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Working Past a Hand Injury on the Clarinet — Part I: Mindset

Source: mindful.org

I’m a classical clarinetist who’s been dealing with a hand injury for five years now. It is common for classical musicians to experience injury, these are usually fairly understood conditions like tendinitis, carpal tunnel, or focal dystonia. While I’m lucky to not have dealt with any of these conditions — I rarely even experience more than mild discomfort — my injury isn’t common and doesn’t have a name. That has made it incredibly difficult to deal with in its own right.

I can’t just look up “musician’s hand injury that causes right hand ring and pinky fingers to lock up, the smaller knuckles to collapse, and the fingers to miss the tone holes when they felt and worked completely fine just yesterday”. I can’t look up causes, exercises, or treatments. I’m not one for excuses, but I even if I wanted, I couldn’t tell a teacher or judge that the reason I missed that fast passage was because of this unnamable injury, and instead, I’m rather left to have them think that I’m just not playing at a high enough level.

I’ve felt alone every time this injury resurfaces. I’ve adopted a better mindset in the third and most recent occurrence of the injury, but I’m still guilty of occasionally letting my thoughts slip to “How could such a thing happen?”, “Why me?”, “Why haven’t I ever found anyone else with this problem?

I’m writing this two-part article for any injured musician who feels alone and frustrated. In Part I, I want to share how I manage this injury mentally, and in Part II, I will share the physical exercises I do to deal with it whenever it pops up.

This is the third time in five years I’ve dealt with this injury, and after countless frustrated practice sessions and many desperate attempts to find the panacea — from physical and occupational therapy to cold showers and self-help books telling me I’m a badass — I can share with you what’s helped me.

All injuries and remedies are going to be slightly different and unique to the individual. If you are having serious issues with your injury, please consult with a doctor, physical therapist, or occupational therapist familiar with musician’s injuries. Here, I hope to offer you some new ideas to experiment with that you may find helpful in working through your own injury or preventing an injury in the future.

I’ve briefly mentioned it already, but let me give you a little background on this unique injury I’ve been dealing with. The first and most intense occurrence began my senior year of high school as I was preparing for undergraduate auditions to be a Clarinet Performance major. At that time, it was my right hand middle, ring, and pinky fingers that would either curl, lock up, or collapse at the small knuckles. I couldn’t even play a G major scale on the clarinet. This lasted about 17 months.

In that time, I went to the physical therapist who works with the musicians of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, I experimented with three different splints and settled on a custom splint for my thumb and middle finger that I used for the next 3 years, I tried using a harness, I saw a hand-specializing occupational therapist, I rested the clarinet on my knees, and I practiced very slowly.

I was just starting my freshman year of my undergraduate music performance degree at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. I had the passion and naivety of a freshman music major and so I pushed through those 17 months until suddenly I could play with ease again and went on to enjoy a wonderful second year.

My first splint was a custom mold secured to my thumb with an adhesive elastic bandage paired with an Oval-8 plastic splint for the middle finger. Source: Author.
I settled on a custom Silver Ring Splint for my thumb. I often receive remarks about how armor-like it is or am questioned if I’m just wearing it as a fashion statement. It is stylish but also the best splint I’ve ever had. Source: Author.

I was able to play with relative ease and control for a few years after that until the second and third occurrences of my injury suddenly and randomly hit me again. These occurred during my senior year at IU as I was auditioning for graduate school music programs and the year after as auditioned again (Note: I’m taking a gap year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and have to re-audition for graduate programs). These occurrences weren’t quite as intense, but they still weren’t allowing me to play close to how I needed.

When my injury reappeared a second time, I primarily incorporated slow practice and hoped for the best, but what is different about this third occurrence is (1) my mindset and approach, and (2) I’m not in school with the constant rehearsals, studio and masterclasses, concerts, lessons, etc. I’ve had the time on my gap year to actually delve into this injury. I can explore and practice as much or little as needed in the way that’s best for my hand, not what’s best to simply get through the next school requirement.

Yes, I need to just do my best and get through the auditions, but I’m so tired of this happening. I need to figure out how to fix it once and for all. This time I am more patient with and kind to myself. I’ve been thinking a lot about the injury — possible causes, patterns, exploring the mental side of dealing with a hand injury as a musician, and experimenting with different physical exercises on and off the clarinet.

The Mindset

You may have caught on to this already, but the pattern I’ve noticed in the three occurrences of this injury is that it always appears right when I’m taking important auditions for music school programs. Very unfortunate but also not terribly surprising. Those were the moments in which the most pressure was placed on me by myself to perform incredibly well. This pressure, even if I’m not thinking about it, must subconsciously be causing stress and tension in my body that physically manifests in my fingers when I play the clarinet.

