Repetitive Stress Injuries: Temporarily Side-lined

Some aspects of pain are a natural byproduct of learning an instrument and are to be expected.  For stringed instrument players building calluses on the finger tips is an excellent example of this.  You practice until you’re uncomfortable, then stop and try again later.  Eventually your fingers grow accustomed to the sensation of working the strings and you build sufficient callus on the each finger to no longer have an issue with it.  Working unfamiliar muscles can result in lactic acid buildup which brings a different sort of discomfort, but one that most folks who have exercised are familiar with.   Stretching is vital to avoid many injuries, but it is also an area that is not addressed very often in the learning process.  Most of the time it comes up when an injury is either forming or has already manifested itself.

I have been having some issues with might right elbow that indicate that I probably have a repetitive stress injury that is impacting the ulnar nerve.  It seems to be a bass-centric injury in that the worst symptoms arise when I’ve been working with the bass as opposed to the guitar.  I’ve concluded that the ergonomics of my guitar playing are different than my bass playing.  One of my doctors agrees, and after noting the worsening of the symptoms, she stated that I should take an extended break from bass playing before the symptoms became even worse and started impacting my guitar playing as well.  She also advocated finding a good physical therapist to get me started on the road to recovery.  While this area is not her primary area of expertise, she is no stranger to RSIs as she has been dealing with her own for several years now.

So this has left me with a definite dilemma, as I am active in three bands as the bassist.  All three expect rehearsals and one is a semi regular three set a night band.  It was during the most recent gig with that one that I came to the realization that the problem needed to be dealt with in one way or another.  We were performing in a local watering hole and about half way through the second set the pain started in my elbow, followed by numbness and prickling running down my forearm.  If it had been my left arm I would have worried about my heart, but it was my right and not radiating from the shoulder.  By the end of the second set I was in significant pain and my right hand was starting to go numb in the ring finger and little finger.  The situation simply worsened through the third set, but I grunted my way through it; not necessarily the best decision health wise, but I made it through the gig.

If this had been a one-time occurrence I would have left it at that, but this has actually been building for some time now.  I have been having pain in the elbow there for some time and bouts of prickling and numbness running down my arm in that area that has come and gone.  I’d mentioned the prickling in passing to my PCP when I had my annual physical, but she was more concerned with some other things at that point and it was an “oh yeah, almost forgot about it,” comment on my part.  Given that my current symptoms are basically classic for some variation of tennis elbow, I’m fairly confident that I know what’s going on and my other doctor was in agreement with my assessment.  The treatment options that I have found thus far are pretty simple: rest, icing, and anti-inflammatories.  Severe cases might require surgery, which I would like to avoid.

I’ve also been exploring different positioning, moving from a five string to a four in order to change alignment, shifting strap lengths and instrument angles, and paying close attention to how my right arm responds to the changes.  I’ve been trying to move my elbow position as soon as I get any pain twinges or start feeling the prickling numbness occurring.  I traded my Carvin SB5000 five string for a Carvin Bunny Brunel BB70 four string, hoping that the difference in body shape, weight and less elbow travel to hit the low string would help.  I’m also trying to consciously play as lightly as I can with my right hand; trying to avoid digging in and working the muscles any harder than necessary.  Thus far the difference hasn’t provided any significant relief and I’m looking at another three set bass gig looming on the not so distant horizon.  The pain is under control, but the numbness and prickling are very much affected by how long I’m on the instrument at any given time.

So, I’ve started making my band members aware of my situation and have let them know that it is in all likelihood going to result in my having to take an extended break from performing on the bass.  I really don’t want this to get worse, particularly since I still can play guitar symptom free for the most part.  Thus I’m left with some pretty limited options.  We’ll see how it goes.




Making it Work: Performing When Physically Compromised, or Again with the Cracks. . .

My fingers are patched up and I made it through a couple hours of rehearsing this morning.  The thumb splits reopened but the crack in the left middle finger held.  I’ve resealed the splits and reinforced the middle finger crack with a liquid bandage that I started applying yesterday.  I have another rehearsal tonight of about three hours, one tomorrow night, Friday night and then a gig opening for The Tubes Saturday night.  With the liquid bandage I think I’ll be all right and not get too bloody.  The good news is that I just had my physical, along with my bloodwork coming back in.  No blood borne pathogens here, which is what I thought but it’s always good to have that type of opinion backed by science to prove it to be fact.  Oh, and I have a TV gig tomorrow afternoon as well, a taping session of three tunes that’s part of a Valentine’s Day program featuring Chicago area blues acts.  It’s at the Comcast Studios in Waukegan, Illinois, so here’s to that.

