My Arm

A medical and musical journey in 5 movements

(With a happy ending)

By Ted Rosenthal

© 2016 

1st Movement

 It all started…well that’s part of the mystery…I don’t really know when it started.  But approximately two years ago in the winter of 2014 I joined a gym, or I should say a health club.  A large Costco-sized facility called LifeTime Fitness in White Plains, ten minutes from my home.  LifeTime has something for everyone, hundreds of machines, classes of all types including yoga, indoor and outdoor pools, squash, tennis and more. In my quest for fitness but not wanting to “bulk up,” I took the variety approach, going 4-5 times a week, doing a combination of classes of all types and machines, almost always followed by a swim.  It was working.  I felt good, kept my weight down and improved my stamina and muscle tone.  The only curious thing was that at some point early on, (again, which point is not clear), I noticed that my left bicep was considerably bigger than the right.  No problem, I thought, as being a lefty, I must be exercising more vigorously on the left.  And I didn’t mind being a muscle man – even a lopsided one.

My wife Lesley attributed the large left bicep to my swimming – I breathe on the left and somehow I must be stroking harder with my left arm causing my vastly uneven muscles. I was skeptical of this analysis but was interested in improving my swimming skills.  After more than a full year went by with no arm pain or other clues, I was finally motivated by some “LT Bucks” – good for free stuff and services – to sign up for swimming lessons. My friendly but not highly educated swimming instructor had ideas to make my strokes “more better,” and help me swim “more faster.”  Wishing to address my bicep issue, I asked him to help me breathe on both sides which he did. Although he was clearly not a sophisticated health practitioner, I asked for his opinion about my differing biceps and he offered, “Wow, the left one’s much bigger.”

I went about my life, musical and otherwise, without any further thought about the lopsided situation.  The only time I really noticed, other than visually, was putting on short sleeve pullover “golf” shirts.  With my health club regimen and improved fitness, I was now buying size medium and/or slim fit.  With the more tailored fit, I noticed I would have to yank the left sleeve past my big bicep.  But again, without any discomfort, I didn’t give it much thought.  In fact, getting dressed in the morning I would muse with my wife about my outsized bicep. We joke that with all her brilliance Lesley teaches me something new every day.  When I asked her “what is a bicep anyway?” She informed me that it meant the muscle was attached in two places – in contrast to triceps, quadriceps… I responded that I wished I had such an outsized “monocep” – a characteristic that would evidently make me more than qualified to be our next president.

As the summer progressed I had a nice schedule and variety of performances:  Jazz and Music festivals in Newport RI, Aspen CO, McCall ID, and Eugene OR.  I performed both jazz sets and was also soloist in Gershwin’s Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue.  The final summer festival I did, Oregon Festival of American Music in Eugene in mid-August, has a particularly demanding schedule where it is typical to do two concerts and two rehearsals in one day.   This festival’s theme was music of the 1920’s and I was invited to perform Rhapsody in Blue with their (Paul Whiteman-esque) festival orchestra.  In addition there was a lot of stride piano playing on all the concerts.  The heavier than usual playing was physically noticeable and by Thursday of the week-long festival I noticed that my left arm was hurting.  Not a huge deal I thought, it’s just uncomfortable, not excruciating… So I played lighter and less left hand (not easy for a 20’s theme) for the balance of the week.  I came home and noticed the pain had persisted, so instead of launching into my usual practice routine, I did almost no practicing and just a bit of warm up before my gigs.

My next major playing was going to be my annual trio tour of Japan beginning the last week of September.  This is one of the highlights of the year for me and I’ve been fortunate that my wonderful and supportive friend and promoter, Ken Fujiwara, has brought my trio to Japan 10 times, and counting…  This tour was going to be particularly memorable with more gigs than usual, 2 weeks’ worth, and for the first time collaborating with the Okayama Symphony.   I thought my new light practice regimen would lead to sufficient improvement in what I now assumed was tendonitis.  By the time of the tour, I’d be back to normal, not having to worry about any arm problems while performing every night with my trio to a warm, devoted and enthusiastic audience.

The tour, with Noriko Ueda and Tim Horner (who did a great job filling in for Quincy Davis), started as planned, but soon hints of arm pain were materializing.  I did my best to do short sound checks, no extra practice, and appreciated that the Japanese tend to like concerts that begin and end “on time,” meaning no unduly long sets.  But there was no doubt that despite great and joyful gigs, physically, the arm situation was worsening.  I was now rubbing and massaging my forearm regularly.  Thankfully, my Japanese promoter and his support staff, always polite and not inclined to pry (especially with the language barrier), did not ask about my physical situation.  And fortunately, the adrenaline combined with losing myself in the music, that is so often a part of the performer’s world, got me through the gigs without anyone else but me noticing.

My Japan tour was summed up in an email I wrote to my wife from Osaka, about two-thirds of the way through. Paraphrasing the old “monk joke,” (not Thelonious), I wrote, “Gig good, arm bad.”  Lesley wrote back asking whether she should make an appointment with the doctor for right when I got back to New York, to which I uncharacteristically replied, “Yes.”  I suggested she make appointments with both the doctor and the physical therapist and she did.

The day after I returned from Japan, I went to see Dr. Steven Glickel at the Roosevelt Hand Surgery Center.  I had seen Dr. Glickel at two other points in my musical life, over the course of the last almost 30 years.  In the past, he had diagnosed tendonitis, or tennis elbow, and I was quite sure that would be his current diagnosis.  In addition to the medical evaluation, my main motivation was to get a prescription for physical therapy so I could see the wonderful PT I had seen before, Caryl Johnson.  Caryl is a Juilliard-trained pianist and physical therapist specializing in treating musicians.  Although Dr. Glickel thought she was retired, Lesley spoke to her office assistant informing her I was a patient in the past, and Caryl, who did in-fact turn out to be semi-retired, did agree to see me.  This was extremely fortunate as Caryl has a great understanding of the medical and physical side of things as well as the musical and pianistic.

But during my visit to Dr. Glickel I was in for a surprise…

(to be continued)

    • Topilow’s diagnosis after reading the first installment was a ruptured biceps tendon. Hope you have recovered fully. Last year I heard you do wonderful back to back performances of concerto In F and Rhapsody in blue at the 92nd St. Y. I particularly loved your improvisation in the middle of the Rhapsody in blue.

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