Friday, August 16, 2019

Playing with fire

It's the eerie music that runs through the subconscious of every conservatory musician.The fear of injury.

Fingers are muscles. Muscles can be pulled. Strained. Stressed. And if not attended to, bad things can happen. Career ending things.

The problem being that the "attending to" part usually involves not using said muscles. Not practicing. This is a no-go for a lot of young folks trying to cram for an important performance. And when you are young they are all important performances. So they just go for it.

One very talented individual went for it. He was scheduled to play Bach's Goldberg Variations at a Conservatory Convocation. It was his last performance. For several years, anyway. Possibly for good. (don't know for sure)

I've seen the t-word happen to a few musicians who were my colleagues at the conservatory. It was usually very talented, very industrious ones. It didn't necessarily end their careers, but it may have sidelined them for a while.

See, the t-word is cumulative. Once you've got a full-blown case of it, even taking a break for months, or years, doesn't really work very well. Only an hour of practice can bring it roaring back. This is what makes it so frightening. So much that I call it the t-word.

If you're curious, it ends in -itis, and beings with "tendon." Shh! Don't say it out loud!

It usually announces its presence less than subtly. You can tell when your wrists are on fire, or your fingers feel stiff. That usually freaks me out, and I stop practicing right away. Once, in college, I was playing a Brahms concerto in which the cadenza involved a lot of accented notes with the pinkie finger of the left hand. I overdid the accents. I could feel it afterward. And I dialed it back for a few days.

Efficient practice, the kind where your fingers release into the keyboard exactly the way they are supposed to, tends to keep this sort of thing from happening. But practice a difficult passage with even a little bit of unnecessary tension in the hands, or try to stretch or pull the hand over a jump instead of rotating the wrist to get there, or fail to relocate the rest of your fingers to support the little fingers on the ends of your hands so that the pinkie just sticks out there like it is hailing a cab one too many times, and you'll be sorry. Not right away. You can usually get away with it for a day or to, but not for very long.

I was working on all four of the Chopin Ballades this week for a program in Pittsburgh next week. On short notice I was trying to cram 50 pages of music I haven't played in a quarter century. That is a good way to get hurt. I was aware of this. I was also aware that we have a vacation coming up and some enforced time away from the piano which would give time for the fingers to heal if I strained anything just a bit. But also fewer days to get the music ready.

Chopin can be really unforgiving on the fingers. Especially if your technical approach isn't spot on. And when you are just learning the notes, or trying to achieve speed perhaps a little too early, that can be dangerous.

It's good to know this, recognize the symptoms, and know when to back off. Being able to learn quickly also helps, and having the maturity not to panic at the thought of another recital without enough preparation time.

It's been a while since I felt any fire in my wrists, but one day last week it happened. The ending of that first ballade is a real challenge at performance speed! I threw a little too much caution to a little too much wind before I really understood how to move quickly among the forest of notes. The will is a wonderful thing, but it can also be a bit like a bull in a china shop. It was probably only a span of about 10 minutes that did the real damage--fortunately, it wasn't anything irreversible. For all its horrors, the t-word does give you time to decided whether to forge ahead and risk real injury, or to get out while all you've got is a minor strain. One day is not going to completely wreck your fingers in perpetuity.

My fingers could be feeling better, but they are doing fine--a little tired from their ordeal, but recovering. There is a time to cram and a time to be careful, and always a time to balance those two ends. I hope the cadre of students entering music schools all over the world this week are able to do that.

There is, of course, also mental practicing, slow practice, listening to recordings, and knowing when staying glued to the piano is getting you diminishing returns and a nice walk would be a good idea.

We live, we learn, and we achieve.  And we try to be able to live another day, with fingers and bodies and minds whole so we can experience the hearts and minds of all of those wonderful composers.

Careful out there, my friends.

Happy practicing.

The St. Paul Cathedral Pittsburgh concert is up at pianonoise radio this week. And of course, the homepage is new like it is every week. Enjoy!

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