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.

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