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….