With pain like this, I could do without the gain

There are plenty more books to be written about musicians and pain. It’s easy to forget when you see people on stage in penguin suits and evening gowns that music is a form of athletics, and your body can take a beating.

I’ve been comparatively lucky with pain over the years. I had a spot of tendonitis my first year in college caused by trying to change everything about my playing while practicing five times as much as I ever had. Since then, I’ve been lucky to have very body-wise teachers, especially Lee Fiser, who was a genius in teaching body awareness.

Some of my friends have not been so lucky, and the medical establishment is often painfully under-equipped to deal with the injuries musicians suffer. As a result, I’ve seen many friends and colleagues get bad advice early in the onset of physical problems which meant that things continued to get worse, sometimes, tragically, to the point of being career ending. I’ve also seen a few friends go through some truly ghastly surgical procedures, not to get back to playing, but just to be able to brush their teeth without agony.

For some years, my one area of concern has been my back. Cello playing can take a toll on tall guys when we sit in chairs that are too short, and it’s easy to twist your torso a bit. In my case, my early years in rock bands meant way too much reckless heavy lifting, so I’ve had a an intermittently recurring back injury for about 15 years.

Back problems for conductors are not to be trifled with, because when standing and waving your arms, your core muscles are put under a lot of stress. Karajan had such terrible back trouble for the last 12 years of his life (following a skiing accident) that he told his biographer that his tombstone should read “he died in great pain.” Celibidache had similar problems late in his career, while Mikko Franck has been confined to conducting in a chair since about 19 years of age because of a spine condition.

Fortunately, my back injury was never anything like that. It was something that would flare up about 3-4 times a year for a week- I’d be uncomfortable, occasionally miserable, but functional.

Last night I felt it coming on again, and, although I was not pleased, I was not panicked. After so many years, something like this becomes something you are accustomed to working through. By bedtime, however, I was concerned that it was probably the most acute discomfort I’d ever had from this. Possibly the most acute discomfort I’d ever had. Then, around 4 AM I woke up in back spasms. Really, short of childbirth, kidney stones and having your arm ripped off by a blunt-toothed Bengal tiger, I can’t imagine anything more painful. Within an hour I was in such misery that I called Northwest to see if I could change my flight- because this is pre-existing condition, my travel insurance doesn’t cover it, and I thought it likely I would need medical care.

It took me about 90 minutes of struggle to get out of bed so I could wake my host to ask him to get the ibuprofen out of my suitcase- there was no question of my bending over for it. With those ingested, I decided to walk around the block and see if anything loosened up. I was reminded of Tim Roth’s performance in Reservoir Dogs- the sort of gurgling/screamtalking/moaning sound he makes throughout that film was something I always thought was cool but not realistic, until I heard myself making it over and over today.  In my 5 AM condition, I couldn’t have traveled anywhere without help, my hope was that with a few pills and a stretch I might either able to get myself on a flight home to Cardiff, which meant canceling our concert this week, or perhaps even tough out the gig. I’ve never missed a conducting gig for illness or injury, including checking myself out of a hospital in 2001 just to conduct a concert, but I couldn’t have conducted this morning to save my life.

As the morning progressed, the Portland nice people network kicked in and I was able to get an appointment with a respected osteopath. His manipulation didn’t seem to help much, in fact I partially blacked out standing up from the exam table, but he prescribed bountiful quantities of pain killers, muscle relaxants and homeopathic remedies. He’s at least cleared me of a slipped disc or anything spinal, but I would still seriously swap this feeling for the Bengal tiger experience. Once this blog post is up, the plan is to try to sleep all day then hope the pills will get me through rehearsal.

The doc was sweetly concerned that I might not be musically at my best on a maximum dose of muscle relaxants, but that’s a chance I’ll have to take. I do have fond memories of playing for David Zinman when he was doped up for kidney stones- it was the only week I’ve ever seen him be uniformly pleasant with people…..

Anyway, watch this space….


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

6 comments on “With pain like this, I could do without the gain”

  1. Troy Birdsong


    Sorry to hear about your back. I had a kidney stone a year and a half ago. No Fun! I don’t know if you remember me, but I was a bass player at Roundtop with you for a few years. Great to see that you are doing so well. I’ve tried to email you a few times, but it always comes back to me. I have a question for you offline, so email me.

    Troy Birdsong

  2. composerbastard

    wow what a coincidence. I am having really bad back problems from sitting in this chair composing. Hasn’t gone away for the last 3 weeks. I started doing stretching 2x a day in hopes it will work.

    Could be worse…could be a dancer. Nothing like witnessing a crying ballerina collapsed on the floor backstage at the Kennedy center, knowing her career was over with…

  3. Anna

    Hi Ken,
    I really hope that you are feeling better soon.
    Back pain is a real pain in the ………

  4. Lisa Hirsch

    Ach, you have my sympathies; I have had muscle spasms in my back a number of times and they’re pretty bad. I have found muscle relaxants taken prophylactically or at onset to be very helpful, as in, they substantially shorten my recovery period. I have recently been taking Pilates lessons to strengthen my core muscles, and that too has been great.

    — Lisa

  5. Guy Aron

    Hi Ken

    commiserations and wishes for a speedy (but not too speedy) recovery. Being 6 feet tall and arthritic I was concerned about how taking up the cello at the age of 47 would affect me. (If you read that as the opening sentence of a novel you wouldn’t believe it!) But I have not been adversely affected, apart from a several-times-a-year back pain not unlike yours. However I can STRONGLY recommend Pilates, as Lisa has. I go once a week & am positive it keeps me in a much better state than I would be without it. You are your instrument! If you won’t do it for yourself (like most fellas) think of your orchestra & do it for them!

    All the best


    PS I got my bow the other week (the light one) & it is great. Nice straight stick, no repairs & a lovely frog. My teacher is going to get me to look out for a bow for her on eBay! & it is good for the Baroque repertoire being 67 grams. The hair is a little unusual (to me) being a mixture of black and white – I read somewhere that the black hair is coarser & thought maybe some was used to compensate for the lighter weight?

  6. Sasha

    As an ex-cellist I can sympathize with your college experience. During the first couple of months of my professional cello study I caught an inflammation on my left thumb because my teacher wanted to “fix” the fact that I had almost no technique in thumb position playing. Result: I had to rest for almost a month, totally lost trust to that teacher, and eventually ended up with another teacher for the remaining of my conservatory studies.


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