It wasn’t as cold in the basement this morning as it was last Thursday when the splits popped open on my thumb.  Playing in cooler environments provides me with some physical challenges.  For one thing, when the temperature is creeping under sixty degrees my hands stay quite dry, as well as the skin staying cold.  This creates a situation where the skin isn’t as flexible as it is in warmer temperatures, which leads to a greater potential for damaging it as occurred last week.  Additionally, the cooler it gets the colder the hands get no matter how hard the fingers are working.  What normally presents no speed issues suddenly breeds them as my hands simply never adequately warm up.  This also can increase the potential for acquiring a repetitive stress injury, because the muscles aren’t working in an optimal environment for relaxed movement.  Cold tends to exacerbate stiff tendons and muscles creating more tension than normally present, as well.

Right around sixty degrees used to be fine for me, but I’m getting older and my circulation isn’t what it used to be.  I have gigged outdoors when the temperatures have dropped into the low fifties, upper forties, which is downright unpleasant for a string player or any other player who can’t perform with gloves.  When I was in the southwest gigging, there were many outdoor gigs that started out at a comfortable temperature but had dropped pretty low after the sun went down and time spun along.  This was in the late fall and early winter, then early spring.  We did a lot of outdoor gigs during that time frame.  It’s pleasant to begin with, and many of the places have tall propane space heaters spread out across the patios, which keeps the folks outside eating and drinking for the evening, so you do your best to stay warm and play your heart out even if your fingers are starting to go numb.

I no longer live in the southwest.  Up here in the Chicago area, the outdoor gigs are over by the time October rolls in.  The restaurants that have music and patio dining start moving things inside as the weather starts getting dicey, so inside is the place to be.  The rehearsal areas are another thing, though, particularly if you’re not long on paying rent for a rehearsal space.  Band members’ basements are the preferred locations in this case, but they’re often not the warmest areas, particularly in the older homes like mine.  It’s still warmer than the garage with a kerosene heater though, and I’ve done plenty of time in those as well.  There, it can get painful after awhile though and the concrete flooring never really does warm up enough for my feet to not feel like ice blocks.  The basement is much better if the rest of the family can deal with the additional “noise.”

I get cracks every winter regardless of where I rehearse though, so it’s just something I have to deal with.  We all have something that we’ve simply got to play through, and we do what we can to insure that the job gets done.  For instance, Johnny A, an incredible guitarist who does awesome instrumental rock/lounge music has scoliosis, curvature of the spine.  Standing with his guitar strapped to his body for performance purposes causes him a great deal of pain, so he sits either on a stool or a chair for his performances.  It’s what works for him, so it’s what works best for the audience as well because he gives a great concert when he’s not in pain.  He and I share this issue, although mine isn’t as bad as his.  In my case I use the chair for rehearsals and gigs where I don’t have any room to move around.  If I’m stuck in one spot wedged in between the drummer and someone else all night, I’m in agony the next day.  Other people have other issues that they deal with as well.

The key to all of this is finding a way that makes the situation doable, like Johnny A with his chair, or sealing my cracked fingertips in as many coats of dab on bandage that will stay put.  There’s always going to be something that has the potential to create an impediment to a solid performance, and part of a performer’s responsibility is finding a way through the problem that delivers the goods expected.  Whether it’s summer heat, too much sweat gunking up the hands, mosquitos or whatever else the situation throws at you, it’s up to you to solve it one way or another, meet the commitment, and play your heart out regardless.  Now, it’s about time for another coat of liquid bandage. . .


Growing up Without Tech: A Reflection on Reality

I grew up during the sixties and seventies, entering college in the early eighties when desktop computers were something very new. There was only one kid with a computer in the entire dorm when I was a sophomore, and shortly thereafter cel phones started appearing that were the size of a brick. Once again, none of my friends had one. My childhood survived being a luddite before it was difficult not to be one, and I have adapted to a world filled with technology, as have most of my generation. I belonged to the last generation to take typing classes on IBM Selectric typewriters that were the industry standard of the time, now it is difficult to find one anywhere, let alone get ribbons for them. What I did get out of my childhood, which was also mostly without a TV, was a connection to my outside world and to the people I grew up with.

