Welcome to C Natural’s first Breaking the Silence post, a new series that will be published every Wednesday where I’ll bring in other musicians, music educators or music researchers to share their musicians’ health stories and experiences in order to create a sense of community around these issues.
My first guest is Stéphane Krims, a double bassist and guitarist. I met Stéphane at McGill and in the past year, he’s mentioned to me several times his interest in changing the conversation surrounding musicians’ health issues. During this interview, Stéphane was very open to sharing his experiences with mental and physical illness, both throughout his life and during his time in university. I urge you to read on knowing that there are kind and caring musicians out there like Stéphane!
Born: Edmonton, AB
Now in: Montreal, QC
Genre: A little of everything
If you didn’t play the double bass, what instrument would you like to play?
I already play a bunch of other instruments! I play guitar as seriously as I play bass, and I also play keyboards, drums & percussion, a bunch of obscure instruments, and I’ve studied violin, tuba, and trombone.
What’s been your experience with musicians’ health?
Because I started classical double bass at the age of 7, I spent many years playing basses that were much to big for me. I also started playing solo quite early, so I was often hunching over the instrument and not always being able to reach the notes I was going for. This often gave me back pain, but never anything I really had to be seen for. Once I grew into my bass, the problems were nowhere near as bad. I did start hurting a bit last year, but once I got some tips and tricks from a physiotherapist, I was able to apply them and the pain subsided. My biggest issue was my wrist during second year at McGill – I’ll address it more in one of the questions below.
There’s also the mental health angle. Not everybody knows this, but I have Asperger’s syndrome. Mine is mild enough that I can socialize like anyone else, but it doesn’t come naturally. I don’t really consider this to be a burden because with it I also see the world in a different way than most people, and the musical ideas that come naturally to me are quite different than others I’ve seen.
What really affects me more on the mental health side, though, is a combination of anxiety, which I’ve known about for a long time, and depression, which I only discovered recently. My experiences both in high school and at McGill were quite similar—on paper I appeared to be doing well, with good grades and musical achievements, but this was really all I was able to do. I never really had any sort of social life until my third year at McGill, and it was very hard for me to do anything of my own, above and beyond what was called on me at school.
What’s been your biggest struggle in being a musician?
Getting things done. When I was still in school and going to summer programs this meant being a terrible procrastinator when it came to practice, but now that I’m out of school and doing other projects, this translates to often not feeling able to get up and do anything unless it’s required of me by someone else. Which is fine for getting by and surviving, but not if you’re trying to do something which is meaningful to you.
The depression/anxiety combo is a major factor here, because I often feel unable to start doing something meaningful (depression) but I’m also constantly worrying about not being good enough or not taking enough action (anxiety). Those two illnesses together can really combine to create some very powerful, and very convincing, negative thoughts. I’ve only recently been discovering how to re-evaluate them. In the past few days I’ve been trying to set more concrete goals for myself to start advancing more with my own projects, and I hope that I can start to tame this beast of procrastination soon.
Tell me a bit about your physical injury and what your experience was like accessing healthcare?
In my second year at McGill, I had a very sudden attack of carpal tunnel syndrome in my left hand. I hadn’t been practicing much that week, so in a vain attempt to compensate for it I would always do some extremely intense and often painful finger exercises with my left hand. It was actually the weekend of McGill Symphony Orchestra’s first show at the Maison Symphonique. The day before, we rehearsed for about four hours, after I had done some crazy exercises. The morning of the show, I couldn’t press down my middle finger on the string at all without feeling a searing stab of pain. I had to fake basically the whole show, except the parts where it went below a low E—I was the only one in the orchestra who had a C extension!
I had to completely stop playing for a couple of months. The first few weeks after that, it was so bad that just sitting and doing nothing would actually hurt my wrist. I had been playing in MGSO and the McGill Jazz Orchestra at the time, so I had to be replaced in both. Luckily nobody thought any less of me for it—everybody understood the severity of the problem, and they let me take as much time as I needed to heal. I started seeing a physiotherapist at the McGill Sports Medicine Clinic in order to help soothe the pain I was having. I had an MRI done in my wrist, which showed absolutely no damage at all, so I was really lucky in that regard. I started seeing another physiotherapist at Kinatex named Isabelle Duchesne, who is specialized in musicians’ health, so she was able to give me some insights on playing that the sports clinic had never addressed.
