My Personal Experience With Injury

I am astounded by how much people use their hands today, especially in regards to technology: it is not uncommon for someone to log many hours of “hand-use time” a day on computers, texting, etc. Twenty years ago this was certainly not the case.

For anyone who adds serious piano practice/playing to the mix, it is vital that the time they spend at the instrument is done in the most physically efficient way possible, enabling them to maximize their musical and technical achievements, as well as to prevent injury down the road. Anyone who works with me can rest assured that I will be highly attentive to their physical/technical issues in addition to musical musical concerns, as these are inseparably connected.

Given my past, I take this issue very, very seriously.

In 2006, my body took me to the mat. I developed a severe overuse injury in my right elbow and forearm tendons, which led to an inability to perform for almost two years. Every musician’s nightmare became my reality.

I’d flirted with injury for much of my career. It usually meant resting for a week or two once a problem showed up, taking it easy as I resumed practice – and then I was back on the horse. But always with the awareness that I could get thrown off again if I wasn’t careful.

Anyone who works with me can rest assured that I will be highly attentive to their physical and technical issues in addition to musical concerns.

I was certainly mindful of physical tension at the keyboard and ways to lessen it, going all the way back to my high school days with Ylda Novik. And I really thought I had the issue of biomechanics – how to play in the most physically efficient way possible – pretty well figured out and largely under control.

Until the 2006 crash.

When it became clear that this wasn’t going to resolve just by resting, I sought out an expert in the field: Dr. Barbara Lister-Sink*. How fortunate that she was only 75 minutes away by car! The universe, as is usually the case, had set this up beautifully. Unfortunately, it had taken me almost a year to overcome my denial regarding the severity of my situation and admit I needed help.

In the summer of 2007, I began my pianistic retraining.  This is a rather formidable task, as the neuromuscular program one develops for playing runs deep and is hard to shift, even in a younger person. For someone in their mid-forties, it’s doubly challenging!  Though painstaking, it was rewarding to finally put together pieces of the puzzle regarding fundamentals of piano playing and technique.  Somehow, certain key concepts had not been presented to me in my earlier studies – probably because my teachers thought I already knew them, or because I was able to play very successfully and it didn’t seem necessary/time efficient to address them.  However, Barbara explained everything with consummate patience and clarity, and slowly – glacially, from my perspective! – I began to recover.

In 2006, I developed a severe overuse injury in my right elbow and forearm tendons, which led to an inability to perform for almost two years.

We used the second book of Preludes by Debussy as my rehab pieces, starting with the slower ones and then gradually moving into others that were more technically demanding.  In 2008, I was able to give a short lecture-recital on these pieces, but not without still being plagued by some pain. We then started to explore other repertoire, so I would understand how to apply proper biomechanics to various styles of playing:  a Mozart sonata, some Chopin nocturnes, and the Danzas argentinas of Ginastera.  In 2009, I was able to give a recital of these works plus some Debussy preludes for the Petersburg Piano Society in Alaska, set up by one of the fellow attendees of Barbara’s 2007 weeklong summer retraining workshop. I was most grateful for this opportunity to perform in Petersburg, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.
I had started seriously studying voice the year before the injury, as I’d always loved singing. This now became my main form of artistic expression, and very likely helped me keep my sanity during the trying years of injury and rehab. I performed two different art song programs in various venues throughout the country, and it was a fascinating challenge to be standing at the piano and face my audience directly. My favorite work was Schumann’s wondrous song cycle Dichterliebe, and I’m in a very select group of people who have performed both the vocal and piano parts (though I didn’t do them at the same time!).

Somehow, certain key concepts had not been presented to me in my earlier studies — probably because my teachers thought I already knew them.

I also underwent many, many hours of painful, exhausting, and expensive body work. I tried a variety of modalities: chiropractic, physical therapy, craniosacral massage, Alexander technique, and Asian healing arts. To this day I still do some combination of therapies on a weekly basis. My body is, for better or worse, highly sensitive, and demands this kind of care and attention – especially if I expect it to perform at the highest level in concert. I guess I’m not unlike an Italian sports car.

As difficult and disheartening as the injury was, I feel I now play with greater ease than ever before. Passages that used to cause physical discomfort and even pain no longer elicit this response. My retraining work also profoundly influences my teaching, so that I am even more vigilant and aware of biomechanical issues in my students. Prior to the injury, I might let certain things slide, such as postural and hand alignment issues. Not anymore!

It is my wish that all pianists experience a lifetime of effortless, joyful, injury-free playing. It really is possible!

*To find out more about Barbara Lister-Sink’s teachings on injury prevention, technique, and biomechanics at the piano, please refer to her epic DVD, Freeing the Caged Bird.

The retraining work we did together was highly fulfilling for me, as Dr. Otten deepened his understanding of biomechanics and physical efficiency at the piano, as well as its application to compelling music-making. The result was a much more complete, well-rounded musician, pianist and pedagogue.  It is a testament to his strength of character that he persevered where many would have just given up and stopped playing altogether.

—Dr. Barbara Lister-Sink, internationally renowned biomechanics expert