Monthly Archives: October 2013


Last week I talked about some of the unexpected physical maladies I was encountering.  While I’m still not totally sure of the root cause, I’m pretty sure the pain in my upper back and shoulder is coming from moving and playing heavy instruments.  My sousaphone rests on the left shoulder and my accordion involves extensive motion of the left arm hinging from the elbow and shoulder.  I have begun looking at how I play to see if I can make ergonomic improvements.  Additionally, I have started to look at various related components of my life and how they might be affecting my back.

Big thanks to those of you who commented on my last post.  Bill, Emily, Chris, and Bryce all posted some great suggestions.  Some of them were painfully obvious, which made it painfully disappointing that I hadn’t considered them.  So again, thanks for your help.

So here’s what I’ve been doing over the past week to deal with the pain and get to the root of the problem.

Tuba StandTuba Stand

I’ve noticed sitting while holding the tuba has been hurting lately.  I believe it to be a combination of the heavy instrument with the sitting with the ancestral memories of playing a tuba for the past 20 years.  That last one is not to be underestimated.  I have a body memory of what it’s like to play the tuba, such that I find my body unconsciously storing tension in the legs and arms.  Since playing the tuba daily is important, I needed a work-around.

There are plenty of commercial products that hold the tuba while you play, but some work better than others.  The last one I bought (back in 1997) fell apart about a month after purchasing it.  So I decided to go rogue and make my own out of my bannister and a series of novels, graphic and otherwise.  Here I’m using books 5-9 of the Bone series as well as Neal Stephenson’s Anathem to prop up the tuba so I can stand up straight and play without having to support the instrument at all.  The only scary thing is my constant fear that the books will slip and the tuba will go careening down the stairs.

This has been great so far.  I would like to find a way to do it in my actual practice room, which might involve buying a commercial stand.  However, knowing it works is a huge step.

Handcartable Lecter

Handcartable Lecter

Hand Cart

My friend Bill recommended this.  My tubas come in cases that are soft and hard to stack, so this isn’t as useful for them, but recently I’ve had to play shows with a bass amp.  A massive, heavy bass amp.  Something that a hand cart would be perfect for (though this is more of a dolly.  And lest you be wondering, I am trying to do Hannibal Lecter with the only materials I had on hand).

This was the one that as soon as he recommended it, I immediately realized I did not have to be carrying the amp all over the place.  Call it pride or stubbornness, but I had a blockage about it.  Right now I’m borrowing this one (thanks Dad!) until I can get one of my own.  I’ve used it for one gig, and while it has its own unwieldiness to get used to, it was a big help.

The Hook!The Hook

Perusing the local Korean grocery store the other day, I found an oddly bent wooden hook with a handle for $3.  I wasn’t quite sure if it was a massage implement or a cooking utensil, but I am pleased to announce that it performs both functions quite well! (just kidding)

It lets me reach the muscles under my shoulder blade that are tight and dig around in there.  I was still sketched out by this thing until I looked it up online.  There’s apparently a whole host of tools like this that run from $10 and upward.  So this has been nice for some temporary relief.

Body Work

My trips to the chiropractor have been invaluable, though I have a hard time getting an answer of what I can do to prevent my issues from coming back in the future.  I don’t take it conspiratorially (“see man, they WANT you to be sick!  It’s like I wrote in my newsletter!”) but I do find it disheartening sometimes.

So that’s why I’ve been taking another avenue and exploring Alexander Technique as well.  If you haven’t heard of it, Alexander Technique is basically a study of relearning how to move in basic ways (walking, sitting, crawling, standing) that keep the body balanced and in alignment.  I had a wonderful Alexander Technique teacher when I was at college, and I had great memories of how it affected my body.  I have begun studying with a teacher in the area in the hopes I can develop new habits for healthy movement.  I’ve only had one lesson so far, but I’m hoping to continue to learn.

