• Tatiana Thaele

When music hurts: the story of an injured musician

“I never thought it would happen to me”— probably one of the oldest clichés in the book, but so absolutely true. I especially never thought it would happen to me because I knew so much about musicians with injuries, and taking care of one’s body. I had spent the past year researching musicians’ injuries for my Masters dissertation; I knew that between 40% and 90% of adult musicians experience a physical or mental problem as a direct result of playing their instrument. I knew how to practice to avoid getting injuries; taking breaks, not pushing too hard and stopping immediately when there was pain. I had spent years adopting and improving a healthy playing technique and posture. I had done it all. But if there is one thing I have learnt in this life then it is that the really big things that happen are often the things you have not, and could not have planned for. As Mary Schmich points out “The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind”. 

The accident I had recently moved to Vienna to study music there. It was an opportunity I had worked and fought incredibly hard for; fighting against systems, policies and financial restraints. I was finally there and things were going well. One Saturday afternoon in November I returned home after visiting some distant family living near Vienna. I was feeling relaxed, though slightly guilty for not having practiced all day. I pushed opened the big heavy glass door that separated the street from the stairway leading up to my apartment. The front door was one of those that automatically closed behind you, but it had been a bit broken lately and had a strange habit of closing very slowly initially and then slamming shut. As I walk through the door my hand must have swung back, lagging behind slightly, just long enough for the door to hook the edge of my finger and slam it between the door and its frame. It really felt as if the door had reached out to grab my finger. 

The shock Those first moments were just moments of shock. There was quite a bit of bleeding as the door had really taken a chunk out of the corner of my finger. The finger quickly started to look swollen and blue but at the time I was not too worried. I had injured myself many times before but it always was less severe than I thought. Surely this would be the same. And I mean really it was just a finger in a door! The next day the finger looked terrible but I tried to play my flute anyway to see what would happen. Something felt very wrong. There was a bit of pain, but more than that there was a strange pressure in the joint which made me feel very uneasy. The next day I tried again, and realizing I could not play, I phoned my teacher to cancel my lesson. This was a feeling I would get to know very well: cancelling lessons and concerts. It was particularly crushing because of how hard I had worked to be there; how I had left my family and friends back in South Africa to be able to study in this incredible city, with this incredible teacher, at this amazing university.

The help And yet I was lucky. I know I was lucky. If this had happened in my home country, South Africa, where there is so little support for injured music students or musicians, I would have had a very different experience. In Vienna I had been given weekly movement, breathing and body awareness lessons with a physiotherapist who was also a flute teacher. It is common in European universities and music schools to be able work with these types of specialists. Because she was a physiotherapist she was able to start treating my finger immediately. Although she told me that nothing was broken – she had worse news for me; it was probably the joint capsule that had been damaged. This was something that would take a long time to heal, allowing me very limited (if any) use of the finger in the meantime.

I was lucky in another way too. I had a flute teacher who had recently experienced a multitude of injuries, including a finger injury. His positivity and experience really helped me get through. He gave me some of the most helpful advice I could imagine. He told me that every musician gets injured at some point in their life. It is something we all have to learn to deal with. He told me this was just my first injury, so it would be difficult to deal with now, but that I would learn so many skills and next time I got injured, and I would, it would be easier.

Not everyone was as understanding. A week into the injury my teacher insisted that I go to the hospital to get X-rays done. This was just to be certain that no pieces of bone or cartilage had splintered off into the joint. My physio agreed with this. Navigating a new healthcare system is frightening enough, but explaining to a rude receptionist and a few obnoxious doctors, the importance of an injured figure to a musician is not fun. After waiting for about 2 hours, I finally got an X-ray. Then after about another hour everyone with a finger injury was ushered into a room and asked to show their fingers to a doctor who took about 30 seconds to make a diagnosis and dismiss you.  There were no splinters in the joint (thank goodness) but you certainly leave the hospital feeling utterly foolish and as if you have somehow made the whole thing up. This would become another theme of the injury. I realized that what is potentially so devastating to a musician may be only be a mild inconvenience to a non-musician, and the world does not understand the difference. Coming from a medical family I know it is unfair to judge these medical professionals. They see hundreds of patients a day and only very few of them understand what it means to be a musician. However, this reality means that musicians can often feel alone in this process, developing mistrust towards medical professionals. This can cause then to delay receiving the help they often urgently need.

The effects By now I had by missed so many lessons, concerts and even an opportunity to have a masterclass with Sir James Galway. And not being able to play was not even the worst part. The real effects of an injury, is what it does to the mind. Once again, the irony of this was that I knew all of this. I knew that injuries in musicians often result in anxiety and depression. I knew that the psychological effects could be equally severe, but you don’t notice it happening to you. I became increasingly panicked as time went on and my condition seemed to get no better, in fact it seemed to get worse. My physio kept reassuring me that this type of thing could take a very long time to heal. Everyone around me was so supportive and sympathetic and my boyfriend, who had experienced a similar problem, could even identify with me and my experiences. All this helped but did not change the rising panic, frustration, fear and grief.

