From the Spring 2017 Issue: Kulikova, Bream, Brouwer, and more on “Injury. Recovery. Guitar.”

Here’s a look back at part of the popular Special Focus section we published in the Spring 2017 issue, called “Injury. Recovery. Guitar.” in which several guitarists talked about health concerns and overcoming injuries.

Irina Kulikova: Injury Led to Health Awareness

In the September 2010 cover story of Classical Guitar, the exceptional Russian guitarist Irina Kulikova shared with writer Guy Traviss how an injury helped shape her attitudes toward physical, mental, and emotional health. Kulikova has continued on her upward career trajectory, traveling the world and releasing CDs (her most recent was Reminiscences of Russia), so her approach seems to be working. Here’s an excerpt from that interview.

At 19, I broke my left arm, leaving me unable to play for 18 months. This gave me time to think—a bit more than I would have liked, but in that period my determination to continue with music grew even stronger. At that time, I was studying at the Gnessin Academy in Moscow. I obviously missed guitar lessons, but I also missed lessons in piano and conducting. Fortunately, there were a lot of different modules you could take, such as theory and historical studies. During this period, I disappeared into a lot of literature, medical books in particular. I developed an interest in the relationship between music and health: How to stay healthy as a musician, and how music can serve as medicine. Five years later, I wrote my master’s thesis on this topic at the Mozarteum [in Vienna]: The Mystery of Sound and Wholeness of the Artist: A Multidisciplinary Introduction to a Better Stage Performance.

The paper is about dealing with physical and mental blocks, to be free and open in our stage performances. My interest in the subject was inspired by Ilsa Safarova, a Russian pianist who works with musicians struggling with physical or mental problems. She helped me when my arm was broken. After the long pause from concert life, I was afraid of going back on stage. But thanks to her treatment, I found my way again. Through personal experience and meeting so many other musicians who at some time suffered from blocks on stage, I became very much involved with this theme.

[As a treatment, Safarova] gave a special kind of massage and taught me to concentrate on energy flows through the body. She helped me to be more conscious about the way I practice and the way I live life in general. The intensity with which we work on a piece, the books we read, music we listen to, movies we see, people we meet, and all kinds of other daily rituals have a special meaning to us: [All of this] settles somewhere in our subconscious.

On the night of the concert, the body remembers everything that has happened in the months before, only twenty times stronger. To be able to transmit music with all its meaning and full intensity, musicians need to be whole themselves. This is what Safarova made me aware of. If your hands are trembling onstage, or if your memory is failing you, you have built up blocks somewhere. You can’t take these blocks away by focusing on the night of the concert alone. You need to make changes in life generally. For example, be open to experiment with tai chi or qigong. Get some good massages or go to an acupuncturist. Learn to concentrate on your breathing and movement. Try different kinds of mental and physical training. Create a special atmosphere while you’re practicing at home. All these things help to create a sense of inner harmony that you bring to the stage.

I know that music education is for a large part about discovering technical aspects of our instrument and developing a broad knowledge of music. But it is also about the whole of our physical, emotional, intellectual, intuitive, and spiritual development. That’s why I work with my students on more than technique and musical interpretation alone. I encourage them to open their imagination to any piece they play, to find out what inspired the composer. But also to find their own way in a spiritual direction. I’m sure this helps to become more whole as a person; to open up more of our gifts and unite them in beautiful music.

Cal Henshaw is one of the top young guitarists in Australia, winner of multiple guitar competitions and already a world traveler—in December 2016 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.

In July 1984, the incomparable master-guitarist Julian Bream was seriously injured in an automobile accident near his Dorset, England, home. Swerving his MG sports car to avoid another vehicle, he left the roadway and crashed into the side of bridge, suffering multiple fractures to his right elbow. Fortunately, his hand was not injured. Still, the recovery was long and arduous, as he told Classical Guitar writer/editor Chris Kilvington (1944–1999) in the September 1993 issueedited below.

I had to do a fantastic lot of practice initially. About a month after the accident, I did 15 minutes just moving the fingers, then half an hour, then 40, 50 minutes, then an hour. [I’d do simple] diatonic and chromatic scales, and arpeggios. I worked in front of a mirror and I would watch what was going on, and I gradually built up my technique again. And then I carried that [regimen] on because I really enjoyed it. I had to change my right-hand position slightly because of the accident, and then the left hand, too; I did a double-change.

[On my right hand] I changed the position of my thumb, and I’m quite happy to have also changed my wrist position. Whereas previously I kept it more or less the same throughout a performance—although I moved it up and down the strings—now I’m quite ready to change the angle, to move it as I feel. It’s not a very pure outlook to technique, but it’s one that suits me now. I also notice that guitar players in general don’t fuss with their right hands anything like they used to, in terms of the old Tárrega bent wrist. And I’m not at all sure that’s a good thing either—the thing with the Tárrega bend, you didn’t have to support the wrist, it just fell that way. But this flatter method, you have to consciously support the wrist.

[On my left hand] I tended to play with rather flat fingers, and I didn’t notice it until I saw the scenes from the films on the guitar in Spain [a British TV series he made called Guitarra!]. I looked at my left hand and asked myself, do I really play like that? It looked wrong. I hadn’t actually seen myself playing for such a long time, which you don’t do in the normal course of events. The palm of my hand was too far away from the fingerboard. And what a hell of a job it was to rectify it, too.

