Thursday, May 2, 2013

How Did We Get Here? AKA - Carpal Tunnel

How exactly am I able to work out 5 days a week spending multiple hours at the gym, work, have a stable and loving marriage, and see my awesome friends as frequently as I can? Simple actually: I have a part time job. I love my job, but it's not something in a million years that I ever saw myself doing at this age. (30 for the fifth time.) By this time I was SUPPOSED to be finishing my Doctoral of Musical Arts and getting a college teaching job. Supposed to. Life doesn't really deal in "supposed tos" - I learned that the hard way. Enter...carpal tunnel syndrome.

I guess I need to write about this because it will put a lot of posts that I'm wanting to write soon in a more complete light, and in all honestly...due to a myriad of reasons. It's been on my mind lately, so you get to hear about it.

Before I started band in the 6th grade there were two things I wanted to be: a kindergarten teacher and an astronaut. The day I picked up the clarinet I knew I HAD to do something in my life related to music. It look twists and turns (all the while knowing I was NOT supposed to be a Band Director) and eventually I settled down on wanting to teach at a college and performing a lot of new music. (Music by dead white guys is fine and all, but there is something insanely exhilarating about working with the person who actually composed to music and initially sending it out into the world.)

Fast forward a lot of years and a lot of living, and I was FINALLY (after a few medical hiccups) finishing my Graduate Performance Diploma at a music school here in Boston. It was near the end of the school year and my playing schedule was INSANELY busy. I won't go into details about that day, because it's like picking off a scab. I will say, that I knew what it was the moment it happen. I tried to mentally shake it off, but it just did no good.

The next day I went to the doctor. I couldn't see my regular PCP, but insisted upon seeing someone that day. I was mean and nasty.

Me, "I have Carpal Tunnel."
Dr., "So, what are your symptoms."
Me, "No. You don't understand. I'm telling you I have Carpal Tunnel."
Dr., "How exactly do you know."
Me, "Look. I KNOW! Will you just give some braces and write me a referral for physical therapy so I can figure out what the hell my options are."
Dr., "Well, You're not getting either of those until you tell me WHY you have KNOW that you have Carpal Tunnel.
So told her.

Wow. In less than 24 hours I had zipped right through the first two stages of grief - shock & denial and pain & guilt and was right onto number three, anger & bargaining.

Going back to school with arm braces on felt almost like I was a racing horse that hard hurt its leg. They're going to shoot me (metaphorically speaking). My friends, like real life friends (some of which also were conservatory students) were great to me. My "school friends" that's where it struck me as very interesting. Was their distance because a) they weren't quite sure of what to say, so they just ignored b) since I wasn't playing anymore they didn't have anything to talk to me about c) since I wasn't playing I no longer had anything to offer d) too busy to really care or e) WHEW! Not my problem!

I like to think that people aren't that maniacal. I can normally tell from the villainous laugh if they are. In hindsight, I know I'm projecting a lot on people, and they probably aren't that mean in the end, but...that's what I thought at the time. Now I was angry at my current lot in life and annoyed at just about everyone around me. Glorious.

 The people who were actually the best to me were the composers. They were kind, and would listen when I needed to bitch. I still played in two of their recitals because it was just too late and too busy in the year to get anyone else to do it. I played in my braces & I played through pain and numbness. It was OK though, because they were so appreciative and kind. Note to world, if you need something from me....kindness gets you far.

When I started physical therapy, they asked me how I felt about surgery to relieve the carpal tunnel. "Isn't there a chance I'd loose feeling", I asked. I was told yes. "I'm not interested. Not even in the least. Sorry."

Maybe the following made me a sub-par musician, but it helped me make it through the whole carpal tunnel ordeal without falling into a deep depressing. "Only because a musician if you can't see yourself doing something else." We are told this over and over and over....I thought it was rhetorical. Yes. I really, really WANT to be a musician....but it's a big world out there, I could see myself doing other things.  Furthermore...are there SERIOUSLY people out there that HONESTLY feel, "it I wasn't a musician (or ANY profession for that matter) I would curl up in a ball and die?" Does what one does vocationally really, REALLY define them that much? In the case, maybe the Carpal Tunnel did me a favor.

So the physical therapy continued. When I was NOT playing, I was pretty much fine. Playing - with any kind of regularity or length of time...pain and burning. I was basically told that if I wanted to play the amount of time I had been playing, I would need to be in PT half the time I was playing. After some quick calculations in my brain, I said "after we're done with working on what we're working on, I'm done. No more clarinet. No more PT. I'm done." Between the playing and the PT, I would have time for commute, eat, sleep. No husband, no friends, no life. Not interested. I chose to have a life as a human rather than having a life as a clarinetist.

I know this may sound dramatic, but it makes all the sense in the world to me.

Balance had become very important to me every since I very dear mentor basically told me that if I didn't find some and soon, my head was going to literally explode. Luckily for me and the walls of my apartment, when he spoke...I - as a rule - listened.

One thing I was sad, was I never really got to say goodbye. Not to music (it would always be a part of my life) not to the clarinet (I can actually pick them up at anytime), but to performing. The universe must have been listening, because several months later I got an email from a composer friend of mine...

"Hey Kathleen, I know you don't really play that much anymore, but would you be interested in playing the solo piece I wrote for you...."

If was at a salon concert in a loft in Sommerville. It was really chill, everyone was drinking beer, I remember who all was there, the dress I wore, there were people there that I cared for and really respected both personally and musically. It was the perfect time to say goodbye.

The piece's name was No Oblivion. It was written FOR me. In it was what I did well: color, shapes, lines, saying something.

I didn't mention to anyone what that night meant to me. Well, they'll hear it now. It only mattered that I knew how much it meant to me. It wasn't some ivory tower of Beethoven are Mahler, it wasn't some crazy hard Nielsen clarinet concerto, it was friends making other friends music (sometimes for the very first time) in a friendly and fun environment. So it really did go full circle: from a loft full of like minded, new music loving colleagues, to that band hall in 6th grade that felt as welcoming sometimes if not more than your own home.

I could close the chapter of the performer part of my life with a heart not broken, but a heart full.

But in the words of fictitious President Bartlet, "What's next?"

Guess you'll just have to read the next blog entry to find out! :-D


  1. I like it! I had a sense you had been a musician and grad student and walked away. (I, too, walked away from being a grad student/ph.d person.) Excited to hear more of this story! :)

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