My mind would loop the same pattern. First I would wonder if it was perhaps not all just in my head. For me it was a similar thought that I have when I am sick and decide to stay home or go see a doctor; the voice that says “maybe I’m just exaggerating to get out of work”. This thought would lead me to try play again. I would play until I was sure I was really feeling pain, despite the fact that I was instructed to not use the finger. I believe this may have prolonged my injury. What followed, when I realized the pain was really there, was that my emotional and mental state deteriorated further. Bizarrely, this process would repeat every few days. I became frustrated, then angry, then bitter. Eventually this would lead to resignation and depression.

One day, while working on my Masters dissertation, I read an article about singers losing their voice. The authors spoke about how musicians who have lost their ability to play an instrument or sing experience something that is similar to the loss of a loved one. They even recommended something akin to grief counselling. I remember sitting there and sobbing as I read this very academic piece of writing. Because the truth is, for a musician, playing an instrument is not just something we do, it is also a part of who we are. It is an extension of our arms, our mouths, our souls. This is not necessarily healthy (a topic for another day) but it is the reality of many musicians. In these dark moments I realized just how much music was apart of who I was. Losing this part of ourselves is like a death. We lose something of ourselves and there is nothing that can prepare you for that happening, or even the possibility of it happening. 

Determination and looking forward I have never been one to give up. I always try to find the bright side of things and plough ahead, even when things seem impossible. Although I could not use that finger I could still practice some things without it; especially tone, articulation, breathing and posture. I found ways to keep me challenged and motivated although it was really not easy. In hindsight it was this attitude that taught me the most. I learnt so many incredible things about practice during this time. As I gradually returned to playing with the finger in March (3-4 months after the accident), I could only use it for a few minutes at a time, and only about 15 minutes a day in total. I had to value this time, use it carefully and wisely. I became the queen of efficient practice, because I had to. To this day those are some of the most valuable lessons and I will never forget them.

For the next few months I had to be very careful with my playing, making sure I did not overdo it. Previously, I could have comfortably practiced and played anything between 4-8 hours a day, now I reached my limit at 3 to 4 hours. When I had chamber or ensemble rehearsals I had to plan my practice carefully to not overdo it and on lesson days I had to be particularly careful. By the end of my studies in Vienna I had made a huge amount of progress in my flute playing. Some may say despite my injury. I would probably say because of it.

Even today I still have to be careful. Occasionally I still feel that strange pressure in the joint or a bit of pain when the weather changes or I overdo it. My physio did warn me that this may be the case. I see this as a reminder of how lucky I was. I fully regained my ability to play eventually and at the time I was not financially dependent on playing the instrument. I had so much support. I will always be grateful for this.

If I could impart some advice to my fellow musicians then this is it:

  1. We are all likely to get injured at some point and learning to deal with this is as important as learning to play your instrument;

  2. Go get help immediately. Make it incredibly clear to all medical professionals working with you that you are a musician and that it is important for you to be able to use that part of your body. If you ever land up in hospital tell everyone repeatedly that you are a musician even if they don’t care. Make them understand it is important to ;

  3. Prepare for the psychological impact. Get help and support early! Do not do this alone. Please, please, please do not do this alone;

  4. Stop making these topics taboo. In early March I spoke in one of the musicians’ health classes at the university in Vienna. It was very difficult to speak about such a personal and painful journey in front of my colleagues, especially when I was still on the road to recovery. It was so important. I realized how we need to start talking about this, our experiences and fears. You are not less of a musician because you have been injured, whether by accident or from playing your instrument. I may go as far as to argue you are only really a musician when you have experienced this. Why? Well if most musicians are getting or going to get injured (remember up to 90%!) then learning to deal with injury is an essential part of playing an instrument. Since you can only fully understand how to do this when you have actually experienced it, one may make the argument.  Of course I am not going to even begin to presume that I am the authority on 'what' makes 'who' a musician. If my cat wants to be a musician I say go for it – I'm not buying the CD – but go for it! But, seriously, if we could start to see injury or at least the risk of getting injured as an essential part of being a musician, much like a sports player would, perhaps we would not be so afraid to talk about it.

  5. Keep fighting and pushing forward. It is really not over until the fat lady sings. And this phrase, just for some perspective, apparently refers to Wagner’s 16 hour (no jokes!) opera cycle, where the Valkyrie, Brunnhilde, sings a final 20 minute aria or song (still not joking!) right before the end of the opera in which the whole world goes up in flames and ends, which leads me to my last point;

  6. I know this injury probably feels like the end of the world right now, but remember that you are more than the music you make, so much more than that. Trust me. Try hold onto that. (Also, you still have a 16 hour opera to get through and a 20 minute aria before the world can actually end!)

Share your experiences, questions and comments below or, if it is too soon, write me an email. Let’s talk, support, empathize and educate. Some of us have been there, others are there now and many will be there in future.

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