The word “injury” can elicit tremors of terror amongst musicians, and with reason.
I have known two trumpet players whose careers have been interrupted by a malaise of the muscles around the mouth. One was able to retrain his chops to behave like they did before, but it was a painstaking process that took months of delicate practice. The other needed surgery to reconstruct his embouchure.
I once spoke to a violist whose hand contracted into a fist inexplicably, and didn’t come undone for several months.
Singers may develop polyps on their vocal folds, making their jobs rather painful for a while.
And those are the lucky ones. Musicians are vulnerable. An injury that most people could easily adapt to can mean never playing music professionally ever again. Snap. There goes that career.
However, I count myself unique amongst these cases, as I am the only person I know to have suffered an injury as a member of the audience. This is the story of the night when the universe confirmed that I was never meant to be a musician.
On the evening of October 19, 2013, I attended the Kronos Quartet’s 40th anniversary concert at the Chan Centre on the UBC campus. I reviewed it for Vancouver Weekly. I had just emerged from the hall after an (intermittently) interesting pre-concert Q&A with Philip Glass, whose sixth string quartet was to be premiered that night. I was excited.
I realize now that I may have been spared a great deal of inconvenience and physical discomfort if my press credentials hadn’t garnered me such an excellent seat at the concert, so near the front of the hall. Had I been closer to the door, I might have been among the first to make it to the washroom after the Q&A ended, but no. By the time I reached the lobby, the line was firmly in place and not getting any shorter.
I have a natural aversion to public toilets, but I can normally get past it. Also, I’m not usually opposed to waiting in lines. But before I will commit to placing myself in such close proximity to people I don’t know, I need to be reasonably certain that those people will not attempt to make social contact with me. Call it what you like: it’s how I am on all but my best days.
Situations in which people have been stimulated en masse are always high-risk for awkward conversation. Minutes prior, the Chan Centre audience had been in the presence of a legend: an (intermittently) interesting experience that required unpacking. My fear was that whoever I lined up behind would feel the need to unload his analysis upon me, obligating me to offer up an original, creative thought in response. And I damn well wasn’t going to be coming up with any of those until I settled down to write. I don’t think well on my feet.
So, I figured I’d just dart over to the nearby journalism school, which I attend by day, and to which I conveniently have 24-hour access. The building has two men’s washrooms that I’ve come to trust (and a third one that I still feel weird about).
I don’t know why I decided to run there. I had plenty of time. A leisurely stroll would have been entirely adequate. The concert didn’t start for a half-hour. And frankly, running is not a thing that I do. (That’s partially because it makes me look ridiculous. I run with my torso plank-straight, arms flailing about. It looks stupid, but there’s nothing I can do about it.) I’ve been known to walk quickly when under stress, but for the most part, I’m a stubbornly slow-moving individual. In high school, it drove my phys-ed teachers nuts.
Anyway, between the Chan Centre and the J-school, there’s a slight downhill grade. So the crucial point is that once I’d started, I only kept running because I was too lazy to forcibly decelerate. And then there were stairs.
My recollection of what happened next is a little hazy. What I remember can be summed up into these points:
- I made it down the stairs without incident.
- There was a truck turning the corner as I dismounted.
- Upon reaching the bottom of the staircase, I botched the landing.
- The person in the truck began to roll down the window while I lay on the ground, moaning.
- I was deeply embarrassed about what had just occurred.
- I managed to get back on my feet and I ran into the school before the person in the truck had the chance to say anything. There was no way I was going to speak to a human being about the astonishing lack of equilibrium that I had just demonstrated.
Thus it was that I incurred my injury in the most prosaic fashion imaginable: I ran, I fell.
The second floor of UBC’s journalism school is arranged in a ring. If you’re so inclined, you can walk past three or four professors’ offices, through the reading room, past the stairs, end up back where you started, and do it all over again. This is especially convenient when you suspect you’ve broken your hand in an embarrassing “running and falling” incident, and you need to walk it off.
I suspected that my hand was broken, or at least fractured, because it had felt this way before. Six years prior, when I was in high school back in Fort McMurray, I had fallen down a cliff on the banks of the Athabasca River. I fractured the fourth metacarpal in my left hand, and was in a cast for several weeks. At the time, I aspired to become a professional pianist of some kind.
Snap. There goes that career.
But, never mind. At some point, my singular lack of talent and commitment would have scuppered me anyway, so it doesn’t upset me too much. I earned a degree in the trumpet instead. It wasn’t for me. And here we are.
In the J-school washroom, I started running my hands under cold water and I realized that my right was probably not going to stop bleeding for a while. My fall onto rough concrete had left my hands not only internally injured, but displaying some semblance of road rash.
I gingerly put my coat back on and headed back to the Chan Centre. My hands were both becoming sorer by the minute, but I had a concert to review, and I’d be damned if I was going to miss the premiere of a Philip Glass string quartet.
I didn’t make a good impression on the guy sitting next to me. In retrospect, I suppose “I’d shake your hand, but mine won’t stop bleeding,” isn’t the best way to introduce oneself, but what else was I meant to say? Mercifully, the concert started right away.
It’s a strange thing, hearing live music when you’re in pain. Sometimes it seems so immediate, so present: the perfect distraction. But sometimes you find yourself drifting.* You start thinking things like “Should I leave and go to the hospital?” Or, “Man, it’s hard to clap.” But three things kept me in my seat:
- This was history. A new work by Philip Glass is a big deal.
- I had a job to do. I said I would review this concert, and I was damn well going to.
- The Kronos Quartet is extremely awesome. Sometimes, they were so good I forgot I even had hands.
So I stayed at the Chan Centre, soaking in the music, hands bleeding into my lap.
My hand wasn’t broken, just sprained. I left the hospital at 3:00 AM that same night. By that time, the pain was (intermittently) much more manageable, and the road rash had scabbed over. The only problem was, I couldn’t move the fingers on my left hand. For the next week, it was difficult to do dishes, put on clothes, shampoo my hair, and pour things. Writing was okay. (Well, kind of.)
But, if I were a musician, my entire life would have ground to a halt that week. No practicing, no rehearsals, no concerts. If any of the members of Kronos had run and fallen on October 19, Philip Glass’s sixth string quartet might still not have premiered.
But they didn’t, and that’s the key. See, playing an instrument isn’t all about what’s in your brain. It took me a long time to realize that. Playing an instrument requires a connection to your body that I just don’t possess, and never have.** Ask my old phys-ed teachers. Ask anybody who has ever witnessed the ridiculous spectacle of me running.
So, I’m very happy to live in brainland now, with the intricate physical skills of music-making far behind me. I have a cliff on a riverbank to thank for that, and a concrete staircase to remind me that my life is good.
*In my VanWeekly review, I proclaimed that “String Quartet No. 6 lacks the immediacy of Glass’ previous chamber music, but one gets the feeling that repeated listening will yield rewards.” Avid classical music fans will recognize this statement as a euphemism for “I sat through the concert but I can’t remember how the damned music sounds.” It’s a common problem when you’re hearing a piece for the first time. I would normally have reservations about admitting this, but given that my hand was quickly swelling up and becoming immobile, I think I deserve a break.
**Don’t get me wrong, there are many other crucial traits that I feel I lack: natural musicality, perseverance, etc. But this one is undeniable. Even my mother would admit this one.