I’ve been thinking about repetitive injuries lately – particularly the recovery, rebuilding, relearning, and finding the silver lining part of them.
Last week, my boyfriend John, who is a lifelong die hard Cubs fan, shared an interview with me about Kris Bryant and his injuries this season which have landed him on the Disabled List. Since 2015, Bryant has been the MLB All Star twice, the National League Rookie of the Year, won a World Series and was named the National League’s MVP. A remarkably talented athlete. Unfortunately, he’s been out for most of this season with injuries, specifically a left shoulder injury. This is a 26 year old man in the prime of his career!
In this interview, Bryant discuses his treatment regimen, the patience necessary for dealing with an injury, and ultimately how, in the end, he’ll be stronger as a result. In speaking about the recovery and rebuilding process, he mentions that he’s glad this injury has happened because it is helping him to address the how: he’s relearning how to do what he does every day in a new way; train smarter, with greater awareness, and develop a new routine.
How does something like this happen to a finely tuned athlete at the top of his game? Years of the repetitive motion of swinging the bat the same way day after day has taken it’s toll. Perhaps a light has been shown on his process and the things he does daily, automatically, sometimes without thought. Something has lead him to this injury, whether or not it’s his overuse, we can’t say for sure, but it certainly isn’t helpful, and he’s being forced to address this.
Naturally, I found this to be inspiring, and it resonated with me not only as a Body Mapping specialist but even more as a musician who has dealt with overuse and injury for much of my career. Athletes and musicians have a lot in common when it comes to use of self, or rather misuse and overuse of self, and injury.
So, when does too much practice become harmful, and how does a professional athlete or musician find balance?
One Sunday morning this past April, I was traveling home to Northern California after regular weekly teaching at California State University Long Beach, reflecting back on my student Matt’s Master’s degree recital the night before. I made my way through the Oakland Airport, smiling and feeling immensely happy for and proud of Matt. Here’s a student that has been in my studio at CSULB for 7 years; he completed his BM in Music Education two years ago, and just completed his MM in Flute Performance this semester. When Matt began his studies at CSULB, he wasn’t immediately accepted into the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music. His first semester was spent taking classes as an undeclared major and weekly private lessons with me, which he paid for out of his own pocket. Never having studied privately, this could have gone either way, but Matt’s talent, dedication, passion, and patience paid off; he was accepted as a music major for the following semester.
As Matt grew closer to the end of his undergraduate studies, he began to have a change of heart. One day, he came to his lesson and said he didn’t want to go the route of music education, instead he wanted to focus his energy on refining his flute playing and decided to return to do his MM with me at CSULB. Fast forward, to April and Matt’s musically sophisticated, beautifully performed MM recital. What a milestone for him. As I was thinking about all of this, I reached into my bag and pulled out an apple and, without even thinking about it, bit into it and continued walking to my car. As I got to the end of the apple, three things occurred to me: 1. How much I was enjoying this perfect little Honey Crisp apple, 2. I had been walking a long time and had absolutely no clue where I parked my car, and, 3. I hadn’t eaten an apple the way one usually eats an apple for more than 20 years.
Early in my undergrad, I was diagnosed with Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ). My Dad spent a lot of money on medical specialists to get me the best care possible. All were met with limited results. Ultimately, I had to do the real work and make changes in the ways I did even the most routine and simplest things, not exclusive to my approach to flute playing, but in day to day life. No longer would I eat corn on the cob, super crusty bread or bagels, or apples. Chewing gum was out of the question, as was eating hard or chewy candies. Even visits to the dentist were a challenge. In fact, one TMJ “specialist” placed me on a liquid diet for the better part of a year, prescribing regular use of anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxers for the pain, and a strong recommendation that I take three months off of playing. His opinion was that the pain I was experiencing was rooted in my flute playing. He wasn’t entirely right but he wasn’t entirely wrong. I did everything he asked me to do, including a three month break from playing. Returning to the flute and making an effort to address habitual playing related patterns would be a step that would take years to relearn and refine. I wasn’t successful in that part of my progress and within a year or so, more injuries would present themselves, both from outside forces and from overuse. All of this began when I was about 20 years old, and would color the next couple of decades of my life.
