“If you cannot be grateful for what you have received, then be thankful for what you have been spared.” Yiddish proverb
Body vs Art (medical) 1974-present
• 1974 Ulnar Nerve Entrapment at the Elbow (Cubital Tunnel Syndrome) | At the age of seventeen, I began to notice numbness and tingling in the forearm and outside fingers of both hands as well as snapping at the elbows. The symptoms, likely brought on by pounding away eight hours a day at the piano for the better part of a year, resulted in my requiring immediate surgery in both arms and taking a break from the keyboard for about three months. After the surgery, my arms were never the same again; however, I was able to play the piano and guitar, albeit with limitations.
• 1977 Keratoconus Eye Disease | Keratoconus is a condition in which the normally round dome-shaped cornea progressively thins causing a cone-like bulge to develop. Shortly after being diagnosed, I was fitted with hard contact lenses as the disease causes an irregular astigmatism and glasses are ineffective. As the years passed, and my condition worsened, I was only able to tolerate the contacts for a few hours at a time; consequently, wearing time became creative time. In 1987, within a year after being registered with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind as being legally blind, I underwent a cornea transplant in my right eye; two years later, the left eye. Fourteen years later, an optometrist, upon hearing me express delight at being able to see the wall chart well enough to drive, told me, “Most people who complain about their vision not being perfect should look at the world through your eyes.”
• 1989 Tendinitis in the wrists and arms | At the age of thirty-three, just a matter of days after being released form the hospital following my second cornea transplant, my wrists and arms, seemingly out of nowhere, began to itch and throb in pain. Turns out, I had developed a bad case of carpal tunnel and tendinitis, brought on by years of composing at the piano and typing at the computer. In short, after extensive therapy, much trial and error and learning to take regular yoga stretching breaks when working, I’ve learned to mostly manage the condition. I say mostly, because to this day, I still get the occasional flare up.
• 1995 De Quervain tenosynovitis | De Quervain’s syndrome is a painful type of tendinitis which primarily affects the thumbs. Not having had a serious tendinitis episode in a long time, just the usual itching and aching in the wrists and arms, I had become complacent during this time, working long hours at a stretch without taking frequent wellness breaks (i.e. yoga stretches, ice, etcetera). And like the ulnar nerve entrapment at the elbow when I was seventeen and the tendinitis in the wrists and arms at age thirty-three, I once again had no idea of the damage I was doing until the symptoms suddenly burst forth. In short, I was forced to take a protracted break from the piano as even the gentlest of playing caused shooting pains up my arms; nor could I type, pick up a jug of bottled water, etcetera, without a plethora of pain. I remember wondering, if I ever had a child, would I be able to lift him or her up? Fortunately, after a nine month hiatus from any form of repetitive work which required the use of my hands, my condition began to improve. Since that time, I’ve learned to remain ultra vigilant when working at the piano and computer, as hard as it is to take a break when on a roll.
• 1999 Lower back disk injury L4, L5 | As a long time yoga practitioner, I didn’t see this one coming. My then wife and I were getting ready to take a road trip and I thought I’d start the day with a little exercise. While holding a seated forward bend, the unimaginable happened; I heard a loud pop in my lower back. Unable to get up, I crawled to the bathroom where my wife was taking a shower, seeking help. So much for a vacation. In brief, I spent the next thirty days laying down as I was unable to sit for more than a few moments at a time without my eyes tearing up on account of the pain. When I was finally able to get back to work—I was in the midst of recording the Moses show’s midi tracks at the time—it was for very brief periods at first. For the next ten years, I battled muscle spasms in my lower back as well as bouts of sciatica; however, I modified my yoga so as not to repeat such an injury, and I can't begin to express how helpful yoga was in my recovery, and have never had another major flare up. And most importantly, I have been able to continue with my work.
Hopefully my account of the health risks of playing a musical instrument or typing might encourage others to avoid potential injury when engaging in repetitive physical activities by remaining vigilant—i.e. taking gentle exercise breaks while at work, and consulting with a medical professional in the event symptoms arise. And for those who are living with a serious injury or daunting medical condition, I’ll give Stephen Hawking, who had a rare early-onset, slow-progressing form of ALS, the last word:
“My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.” Stephen Hawking (1942-2018 theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author)