How an Injury Saved my Playing

As a classical musician, injuries are terrifying. It doesn’t matter if it happens while you’re still in school or while you’re working a full-time gig with a symphony. Even if you have months before your next performance and you wanted to take a break anyway, it will probably be painful and scary. 

After I had finally recovered from an injury that kept me from playing for around a year and a half, fellow students approached me fairly regularly, looking for advice. Everyone asks the same questions when injured: “How did you get better?” “How long did it take before you got better?” “Did you have this or that symptom?” “What doctors did you see… did it help?” “Is it really bad if this part hurts?” “Do you feel completely better now?” I told everyone the same thing: Take a few days off from playing, get a massage, try not to stress about it, and take really good care of your body (drink way more water than seems necessary, get eight hours of sleep every night, drink less alcohol, exercise). However, I am not the slightest bit qualified to give medical advice, so here’s what I don’t say: my injury was the best thing that could have happened for my playing and approach to music.

First, a little bit about my injury, which is a common story: I started playing when I was really young and formed some bad technical habits, which weren’t always immediately apparent, so I got away with them for a long time. Entered college, didn’t exercise as much, drank much more frequently, and suddenly felt much more pressure to practice as much as possible and preceded to do so in an unhealthy manner in combination with new levels of stress. In retrospect, it’s completely obvious why I got injured, but like most college freshman, I thought I was invincible. I ended up with nerve injuries in both my arms and took five months completely off of playing, gradually working up to playing more and more over the next year. I feel much better than I did, but it’s something I will be constantly aware of for the rest of my career.

While in school, we form goals: studio class performances, summer festival auditions, recitals, professional auditions, even just weekly lessons and suddenly it’s a never ending timeline of performances to prepare for. Then, an injury strikes and it’s a huge roadblock. Recovering from an injury takes time and energy and forfeiting those goals feels like a step backwards. Committing to resolving bad technical habits and spending large amounts of practice time on nonmusical elements like posture doesn’t exactly go hand in hand with learning and perfecting a new sonata before a recital in two months. It’s possible to do both (and obviously preferable), but the pressure of being a musician in college makes us prioritize the short-term goals.

When I was injured, I had to completely relearn how to approach the bass. Everything needed to be reevaluated: how I held my instrument, how much rubber was on my bow, my posture, where the energy was coming from and how it was directed towards the instrument and music, etc. I even bought a different backpack to help my postural problems. I would spend entire practice sessions standing in front of a mirror, holding my instrument but not really playing, trying to figure out how to relax specific muscle groups (shout-out to my incredibly patient teacher, Paul Ellison, for his guidance and wisdom). The entire time, I was deathly afraid that I had lost too much ground, that I would never build the muscle strength back up, that I had lost my chances at having a real career. More than anything, I missed playing, desperately. For a long time after I had “recovered”, I still worried that I was behind, to the point of scheduling a recital too early and having to cancel. It took me awhile to accept and understand, but I had changed my playing so much that a lot of the technical aspects of playing that I had really struggled with came more easily and the length and seriousness of my injury had changed my mentality. I spent an entire year playing a slow, beautiful piece that I had literally played since I was thirteen and all of the gradual changes allowed me to make a musical statement that was more introverted and personal than anything I had played before. I had changed my priorities. Maybe I would have made these changes without an injury, but it forced me to reevaluate everything about my playing and myself as a musician.

So if you’re injured, don’t panic! Most serious musicians go through it at some point and what can be learned and integrated during time off playing is far more valuable in the long run than preparing anxiously for your next performance. Embrace it as an excuse to take a step back and cultivate amazing posture and technique and grow into the musician you actually want to be.