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The injured musician- a taboo subject?

Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt

Fourteen years after my injury, it’s clear to me that it is unlikely I will be able to have a professional career as a pianist again, despite many years of treatments of all kinds. I have a new career as a life coach for musicians and other creative artists, which I find very rewarding, I still teach piano and musicianship, and conduct children’s choirs.  I have now chosen to talk about my condition, in the hopes that my openness will help others in their turn to be open about what has been and continues to be a taboo subject.

I was a professional classical pianist with a successful career in the UK and Europe until my mid-30s, when I experienced an injury that led to a chronic health condition. I have not been able to play piano professionally since that time. When I first became injured, I was very reticent to discuss it publicly, as I was hoping it was a temporary condition and that I would be able to return to my career as a collaborative pianist, coach, repetiteur, and chamber musician.  I had already learned the hard way, during a short-lived period of tendonitis at college, that once other musicians knew I was injured, they moved on to working with other pianists, and in many cases never came back.

We all know that one is supposed to stop playing the moment one feels pain, but in the midst of a busy performing career, that is not always possible. I kept going for two weeks before I stopped, and have often regretted my decision, but at the time, I did not realize the severity of my situation, I had many commitments, and wanted to maintain my livelihood and my reputation. Looking back I can see that musicians are given a double message- you must take care of yourself, and yet you must be reliable and professional at all times. It is our sensitivity that enables us to excel as musicians, and yet we are supposed to be unstoppable super-people also.

Losing my performing career was like losing a loved one, except the loved one was still around, and I couldn’t access it.  It is still hard to admit, after all these years, how much it hurt. I went through all the stages of loss that have been so well documented. It has taken me a long time to be able to relate to music freely and wholeheartedly, and not to mind when I hear of the successful performing careers of my contemporaries. Writing has become a much-needed creative outlet for me—in fact I’m now writing a memoir about my experiences.

I know I’m not alone. Recent statistics in some studies show that up to 87% of musicians report injury or pain. Many others are experiencing hearing loss or distortion. Yet many are still understandably reluctant to discuss it.

In her devastating memoir “Limbo”, A. Manette Ansay bravely recounts her story. A talented pianist, she first experienced pain while studying at a renowned U.S. conservatory. Like many others, she regarded it as a challenge to be overcome by sheer determination, a strategy apparently condoned by the institution. When she would arrive for a lesson at her teacher’s studio, her teacher would greet her at the door with anaesthetic spray for her arms. Eventually, the pain she first experienced in her arms began to affect her entire body, and she ended up in a wheelchair. Fortunately, she also discovered her talent as a writer, and is now Professor of English at the University of Miami with eight books under her belt.

When I consulted the doctor at my conservatory fourteen years ago, he prescribed two aspirin and a bag of frozen peas as an icepack. Fortunately, things have begun to change since then. Some conservatories provide therapies such as shiatsu, Alexander technique and movement classes. In the UK, the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine  (BAPAM) now provides much-needed support and education. Similar initiatives are springing up across the world.

The more open we can become about injury in musicians, the more we can help those we teach and coach to avoid problems themselves. There are so many factors to be aware of: posture, tension, emotional expression, mental stress, overuse,  a mismatch of child and instrument, and many more. Owing to my own situation, I am always keenly aware of potential problems in students. I keep an eagle eye on cultivating a relaxed and balanced posture, and engage supportively with my students when they appear stressed or worried, or experience any kind of twinge in shoulder, wrist, back, and so on. We discuss and practice stretching and warming up before practicing, and getting regular physical exercise. And yet, I always feel there is more that could be done.

What is your experience with injury in yourself and others? How do you work with a student who reports pain, discomfort, or other problems?  What solutions have you found for yourself and others? I’m keen to start a conversation on this very important topic.

About the Author

Valerie Kampmeier
Valerie Kampmeier, M.A., brings decades of performance experience as a successful classical pianist in Europe to her piano teaching and her life coaching practice for musicians. She also writes about living a creative life on her blog.
A gifted p... [Read more]

3 Comments

  1. Stacey

    Val – as ever you continue to inspire me. Your writing is amazing. Your heart so open. See you soon.
    Your friend, Stacey

  2. Kristin McGinnis

    Thanks for writing this, Valerie. I am sure that I am nowhere near your level of expertise when it comes to being a pianist, however, I, even as an amateur pianist, have suffered intense pain in my fingers, hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, and upper back within the last few years. During the nights, after accompanying for musical rehearsals, my hands would just throb, tingle, and even become numb. I would need to ice them each night and even do stretching exercises throughout the rehearsals. I was very sad to come to the realization that I physically couldn’t accompany for musicals anymore. I thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie among my coworkers as well as the time spent with the students. I am thankful, however, of the success of my small school of music where I can teach beginning- and intermediate-level piano students as well as conduct children’s choruses and offer theory classes. As of now, I still can only practice for 20-30 minutes at a time, but I am thankful that I can still play! I appreciate you writing this article.

  3. Rebecca Bogart

    Hi Val,

    I developed severe tendinitis in both arms after performing a program of Liszt and Rachmaninoff on a too small piano in a very big church. I stopped playing for about 8 months, and then resumed slowly and went through two years of on and off symptoms. Eventually I decided to completely rework my technique by studying with Nina Scolnik, and also Edna Golandsky occasionally. It took about 2-3 years to able to perform again, and I gave up all my old repertoire to avoid repeating the movements that had caused the problems in the first place. I continued working with Nina because I found that knowing how to get out of pain was the same as knowing how to play with more ease, better tone, and more artistically. In 2000 I recorded a solo CD ‘American Retrospective’ which was well received (it’s for sale on CDBaby.com).

    Now I specialize in retraining injured pianists using what I have learned from Nina. For those who have the good fortune to live near someone with the knowledge of how heal a piano technique, there is some hope. It is a long and expensive process that requires a lot of patience, but I have found the results well worth it.

    Val, Kristin, and Stacey, best of luck to you in your journeys.