Injury Update (972 Hours)

Just a quick entry here to verify that my recent wrist injury was the direct result of carpal tunnel syndrome. I had encountered this problem in my left hand previously and took effective measures to address the problem. CTS is caused by pressure on the nerves (the medial and ulnar in my case) that pass through a narrow boney tunnels in the wrist & elbow. The pressure is caused by inflammation of the tendons that share space in those narrow tunnels. The inflammation and pressure is exacerbated by:

  1. Overuse
  2. Bending the wrist beyond 30 degrees from the neutral position
  3. Overrotation (supination/pronation) of the wrist (instead of lifting the elbow on downbows)
  4. Tense muscles anywhere from the neck, shoulder, upper arm, or forearms
  5. Prolonged postures that elongate the nerves (which extend from the side of neck through the shoulder and down the back of the arm)

The first one on the list (overuse, aka “repetitive motion”) is usually the one that gets the most credit, however the endurance of the human body can be dramatically increased when you follow proper form combined with active relaxation techniques & good hydration. Having addressed #2, #3, and most of #4 with my teacher’s guidance, I was still experiencing frustrating tingling and numbness after only two hours of practice yesterday. As I was intently looking down at the bow dancing on the string trying to make a solid contact for a tricky double stop decrecendo from tip to frog, it dawned on me that I had been violating the 5th item all night long! Since the nerves in the hand are rooted at the spinal column at the neck, by tilting my head to look down at the strings I was actually shortening the chain of nerves leading from my neck to my hand! Immediately I lifted my head, stacked the bones supporting my head to relax the neck muscles, and kept my eyes focused on the image in my practice room mirror. Almost instantaneously I felt the pressure in my wrists subside and blood and sensation began creeping back into my fingers on both hands. I was able to continue practice for almost a full hour after that and was only forced to quit from normal muscle fatigue.

In tonight’s practice session, having more completely addressed all 5 items on that list, I was able to go 2.5 focused hours with minimal discomfort.  I am counting this as a victory considering I began playing while exhausted and accompanied by a throbbing headache which made focusing on my problematic form more challenging.   I think what this situation needs now is ongoing vigilance, gentle CTS specific stretches, ample hydration, ice, and a good deal of rest.

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Searching for the Source (967 Hours)

Have you ever seen a musician in the throws of passion?  I had always assumed that they were caught up in the ecstasy of excellence, basking in the pinnacles of perfection, deeply aware of themselves, their instrument, and the vital essence of music itself.  But where does this passion come from?  Does it come from the thrill of flying so close to the sun like Icarus? Or does the passionate brush with perfection result from something deeper?  Some  primal space that existed before the skill that would free it had ever fully taken shape?  At moments it seems as if a musical performer’s pleasure comes from some kind of deep and urgent expectation being fulfilled.  As if all the thousands of hours spent in a practice room were culminating in a single outpouring of emotion.  But no that can’t be right.  Thousands of hours being traded for mere moments in a spot light?  That just doesn’t seem like a rational trade off. Something else must have carried them through decades of preparation, something much deeper than lust for fame or recognition.

First a little historical perspective: I have previously (over the last ~25 years) tried and failed at numerous instruments partly because those instruments didn’t fit my personality and partly because I was focused on the wrong things in the practice room (judgments from others, negative self talk, low personal expectations, trying to please family & friends, playing popular music, looking for the shortcuts, and always an eye on the next greener pasture). Rather than propelling me forward, the emotional basis for my efforts (essentially “fear”) was really more like a strong headwind complete with eye-stinging sand. I had to work very hard to make myself practice and no effort could be sustained for longer than a few months. I actually felt accomplished when I could make myself practice for a 30 minutes a week! Needless to say, the music that resulted was uninspired, dull, and passionless. Without heart, an ear for music was not really possible, without an ear, the hands were a fumbling mess.

Any monumental undertaking like the cello is bound to be a journey of self discovery. In this vein, an honest assessment of the fundamental motivations for being a musician seems at least as important as having good form when playing the instrument. While self improvement is a positive ideal for all of us, for any real growth to happen our motivations must be rooted in our deepest and most basic desires. Ideals that are divorced from our fundamental urges (or ones that are based on fear) can lead us to impersonate the motivations we think we ought to have. And if we focus on these external motivations, the result will be an internal tension similar to physical tension caused by contorting your body in a precise & unnatural shape at the cello simply because that is the “traditional” way as espoused by a master – regardless of the glaring differences in anatomy. However if we focus our energies on discovering what really makes us tick (ie what compels us to act on the most basic level), and create a list of principles and goals based on this, then we can stride forward from a place of strength centered on a foundation that goes all the way to the depths of our core.

My own decision to take up the cello began with a love of its sound and the marvelous extent of it’s haunting repertoire.   It wasn’t solidified into a long term commitment until I realized how well it lined up with my basic desires & qualities, namely:  that I have a borderline obsessive personality, I find seemingly impossible puzzles to be irresistible, I savor difficulty especially in regards to mastery of any kind, I have a high tolerance for the nuances of seemingly mundane tasks, and I get bored quickly when any task is too easy or the result is too obvious. Until I learned how to harness these qualities, I viewed these personality quirks as being highly “negative” because I allowed them to be wasted on pointless activities or to keep me from doing basic and necessary tasks. Once I owned them, I realized they could be strengths if I used them to fuel my aspirations rather than as a distraction. As a result, getting to the practice room is now like the inevitable pull of gravity. I have to fight hard not to go there, and force myself to leave. Even though my practice space is in a dim & creepy office building with depressing halogen lights, only available after work hours when all the good and decent folk are tucking into warm meals and warmer beds, when I pull out my cello to practice this dreary place is transformed into a magical realm of sound and introspection.