Canadian Musician - January/February 2023 - Page 27

Breaking the Stigma on Musician Injuries


By Martin Mayer

She was a lifelong musician at the top of her game . A graduate of Juilliard , Emily Duncan ’ s love of the flute had her performing music around the world . Days of long rehearsals , practice sessions , and the performances were all second-nature to the 28-year old . Then , it all started to go wrong .

“ I would have days where my hands were feeling tired , or they would feel like they were falling asleep ,” Duncan tells me over a Zoom call from her home in New York . At first , she attributed it to too much practicing and too much playing .
An Injury Prevention Panel at the National Flute Convention recommended stretches and sleeping in wrist braces . Duncan took the idea of the braces seriously — if she wasn ’ t playing , she ’ d be wearing them around the clock . But the relief was short-lived .
In the midst of prepping for an international tour in the summer of 2019 , Duncan started experiencing panic around how her hands were feeling .
“ I kept thinking ,‘ What if I can ’ t play , what if I can ’ t deliver what I ’ ve been hired to do ?’” she recalls . Without a medical diagnosis to release her from her contract , she pushed through , often times gritting her teeth and powering through the pain . By the end of the tour , her discomfort had increased five-fold .
Back home , Duncan would see between 15 to 20 doctors across various specialties . They told her she was fine . She wasn ’ t . They told her to go to physio and that everything would be fine in six weeks . It wasn ’ t . A doctor once gave her a corticosteroid injection in her hand — without telling Duncan what it was , what it would do , or how it would make her feel — without her permission !
By that point , Duncan was doing everything she could to “ save her hands ”— she was avoiding using them , not playing her flute in any sort of meaningful way , and creating workarounds on how to type . She kept her ordeal hidden from employers and colleagues in the industry , yet couldn ’ t get the support she needed from family or friends because they didn ’ t understand the magnitude .
“ You feel like you ’ re in a hurricane , yet other people see it as just a cloudy day .”
She started going to therapy to have someone to talk to , became crafty about covering up that something was wrong , and took comfort in the pandemic creating the perfect excuse for not being able to play or perform .
While Duncan was leaving one of her many appointments during a long and arduous four years , everything changed . A doctor ’ s assistant had overheard that Duncan was a musician and recommended she see occupational therapist Aviva Wolff at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City , who was treating injured musicians as though they were professional athletes .
Wolff put together a daily exercise program and return-to-play plan . Simple at-home workouts to loosen , lengthen , and strengthen were paired with three minutes of play followed by five minutes of rest . Every few days , the amount of playing time would increase until she was back to playing a full hour . When flareups would burst through and set off anxiety , Wolff encouraged her to recognize the pain as part of the healing process . Likewise , her hand surgeon explained that using her hands was actually helping her recovery .
Months of diligent work allowed Duncan to take what she calls her first “ real-world-test ” — a gig that she couldn ’ t have accepted a year before , and would have been devastated to have to say no to . All went well and she wasn ’ t feeling any pain or experiencing any flareups , until the dress rehearsals ran off the rails in length and repetition . Feeling her symptoms come on , Duncan advocated for herself and said she wouldn ’ t continue playing . The other musicians said they wouldn ’ t either . Duncan found comfort in that scenario to finally share with her fellow musicians what she ’ d been going through . She was stunned to hear that that almost all of them had dealt with something similar at some point in their life , or , were dealing with it right then and there and keeping quiet about it .
That ’ s why Emily Duncan ’ s story is here – she wants to help break the stigma around injured musicians . After she and the other musicians took a stand , Duncan recalls going home , sleeping well and getting through the entire run of the production without any pain before , during , or after . That ’ s when she reflected on the fact that she did something significant and everything was fine . And while she still has days where there are minor flareups , they no longer define her journey or who she is .
Her biggest advice ? “ Have someone to talk to that gets it , someone who can understand and validate your experience , because isolating yourself makes the whole process just a lot more difficult .”
“ In telling my story I hope that people will feel comfortable sharing their own ,” she says . “ They ’ re not all going to be happy or sad stories , but ones of triumph , so a healthy narrative is important .”
“ Canada ’ s prince of piano ” is how the Beijing Times , China ’ s leading English-language newspaper , has described Canadian pianist and composer Martin Mayer . Born in the Czech Republic and now based in Vancouver , his music has been defined as instrumental fusion – a combination of smooth jazz , classical , pop , and rock . He won the Rachel McKeown Memorial Award for composition and his 16-city tour of China in 2001 was the biggest tour of any artist in China ’ s modern history . All his Chinese tour dates since then have sold out . www . martinmayermusic . com .