In that moment of enjoying Matt’s major milestone, I was enjoying one of my own; eating an apple. As a teacher, it’s easy to recognize and celebrate a students’ steady progress, marked each semester by a performance jury, not to mention their personal growth as human beings and musicians. It’s not always as easy to notice this with ourselves. An everyday activity like eating an apple literally stopped me in my tracks in the long term parking lot at Oakland Airport. For many years I wasn’t able to do that seemingly simple activity. There were also years I couldn’t pull anything out of the oven to place it on top of the stove, or take dishes from the dishwasher and place them up in the cupboard, or even lift a small suitcase to put it in the overhead bin. Each of these actions required use of certain muscles, muscles that also worked to move me in a habitual way necessary for flute playing. Sleeping was especially uncomfortable. Having chronic neck and/or back pain, or in some cases, an injury, means you need to consider the pillows you use, the bed you sleep on, and the way you rollover and get up from sleep. There were years I couldn’t practice for more than a very short period of time without taking breaks before the pain set back in. It’s fair to say, a combination of injuries compounded by overuse and a lack of education about how to use my body well is what exacerbated these issues.
How did I get from playing in pain every day to pain-free practice and performance?
I assembled a team of professionals to help me to discover and address the roots of my injuries. Committing to a regimen of Physical Therapy and daily exercises – even when I didn’t want to, or worse, when I thought I was better and therefore didn’t need to do the work anymore. If we’re going to keep doing what we do, well into our twilight years, maintenance is essential. Regular exercise, stretching, swimming, whatever your preference, get out there and do it. A good PT will help you find the proper exercises to address your specific needs.
I took a close look at my practice routine and explored new ways to use my time. Shooting for several short sessions vs one long session was the best change of all. This helps us to stay mentally sharp, and stop for a break before tension and pain set in. Gone were the days of epic marathon practice sessions, mindlessly playing until things hurt. What was I thinking in my 20’s anyhow? Actually I know exactly what I was thinking: No pain, no gain… I just have to get through this audition/concert/recital, and then I’ll take a break. You may feel reluctant to try new things for fear of how you’ll sound during the process. Musicians, when we’re going through any change – an embouchure change, new hand position, or addressing breathing misconceptions – we might feel as though we don’t sound our best. And, what do we do in those situations? Go back to what we’ve been doing because we’re afraid of sounding bad, or because this new thing we’re tying to implement feels awkward and unnatural, and the old way, though limiting or in some cases, painful, is reliable, so we revert back to old patterns.
Getting to the other side of any injury requires patience.
Adjusting expectations and not be so hard on ourselves. Recovering from an injury and rebuilding strength takes time. Be patient with the process and celebrate your victories. You’ll soon begin to relearn how to do what you do, better, and without pain. There have been a few significant periods of time where I’ve been instructed to take a break from playing. Each time, my return has been eye opening and immensely valuable.
Breaking things down into smaller cells. Working smaller sections, always with your ears leading your practice, and always remaining inclusively aware. Remember to speak kindly to yourself in the practice room. It’s your sacred space. Would you speak to anyone else, a student included, the way you speak to yourself? It also takes trust, not only of those whose wisdom you are heeding but most importantly, from yourself. Trust the process. It may not happen as quickly as you’d like, but you’ll get there. Here’s the thing: you still sound good. Probably better.
Body Mapping. Several years ago, I began exploring alternative ways to fix my recurring issues. Body Mapping showed up in my life at the perfect time and learning how to use my body properly saved my career. It’s really that simple. I needed to figure out how I was doing what I was doing and Body Mapping made all the difference.
I say this a lot but it’s not about working harder, it’s about working smarter. Time is short, there are stretches during the academic year and orchestral season when, like many of my colleagues, I have a lot of plates spinning. Efficiency and quality are what I’m aiming for in my playing. And, balance is key. This is a significant contrast from my views on practice 25 years ago. It’s not about the quantity of time logged in the practice room, it’s about the quality of time.
Like Kris Bryant, you might examine your habits; how you do what you do. Ask yourself if what you’re doing in your day to day is still working for you. He’s actually happy that this injury has happened to him, and optimistic that these new changes will make him an even better baseball player, which, as he puts it, is ultimately “a win” for him. That positivity and winning attitude is exactly what is needed when working through an injury. I’m grateful for the injuries and hurdles I’ve experienced in my career; each makes me a stronger person, a better player and teacher, and more informed Body Mapping specialist.
Whether you’re an athlete or a musician, playing in pain is simply not an option.
Many of us musicians have the habitual way we do what we do, day after day; in our practice rooms, in rehearsal, and in performance.
Today in your practice room, ask yourself these questions and take note. Literally, take note. Then take the time you need to reflect back on your notes and ask yourself if your habits serve you well, or has the time come to reevaluate and explore the possibilities a new and better way.