36 years into my life I had reached a crossroads.
Stop playing or start again…
By 2007 I had built a good reputation locally as a ‘go-to’ guy on electric bass and my emerging double bass playing was also starting to get me a lot more work. In June my band Time Wasters was recording a jazz/fusion album, which involved some fairly challenging playing, and I started to notice that some of the lines weren’t quite as easy to play as I expected.
Around the same time I was routinely doing a lot of computer-based work. Gradually sharp pains started developing down the back of my right hand and along the forefinger. Online research led me to “solve” this by getting an ergonomic mouse shaped like a joystick, which shifted the right & left click onto my thumb. At the time, I didn’t connect this with the different difficulties I was starting to have with playing the bass.
Rehearsals and function gigs over the summer started to turn up unexpected failures in execution, with the dexterity and coordination in my right hand not being as reliable as I’d come to expect. I brushed it off, putting it down to the increased workload I was experiencing on the double bass meaning I was out of practice on the electric. To rectify this I increased my practice levels to ‘exercise my way out of it’ but this approach led to numbness in my hand and forearm, which then gradually turned to pain and swelling.
Somehow I pushed through all of this to do a pretty respectable performance with Time Wasters at a festival in August, but after that I pretty much stopped playing the electric. I didn’t seem to be having the same problems with the double bass at first so focused on that instead.
Several years earlier an osteopath had helped remedy some back problems I’d experienced. I returned to him in the hopes that he would be able to help again but, after about 4 sessions with no noticeable improvement, he said that he didn’t know what else he could do for me so that was the end of that path. He did mention the Alexander Technique as a possibility but didn’t really know anything about it.
Things were gradually getting worse. The decline in my abilities came with a lot of frustration and depression. I stopped practicing the double bass as well, only gigging when I had to. My hand was swollen after every gig and I was in agony.
Ice packs and ibuprofen, as recommended by my doctor, helped relieve the symptoms but were far from a cure. Between gigs I still tried to play, like picking at a scab, to see if the problems had gone away yet.
Further visits to the doctor resulted in suggestions that I had some form of RSI, possibly carpal tunnel syndrome, and that my options would be Cortisone steroid injections, an operation to cut the ligament, or physiotherapy. I took the offer of a physio appointment and Googled the alternative options – which all sounded pretty drastic to me. I was (and still am) extremely wary of proceeding down any route involving operations or injections with such significant potential side effects.
Around the same time my wife put me in contact with Alexander Technique teacher Colette Lyons. The cost of sessions seemed high given that I was not sure how effective this would be, but in reality was the same as I would charge for bass lessons – and considerably less expensive than the osteopathy I had already tried. Colette didn’t have any available appointments for another couple of weeks and in the meantime I ended up turning down 3 gigs because I couldn’t face the pain of playing any longer.
I went for one appointment with the physio before my first Alexander session. What I remember of it involved applying pressure on the areas that hurt until the pain subsided. I was also given a small set of exercises (mainly stretches) which I did at home but these were very painful to do.
My first Alexander technique appointment was quite different. After a discussion of the problems I had been experiencing, Colette spent a while assessing my postural quirks (habits), explaining as much as I could take in about what she was seeing. Some time was spent with me on the table, gradually moving my body so that my skeleton was aligned closer to the way it is designed to be. This alone provided some immediate pain relief, but it was more the ideas being discussed that had me interested. I came away from the session with a lot to think about and genuine optimism that if I took charge and changed the way I used my body, not only was a full recovery likely but I could end up in a better place than before the start of this whole problem.
So that’s the crossroads. Did I take the view that my body had gone wrong and needed fixing? Or that my body was telling me to change how I use it?
I did attend another physio appointment but had already decided to follow the Alexander technique path. My GP and physio both said they did not know much about Alexander but if it was working for me that was fine.
Having decided to pursue this course of treatment I naively assumed that I would do what I was told and six months later I would be fixed. I found my perspective gradually shifting as I realised Alexander technique lessons with Colette are much more about re-education than treatment.
Although the chronic pain was significantly better after my first session with Colette (giving me a much-needed morale boost) I would quickly develop the same symptoms again when I tried to play. My fingers seemed able to move freely when I waggled them but anything controlled was next to impossible. This was very frustrating but slowly I came to accept it and to become more interested in the process of rehabilitation. My practice shifted focus from the musical content of what I was playing to the physical side of how I was playing it.
Unexpected benefits came from being forced out of my usual methods of playing. I started to experiment more fully with alternate techniques – plectrum, muted plectrum, slap – and I started playing the piano a little more. Playing jazz meant really focusing on note choice; if I couldn’t be flash then I would have to make sure that the notes I was playing really counted. I started watching a lot of music DVDs; thinking more in depth about music theory; working on pulse and alternate time feels. I never gave up on the idea of playing music but I did have to abandon the way I had been going about it.
My reduced technical ability lost me a lot of gigs and I’m very grateful to the players that kept hiring me during this period. I also became aware that a surprising amount of the time other players didn’t appear to be listening to the content of my playing anyway. I was quite shocked when a few people said that they hadn’t noticed the difference in my playing, when from my point of view I had been reduced from a flamboyant and interesting musician to one barely able to play a note.
The process of physical discovery was extremely challenging. For perhaps the best part of three years my focus was on learning to play again. Knowing what I wanted to be able to play but having to find new physical strategies for doing so. All the things I thought I ‘had’ to do became redefined in a more subtle way. Trying to perform with my old physical habits would quickly reassert the old pains – stress, strain and muscle seizure. I learned how to recuperate between playing sessions. My future lies in replacing those old habits entirely while I’m playing.
Incorporating the Alexander Technique into my life was a necessity for me physically but it has also profoundly changed my thought processes. Although my focus is mainly related to music, ultimately my interest is in enabling choice to supersede habit.
Everything we do and think is subject to choice – if we understand the possibilities.