It sort of sounded all right, but I thought I’d never develop my left hand if I continued to play that way; and that was very hard to achieve at my age. Being virtually self-taught, I have always had to approach these things a bit like trial and error—and a lot of trial, specifically. But I’m glad I did it. I really had to slave, but I’m so pleased I did it.

Two Julian Breams take on Boccherini!

[The accident] was certainly a pretty traumatic experience. It does have an effect on your life and outlook upon things. It was terribly bad luck to be involved in such a catastrophic accident; really, I’m lucky to be alive. It gave me another dimension of feeling to have gone through an experience of that kind. It did change my life. I stopped for a month, and maybe that was good, too. The initial thought was, ‘Maybe I’ll never play again.’ But as soon as I could move my fingers I knew I’d play again.

Note: Though Bream did continue to play for many years after that story was published, in his last CG interview, in the December 2014 issue, he told Thérèse Wassily Saba, “I can’t play anymore. Due to an injury to my left hand, I haven’t played a piece of music on the guitar for three years.” That must be another story…

In a 1984 interview in CG, the great Cuban composer/guitarist Leo Brouwer revealed to writer Gareth Walters that an issue with a single fingernail had serious consequences.

This is becoming dramatic and I have to solve it because I need to play. It’s a necessity for me to play and to communicate through the guitar. The problem started when I contracted some allergy that was starting to spoil my nail, and the sound of this infected nail was horrible. I had some very important concerts coming up; the most important was one of a series in New York called “The Great Virtuosos,” including Segovia, Yepes, Lagoya, and me, and if I cancelled it would have been awful. So I transposed all the actions and articulations of that finger onto the other three.

 I played the concert and was very happy with the results, but then continued a very long tour of the States—about 30 concerts—then Canada, then Belgium, then Holland, and as a result of all this playing, the finger atrophied and the tendon damaged. It is still damaged and I cannot play perfectly, and so I have to reconstruct my hand.

Dan Griffith is an Arizona-based singer and songwriter who plays all sorts of different stringed instruments, including guitar, ukulele, and vihuela, and written music in many different styles. He has played songs in TV shows and commercials and is a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, who put on the Grammy Awards.

I began playing guitar in 7th grade in 1963. I studied music and classical guitar at the University of Toledo [Ohio]. I played in various bands and duets from 1963 to 1983. At that time, I developed a pain in my right wrist. (I am left-handed but I play right-handed). It got so bad that I could not play more than 15 minutes without suffering for the next 24 hours. I could not pick up a coffee cup nor do a push up.

I went to two surgeons, and both diagnosed me with carpal tunnel syndrome. They both wanted to do surgery, but my fear of permanently damaging my hand kept me from surgery. So for the next 12 years, I played very little—not more than 30 minutes in a week! My time turned to a career at Motorola [electronics].

 Then, in 1995, while working at Motorola, I got a 15-minute upper back massage at work. The therapist hit a knot in my upper back and my arm was on fire! She found more [muscle knots] in my shoulder in the front and worked on them. My arm, from fingers to shoulder, was in intense pain for the next eight hours or so, and this was the same type of pain I would get when I played guitar.

After that episode, I went to a professional therapist and had six one-hour sessions working on my upper body. I was also given stretching exercises to do. It was a miracle: After six weeks of treatment, my wrist problem was gone! Twenty-one years later, I still do the stretching and I still need to get massage work done once or twice every year or two, but today I play two to five hours a day. I was cured without surgery, just massage and exercises.

John E. Walker is an amateur guitarist who lives in Billings, Montana. Here, he talks about how his love of playing classical guitar was derailed by a nerve problem.

I’ve been suffering from ulnar nerve issues in my right forearm for many years. In the mid-1990s, I put down the electric guitar after many years of being obsessed with it and decided I was ready to commit myself fully to the classical guitar. I would spend my days working at the computer as a computer tech/network admin, and four to six hours every evening working on my two hours of standard classical guitar repertoire. I played this repertoire at various weddings and churches for a couple of years and wanted to become the best player I could become.

However, my hopes and dreams were eventually dashed, as I began to experience numbness from my right elbow, down to my ring and pinky fingers. I tried moving my mouse hand from my right hand to my left—which I still do to this day—but it didn’t alleviate the numbness. I eventually saw a specialist, but the stretches he gave me weren’t enough to combat my growing issue. So, I reluctantly put down the classical guitar and went back to playing electric guitar in country and rock bands. I have always been able to do that because solid-body guitars are thinner, and I usually stand while playing. I believe that my long days of computer work, combined with nights sitting hunched over my classical guitar, with my forearm resting on the lower bout, all combined to create a perfect storm for my ulnar nerve.

Fast forward 20 years… I can now play acoustic guitar again in moderation (and have been gigging my solo acoustic material on and off for several years). I spend more time working on my “flamenco-jazz” stuff these days than classical pieces. But I love it all and want to do it all again. Only this time I am aware that I have to remember not to over-do things. Maybe one day, after I’ve retired from my computer-related job, I can go back to spending hours every day playing the classical guitar.