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On Injuries, Attitudes, and Life Lessons

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Published: March 31, 2014 at 3:52 PM [UTC]

It’s time to talk about the dreaded specter that haunts us, either subconsciously or very consciously, as instrumental musicians: I’m speaking, of course, of injuries. I have an extremely vested interest in this subject as injury has caused me a great deal of agony far beyond simple physical pain; in fact, it prevented me from being able to play my violin at all for two (very long) years. I will never in my life forget that span of time, but what it eventually did for me as a player and person is practically immeasurable. Join me for story time below!

I spent most of my life in athletics, so the origin of this injury tale lies not in music, but in sports: I jostled a disc out of place at age 16, and rather than take time off, change my workouts, or do anything smart to fix it, I instead ignored it and compressed it unevenly over the next three years (I was a varsity swimmer who specialized in butterfly, which obviously did me no favors). However, it never affected my violin playing, so I ultimately did what I needed to do to get it under control athletics-wise, and went on with my life, no big deal.

Fast forward a few years, into college: I'm no longer doing any competitive swimming or water polo (I really wasn't kind to my body as a teenager), and the amount of violin playing had been reduced significantly, though I still played nearly every day and participated in two orchestras at my university. I’d taken up running again, and had been putting a couple miles in a week – still, nothing major. Whatever the particular reason, at some point over Labor Day weekend in 2010, my previously-compressed L5-S1 disc herniated on the left side.

The pain was, in a word, debilitating. As the bulge in the disc was pressing on my sciatic nerve, there was shooting, burning pain down my whole left leg, and the whole process of shifting my weight to the right side of my body (because putting any weight on the damaged disc was excruciating) had pulled my SI (sacroilliatic ) joints, especially my left one, out of place. Nothing was comfortable: I couldn’t sit, stand, lie, or walk comfortably at any point. I doggedly tried to make it through a couple rehearsals – I think we were playing a Brahms symphony – but literally had to leave midway through my last attempt in tears, because I had never in my life felt that much pain in my low back as I did when I tried to play the violin. It was humiliating; I felt weak, pathetic. I had to send the orchestra director an email a few days later – it took me a few days to get up the grit to admit it – that I would not be playing with them for the foreseeable future. I didn’t play with another orchestra until two years after I graduated.

So, I quit playing altogether out of necessity. Playing seated was absolutely out of the question since it put too much pressure on my disc, and I could get through maybe ten minutes of actual practice (we’re talking anything beyond tuning) while standing, until the muscles in my middle back tightened to the point where I could no longer breathe comfortably, and had to spend two hours recovering on the floor. It wasn’t worth it, and was simply too depressing to even try at that point, so I just gave it up – for the first time since age 5, I gave it up. It broke my heart, and my spirit. It sucked.

Two years went by: I felt weird, and empty, and filled with a constant (though mostly muted) sense of loss. Then in November of 2012, I got a Facebook message from a violin friend looking for an extra second violinist for a Christmas concert – it was just one rehearsal and one concert in the same day, and they were playing music I’d already played a million times, and I thought, “Hmmm, maybe this is worth a shot.” I gave it a go, and while I felt like my body was going to give out at any moment by the end of the concert, it was so exhilarating to be back in an orchestra, doing what I love most.

That moment, my shaking, aching hands clasped around the neck of my violin while we stood up to face a standing ovation, I knew that I couldn’t go back, that I needed this more than anything in my life, and that I would do whatever it took to get it back.

Since then, I'm now back in an orchestra, I have six private students, and I practice about two hours on my own a week (plus occasional chamber rehearsals). I could not have even touched this amount of weekly playing a year ago. I’ve worked my butt off doing physical therapy, yoga, swimming, water aerobics, light weight lifting, and pilates for the past year (and lost 30 pounds in the process, which probably helps too) to get back into playing shape, and while it’s been a frustrating road filled with lots of setbacks and new limitations, I am simply grateful to be able to play at all.

Taking two years away from playing, however, did something extraordinary: it reminded me why I play the violin, and why I ever picked it up in the first place. When I was younger, I used to practice to be the best, to be first chair, to be the person everyone thinks of when they say, “That violinist.” Even in college after I quickly realized that violin performance was not a good direction for me, I was still super competitive, judgmental, and hyper-critical – maybe not as bad as I was when I was a teenager, but that attitude of needing, not just wanting, to be better than everyone was ever present. Put simply, I played to win. Whatever that meant, that’s what I was about.

The joy that I felt in having my instrument back in my hands, doing not just what I do best but what I love most, meant more to me than I could ever put into words. It reminded me of who I am as a person, and how this made me who I am today. Now, instead of trying to beat everyone and be the best, I want to simply just...make music. Isn’t that why we all started playing the violin in the first place, because of a deep love of the instrument?

I always knew that I loved the violin from the first time I put my hands on one, but I never knew just how much until I had to stop – let alone fearing that I would, very realistically, never be able to play again. I was fortunate enough to be given - and I hope to have earned - a second chance, and have worked very, very, very hard to make sure that I never have to let it go again.

I suppose if there’s a moral – or point – to this admittedly quite long post, it’s this: if it hurts, give yourself a break, because trying to “push through it” is going to do you no favors in the long run. It’s better to take a few days or weeks off from playing now, and get the necessary professional help and guidance, rather than be put in a position where your entire playing career is jeopardized in the future due to misplaced stubbornness or pride – this is a fact of which I still have to continually remind myself, but the specter of those two years hangs heavy on my consciousness and reminds me through occasional bouts of intense pain that I am not invincible, and must care for myself in order to be a better musician.

Posted on April 1, 2014 at 6:57 AM
Thank you for sharing with us your own journey from the sadness to the ultimate joy with your dear violin. It really helps me, a non-musician parent for a young violinist, to have a fresh perspective about my daughter's long-hours practice purpose.

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