INJURIES. RECOVERY. GUITAR. From the Dreaded Focal Dystonia to Infected Fingernails: Some Health Concerns that Affect Guitarists
From the Spring 2017 Issue of Classical Guitar | BY BLAIR JACKSON
I originally conceived of this Special Focus on Guitar Injuries and Recovery over a year ago.
Word had just come down that Miloš Karadaglic suddenly cancelled a long tour in support of Blackbird, his new album of imaginative interpretations of Beatles songs, due to what was vaguely termed a “thumb injury.” Did he close it in a door? Was it hurt in a fall? Or was it something more serious—such as a repetitive stress injury (RSI), so common among musicians (and people who work at computers all day, and lots of other folks)?
Regardless of the cause, it got me thinking about what a nightmare it is for anyone whose livelihood—not to mention their greatest passion—is taken away for a few days, weeks, months, years… forever. The range is so wide because the calamities that can befall guitarists are so varied. Whether it’s a concert or a recording date or a teaching session, any cancelled gig is serious business. Beyond the financial toll injuries can and do take, there’s also an emotional and psychological component—the doubt and uncertainty that accompanies any health issue, whether it’s the flu or a broken leg. When will I feel normal again? Why isn’t this treatment working better and faster? Will I regain all the skills I had before my injury? What will I do if I can’t play at my highest level? These are all natural questions. It’s tremendously difficult not to go down some dark mental hallways in such situations.
With Miloš, it was just a few months later that we were heartened to learn that he was booking dates for the fall of 2016; apparently, the mystery thumb issue had been successfully treated. With this Special Focus story already in the deep planning stages last summer, I approached Miloš’ representative about possibly doing an interview with him about the injury and recovery—a feel-good story about a truly nice guy. My request was politely turned down, and I understood completely: He probably did not want to shine a light on the malady that had forced him to cancel his tour, and possibly jeopardize future bookings from skittish concert producers.
But shortly after that, a more ominous announcement came from the guitarist himself: “It saddens me deeply to need to write these lines. Performing is all I live for. There is nothing I love more than being on stage and sharing the gift of music. In two weeks’ time I was about to embark on the most exciting tour of my career. I’ve spent all these months preparing for it—just giving it my absolute best. And yet, despite all that, no matter how hard I tried, the physical condition I was suffering from in 2015 has most unfortunately returned.
“My doctors have been very clear with me now—the kind of movement disorder I have is complex and uncompromising and it cannot resolve itself within a few weeks or months. Hence, I’ve been unanimously advised to withdraw from all concert engagements for at least this whole season and break the vicious cycle I have found myself in. It is so incredibly hard for me to accept this, but sadly, I have no other choice but to comply.”
Our hearts go out to Miloš, and we wish him well on his journey back to health and the concert stage. But his tale reinforces something that became quite apparent when I started digging around looking for stories about health issues related to playing guitar—nearly every guitarist has encountered some episode or malady at some point, and the lucky ones who haven’t know someone who has. Many are in denial, searching desperately for clues and remedies. Others know the truth but choose not to share it with others.
This article will not solve anyone’s problems. What you’ll find here are some stories from guitarists who have dealt with everything from musician’s focal dystonia—surprisingly common and perhaps the most feared of all performance- affecting afflictions—to broken arms and infected nails. The piece is bookended by lengthy testimonials from David Leisner and Liona Boyd about their battles with FD, and in between are nuggets (both current and from archival CG interviews) with the likes of Julian Bream, Irina Kulikova, Leo Brouwer, and some less-known guitarists. We hope you’ll come away from this a little more informed. At the very least you’ll know that whatever you’re going through, you’re not alone, but by all means reach out for help as soon as you can! And, as always, we welcome your stories and feedback on this issue.