Getting Injured: Let’s Start the Conversation

As with many other musicians, my musical path began very young. I picked up the violin when I was four years old and have been playing ever since. Along the way, I dabbled in some other instruments, but the violin was the one that stuck.

I didn’t know from a young age that I wanted to be musician. A lot of non-musicians are surprised when I tell them that, usually because there’s this romantic idea that people who are following a ‘passion’ must have always wanted to do so. I had a lot of other interests, from sports to writing to scrapbooking. I didn’t know until my last year of high school that I was going to even apply to music schools. I had taken the summer off from playing before my final year and realized how much I missed it. I knew that I wanted music to be in my life in some way, so I applied to performance programs because it seemed like the right thing to do if I was ‘passionate’ about music and performing.

Before the start of my first semester at McGill, I went to domaine forget for the summer, a music festival in the Charlevoix region of Québec. Here, I was fully immersed for the first time in the classical music world. Having grown up in Peterborough, ON, the world I had come to know was small and not very competitive. This period of intense immersion happens for every musician at a different time in their life, unless perhaps their parents happen to also be musicians. Usually, but not always, it’s accompanied by panic, that feeling of not being good enough and the fear of being behind musically or technically. At the same time, you’re excited about new possibilities and find new drive and inspiration.

These are feelings that everyone experiences, musician or not. I believe that as musicians, and therefore both artist and athlete, who we are and what we do is so interconnected that it becomes increasingly difficult as we continue on this career path to separate the two. Often these feelings of self-doubt, as I was beginning to experience that summer at domaine forget, can become so overwhelming that we question our whole lives, even that first moment we picked up this funny looking object we call a violin.

And so began my journey of self-doubt as a musician, one I’m sure many of my musician readers can relate to or anyone else following their ‘passion’ in their career.

Self-doubt began to manifest in many ways for me during my first semester. I began to practice too much and too hard. I chose to work on Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, which was definitely out of my reach at the time. I decided I was going to practice four hours a day because that’s what my teacher suggested. There were also more positive ways it showed as well: I began to keep a practice journal, I recorded all my lessons and took notes, and I recorded myself in the practice room to listen to how I sounded.

Within a couple of weeks, self-doubt began to manifest in a new way: physical pain. I began to feel tension and a little discomfort in my left wrist, which was something I had experienced before but it had always gone away when I put down the instrument. A little while later, I started to feel pain after practicing for a couple hours. I kept pushing, sometimes playing for 7 hours without putting the violin down for more than 15 minutes. Soon the pain was all the time. I decided at the beginning of October that i would take one day off and see how it felt the next day.

I remember this day off still very clearly. I remember feeling the pain during the day even though I wasn’t playing, and I remember listening to recordings of Sibelius in the library so that I could mentally practice even without my violin. I was convinced that by the time I woke up the next day, everything would feel okay again.

Just a week later during Thanksgiving of that year, I remember the pain was possibly at its worst. The next week I was scheduled to play the first movement of Sibelius in studio class (where other musicians with the same teacher all play for each other in order to practice performing). Because I had been practicing so much, I was able to play the full movement with piano, but the tension and pain in my wrist, especially when playing fingered octaves, was overwhelming. I finally told my teacher about the pain and that I didn’t think I could perform. While he was understanding, he didn’t give me any suggestions on what to do about the pain except for rest or didn’t make any adjustments in my setup or technique.

This was the first time I had to turn away from a performing opportunity due to pain, but it certainly hasn’t been the last. Since then, I have experienced the inescapable roller coaster that is being an injured musician. Finally, after three years of chronic pain, I have decided to write about it.

Now, the career goals I set for myself in my last year of high school have inevitably changed. I don’t want a performing career anymore, especially in a field that struggles to include injured musicians. I realized very quickly how living with an injury means explaining your story to every other musician you work with, every teacher, every summer program you’re at. It means being your own advocate, speaking up when you’re in pain, and defending your right to learn in an environment which is only interested in musicians who are healthy.

The healthy musician: a musician who can play a certain number of hours a day sometimes without breaks, who can perform without showing nerves, and who can get themselves out of bed everyday to practice. This is not a definition that includes every musician. In fact, it includes almost no musicians that I know.

Instead of constantly trying to fit myself into this mould of the ideal musician, I choose a different path. I choose to challenge that mould, to change it. I want to support injured musicians in any way they might need. Based on my experience, I believe there’s a need for awareness and for communication between musicians, educators, healthcare professionals and researchers.

This is where I begin the conversation that I needed to have three years ago when I was first injured. I needed someone to tell me that the music world doesn’t treat injured musicians fairly. That when the pain comes, it would never really leave. In many ways this is psychological, not physical, because yes, eventually my body will likely heal itself. They say that the body can memorize pain, and in many ways I believe that’s true. My body—my wrist—has come to know this existence, and now it’s become an essential truth about who I am.

I am injured, which restricts the possibility of a performing career. But instead of losing a dream, I’ve found something more meaningful: to open the music world to new possibilities, new ways of thought and new ways of teaching that encompasses actual and all musicians. Now that I know how epidemic this issue truly is—that over 50 percent of musicians are injured—I can’t not talk about it, especially as I see more and more of my colleagues and friends experiencing what I experience.

Throughout this blog, I will discuss more in depth some of the themes I mentioned today. I will continue to tell my story of living with an injury and how it has impacted my life as a musician.

I also hope to dissect the music world more generally, to look at its fault lines, its creases. This is a world which creates some of the most beautiful art on earth, which exposes the fragility of the human race. Yet, it’s easy to forget that beneath the complicated beauty of music, hidden somewhere in the sound waves but in plain sight, there’s a human being. Not a musician, but an intricate, imperfect human mind and body, who may stand before you with a thousand invisible truths. Depression, performance anxiety, an injured wrist. All they want is to be heard.

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4 thoughts on “Getting Injured: Let’s Start the Conversation

  1. Very thoughtful and engaging post. As a older gentleman who’s spent the greater part of my life being involved with classical music by either studying piano through my teens and twenties, to listening to it every day and continuing to go to the symphony on a regular basis, I’ve always been interested in hearing from a musician who has played in an orchestra, who has a gift that I don’t have, who has been involved in playing the music I love – what that world is all about. Migraines and bouts with other illnesses in my 20’s (along with not having the enough talent, if I’m honest with myself) kept me from going further in the world of classical music, so I can commiserate with the physical issues you’re dealing with. I genuinely look forward to future posts from you as you share your experiences,, thoughts, insights and hopes. Wishing you the best….
    Decker

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment and follow, Decker! I sympathize with what you experienced in your musical career, and I’m glad you’re still involved in the classical music community and support other musicians. I hope you enjoy reading my posts!

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  2. Great work Claire! I can certainly relate to the feeling of being overwhelmed at a music festival and questioning everything. As well as those difficult feelings of self doubt and having your personal identity wrapped up with your playing. This is super important! The fear of being alienated from the music community or not getting work because of injury or mental health is so pervasive. Keep this up!

    -Marlena

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