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.
See, 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.