Acupressure MatAcupressure Mat

My friend Bryce recommended this.  It’s a 27×16 inch padded mat with thousands of tiny plastic spikes sticking up.  Like the proverbial bed of nails, you’re supposed to lie down on it with your bare back.  The spikes aren’t sharp enough to pierce the skin, but you definitely are aware they are there.  It is supposed to activate pressure points that release endorphins and increase blood circulation to the back.

In reading up on it, I found that there aren’t that many acupressure points on the back itself; most of the triggers for the back are found in other parts of the body.  However, I figured I’d give it a shot.

It doesn’t really hurt, though it is a bit uncomfortable at first.  I have to be careful about shifting around while lying on it, as that can irritate the skin.  After about 3 or 4 minutes, I no longer feel the individual spikes, and my back just gets warm.  It’s actually quite relaxing.  When I get up from it, my back is usually hot to the touch and quite red.

After lying on it, I usually don’t feel any of my acute shoulder pain.  I’m not sure whether the increased blood flow or heat has affected my back or whether I’m triggering pressure points or even if I don’t notice my back pain because it’s been replaced by “other back pain.”  And truthfully, I don’t care.  All I care about is that it brings some relief.

Sir Exercise Ball

Sir Exercise Ball

New Exercises

I have mentioned before that yoga has been a part of my morning routine for 12 or so years.  I’ve added in some new exercises that have been beneficial to my upper back and shoulder.  Using this old chap of an exercise ball, I do some scapular exercises recommended by a friend who recently went through  similar issues.  I’ve found and excised the parts of my yoga routine that exacerbate the shoulder (sadly including one of my favorites, Vasisthasana aka Side Plank).  Once I get a little less acute, I’m looking forward to finding strengthening exercises.

I’ve also made it a priority to find time to walk during the day even when inflicted with “Idontwantto-itus.”  I’ve even tossed in a little jogging just to move in ways I’m not accustomed to moving.


My friend Emily commented when I mentioned I was starting Alexander Technique:

“I think Alexander Technique is a really good idea for a long term solution, as are yoga and pilates for keeping yourself aligned, but unfortunately in the short term you probably do need to stop playing and rest. It’s very frustrating, I know.”

It certainly is frustrating.  Didn’t I just quit my job so I can play more?  And it’s not just the financial logistics that are difficult to come to terms with.  As musicians, we create an identity for ourselves as performers, interpreters, and expressers.  When we’re forced to put those things on hold, it’s easy to replace that identity with that of a broken machine; worthless and defunct.  So it has been a struggle to both accept that I need time to rest and that this doesn’t make me less of a person.

Nonetheless, I’ve been trying to keep the muscle strain down to a minimum, and that means taking more time to rest and only playing when I have to for now.  For instance, I played a bit of tuba today on my new “tuba stand” and I have a rehearsal this evening in which I have to play sousaphone.  The rest of the time, I’ve been kind to my body by utilizing all the other tools I mentioned above.

What’s Left?

There are plenty of other avenues I can take as well that I haven’t gotten to.  I’m struggling with the medical system right now to figure out how I can undergo physical therapy.  My friend Chris mentioned sitting when playing, and my friend Bryce offered the idea of playing a lighter accordion, both of which are useful.  A personal trainer might be able to coordinate a series of exercises to help me get in good shape.  There’s so much left to try.

For some of you, this might just be an interesting update of what I’ve been going through.  Perhaps some of my suggestions will be useful for areas of your own life.  In the thick of it it’s hard to see any further than the now, but the conversations I’ve had with friends have let me know that I can move on from this. I’m doing what I can to make sure this setback is just a small footnote in the rest of my life.


Dare, Double Dare, Physical Challenge

When I was in elementary school, every day when I’d get home my sister and I would watch Double Dare.  For the uninitiated, it was a game show in which kids would get asked trivia questions, and if they couldn’t answer them, they would have to perform physical challenges instead.  As a show with its roots in Nickelodeon, the physical challenges always involved wading through some disgusting slime to find a small flag or something similar.  I watched the show so many times, that to this day I still have the back and forth patter between the teams stuck in my head from when they couldn’t answer the trivia question: “Dare, Double Dare, Physical Challenge.”

