So based upon some conversations with the hockey player, Ian Laperrière on twitter, I’m having a few thinky thoughts about injuries, jocks, nerds, and the line between the two. The point Laperrière has been making is that, yes, we should prevent injuries, but also that people take risks to play at such a high level.
Enter the recent discussion on NPR that had little to do with sports writing. It devolved into a panel discussion of how horribly violent hockey is. Nobody is arguing that point, but the attitude of the story was that the sport isn’t worth it (and that hockey is mostly fighting, which is another argument for another time. Short response: they haven’t been watching the same games as I have this year.)
But it got me thinking: What would that panel have thought about the scads of musicians that suffer career-related injuries? RSI’s are legion among musicians, as is hearing loss. (Ask any violist what they think of the brass section behind them. Those sound barriers don’t block a whole hell of a lot.) You see the same kind of attitude here, as well. If a rock musician is injured, it’s their own damn fault, whereas an oboe player with a crippling case of tendinitis is somehow nobly sacrificing for his/her art.
Before I got into composing, I was a violinist. I played semi-professionally all through high school, and I was well on my way to being a gigging musician. I wasn’t soloing with orchestras or on the solo concert career circuit, but–to be honest–I was pretty good. Then in my sophomore year of college, I developed tendinitis in my shoulder during a marathon 3-performance weekend of most of Handel’s Messiah. I was on the “scratch list” for most of that weekend and on NSAIDs and muscle relaxants. Because teachers and professors weren’t overly understanding of the effects of RSI’s back then, it only got worse until I was in the middle of a premiere of a piece by Robert Ashley a few years later in the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. (I’ve broken bones before, and I think they hurt far, far less than bad tendinitis.) My playing career was over.
In hindsight, it was a good thing that happened to me. It freed me to fully pursue composition, which I dearly love. While I liked playing the violin, I didn’t like practicing much, and I can’t think of anything more mind-numbingly boring than a 3-hour orchestra rehearsal. (And that includes having my own pieces played.) A part of me misses performing. There’s no bigger endorphin rush of giving a great performance and connecting with an audience.
But back to Laperrière’s point: people take risks to play at such an elite level. I remember back in high school people telling me that a career as a musician was a “waste” for someone like me–who was academically gifted, a nerd. They told me that I wasn’t a jock, and had options. First, this is pretty insulting to both groups: there are nerds who’re athletically gifted, and there are jocks who’re intellectually brilliant. But beyond that, we’re not dealing with normal people.
If a child is gifted at something, be that music, sports, or whatever, it’s cruel to enforce “normality” on them. They aren’t ever going to be normal, and to withhold the training and competition they need to hone their craft isn’t helping them. Yes, athletes retire, and so do musicians. But the best thing that can help either isn’t to harp on what they expect to do after retirement, but to encourage them upon the way there. It’s a very long road with hours of training to get at the point where a person is offered an NHL contract or a chair with one of the “big name” orchestras.
I can’t speak for other athletes, because I’m not them and their world is different from mine, but for me the transition from gigging musician to composer wasn’t that difficult precisely because I had taken the risk. I knew who I was. I knew what I was capable of, and–more importantly–I learned my limitations. That never would’ve happened, had I played it safe with an escape route planned out in some career I had no interest in.
What do we take away from this? Prevention is a worthwhile goal. What happened to me, for instance, was preventable. This happened in the early days of the 1990’s, so medicine hadn’t quite caught up to the epidemic of computer-related RSI’s. I never should’ve been pushed to keep playing as much as I did when the injury happened. But also: we can’t wrap people in bubble wrap. Shit happens, and bodies aren’t machines.