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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.