A testimonial by Katrina Leshan
I began my first semester of grad school at Eastman practicing about three hours per day, and was making good progress. About a month into the semester, I started feeling some rigidity in my right hand as I practiced. This sensation quickly progressed, and even with a slow warm up my hand would start to stiffen and swell within five minutes of beginning to play the guitar. It felt like my hand was made out of wood, and that no matter how hard I tried I could not communicate with the individual fingers the way I was used to.
I cut back significantly on practice time, but around November I couldn’t play at all without severe pain in my right hand. I visited a highly-recommended orthopedic surgeon that had helped many other Eastman musicians, and within moments he found what he thought was a ganglion cyst in my right wrist. After confirming the presence of the cyst with an MRI, the doctor recommended surgery to remove it. During my second appointment, I brought my guitar and showed him how certain placements of the hand hurt more than others. He told me I could keep my wrist completely straight to help alleviate the pain. But that is improper classical guitar technique and would make it impossible to play accurately. So, with no other options, I agreed to have surgery to remove the cyst.
Prior to having the cyst removed, I saw Sue Callan-Harris, the physical therapist at Eastman. She was extremely sensitive to my issue, and respected the journey I was on towards reclaiming my ability to play. She asked me to bring my guitar to the appointment, and observed my entire body as I played. Sue was especially interested in the tension I carried in my right shoulder as I played, and hypothesized that this tension may have been the root cause of the cyst. Because I raised my shoulder so much while playing, I was shortening the tendons in my arms and through my wrist. The friction caused by those shortened tendons and the bend in my wrist could have caused the cyst. This, coupled with a frequency of cysts in my medical history as well as my family’s, made a lot of sense. Sue developed a program for me that involved relaxing my shoulders, breathing more during playing, and strengthening my posture and sitting position so that I would carry less tension when I play.
I had the cyst removed in an outpatient procedure on January 6, 2014. Sue and my doctor told me it was very important to move my hand and fingers as much as I could as soon as possible, to prevent unnecessary rigidity. The day of, I was already typing on my computer to keep my hand active. I wore a bandage for three weeks, and then began PT again to strengthen all areas of my body that were causing this ailment. I even started putting my tender hand back at the instrument, and slowly recuperated.
The interesting part about not being able to play for the majority of my first year of graduate school was that I really enhanced my ability to listen. Once I finally started playing again, a lot of the mental chaos and dodgy technique I had was actually gone. I had been surrounded by such inspiring musicians for six months while I didn’t play, and they taught me a lot about good technique just by making great music around me.
I finished the year strong, but was still suffering emotionally from the aforementioned traumatic event. I started experiencing a lot of stress during the summer, and with it came that wood-like feeling in my right hand again. I actually grew another cyst almost four months after I started playing again. This time, I knew what I was dealing with, and examined my technique. I was once again employing poor technique and playing with tension, so I practiced slowly and always in front of a mirror. I didn’t want to go through with surgery again, so I still have the cyst in my wrist in exactly the same spot it was before and I’m still seeing Sue for physical therapy. Even more importantly, I am managing stress well and remembering to breathe deeply through my practice so that I can play for three hours per day again. I still have days where my hand feels too stiff to play, so I usually apply kinesio tape or Penetrex, which is an inflammation formulation cream. The combination of these two things got me through my graduate recital and juries.
One last important element of my practice time has been my focus on remaining loose and in constant motion. As a musician who has to sit while I play, I force myself to stand and move around every fifteen minutes. I learned from a Tai Chi instructor that the body is happiest when it is loose and fluid, and this is absolutely true for me. The combination of all these healthy practice methods has helped me decrease physical tension and mental anxiety.
If I could offer a bit of advice to other guitarists who experience wrist issues, it would be to find the stressors in your practice or in your general day-to-day life that cause tension while you play. It’s amazing how much of our mental anxiety translates into physical issues, so being sure that you are calm in your mind increases the chances of having a calm body. I also maintain that constant movement during practice, i.e. getting up and jumping around or just bending over and swinging your arms, makes all the difference in the world. The healthier the guitarist, the greater the opportunity to make beautiful music.
How does Katrina’s story resonate with you? If you’re a performer, have you had similar experiences? If you’re a health care professional, have you worked with musicians like Katrina before? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.