But I think my biggest change was when I started studying with Alec Walkington in my third year, and he showed me a different way to approach left hand technique that instantly eased the pain and discomfort that I had before. The double bass is a particularly physical instrument compared to other strings, and so having a technique that doesn’t hurt you is an absolute must. If your technique is problematic, all the health care in the world won’t be able to help you, because that technique will keep dishing out physical hardships no matter what you throw at it. Striking the root of the problem is key, always.
How do you cope with the pressures of being a musician?
One thing that really took the pressure off me was leaving the classical world! When I was growing up, I really thought that I would become a solo classical bassist—Joel Quarrington and Catalin Rotaru come to mind as people I most wanted to emulate. When I got into the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, it was an absolutely overwhelming experience; I loved the music we played, and many people were supportive of each other, but there was also a huge element of external pressure for me to play with as much precision and accuracy as possible. And the etiquette! I really don’t want to lambast the classical music community because I still love the music and I really hope to work more with classical musicians in the future, but when I played in orchestras, I found there to be some very… dare I say archaic?… etiquette rules that I had to follow, one of which seemed to be “don’t explain the rules to anyone else.” The Asperger’s didn’t help.
What really sparked my transition out of classical music was when I entered the jazz program at McGill. Since then I have been playing all kinds of things, ranging from pretty much everything in the Black American traditions, to rock, to punk, to folk, to free improv, and I’m always looking to try new things. I find myself feeling much more free now that I’m not trying to just play things note for note all the time. I would like to play a bit more classical down the road, but just some one-off occasions—nothing I would ever try to make a career out of.
What do you do to keep yourself healthy or prevent re-injury?
Physically, the biggest thing for me was to change my technique. Now that I have a healthy left hand technique, I haven’t had any problems with carpal tunnel anymore. Same goes for bow and back problems, I’m slowly retraining myself to position myself in a different way so that nothing hurts.
As far as mental health, I’m still working on it. I’m seeing a therapist now, and I have some incredibly strong and smart friends who can not only see through the clouds in my head, but keep me active and occupied so that I can stop worrying about it. I still need to work on filling up my time when I’m alone, but with any luck it’ll come with practice.
What brings you joy?
It’s the music, first and foremost. I often forget that, because I’ve had so many personal struggles outside of music, but I can be myself the most when I’m playing.
But apart from that it’s probably the closest friends I have—some of whom are also bandmates of mine, with whom I’ve shared experiences I never would have thought could happen to me. Many of them remind me of how much I have in my life and how much better I could be, just by being themselves. I feel really fortunate knowing that after having spent the majority of my life chasing toxic relationships, I have now started to know what real human relationships feel like.
And biking. Biking is fun.
What do you think needs to change so that musicians are more healthy?
Honestly I want to say mental health is a big one, because it’s not just a musicians’ issue—everybody is susceptible to mental illness just like everybody is susceptible to physical illness, and unfortunately many people still don’t believe that. Discussions on mental health have exploded in recent years, and some great stuff has come of it, but action is needed much more than discussion. Access to mental health care needs to improve, anybody who’s interested should be encouraged to work in the field, etc.
The Me2/Orchestra is an organization that I’ve been following quite closely recently that’s a group of community orchestras who raise awareness for mental health issues and are open to anyone who wants to join. I hope to get better acquainted with them in the future.
For both mental and physical health, I would like to see more musician-specialized practitioners and facilities open up. Even a single practitioner working full-time in a school can go a long way. But the more the merrier!
Stéphane is currently collaborating on two projects, with Aleksi Campagne and The History of Gunpowder. He also teaches upright and electric bass, guitar and theory. You can find a recording of his trio here on YouTube.
If you have a musicians’ health story or perspective, you can contact me here to be featured.