Computer games were also rare so that was another distraction that I had to do without. Today these games take up enormous blocks of time in children’s and adults’ lives that used to be taken up with interacting with other people and with the environment. Some folks will argue that these games can be played with multiple players, help decision making skills and also teach how to work as a team. I think that this is actually not the case because these games are not rooted in reality. They don’t help kids learn to relate to other people in the real world that surrounds them, nor do they really learn much of anything from gaming. I play computer games and can guarantee that what I’ve learned from them is simply how to escape from reality and put my thought process on hold. Games tend to rope folks in for more time than is really available, distracting them from building strong relationships and physical activity that used to be the norm.

The lack of computers did make finding information a slower process, but the quality of the information that was found tended to be more reliable and much easier to fact check. The library was one of the main areas where I went to gather information for my reports and to find reading material for the joy of reading. You had to know how to search the stacks and the card catalogue. Today tons of information is available just a few clicks away on the computer, however most of it really needs to be fact checked and it’s often difficult to determine the credibility of most web sites that offer “the truth.” Social media also has taken over many people’s lives to the extent that they rely on it for information which is all too often false. Despite having access to an incredible resource we have lost our ability to vet sources. Perhaps it was a skill that the populace was short on to begin with but was held in check by the type of media that was available in my childhood.

I spent my childhood running through backyards, playing football in fields with groups of friends, and stomping through the woods that I found while putting 2,500 miles on my bike each summer. I swam in the mornings with AAU swimming during the summers. Plunging into an unheated pool at eight a.m. to swim laps while the coach walked up and down the pool deck, I worked up my own heat, got my heart pumping and then road my bike back home. I delivered newspapers after swim practice in the winter with my hair freezing at the edges of my hat. There were so many books that called to me, model aircraft to build, music to listen to and practice. I didn’t have a video game to pretend to be a rockstar, I had a guitar that I learned to play and went to music school with. I had friends that I bonded with strapping on skates at the local ponds, and I still have a scar on my chin from the hockey stick I took to the face on one of those ponds. I swam and danced at the Youth Center with hundreds of other kids. I had a childhood and it was a good one.

I truly believe that if I had the technology available to me that our children have, I probably would have had a very different childhood. Instead of sneak reading books by flashlight I probably would have been mainlining video games in a corner, and while both are forms of escapism, reading does have a concrete benefit that gaming does not. I probably would not have been nearly as active as I was, which would have led to a weight problem sooner in my life. I have an addictive personality, which would have led to difficulties with the screen time just as it eventually led to a three pack a day habit with cigarettes that I eventually kicked. I’m glad that I didn’t grow up with the distractions that are present for the present generation, and while my childhood wasn’t without its own brands of difficulties I wouldn’t trade it for today’s conveniences.

Fatigue and Illness: Two Challenges for Working Musicians

Two of the more difficult situations that we all eventually face are illness and fatigue; both provide their own challenges but share some similarities.  When we are tired or ill focus can become a major issue as our energy levels plummet and while fatigue is bad enough on its own when combined with illness it can be a real drag.  Not all of us have the iron will that drives surf legend Dick Dale to still get up and give a solid show despite a whole slew of serious physical ailments that would sideline most of us, nor that of Freddie Mercury finishing his last album with Queen while virtually on his deathbed with AIDs.  There are countless examples of performers who have given their all and died doing it, but I’m not going there.  What I’m looking at is how do we get through a gig where we’re exhausted or miserable from some garden-variety virus.

I’ve done my fair share of gigs when I was under the weather and quite a few where I was close to exhausted before the gig started either due to insomnia the night before, a run of late nights combined with early mornings or a ton of other situations.  If I know I’m running on low energy due to fatigue and I can work it in during the day, I’ll do my best to get a nap before I’ve got to leave for the gig, but more often than not this is a luxury I have to forgo.  So I find myself hitting the coffee and diet soda regimen, trying to load up a little to keep the peepers open and the attention span stabilized.  That being said, this is not the healthiest way to deal with the situation because any time you use chemicals, even caffeine, there’s a price to pay, particularly if you overload.  So if you go the coffee route watch how much you drink, particularly if you already have health issues like high blood pressure or something like A-fib.  You don’t want to elevate the blood pressure, nor do you want to risk you’re A-fib getting worse.  One of the worst things you can do in this situation is start drinking alcohol, and if you’re really tired skip that after gig drink.

Another method, which doesn’t rely on chemicals, is get up and moving before the set starts.  This will help get the blood pumping and help you make it into the set.  Between sets find a quiet corner, ask one of your bandmates to come and get you before the next set and close your eyes.  As long as your bandmates know where you are, they’ll make sure you’re up and running for the next set.  The best method is to avoid letting your batteries run so dry in the first place.  Do your best to follow a schedule that permits eight hours of sleep per day, preferably in one block.  I know that this is difficult, particularly if you have a day job, kids that need to get to school and a heavy performance schedule.  Remember, lack of balance is usually what creates sleep deprivation to begin with, and you’re better off pulling into a parking lot to take a nap after the gig than falling asleep at the wheel.

