Category Archives: Recovery

Obituary for a Relationship

broken heartsMy relationship with Katie recently came to an end.  We met online New Year’s Eve 2006 and had been together for about 7 years until we recently went our separate ways.  The cause of death is still under investigation, and probably will continue to be over the next few months in therapy.

There is a certain paradoxical quality to still caring very much for a person’s well-being, yet feeling that the relationship should end.  I suppose it’s much more common than television, movies, and literature make it out to be.  It certainly does lead to some extremely bittersweet feelings and a whole wash of different emotions. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the cause of the breakup, partially because it’s not relevant, but mostly out of respect for Katie’s privacy.

During our final therapy session together, the therapist turned to me and said, “Dan, even though you initiated this breakup, you’re certainly experiencing the loss created by it.”  In the sad state I was in, I knew it was true, and yet I didn’t really know what it entailed.  Of course when someone is a fixture in your life for so long there will be a loss when they leave.  I felt ready to deal with that.

After we said our goodbyes, I started picking up the pieces of my life, analyzing what was necessary to keep in this new open future before me.  The sadness began to slip away and be replaced by excitement about all the avenues open to me.  There were new people I could meet and vast amounts of free time open to me.  I began to immerse myself in performing music, gaming, and socializing.  I dedicated larger amounts of time to swimming at the local YMCA.  And naturally I lost about 10 pounds on the “breakup diet” (which consists of wondering why you should bother eating).

Just as things were really starting to look bright, I began noticing certain stressors in my life causing an inordinate amount of angst.  I was starting to feel panic and emotional exhaustion.  After an exhaustive analysis of the situations causing me stress and finding no clear solution, I decided to revisit the idea of loss that the therapist had suggested to me.


In my excitement to move forward in my life, I had neglected to take the necessary time to grieve over the loss of my relationship.  Even though the reasons I had for ending it were wholly valid, it doesn’t change the fact that a huge chunk of my life over the past 7 years had gone away.  I began to notice strong emotional stimuli, such as certain songs or locations, would overwhelm me with sadness.  Despite my encounters with the stimuli, I still couldn’t figure out how to bring my feelings to the surface and address them.  It was seemingly random and it greatly affected my mood at any given moment of the day.

I am so fortunate to have a strong network of amazing friends to talk to during this time.  In one conversation when I brought up the question of how one grieves the loss of a relationship, my friend suggested I hold a memorial.  One one hand, the concept of it was absolutely ridiculous.  Who holds a funeral for a person who is still alive?  As I thought about it, though, it began to make more sense.

The cultural institution of a ceremony to mark the passage of a life is ubiquitous.  Most people wouldn’t dream of deciding not to have a funeral after a loved one died.  Despite the pain and the sadness, we need to mark the importance of that person in our lives.  We need to share the pain of the loss with our close friends, and we need to have our community come together and be a part of the commemoration of that person’s influence in our lives.  We need to know that our living loved ones stand with us in our greatest moments of despair.

I began to picture what that would look like in my situation.  I imagined my closest friends sitting with me as I talked about what I had lost when the relationship ended.  I could visualize their comforting me as I said my last goodbyes to this huge part of my life.  I felt intense pangs of grief, but I knew that when it was over I could start to rebuild from a more peaceful and resolved place.

Perhaps it’s good I could imagine it, because I couldn’t bear to make it actually happen.  Between the grief, the intense emotions, and the rawness, it felt too masochistic, even though I could recognize the catharsis that would follow.  So I did the next best thing: I started pulling up all the songs about death and loss.

Maybe it’s a bit odd that I actually have a few to choose from.  I decided to start with one from my past: Maggi, Pierce, and E.J.’s For (Blue).  The album is a tribute to the late Jeff Buckley and is filled with songs about loss.  And sure enough, by the time I reached track 3, Space, I found myself able to expose and come to terms with some my own sensation of loss.

I continue to be surprised by how this process parallels grieving the death of a person in your life.  There was the language of “loss” the therapist offer to me.  In looking for solace from my other therapist, Google, I found a site that cited the Kübler-Ross 5 stages of loss and grief as common reactions to the end of a long relationship.  I dismissed it at the time, but I was clearly not willing to face the truth of the matter.

