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Catherine Manoukian


Advice for Violinists Recovering From Injury

Advice for Violinists Recovering From Injury

Playing an instrument is a curious thing: part intellectual, part creative, and part gymnastics. The physical aspect has always been the most uncomfortable for me, given its reliance on something as incredibly fragile as a pair of hands. One of the scariest prospects for an instrumentalist is that of injury, and, when it happens, it’s easy to find yourself reduced to a mess of neurotic worries. The best thing you can do in that instance is to realize that hands are really just intricate machines, and, as with all machines, a good knowledge of how they work is essential for knowing how to fix them quickly. I learned this lesson the hard way.

I broke my right hand in July 2006. I’d just finished practicing in a common area of the building in which I lived at the time and was on my way back to my apartment. I was holding multiple things, so I imprudently decided to open a swinging door with my foot. Unfortunately, I miscalculated the weight of the door, gave it far too strong a kick, and it swung back and hit my hand. I then immediately made my first mistake. What I should have done was gone straight to the emergency room. Instead, I took out the violin and tried to play, because my instrumentalist’s paranoia needed reassurance that the hand still worked. It didn’t: my bow fell to the ground.

The doctor who treated me didn’t do much to comfort me. (Her people skills were about as advanced as those of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.) She walked in and said, “Hi. I’d like to reassure you that many people have recovered from this sort of injury and gone on to lead perfectly normal lives. I had a patient who even went on to play golf again.” And then, thinking she had just given me good news, she stared at my hysterical tears with baffled impatience. She was actually mistaken about the location of the injury: she thought the fracture was on the wrist, when it was in fact a couple of millimetres from it, on the fifth metacarpal. But the psychological damage was done, and, even after discovering the injury was not as severe as originally thought, I spent my entire recovery time fearing I’d never play properly again.

As a result, when I was finally allowed to start practising again (in January 2007), I instantly turned into a rather cartoonish caricature of the tyrannical violin teacher (a sort of hybrid of a Vietnam movie sergeant and Ottokar Sevcik) - with the bizarre twist that I was my own victim. I seem to have thought I could will my hand to get stronger more quickly, which makes about as much sense as yelling at your car to stop being broken. The ironic thing is that I wasn’t ignorant of how muscles work: I knew in theory that they needed rest and patience to recover, but, motivated by fear, I was totally unable to get out of the violin teacher mentality.

The consequences were not good. The first concert I did after the injury was in February 2007 and my hands lasted roughly halfway through the warmup in my dressing room. Since I hadn’t played for so long, both hands were weak, not just the one that was injured. I guess I don’t need to add that it wasn’t the best performance of my life: the fifth digit on my left hand had gone numb, so I spent the entire concert either spontaneously refingering or deciding visually where to put that finger. And that was my good hand.

Awful as it was, I needed that concert to snap me out of my unhealthy approach to recovery. I learned to moderate my practising, working through a clear plan, adding a little more every day. I also learned about the necessity of stretching, massage, being sufficiently hydrated, and (most importantly) getting enough protein for your muscles to repair themselves. (If you’re curious, I like to use Sun Warrior raw vegan protein powder – it doesn’t have any weird additives or sugar, so it works very efficiently.) Nowadays I stick to this regimen every time I rebuild after taking time off, even if it’s just a few violin-free days during summer vacation. The results are unwaveringly positive.

updated: 4 years ago