Illness is a tricky one, because we need to be able to determine when we’re risking too much for the bar gig, or not enough.  Honestly, I don’t know how singers do it when they power through gigs with colds, sinus infections and the lot.  If you are a vocalist I highly suggest you ask your fellow singers with tons of experience how they get through the gigs and go from there.  For the rest of the rockers and such, if you can’t get out of the bathroom you need to either find an emergency sub or cancel the gig, other than that if you’re lucid and you’re fairly certain you’re not going to pass out on stage, everyone is pretty much expecting you to show up and do the gig.  In most of these cases it’s a matter of gritting your teeth and getting it done.  Once again, remember that mixing alcohol and cold medicines of various types can create an even worse scenario.  Stick to safe fluids, and try not to give your fellow band members the curse.

The brutal reality of being even a semi-pro musician is that you have to show up for work even when you feel like death warmed over.  You’re part of a small unit that depends upon its components to survive and profit as an entity.  Any time you call off from a gig it puts the group at risk of failure, whether it’s having a bad night for the bad or possibly losing the backing of an agent who could have kept you all working regularly.  It’s not like a regular job with paid sick days and vacation time, plus there really are tons of people just waiting to take your job.  Your best bet is to cowboy up, to use the old phrase, and get the job done.  Then do what you can to get better rested or to recover from whatever ails you.


Off Topic: A Glimpse into the life of George, and All-American Mutt

I’m supposed to be at the vet’s office in an hour with my pooch, George.  He’s due for his yearly physical but they’re also going to partially sedate him so they can do an x-ray of his left forelimb because he has been limping for some time now.  They’re looking for a reason for the limp, so the x-ray is being done to find out if he has arthritis (he’s seven, a senior by large dog standards) or something more nefarious like bone cancer.  I’m hoping that it’s the lesser of the two evils but all in all I’m pretty stressed out and worried about my dear friend.  He’s a big lovable lug and he has a very special place in my heart, as well as the hearts of my wife and daughter.

When we got George he was about ten months old and had been brought to the Animal Care League here in Oak Park from a shelter in Oklahoma as part of a program to prevent dogs from being euthanized.  We met George one Thursday afternoon at a street fair in Oak Park where the ACL had set up under a storefront.  George was this beautiful, friendly 51 pound pup, gold in color with matching gold eyes.  We took him for a walk and that sealed the deal.  They thought he was a mix of a shepherd and retriever, but weren’t certain.  He had been a street dog who’d had no home until he was picked up by animal control.  All I knew was he was a beautiful soul who needed a home that we were very happy to provide.

We took George home to our apartment and started our life with him.  It was a fourth of July weekend when we brought him home and the fireworks caused him so much stress that I slept with him on the floor that first night.  From that point on we’ve been best buds.  It turned out that George was carrying a ton of parasites, and after we got that taken care of he started packing on the weight and growing larger.  Six weeks after the parasites were gone he was a whopping 103 pound bruiser with a heart of gold.  There was a mastador down the street from us who was built the same way, just a little bit taller and a tad heavier.  That was when we started to suspect that he might be something other than what the folks thought at the ACL.  But that didn’t matter, because he was big lovable G-dog.

The vets put him on a diet and we were supposed to bring him down to his “ideal weight” which they put at 85lbs.  Honestly, I don’t know how they determined that because he really didn’t look fat to me, he just looked big and brawny, but they are the experts so that’s what we did.  It was quite difficult because we were also trying to train him at the same time, and he was very food motivated, still is for that matter.  But we prevailed and George dropped to 85.  Regardless of the weight he was always friendly and enthusiastic about meeting people and other animals and he never made a fuss when people came to the apartment.

Interestingly enough that changed a bit when we bought and moved into our house.  G-dog evidently decided that it was the place to be, because he took upon himself the job of security specialist; a job that he has taken very seriously to the point where we have to keep the front blinds closed so he doesn’t go nuts when people walk by on the other side of the street.  Once people are in the house he’s all about making nice with them; he’s the same on the street with both people and dogs, but if you come to the door he acts like he’s going to eat you.