Little did I know that this would become a theme in my adult life.

Double DareSee, since I left my full time job, I’ve been pushing myself to the limits.  I play three instruments that are rather taxing physically: accordion, sousaphone, and tuba.  I’ve been taking every opportunity to play as often as possible and put myself out there, and it’s starting to take a toll.

You may have read about my exploits performing in the SEPTA train stations.  What I haven’t mentioned is that carrying an accordion and music stand on the train is exhausting.  So is standing for 2 hours holding the accordion and singing.  After that I jump back on the train (once again carrying the accordion) and walk back to my house.  I’ve been telling myself that it’s tiring, which it is, but there’s a more accurate way to phrase it:  It hurts.

Similarly, playing 4 sets on the tuba from 9-1am after having gone play at the station at 7am that morning hurts my hand, my shoulders, and my head.  It also prevents me from getting the rest I need to recuperate.  Everything I’ve done so far has been a learning experience, and I am coming to terms with the simple lesson that I’m stretching myself too thin.

This came to a head last week, when on Monday I found myself barely able to get out of bed.  The persistent throbbing pain in my shoulder blade had turned into a more icepickish nightmare, and I couldn’t make it go away.  A trip to the chiropractor and my medical doctor resulted in a more pain and encouragement to take more ibuprofen (respectively).

I had to cancel a rehearsal on Monday because of my incapacitation.  That was the most difficult thing for me, and the part that made everything feel very real and serious.  I felt ashamed that I couldn’t power through and make it happen.  The experience made me feel unreliable and second-rate, while also calling into question the sustainability of my endeavors toward doing music as a career.

I know that these are unfair assessments, and that our bodies change over time and we have to continue to listen to them.  I know that many times we deal with pain in our lives and have to adapt to manage that pain.  But I just didn’t want to be that guy, and the strength of my conviction not to be that guy had me in a serious state of denial.

The rest of the week, I tried to find ways to alleviate the pain while still preparing myself for the 4 shows I had that weekend.  2 of which involved 2+ hours of driving.  I heated, I iced, I rested, I stretched.  Nothing made it go away.  I googled!  I read about how important it was to rest the muscles that were strained, but I couldn’t figure out how to flex or relax the muscle right under my scapula.  I slept a few hours each night as I woke up with the driving pain in my back.  On Sunday, I finally got a little relief as the acute burning icepick seemed to dislodge, but today I’m hurting once again.

So then, how do I find a way to do the things I love without hurting myself?  Great question!  And one I don’t know the answer to.

I’ve set up an appointment with an Alexander Technique teacher.  I took some Alexander Technique classes in college, and I refuse to reference wikipedia to pretend I know what it is.  From what I remember, it’s about retraining your body in everyday activities such as walking, crawling, and sitting so that it is being used as efficiently as possible and with as little tension as possible.

I continue to stretch and exercise.  For the past 12 years I have had a daily yoga practice.  If I skip a day, I hurt the next day.  I’d like to incorporate more exercise into my life, but I find that when I add more, I hurt myself more.  I don’t really know what to do about that.

I have reached out to friends who have gone through painful experiences and asked how they managed their pain.  They have given me names of doctors, types of therapies, and specific exercises, all of which I hope to find immensely helpful.  I say I hope, because at this point, I don’t know what will make things better.

Lastly, and most difficultly, I’ve decided to be mindful of my activities and to be more aware of the impact they have on my body.  This means, heartbreakingly, I am taking a break from my SEPTA busking to see if I need time to heal.  As a performer, I can’t stop everything.  The money I make from performing is important to me, as is the performing itself.  I’m willing to shift a lot of things to improve my life, and I desperately hope the elimination of performing is not a road I’ll have to go down.

So just please, be kind to yourself in every way you can.  Nurture, forgive, celebrate, accommodate.  Rest, listen, learn.  Leave diving down a giant mouth into a pile of goop to the 80’s TV shows.

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