I know I’m far from done my healing process.  As the brilliant Carmaig De Forest says in another song about death, “I know that life goes on / I know that time heals all wounds / I know that this one isn’t healing anytime too soon.”  However, understanding what it is I’m actually grieving is the first step.  Understanding how I can go about grieving it is an important next step.  Day by day, moment by moment, I’m coming closer to a point where I can integrate this chapter into the rest of my life and be at peace.


State of Practice, State of Backtice

Well what a busy February it’s been!  I just got done a marathon set of gigs playing with the West Philadelphia Orchestra, Three Men and Three Women in Black (Johnny Cash tribute band), and the every ebullient Polkadelphia.  I also recently picked up some private students on piano, which has afforded me a massive new set of challenges.

However, there’s some unfinished business I want to go over.  A few months back I began posting about my new adventures in creating a good practice space, finding a good practice method, and following through with my practice schedule.  And back in October, I posted about several health issues I had run up against, most pressingly severe back pain.  I also outlined a few of the solutions I was trying to remedy the situation and get my back on track.  Since then there really haven’t been any updates.  So allow me to bring you up to speed.

So let’s start with the practice space.  Allow me to give you a virtual tour:


Door open

I had the lens flares professionally installed.

Opening the door reveals…

Practice room

Let’s get this out of the way first of all.  That’s the chair.  The glorious Wenger Musician’s Chair that I’ve been craving for years.  It’s quite tall (which is good, because I am too), very sturdy, and very comfortable.  In fact, the thing I notice most about playing in it is that I don’t notice anything at all playing in it.  With my old squeaky, low, and rickety chair, I was constantly adjusting and feeling where it was inadequate.  Now I just practice.

Next up, notice the oversized mirror in front of the chair.  I used to use a thin door-hanging mirror, but this is so much better.  Not only is the angle consistent so I’m always seeing myself in the same perspective, but I can see my whole body now.  This is huge, as the tuba is unwieldy and often awkwardly positioned.  I can see what I’m doing and make immediate adjustments.  I also like that it’s wall-mounted rather than leaning up against the wall.  This allows me to get really close and pay special attention to my embouchure.

Aww… it’s a nice window.  I use this to get distracted by the colony of feral cats that hangs out in my backyard.

The tangle of wires includes a space heater, which is sometimes my biggest motivator for going to practice.  I keep the rest of my house at a balmy 57 degrees, so having a 70-80 degree space makes practice so much fun.

That beautiful rug at the bottom was a thrift store find.  Together with the wall hanging (coming up soon), it absorbs some of the sound in the otherwise wooden room.  I was finding that I had a hard time hearing myself while playing and needed to dampen the reverberating sound, and this does the job nicely.

Let’s look at more of the space.

More Practice Room

That’s the wall hanging.  I’ve been told by several people that it’s very “me,” but no one can explain why.  In any case, it absorbs the sound quite nicely.

The bookcase was added in to house my music (which for some reason was in a completely different room for a while). It’s in a bit of disarray, but it’s actually still well-organized, broken down by etudes, solos, orchestral works, and band binders.  On top is the invaluable metronome, of which one teacher once told me “If you aren’t using a metronome, you are wasting your time.”  The clock makes it so I don’t need to bring a phone in if I don’t want to.  And if you look very carefully…


There’s a fortunately very blurry picture of my touring days singing Sweet Transvestite.  Just to remind me of where I’ve been.

So that’s the space, and having a comfortable and inviting space is the first step towards having meaningful and productive practice.  Clearly though, it’s not the last step.

Firstly I’ve been conscientiously making the time to practice.  At the very least I go through a 15 minute practice routine each day.  Most days I follow it up with either another session or two of playing etudes, solos, or orchestral excerpts; or I have a gig for which I need to save my chops.  For those of you interested, here’s my 15 minute daily routine:

Mouthpiece buzzing and lip bends (to warm up and “stretch” the embouchure)
Long tones in the middle and low ranges (concentrating on tone quality and breath control) mm=60
Articulation in intervals across the middle and low ranges (concentrating on consistency of attack) mm=72
Lip slurs going from half notes to sixteenth notes (concentrating on smooth transitions between notes) mm=72

Wow, looking at that I notice no work on the upper range.  I’ll have to change that.

