When I get tired of books, of Netflix and YouTube, when the weather’s bad and I’m fed up with the clarinet or piccolo, there it is, four feet from my desk. Waiting. Deceptively forlorn, bright keys smiling in my direction. On the lid, those dusky blue Henle editions that are so easy to read, that stay open and flat so nicely. Just a little Schubert, the piano urges. Ten minutes of Brahms. A couple of blues licks. Feed your soul and wiggle your fingers just a bit.
Last weekend I was in my bedroom, reading, and my left wrist suddenly started hurting. Uh oh, I thought. Too many octaves again. By morning my forearm was swollen, and I couldn’t use my left hand without whimpering. RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) is the first step always, so I applied an ice wrap and taped up the wrist. Sonny and Dave, bless them, took over the household tasks for the day. I closed the door to the piano room and tried to think happy thoughts about laying off all instruments for a few days.
I learned about RICE in the era of the dinosaurs (1980s-early 90s), which as you may recall was the age of aerobics. Nothing beat the endorphin rush of whooping and jumping to a fast, thumping beat with 40 other people at Stacey G’s 5:30 High Impact class. Never athletic as a child, I loved the gym. With typical Aspie overkill, it wasn’t long before I’d earned a certification and started teaching classes myself. At first a couple of classes a week, then a couple of classes a day, then more than that.
When my left foot and ankle started feeling a little sore, I pushed through the discomfort for a while. Then the feeling morphed from twinges and soreness around workouts to unremitting pain. A sports doctor at the gym diagnosed tendinitis, gave me a prescription for naproxen, and told me to RICE my foot for a couple of weeks.
The pills were amazing! The very next day I taught my classes, ecstatic that I could jog and do jumping jacks and lunges without hurting. However, jumping like an insane rabbit for forty-five minutes at a time rather than resting did significant damage to my ankle, resulting in a painless limp that lasted for more than six months.
Why did I ignore the R in RICE? I could easily have taken off a few weeks. But I was afraid that if I stopped, I’d never start again. Worse, I didn’t know if I could replace the good feelings I got from aerobics from somewhere else. The same worries afflicted me long after I’d moved on to other kinds of movement that kept me happy and active.
Like many musicians (and people who type a lot), I have tendinitis/overuse issues with my hands that flare up from time to time. Practicing through a wrist sprain during one busy gig season led to a permanent readjustment of my relationship to the piano. I’m better at clarinet, and it turned out I couldn’t do both full force. Careful experimentation showed what I couldn’t do anymore (Beethoven, stride) versus what I could do sometimes, but not too much (Schubert, Brahms). Also I learned what to do when I overdo (RICE at the first sign of trouble).
I trust my limits and stick to them better than I used to, but being stuck at home in the pandemic, it’s been easy to overdo. I know better, but my first reactions when I have a flare continue to be panic and awfulizing. The mind leaps straight from gotta get ice to my career is over! What will I dooooo? That help nothing, so I try to move through those feelings and also the ensuing “why-me?” sulks to a less brooding place. I think about things and people that will keep the endorphins flowing. I appreciate that I can lay off the dishes for a couple of days. I lift my spirits with the most-loved songs from my aerobics days, the ones with the tempos cranked up to 144 beats per minute and the volume on way-too-loud. I wave my hand in the air like I don’t care. That works, for now.