It’s not my physical state so much as mental that I believe is playing the main role in this injury. Mental toughness, mindfulness, and dealing with performance anxiety are the areas I’ve neglected in the past. Luckily by the time my most recent injury occurred, I had been exploring mindfulness a bit in recent months in preparation for upcoming auditions.

One day in the practice room, I was sitting in front of a mirror doing slow finger independence work when I stopped and just looked at myself in the mirror. I looked at myself as if my best friends were watching me practice. They’d feel so much love and care when they looked at me, they’d think I was a good musician, and that I was doing such a good job persisting and working through this injury. I then tried to look at myself that way — with love, amazement, and compassion. It filled me with such comfort. As soon as I did that, my finger immediately started moving with more ease. That is the one and only time I truly and so clearly noticed such a strong relationship between mindset and the physical outcome. That moment proved to me that this injury really was about my mindset.

Looking back on what happened, in that moment it was completely spontaneous of me, but what I had done was sort of a “loving-kindness” meditation without knowing it. A loving-kindness meditation is practiced to increase compassion towards others and yourself, to increase your capacity for self-acceptance, forgiveness, and connection to others. I had actually practiced this type of meditation a few months earlier before my first audition of the year because I’ve struggled with perfectionism, self-doubt, and having an abusive internal monologue. Exploring this meditation months prior is what prompted it in the practice room that day even though I hadn’t labeled it as such. Isn’t it funny how we can show unconditional love towards others but not ourselves?

I encourage everyone — especially those who also struggle with believing in themselves and whose internal monologues are filled with words they’d never direct at anyone else — to incorporate loving-kindness meditations into their lives at least every once in a while. If you don’t know exactly how to do this, you can find guided loving-kindness meditations on Spotify or YouTube among other places.

Other than the loving-kindness meditation, I found that it’s very important to monitor your negative self-talk. If you are having destructive thoughts, first recognize that they are indeed negative. Ask yourself, “is this thought helpful?” No? Let it go. It has no business taking up space in your brain or your energy that can be spent elsewhere. Next, reframe and replace those negative thoughts with something helpful and positive. Some examples:

I’m not a good clarinetist. → I’m proud of how hard I’m working to improve.

That clarinetist in the practice room next to me can play this piece way better. → It’s ok if they can play this piece better than me right now, we all improve at our own rates.

What if people don’t like what I’m doing? → I have my own unique voice on the clarinet that is worth sharing.

I’m sure we’ve all heard so many things, from basic to almost magical, about the power of positive thinking. No matter what though, positive self-talk will help you while negative self-talk will hurt you. So keep your thoughts positive and remain optimistic!

Funnily enough, I’m about to share some seemingly negative thoughts, but bear with me. Positive and optimistic thinking has by far helped me more, but two slightly negative thoughts on top of that have actually provided comfort as well, so I figured it’s worth mentioning:

  1. You aren’t special.” Too often have I thought “why me?” and “I’m alone in this injury.” The thing is… the Universe/God/Flying Spaghetti Monster did not choose little ol’ Mia of all the clarinetists in the world to just not be able to play with her right hand. I’m not special with a one-of-a-kind-debilitating issue. It can be fixed.
  2. No one cares.” Sounds harsh, I know. But the reality is that no one actually cares if you can play or not. Those who love you will continue to love you despite an injury. Those who you don’t know well, even if they wish you the best, aren’t affected by your injury and don’t care. Remember, you’re the one placing the pressure on yourself, no one else.

How do you pick yourself up after a defeat? Unfortunately with an injury, you are likely going to have a bad practice session, sloppy performance, your teacher will berate you in a lesson or three, or you won’t advance in an audition. Accept that you will face some failures. That’s completely ok. It’s not the end, your career isn’t over. There’s more to life anyway than just those practice sessions, concerts, or auditions. Be kind and compassionate to yourself like you would if your best friend was going through this injury. Take a deep breath in and exhale, releasing all of the tension in your shoulders and jaw. Recognize and let go of negative thoughts, and replace them with positive ones. Remain optimistic and keep working, you will get past it stronger and smarter than before.

Figure out what mindfulness practices work best for you, whether this be incorporating daily 10-minute meditations or yoga, journaling honestly about your fears and plans or handwriting positive affirmations, saying aloud your reframed positive thoughts in the practice room, going for a walk in nature when you’re feeling frustrated, setting smaller and more attainable practice goals to give yourself needed confidence boosts in the practice room, etc. The ways in which you can work on the mental side of handling your injury are limitless and will be unique to you, so enjoy the exploration!

Mia holds her B.M. in Clarinet Performance from Indiana University and is currently pursuing her masters in this field. With her writing, she aims to shed light on the less conventional and less discussed aspects of being a modern musician.

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Mia Thompson

Mia Thompson

I’m a classical clarinetist working towards a life in classical music performance and education. B.M. in Clarinet Performance from Indiana University