So here we are in another phase of our life with Mr. G.  He’s currently back up to around 100 pounds, burly, but slower than he was and the gimp has us worried.  When the vet said that George was a senior citizen at one of our recent appointments I almost cried.  I’ve known for some time that large breeds have shorter life spans but I’m having difficulties wrapping my head around my beloved best buddy being on the shorter end of the branch.  He’s such a loving and warm fellow, and pretty smart too, when he wants to be.  It’s almost time to head to the vets to try to find out what’s going on with him.  I’m hoping he still has a good deal of time left to spend with us.


Some Notes on My Absence from the Blogosphere

It has been awhile since I’ve posted so I figured you all were owed at least an update. I had been intending to do this earlier, but my focus has been a bit on the split side. A friend of mine from graduate school many years ago, took to Facebook and issued a writing challenge of producing about 750 words a day of fiction for all of July, each day and everyday. I accepted her challenge, but in a modified form of one essay per day of 750 or more words for the month of July. I haven’t been posting these to the blog and am hoarding them towards possibly producing a book length manuscript, which I’ve wanted to do for quite some time. This counts toward my daily production requirement, but I don’t want my blog to go stale while I’m slaving away on the project. I’ve had some other issues lately that have distracted me from my cd project, which is still on the burner, just not the front one at the moment. At a recent doctor’s appointment I received some information which shook up my world a bit, and has called for some life-style changes that need to be addressed immediately, and not put off as something I can afford to deal with at a later date, so I’m making those changes, some of which are impacting the amount of time I have free to pursue various other things. However, the trade off is that making the changes does much to ensure that I can continue doing the things I want to into the foreseeable future.

It’s easy to forget that we need to view our lives holistically, and I’m just as guilty as the next guy when it comes to tending to focus on what matters in the moment and maybe into next week. For instance, for quite awhile I’ve been running on the basis that if I have a choice in how I spend my time, exercise was about the last thing I’d consider, ceding to practicing, reading, recreational eating, and everything but hauling myself to the gym on a regular basis, despite knowing better. My eating habits weren’t so hot either. I love fried food, cheeseburgers, ribs, chips, you name it, and I’ve got quite a sweet tooth on top of that. I’m kind of addicted to it as well. On the positive side, I don’t smoke. I quit that over twenty years ago, but when I did I was a heavy smoker, smoking three packs a day. I rarely drink alcohol, largely because it interacts with my medications negatively, and because I’ve seen first hand the mess it has the potential to create in people’s lives. I never was into recreational drug use, thankfully; I’ve seen the fallout from that as well.

Currently I am on a diet to do what most people do who diet, lose weight, and in the past month since my check up I’ve dropped just short of 10 pounds (258 down to 249; I’m 5’9” on a good day). I’ve also cut out most of the fatty foods that have been staples in my diet, have starting focusing more on vegetables and fruit and have stopped snacking on things that do harm, including a massive sugar reduction. I’m also exercising regularly through biking several times a week and walking my dog, George, a mile to a mile and a half every afternoon. I can feel the difference already in terms of having more energy and less knee pain. I just had my follow up appointment to check in on how the blood pressure med is working, and my doc was pleased with the changes I’ve made. I’m still waiting on the results of my stress test, but as my doc said, if there had been a major issue they wouldn’t have let me leave the hospital.

I’m 52 and not done with my life. I want to be able to still be actively performing, writing and enjoying life in 30 years if not longer, so that means I have to take a different approach to living my life on a day to day basis, and deal with it holistically, not cherry-picking and living entirely in the moment. I’m already seeing that the moments that I’m living in are improving thanks to the changes I’ve already made and for this I’m thankful. If I continue with this, as I intend to, I can only foresee the quality of my entire life improving radically. It’s also giving me a more solid appreciation of each moment I have, and the importance of maximizing the value of those moments to be productive, affirming, forward looking and more goal oriented. It also reminds me that I am more than one thing. I am a father, a husband, a musician, a writer, a teacher, a pet owner, a concerned citizen, and a plethora of other roles that all tie together in what constitutes being me; all of which bring their own hosts of responsibilities, joys and setbacks with them.

So, if I have been remiss with my blog posts regarding things musical, advice given and anecdotes shared, I apologize. I am working on living and promoting continuing to do so healthily and holistically, which in the end can only improve things professionally as well. One of the things about being a long term creative person and musician is that you’ve got to live a full life and fill it with as much of the positive as possible. It is your individual responsibility to do so. Pain and suffering end up being a part of that as well, but you’ve got to do your part to do what it takes to limit that and not bring it upon yourself. Some subscribe to the concept that pain and suffering are required in order to accomplish great things creatively, but honestly, I think that’s a huge crock of romantic bullshit. Living is what is required, and living a full and complete life can only make your art, whatever it is, better.