It’s amazing what can happen in a split second. That’s all it took for me to back into a parked car in my 20s. I was distracted, talking with my friend sitting beside me. It was dark and I didn’t take that extra second to do one last shoulder check. Thankfully, the vehicle was unoccupied and my friend and I were able to locate the owner. Eleven years ago, a second was all it took to lose control of a knife while cutting a pot roast, watch it fly out of my hand, and cut my finger. I needed stitches and was unable to practice piano with my right hand for at least two weeks. That made preparing for Piano Camp rather interesting.
A split second was all it took for me to cut a nerve in another finger, six weeks ago. The Coles’ Notes version: Our order of new swords arrived at the dojo that evening and we were all excited. I was trying to get a new sword - a live blade - unstuck from its scabbard. When it became unstuck, I was not careful enough and LH2 got cut. The nerve was cut cleanly, so stitching it back together was a straightforward procedure. It was a stark reminder to be fully present whenever doing something that should have your complete attention.
It is healing well and my finger is expected to regain full sensation (if not, pretty darn close). For that, I am thankful to my quick thinking friends, the staff at the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre, my rockin’ surgical team, my physiotherapist, and God.
I was debating whether or not to write anything about it here. It was a careless moment that could have been much worse. Lesson learned. One of my dojo mates suggested that I share how playing and practising music didn’t stop because of my injury. Budo training didn’t stop because of my injury. If the desire and motivation are there, you can find ways to practice safely with an injury.
MIttori Keiko: Training by Watching
The accident happened just before Ka Muso Kai’s biennial seminar with Colin Hyakutake Watkin sensei, Menkyo Hyoho Niten Ichi Ryu and 12th Shihan, Choken Battojutsu Kagéryu. With my injured finger in a splint for three weeks, I became the official notetaker for the seminar.
Martial arts seminars are quite intense and sometimes, it is hard to remember the big revelation you had 30 minutes prior because you’re so focussed on trying to get the current technique right. Pen in hand, I was able to take copious notes and follow Watkin sensei around to catch additional tips and corrections.
As I had several students preparing for summer exams and piano camp, I still had to practice music. I dusted off the practice techniques I employ whenever I suffer an repetitive strain injury (or the aforementioned pot roast incident): scorestudy, rhythm work and studying videos of performances.
It was rinse and repeat on the budo side of things. Between notes, training manuals and videos, I had plenty to study.
One-Handed Piano and Sword Practice
Shortly after the accident, I contacted several colleagues for repertoire suggestions for the right-hand alone. I remembered that composer and pedagogue, Dennis Alexander, composed a piece for another colleague, Ingrid Clarfield (the first clinician we had at Piano Camp). Dennis sent me a list of all of his compositions for right-hand alone. Here’s Arioso:
I wound up with a sizeable list of repertoire for one hand. It’s a longer list than I actually needed, but I’ll hang onto it in case someone else suffers a hand injury. Another colleague reminded me to practice my blues licks. However, I found that hard to do without my left hand. I wound up playing a simple bass line with one or two fingers, being careful not to jostle my index finger.
I also used the opportunity to work on my ear training, by playing one hand’s piano part and trying to sing the other hand’s part. Let’s just say that needs more work.
My kouhai were surprised to see me at the dojo a week after the seminar. With their Jodo grading fast approaching, I wanted to be on hand to assist with preparations. When not coaching, I worked on my footwork and right-handed sword cuts.
Practising the Other Instruments
Singing and conducting got plenty of practice time last month. I wound up filling in for our choir directors at church. It probably looked odd conducting with a finger in a splint, and wrapped in brightly coloured cohesive wrap but hey, it gave my finger something to do. I was allowed to do gentle flexing movements, so it could handle cues and cut-offs just fine. My morning routine of rolling small items around on my kitchen table with my injured index finger paid off.
My poor finger worked incredibly hard in those first three weeks to reconnect the affected nerves. The “Re-connection Parties” were quite intense whenever I practised or trained. The neurons fired madly, as if the finger knew that it should be playing or training.
Easing Back into Regular Practice and Training with a Hand Injury
The splint came off at the three week mark and I was cleared for physiotherapy. My surgeon also gave the green light to ease myself back into piano practice, but to hold off on the other instruments and putting a sword or jo in my left hand for a bit longer.
I had to train my brain to accept that LH2 feeling funny is normal - at least until the neuroregeneration process is complete. As my left hand was significantly weaker than my right, I pulled out several technical exercise books from my shelves: Schmitt, Jazz Hanon, Dozen a Day, etc. Even just practicing good ol’ scales, chords, and arpeggii, analyzing my fingers and hand position helped.
In fact, I learned that my injured finger really needs to practice daily as part of my hand rehabilitation. I didn’t practice piano for a day-and-a-half during the August long weekend. By 10 pm, my hand was screaming for the piano. Practising was the only thing that made the pain stop.
Week 6: On the Road to Being a Fully Functional Musician & Budoka Once Again
On the weekend, I eased myself back into regular training at the dojo. Remember in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Harry and his newly repaired holly and phoenix feather wand had a joyful reunion? That’s what it felt like when my left hand was able to hold my iaito.
I started with two-handed sword cuts and working through the Seitei Iaido kata. Although I had to take frequent breaks to stretch my finger and massage scar tissue, my hand “felt” happy to be back at training.
Last night, I worked on Jodo kata in partners, as well as the majority of the Iaido kata I know. The scar tissue proved annoying more than anything else, but I managed to get some good training in. I should be able to handle this weekend’s Iaido and Jodo seminar, so long as I give my finger all the stretch and massage breaks it needs.
This week, the tenderness decreased enough for me to resume barehanded cajón playing. I can already tell that it will be a great way to break up the scar tissue.
Flexibility, dexterity, sensation, and strength are coming back steadily. Both my surgeon and physiotherapist are pleased with my finger’s progress. Based on their reactions, it seems like my finger is recovering faster than they anticipated.
Although I can’t handle playing advanced piano repertoire or technique up to speed, I’m getting pretty close. The new nerves are slowly making their way down to my hand. In the meantime, I am taking this opportunity to read through my student repertoire library, play through all the technical exercise books I own, and take a bunch of online piano pedagogy courses. Pretty productive despite a hand injury.
Check out my hand rehabilitation journey on the Studio’s Instagram feed: