Cal Henshaw is one of the top young guitarists in Australia, winner of multiple guitar competitions and already a world traveler—this past December he played and taught a master class at the Saigon International Guitar Festival in Vietnam.
In mid-2014, I had to admit to myself that there was something seriously wrong with my arms. I had returned to Australia after spending six months, on the back of an honors year, preparing and competing throughout Europe. I practiced, carried all my belongings, including my heavy guitar, and was frequently in stressful situations. I ignored warning signs from my body. This was the beginning of my journey through injury. Even still, I do not know precisely what it is, but it resulted in hot, tickling, prickling pain and discomfort in my forearms. Not understanding what was occurring in my body was a significant source of anxiety—it was difficult to articulate, difficult to detect, and it was irregular.
During this time, I also suffered extreme emotional stress that eventually led to significant mental health issues and depression. Luckily, I have a remarkable mentor who was able to support me in a number of ways. Tim Kain [of the Australian quartet Guitar Trek, and long a top player Down Under] is a brilliant musician, guitarist, and teacher. But foremost he is a sensitive, understanding, and thoughtful human who was able to see me during this period. I still feel that in some of the best lessons I had with Tim, I never touched the guitar; we simply talked.
Equally significant was my discovery—with the help of some very special friends—of Greta von Gavel, a physiotherapist… but not. Greta helped me understand the body in a more holistic way—what was happening in my arms was connected to my back, my legs, the way I hold my stomach when I sit, the way I lock my knees when I stand. Above all, she helped me understand the connection between my mind and my body. The emotional struggles, mental health issues, and my arms were one and the same. It was only then that I was able to start truly working on recovery—by addressing my whole self.
I started practicing in small blocks—two to three minutes at a time with plenty of rest—and increased the length over a number of months. It was important to me at this time to find something that was musically engaging but also technically achievable. Manuel M. Ponce’s Variations sur ‘Folia de España’ et Fugue, with its very short, intricate, and exquisite variations entertained my mind, while my fingers weren’t strained by playing for too long.
This process kindled a different kind of enjoyment of the guitar. Physically, it was such a comparative rarity to be playing guitar that I relished the moments, and each one was imbued with the focused release of tension. That tactile enjoyment and relaxation is something I was able to carry back to the stage when I finally returned… and for the first time I was truly enjoying performing.