, and I'm currently uploading all of the photos I've taken thus far. I'll post a few highlights in this post:

The Barn where we had our first performance
The Bethesda Haus, our residence
Shane Nickels, one of our percussionists
One of the many gardens in Eutin
The Eutin Marktplatz

We've had a number of successful performances of both Don Giovanni and Hänsel und Gretel now, and have gotten mostly positive reviews in the papers, which is fairly encouraging. Tonight is the large chamber ensemble concert--a program I'm not involved in, but will include works such as Mozart Symphony No. 21, Barber's Adagio for Strings, and Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. I'll post more pictures soon--anyone who is connected to me on Facebook or Google+ will be able to see all of the photos I've taken, but I will only post a select few here!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Germany Post!

Well, so much for keeping everyone informed! Yes, I'm here in Deutschland, but like most rural towns in the beautiful countryside, Eutin is perhaps not the most equipped location for internet access. Therefore, my posts will be sparse (and unfortunately, without pictures), but I'll try to cover as much as I can!

Things in Eutin got busy from the very beginning. We all stumbled through the airport and to our residence extremely jet-lagged. Us musicians are being housed at two different locations (located next to one-another), the Bethesdahaus and the See Schloss hotel. A few of us (including myself) had a brief jazz concert to play that evening, at a party celebrating our arrival. Everyone was in a tired daze, but we were all excited to be there.

The Fourth of July had it's own excitement as well--the town of Eutin decided to throw an American Independence Day party in the town square for us, where the jazz sextet I was in also played. It was around this point I learned that the folks here really know how to throw a party.

Our first concert was a week ago Friday. The orchestra played a number of works, including Cappricio Espagnol by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, American in Paris by George Gershwin, multiple works by Carl Maria von Weber (who lived in Eutin), and other works by composers such as von Suppe, and Mozart. This concert brought to light the integral role of the barn in the life of a musician in Eutin; all of our rehearsals were conducted in a barn that had been converted into a rehearsal space, while the concert was performed in a separate, completely unconverted barn. I will be sure to post pictures in a separate post and link them to the appropriate articles once I have a faster connection.

From there we went straight into rehearsal for Don Giovanni in the stage itself. I'm aware my description couldn't do this location justice, but it will suffice to say that it is the first time I've ever played in an outdoor amphitheater from an open-air pit. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see that much of the staging and costumes from the pit, but what I have seen thus far is certainly remarkable. Our first performance was last night, and a massive cast party ensued. Like I said, these folks really know how to have a party.

I've been in love with the German life since coming here. The food and drink (especially the drink) is absolutely delicious. The town of Eutin is beautiful; in this place, gardens transform into streets which lead you to forests and meadows. Nature has imposed itself on this town, and the people have responded by completely embracing it.

I was able to make a day trip to Lübeck, which should be a separate posting in itself. It's a beautiful city, and not terribly hard to get to from Eutin. The highlight of my trip was visiting the Marienkirche. Knowing I was in a room where Buxtehuda performed regularly, and where composers such as J.S. Bach and Handel had visited left me with this chilling feeling of legacy. I believe visiting places like the Marienkirche is essential to any young, learning musician. Music history can feel like a myth when all you know about it comes from what you learn sitting in a classroom hundreds of miles away. But when you're breathing the very air in which that myth was written, those stories become very real.

As I mentioned earlier, I will make a separate posting just for pictures of the places here once I'm on a more reasonable internet connection. I'll do my best to keep this updated. Until then, bis bald!

Friday, July 1, 2011


Well, its been a while since I've updated this blog.  A lot has happened since my last post, of course, but I would like to start fresh with this one because:

I am on my way to Germany with the Kansas University Symphony Orchestra!

This year marks the first year of the Kansas University German-American Music Institute (or KUGAMI for short).  We've teamed up with Lawrence's sister city, Eutin, to perform in the Neue Eutiner Festspiele, an annual opera festival held in Eutin to honor Carl Maria von Weber, who is an Eutiner himself.  I'll be posting more as the festival continues, and hopefully from my computer (and not my phone, which I'm posting from now).  Auf wiedersehen!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

YouTube Symphony Orchestra results

Well, I'm down in Baltimore now, practicing and getting ready for my trip to MAGFest. While I was down here, I received the results to the YouTube Symphony Orchestra auditions.

Unfortunately, I wasn't selected.

A full list of winners is available at the YouTube Symphony Orchestra's YouTube page.

As for me? Well, I cooked up a little video of my own to, well, cope with the results. I had a lot of fun with it, hopefully you'll enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it :)