Friday, June 6, 2014

When the music stops

This isn't going to be a funny post -- no vaginas or penises. If you come here for funny, stop back another time.


I was born with the desire to play music in my blood and in my hands. My mom played the piano, and she said the only thing that calmed me when I was a fussy baby was her playing my grandma's old, battered upright. One-fourth of the keys didn't work at all. The rest were terribly out of tune,and more than half of the ivories were missing. It was a wreck.

I didn't care. I loved that piano and any other piano I could get my hands on to play "Chop Sticks" or "Heart and Soul." I desperately wanted one of my own, but that wasn't the kind of thing we could afford. So I played other people's pianos whenever I got the chance.

One night when I was maybe 10 or so, we went to somebody's house. I don't know whose house it was, because we never went back, but the adults were doing adult things, and as long as I didn't bother them, they didn't care what I did. There was a piano in a back room. Someone had at some point showed me middle C on the keyboard. And somebody else -- maybe at school -- had shown me middle C on a music staff. That was all I knew.

On that piano I found a hand-written version of "Für Elise." I looked for middle C, and there it was. Somehow, in the hours I spent with that hand-written music and an old upright piano, I figured out that each white key and each black key corresponded to lines and spaces on the score, so I could count up or down from middle C on the piano to find the right note. "Für Elise" is written in the key of C, so I didn't figure out key signatures then. That would come when I knew what questions to ask. I did figure out that there were little signs that said to play the black key up or down, the accidental, probably because I was somewhat familiar with the tune.

I'm not saying I learned to play all of "Für Elise" that night. I learned the right hand on the first page. It was enough. "Für Elise" was my gateway drug.

I made myself a paper keyboard, and practiced "Für Elise" from memory. I wrote other songs too, but nobody will ever know what they sounded like. I'm sure they rivaled Mozart though.


A couple of years later Mom got a piano. I don't remember where it came from. I spent hours and hours teaching myself to play her old sheet music from the 50's. "Bye, Bye, Love" was first. Then "Hound Dog." And "Tammy." Note by note, and line by space, I learned those songs.

Nobody liked to hear me play. Nobody. Dad taught the beagle to bay every time I played. Mom would get sick of hearing me struggle with the same measures over and over, and she'd come in, push me over, and say, "Here's how it's supposed to sound." Then she'd play the song through perfectly, get up and walk away. She took lessons the whole time she was growing up. I don't think I've ever gotten as good as she was. (She had a stroke 14 years ago, and can no longer play.)

Piano was my first love, and will always be, even though I'm mediocre at best. I've spent years with my ass on a piano bench. And over the years I've learned or faked other instruments too: French horn (hated it), drums and xylophone in marching band, recorders in every voice, harpsichord, hand drums, guitar, mandolin, and one song on ukulele.

I'm either mediocre or only faking at all of them. No self-deprecation. Just the truth. It's OK. I have fun. It's the greatest addiction I could have.

I won't bore you with the lengths I've gone to so I never had to live without a piano again. I'll just say I'm grateful LtColEx recognized how great my need was and made it a priority to rent me a piano even when he was a low-paid 2nd lieutenant. It took me 3 1/2 years to find this house that I moved into in December, because I needed a place for my grand piano.


Four years ago I was driving home from Radford, Virginia, when my left palm started itching. When I scratched it, it hurt like hell. I'd spent the week working many hours a day as sound crew on a stage and then jamming until the sun came up. I had blisters from adjusting mic stands, but this wasn't a blister. It looked like a tiny bite or a sting. Just an annoyance though.

Until I woke up in the middle of the night with my hand spasmed into a tight fist. I rubbed it and flattened it out, but it woke me several times that night. The next night, my right hand started doing it too. I'd wake up 6-8 times a night with my hands in agonizing cramps, much like a charlie horse. During the day they ached and I tried to use them as little as possible. No piano. No guitar. Well, maybe a little.

In the meantime, that little bite turned into a rash that spread over the course of days to cover my palm. It looked nothing like a bite from a deer tick, if that's what you're thinking. The rash caused the skin to peel away, leaving purplish, fresh skin underneath.

Finally I went to the doctor. I couldn't sleep at night because of the spasms. And I was terrified that it would continue to get worse, and I'd lose the use of my hands. Obviously that's a pretty scary notion for someone who's a writer and a musician. Imagine not being able to use your hands, and you'll realize how much you depend on your digits.

I showed the doctor the bite -- if that's what it was -- and the rash. I told her my symptoms. She said they couldn't be related. I said they sure as hell were. She sent me for x-rays, and the result was an unacceptable level (for my age) of inflammation indicative of arthritis. I told her I already knew I had inflammation; I didn't need an x-ray to tell me that. She wrote me a prescription for Celebrex. I said I wouldn't take it, because of the side effects. I begged her to find out why that bite was causing the symptoms; I told her I'm a musician and a writer, and I need my hands. She insisted it wasn't the bite, and dismissed me with the fucking Celebrex.

I didn't take it.

Eventually, over the course of weeks, months even, the rash faded away. The purple stain was there for at least 9 months though, maybe a year. The cramps came less often, and eventually stopped. The inflammation faded away too, unless I used my hands really hard -- like weeding for hours in the garden. I could play music again.


About a year ago, I noticed the inflammation was back. Not as bad. No spasms. But if I played my guitars for several hours, I paid for it. Sometimes I had to stop for a while. I started taking Aleve before band practice. I switched off to my Ibanez electric guitar more often, because it's easier to play.

