When something’s seriously wrong with your playing, it’s hard to know where to begin. Big questions start to eat at you:
“Should I keep performing, or should I take time off?”
“If so, how much time?”
“What do I do about my playing commitments?”
The problem isn’t just that these are big questions, it’s that we often try to make these decisions with insufficient information, acting either with too much caution or not enough. What we need is a framework – a plan of attack for thinking through how to deal with an injury. Here are my thoughts on the matter, based in part on how I dealt with my own injury (and based in part on things I wish I’d done).
When all is not well, our first reaction is often to do some Googling and see what turns up, and that’s a great first step. Check around, especially in online forums for your instrument: trumpetherald.com, drummerworld.com, pianostreet.com, etc. Odds are, you’re not the first person to experience this particular issue. If what you’re going through seems to be a common complaint among your kind, you’re lucky: you’ll get a lot of information from other people’s stories. Make an appointment with your doctor as well, of course.
If you’re a guitarist with a little bit of soreness in your left wrist, for example, you’re going to find lots of information online, including what other players have done to deal with this common issue. You may have some mild tendinitis (a condition your family doc will be quite familiar with) and a week or so of RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) may well heal everything up.
If, on the other hand, you can’t find much information (or if what you find seems pretty grim), that tells you something as well – this could be a serious injury.
Another way to gather information is to call up someone who’s been playing a lot longer than you have – a current or former teacher, for example. Even if they don’t know much about what you’re facing, they can likely put you in touch with someone who does.
Honor your Commitments
There are two ways to honor a commitment to perform:
- Bow out quickly, apologetically, and gracefully (while offering to help find a replacement player).
This is a judgement call, but realize that musicians with serious injuries usually underestimate the seriousness of their injury and continue to play far longer than they should, often causing further damage. In my case, continuing to gig on a stretched lip muscle eventually caused a rupture. I didn’t want to let anyone down, and I felt that “a pro plays through the pain.” That was a huge mistake, though, and it cost me big time – you simply have to look out for your career, first and foremost.
When in doubt, err on the side of caution and find a sub. If you’re a freelancer, your reputation for dependability may take a hit, it’s true, but that’s infinitely preferable to risking long–term damage. If you’re an orchestral player, the situation may be more complicated, but you owe it to yourself to investigate your options. Many high–profile players have taken leaves of absence to work through playing problems, so remember that it can be done. Remember also that everything inside you will want to keep playing, to pick up the instrument and try again tomorrow, but be firm with yourself: play it safe.
When a huge part of your identity is tied up in being a trumpeter, a violinist, an oboist, etc., the shock of having your music taken from you (even temporarily) is not unlike losing a loved one, and it helps to realize up front that emotionally, this ain’t no small thing.
You’re going to be irritable, you’re going to be distracted, and you’re not going to be yourself. If you’ve experienced major emotional trauma in the past (the death of a close friend or family member, for instance), you may have sought professional help to get through that time. Well, this is major emotional trauma, and you should treat it as such. Consider seeing somebody.
I didn’t seek counseling until almost three years after my initial injury, and truthfully, I only went because it was time to decide whether to give up on the trumpet altogether and I wanted to talk through things with someone impartial. Lemme tell you, I wish I had gone about three years earlier. Within just a couple of sessions, I realized that I had plenty of avenues left to explore before giving up on the trumpet, and I owed it to myself to give it at least one more shot. Things improved rapidly after that.
Build a Support Network
As we’ve discussed, a serious performance injury is an emergency – it just might not look like one. When a friend is grieving over the loss of a loved one, for instance, we take notice and help them out. We know they’re not going to be able to function at 100% for a while, so we keep an extra eye on them until they start to recover. Let me be clear – a performance injury is not the same as losing an immediate family member. However, it’s closer than most people think.
You don’t have to broadcast to the world what you’re going through, but tell your close friends and family members the score. Let them know you’re going to need their help getting through this – ask them to check in more often, or to go out for a beer with you a little more often.
Just as importantly, find and reach out to other injured players – they will be glad to help you out. I contacted about 10 injured brass players when my injury struck, and I wish it had been 20. I got valuable information from each of them, and every single one was more than glad to help. I’ve tried to take the same attitude when other injured players have contacted me for advice (or just to share their stories with someone who’s been there).
Identify the Experts
When doing the “initial Googling” we discussed earlier, take note: what names pop up again and again? Who are the musicians who’ve beaten this ailment and successfully extended their careers? Who are the medical experts with experience treating this particular malady? Start by setting up an appointment with your family doctor, yes, but if your condition seems uncommon or severe, be prepared to be met with an uncomfortable silence. Your doctor may not be familiar with your symptoms, and that’s not her fault. Be prepared to seek world–class help.
I did not have the foresight to record much of my experience immediately after my injuries struck and that is a huge regret of mine. I’ve sat down several times over the past 3.5 years and recorded several weeks’ worth of information, but I have no more than a few days’ worth of consecutive daily journals. Because of this, I’m sure I’ve repeated mistakes that could have been avoided and gone down the same road more than once. Keep good notes, as they’ll be useful to you later.
Overall, force yourself to err on the side of caution. It is much better to create a minor, temporary problem by taking some time off than to risk creating a major, chronic problem by trying to play through a serious injury. Or, in other words, a short–term hassle beats a long–term catastrophe every time.