Gardening and Piano: A Perilous Duo

The offending pile of mulch

Until last month, I’ve been lucky enough to lead a normal life and play the piano injury-free. I don’t take any special precautions with my hands: I will wash heavy pots and pans, cut up raw chicken with sharp knives, and pull weeds. I vacuum with a heavy European model, and lug home outlandishly gigantic packages of paper products from B.J.’s Wholesale Club. Despite this cavalier attitude, I had never suffered from an arm or hand injury that kept me from playing –- until a recent bout with a wheelbarrow brought me low.

Blame it on my seasonal obsession with gardening. This past Pennsylvania winter was particularly brutal (think Washington crossing the Delaware for months on end.) So when the crocuses first poked their blossoms up through the soil in March, something inside me also sprang up –- the desire to plant. Off I traipsed to Amish country on several occasions with similarly obsessed friends, and stocked the back of my car with annuals, perennials, vegetables, seed packets, shrubs and even a couple of trees.

As any gardener knows, nature abhors a procrastinator. If you don’t get those babies in the ground and water them, they will die. Also, you have to prepare nice beds for them, so I dug up leaf compost from our back woods and, to supplement, ordered a dozen cubic yards of soil and mulch. The truck dumped the soil at the end of the driveway and I busily carted it by the wheelbarrow-full to numerous planting beds.

I guess it should not have been a surprise when I sat down to practice one day and felt an odd tingling sensation spread down my left arm and into my thumb, like a slow burn. The tingling came at random times, for instance, when I was walking, but more often when I played heavy repetitive left hand octaves at the keyboard.

I was scared. I envisioned a permanent injury, some tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. I thought of the over-use hand paralysis that had ruined the concert careers of pianists like Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman.

“Please send me to physical therapy,” I begged my doctor.

I am a firm believer in physical therapy –- it is scientific and safe. My therapist, Bob Campbell at Rasansky Physical Therapy in Bala Cynwyd, put me through a number of neck mobility tests and diagnosed a nerve root irritation at the C5-C6 vertebral space. I’d probably herniated a disc in my neck when lifting those over-filled wheelbarrows, and though that sounds dire, he told me, “It’s pretty common. Let’s see what we can do to help.”

For a month I underwent cervical traction, electrical stimulation of the trapezius, ultrasound. More important, I began a series of stretching and strengthening exercises of the shoulders and neck that I need to do for the rest of my life. I am happy to report that my arm and thumb are now nearly 100% tingle-free.

As for the pile of mulch, it still sits at the end of the driveway. I try not to look at it and feel obsessed. It’s a good exercise in letting go.

Passion flower -- summer's reward

There are 2 responses to “Gardening and Piano: A Perilous Duo”

  1. I am very glad that you are recovering. I do not want to think about not being able to hear you play again.
    … And, as for the pile of mulch, will Tom move it now or next spring?

    Tim Cleary

  2. Holy Smokes! “A dozen cubic yards” THAT is a lot of mulch!!! What were you thinking?!?!?

    I am totally relieve to hear that the fingers are back to normal and in the meantime, unless Tom is up to the herculean task (which I don’t recommend), use those nimble fingers to dial and phone for a gardener. 12 cubic yards is definitely a job of a professional.

    On several occasions, I had a personal encounter with about two or three yards and hauling it up the hill, my back complained bitterly for several days.