Secret Pain of a Musician

Midway through playing piano at Mass tonight, my eyes were stinging with tears. The pain in my wrist was back. The sharp, searing pain of tendonitis, followed by the constant burn. It is a familiar pain and discomfort. One that I have fought for the past 15 years, and is the result of injury caused by something that brings me so much joy – playing piano.

My story is unfortunately not unique. In college I read a study where over 75% of the musicians they interviewed had an injury that interfered with their playing. My pain started in the early years of high school and was fairly mild. My hands would bother me off and on, but it wasn’t ever an issue and it never interfered with other activities.

College and the demands of playing 2-4 hours a day as a music major brought new challenges to my health. My wrist pain quickly escalated to where I could no longer cut meat, hold fork, turn a page in a book, or turn a doorknob, without noticeable and severe pain. And of course, piano playing was excruciating.

After visiting a hand specialist in Wichita, I was diagnosed with tendonitis. Rest, ice, icy-hot, and some exercises were prescribed. Braces weren’t an option because they cause the muscles and tendons to become stiff and weak, and then you’re worse off when you take the brace off. The pain never went away. The only thing that got rid of the pain was to rest it.

This is because my particular type of injury is called a repetitive stress, or repetitive motion injury. The main motions our hands are meant to do are grab, hold, and manipulate objects. Our hands were never meant to do the type of motions that are required by many instruments. Instruments were not created with ergonomics in mind. They were created with one thing in mind – beauty of sound.

After doing some research, I found the Taubman approach to piano technique. It teaches the students how to move at the piano in a healthy manner. I was able to attend lessons with a Taubman trained teacher, who lives in Kansas City. Unfortunately, it became too much to drive out there every other weekend, and I had to stopped.

However, through my couple years of lessons with her, and through observing myself as I play, I was able to pinpoint a few of the things that bothered me when I played. For example, any run of double notes in the RH causes me pain on the right side of my wrist because of the motion used to bring out the melody played by the pinky. Knowing what sets off my hands, I have become very particular about what music I purchase. I also make major modifications to any section that contains anything that causes pain.

I also am hyper-aware of everyday tasks that could cause a flare-up of my injuries. Here is an example of some of the things I do differently now:
using left hand (LH) to eat — I’m really quite good at it now!
keeping wrist stationary while I put away dishes rather than rotating my wrist — next time you unload dishes from the dishwasher, notice the motion of your arm. Do you rotate your wrist to get the dish from going sideways to how it needs to be in the cabinet?
Unloading groceries (or anything heavy) with my LH.
Never forcing open a stuck jar lid. There’s only so far I will try before something snaps in that ol’ wrist of mine.
Folding clothes (and any other household chore) with as little wrist motion as possible.
Burping baby/patting baby on back by moving from the elbow and keeping wrist stationary
Using pens instead of pencils to write. Pencils have too much resistance.
I also stopped: crocheting (OUCH!) and embroidery, two things that bring me joy as well

With my modifications while playing music, and my attention to how I moved while performing household duties, I was able to keep my pain to a minimum for about two years. Two wonderful years! I had worked myself up to playing some wonderful music, and had just purchased a Mozart concerto. Back in college, I would have typically played a concerto for my junior or senior recital. But I was unable to because of the pain. I always felt like I had missed part of my training as a musician. So when I had been healthy for long enough, I was overjoyed at the thought of finally working on a new piece! I listened to a couple different concertos and picked my favorite.

But then, in February of this year, I decided I needed to lose some baby weight. So I went swimming, my favorite type of exercise. It’s low impact – low risk. Or so I thought. Something went wrong and I injured my shoulder, my elbow, and re-inflamed my old wrist injuries. All my carefulness for the past couple of years was for nothing.

The pain I felt was not just physical, it was emotional. It sent me down a path of physical therapy and complete rest from piano yet again. It has been half a year, and I am just starting to play again. But I forgot this week how easy it is to over do it. The injuries aren’t visible. There’s no way of knowing if any particular piece will cause issues, or when I need to stop playing. The fact that there is no solution for the injury that interferes with piano playing, and only managment, well, that isn’t easy on the heart of a musician.