Pano Tuner

A tuner isn’t just a fish that comes in a can.

I’ve also added another tool to my arsenal after being (very nicely) shamed by my good friend and first teacher Jay Krush.  When I played for him recently, he started the lesson by saying “and of course you’re using a metronome and a tuner every time you play, right?”  Metronome, check!  Tuner… oops.  While I’ve been paying more attention to the adjusting the intonation of my instrument, I hadn’t gotten specific with it to see how close/far I was.  So I downloaded an app called Pano Tuner after downloading and discarding about 20 apps that couldn’t properly register the tuba’s low range.

It has been an absolutely ear-opening experience using the tuner.  I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am that it took me this long to embrace it.  I now use it every day for my routine, and often when I play the other material as well to see where I am. Also as a result, I’m adjusting my slides more often as I play, which is very entertaining to watch for those of you in the audience.

And as an absolute shocker, I’m sounding a lot better than I did before.  A friend recently commented to me that I was in good form for a show, and I told him “I’ve recently discovered that if I actually sit down and practice my music, I tend to sound a lot better when it comes time to perform.”  One of those silly revelations filed under “why didn’t you know this before?”

I still have lots of improvements to make, but I’m on a track towards being the sort of musician I want to be.  Woo hoo!

Now, onto my back issues.  When I last posted, an ice pick was deeply lodged in my shoulder blade with almost constant pain.  I went through a list of the therapies that I was trying to alleviate the pain and fix the problem.  They included exercises, massage, an acupressure mat, a strange hook thing, Alexander Technique, and a handcart for my equipment.

After several months of working through the pain, with a relapse or two thrown in, I am feeling great.  Here’s what I think helped the most:

  1. Acupressure Mat.  While this had the least long-lasting effect, taking the pain away for even 20 minutes was really important.  I would lie on this on my floor before going to bed, and then fall asleep.  In 20-60 minutes, I’d usually wake up and make my way to bed.  It was very relaxing and therapeutic.
  2. Yoga. I had a breakthrough a few months back in which I started trying yoga classes again after taking a 2 month hiatus.  My first class back, I had a lot of shoulder pain and had to modify my poses.  The next day I was very sore.  The following day I felt fantastic.  I think I had to push myself to strengthen my muscles.
  3. Alexander Technique. This is the opposite of the acupressure mat.  It had the least short-term effect and the most long-term effect.  Taking a detailed look at how I stand, sit, walk, and play was incredible.  I learned that my idea of good posture was in fact straining my body (I blame the ATTENTION of marching band).  Now that I’ve had a few months of it, I take note of it in the many arenas of my life.  Big shoutout to my teacher Ann Johnson.

Then there were things I didn’t expect that were helpful:

  1. Swimming.  In yet another “why didn’t I realize this” moment, I started swimming again after a 7 month break (lost my swimming privileges when I left my old job).  Turns out that the 2 days each week I had been swimming for 8 years was in fact beneficial to my body.  When I stopped and didn’t replace it with something else, my body started to fall apart.  Now that I’m swimming twice a week again, I feel extraordinarily better.  It has once again become one of the most important things in my life.
  2. Mattress pad.  I had been waking up each morning incredibly sore, particularly if I slept on my side.  In fact, I had to train myself to not turn to my left side in my sleep, or I would be in terrible pain after about 5 minutes.  I had a spare foam IKEA mattress that was a lot softer than my current mattress.  After putting it on top of my spring coil mattress, I found I could rest more easily on my side with more support.  I know a lot of people say a firm mattress is the way to go, but after I put on the soft mattress my morning soreness went away.

So here I am today, well-practiced and fitter than I was.  In a more comfortable room with a better chair.  And constantly trying to improve.  There are days in which I wonder if I’ll meet the high standards I set for myself across my life.  Then I think about Pablo Casals’ response after being asked why he still practiced so hard while he was in his 90’s.

“Because I think I am making some progress.”


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.

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