A couple of times I just had to stop -- usually after 3 hours or so. I worried, and then I pushed it away. I took the Aleve. I got through our gigs with no trouble. It was the long practices, which I used to love, that told me something was wrong. Something that bite left behind, and I don't care what that doctor said. Doctors didn't used to know what Lyme disease was either.

I was lying to myself though. It wasn't just that I couldn't play as long as I used to. My fingers felt stiffer, sorer, all the time. My fingers never get a rest. Whether I'm writing, gardening, riding my bike, playing music. playing "Itsy Bitsy Spider" with Coraline, painting, the endless unpacking of boxes .... I need my fingers.


I remember an elderly woman who lived catty corner across the street from us when I was growing up. She was in her 90's, and her hands were so deformed from arthritis, they looked like gnarled tree roots. They didn't look like hands at all. And she couldn't use them any more either. She couldn't even heat up a TV dinner for herself, so when her daughter, whom she lived with, went out of town, I went over and heated up her dinner for her and sat with her while she ate it.


The beginning of this week I was asked to play piano for Sunday's service. I knew they must be desperate. We have several pianists who are much better than I am, and I'm at the bottom of the list for playing hymns. I belong there. First, because I hate to play hymns, and second, because I'm more often tapped to play guitar and sing. Piano music takes a lot more effort for me to prepare than guitar .... Anyway, I said yes. Why not?

When the minister sent me the music she wanted, I was a little stunned. Seven Eight songs. Five days. Eight songs. I had no doubt I would suck ... at least a little. I played through the songs, and a couple of them are difficult. Strenuous. One is my favorite hymn, but it has big chords, and lots of stretchy octave runs. My hands ached after the first practice that wasn't that long.

I decided to play one piece on recorder. Transition music. Easy. No strain. I'm too young to be thinking about shit like this.

I realized I'd have to spend hours practicing the hymns, so I set to work. I played as long as I could, and it wasn't nearly as long as I thought I would. My back used to get sore before my hands. In fact, my hands aren't supposed to get sore if I'm doing it right. My hands got sore.

When I got up the next morning, I my left thumb was screaming at me, and my hands felt stiff and inflamed. OK, I thought.  I can just not play those big octaves. It will sound fine. I can adapt.

Except .... I'm not adapting so well. I'm taking the Aleve. It's not doing much good. I can play for 45 minutes, maybe an hour, and then I'm done. No longer productive. It's frustrating. It doesn't give me enough time to practice.

I'm going to suck even more than I thought I would. People in my church are kind though. They've seen me fuck up before. This isn't what I do best, and in a couple of weeks, I'll play something else on my guitar that will be good, and maybe they won't remember all the chords I fumbled on the piano.


I've been working on solo songs on my guitar. The band hasn't been practicing for several months, although we really need to, and I have to play something. A guy who owns a wine shop asked me to play for a wine-tasting. This week I had to just focus on those damn hymns. Next week I'm back to guitar. I won't play the wine-tasting, because it would be three hours of playing, and I don't play solo, but it was flattering that he asked. I wish I could even consider taking the gig .... 

But I can't switch off from my acoustic guitar -- the one I have left -- to my electric, so I can't give my hands a break and continue to play, and there are some songs I can't play at all. I was stupid, and way back in February loaned two of my guitars -- a vintage early-70's Epiphone acoustic and my shiny black Ibanez -- to a friend's girlfriend so she could have sexy photos taken for him.

She won't return them. We're into the fourth month since she borrowed them, and she refuses to give them back. She doesn't even play, but she won't give them back.

At this point I have to accept that she stole my guitars. And, along with a significant degree of trust in humanity, she stole my ability to keep playing when my hands hurt from playing my acoustic guitar. Well, that and some songs just demand an electric guitar. It's rock and roll, people.


Sorry for the whiny post. I'm scared and sad. I know I need to go back to the doctor, but I also know I'll hear the same damn thing. I also know whatever that rash was on my palm, that's what caused this, and I'll probably never get to the bottom of it. Or it will be too late. Inflammation does damage.

Lots of people have lots of ideas about how to reduce inflammation. I rarely eat wheat. Maybe if I cut out chocolate .....


  1. An old friend of mine played guitar so much he ended up with Repetitive Strain Injury and had to stop playing for years. Now he is the bass player of the current Number One - stay positive and I hope everything works out xx

    1. Thanks, Vanessa. I feel sorry for your friend. I'm glad he's found his way back into music.

  2. Learning guitar is actually how I learned about my chronic wrist problems. I'd love to pick one up again, but I'm not up for dealing with repeated cysts, tendonitis and other assorted issues. There's just something about how the arm and wrist is held when pressing frets that sets my body off. At least there's always singing if I want to get back into making music.

    Then again, I'm also a crafter, so I still deal with a degree of pain on a regular basis. Expressing creativity isn't always a pleasant experience.

    Anyway, have you ever looked into dictation software for writing? If you have Windows or Mac, you might already have a program installed, but that may be an option for taking some strain off of your hands when writing on bad days.

    Either way, I do hope you can find a solution or at least some pain relief.

    1. Playing guitar can be painful. The barre chords are what wear my hands out. Quite frustrating.

      I had some dictation software at one time. I just need the physical act to help me get my thoughts out. I suppose if I used it enough, I could get used to it. Hard to write at a coffee shop though.

      I am going to go back to the doctor. Apparently I have no choice.