A medical and musical journey in 5 movements
(With a happy ending)
By Ted Rosenthal
Dr. Glickel, the hand specialist, was not too “impressed” with my tendonitis. It was present but not to a great degree. While I was pointing to the tight muscle and soreness in my forearm and some pain in the elbow, he pointed to my bicep area with interest and said, “You’ve got the Popeye Deformity!” What the f*ck is the Popeye Deformity? He explained that the tendon connected to the bicep severs and the bicep falls and protrudes downward and outward. You look like Popeye with a giant bicep muscle…The Popeye Deformity, who knew? He wanted to do an MRI to be sure, but he and the resident seemed confident that’s what I had. Well, I didn’t have pain there, so I told him let’s deal with the Popeye situation later. First I need to solve the tendonitis which could possibly affect any number of upcoming performances, most importantly my December performance of Gershwin’s Concerto in F at Lincoln Center.
Dr. Glickel prescribed anti-inflammatories, physical therapy (with Caryl Johnson if she hadn’t retired) and told me to come back in 4 weeks. If it hadn’t improved we’d consider a cortisone shot. I left his office and texted “Olive Oyl.” She was as surprised as I was. The tendon usually severs due to trauma, as in a fall or heavy lifting. I couldn’t think of any incident like that. Olive, AKA Lesley, reminded me of a ski trip we took in January 2014 around the time I first started to look like Popeye… It was frigid and icy, and I did take one fall that hurt and we remembered some bruising. I was still highly skeptical – even though the bruise hurt I think I would remember the sound and feeling of a tendon popping, and my guess was that the pain would be excruciating. Implicit in Lesley’s detective work was (I felt) an indictment of my downhill skiing. “How dumb for a pianist to downhill ski…” She didn’t actually say this at all, but to me it was implied in her assessment of my injury.
Lesley and I have a wonderful marriage and often revel in how compatible we are. But like every couple, there are issues. Two that come to mind are skiing and Bleu Cheese. I love to downhill ski. She doesn’t. We’ve reached an accommodation where she will find a cross country area nearby to enjoy. With all her talk of beautiful scenery, I’d still rather take on a vertical mountain any day, not as a daredevil but as a decently accomplished skier. When it comes to Bleu Cheese, which I hate, Lesley is nice enough to order a salad with the dressing or actual cheese on the side so we can share the salad in question. Food sharing is another activity we enjoy in our fabulously compatible and joyous marriage.
Popeye or no Popeye, it was time for physical therapy. Caryl and I came up with a plan. I would take time off after two important gigs the following week: one with Kurt Elling at the Carlyle Hotel and the opening concert of my series, Jazz at the Riverdale Y. Fortunately the Elling gig was one set and the show in Riverdale was the “Bronx Jam,” including many musicians. I would only have to play a few songs. I was beginning to carefully, almost obsessively, calculate all of my playing time as my arm felt best at rest. Caryl suggested taking 3 weeks off (except for minimal playing while teaching) and return to light practice a few days before I was bringing my trio to Texas for a 5 day tour the 2nd week of November. But… just 2 days into my rest period the phone rang while teaching a lesson. A phone call, email or even text can often change the life of a free-lance musician, and this call was certainly going to do just that.
The caller was Hanna Arie Gaifman, director of arts programming for the 92nd St. Y. It seemed that the piano soloist for the Y’s season opener gala concert, classical virtuoso Kirill Gerstein, had medical issues of his own and was unable to play the concert. He was to be the soloist in both Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F. (I later learned his issues were more musical than medical). She told me I would be the perfect replacement. I then learned the concert was to be the following evening with a dress rehearsal in the afternoon (!) My first reaction was “impossible.” Then out loud I said…”can you give me a few hours to decide?” Surprisingly she agreed assuring me I was the only one who could do this – doubly surprising to me that a NYC arts organization as distinguished as the 92nd St. Y didn’t have a long list of soloists to ask.
I called Lesley who thought it was an amazing opportunity and tried to convince me that despite my medical issues, lack of recent practice, and specific preparation of these pieces, that I could do it. With her positive outlook she also reminded I’d be among friends – the orchestra was Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks whom I knew well and had performed with, notably for the 100th anniversary concert of “Rhapsody in Blue” at Town Hall with Maurice Peress conducting. He would be the conductor here too. What to do?
My “solution” was to agree to do it under the condition that I could add my own improvisations to the piano cadenzas. Presenting myself as a jazz pianist in these pieces, not only in styling the written passages but adding additional improvisations, gives me a certain confidence in my performance and also adds comfort in the high pressure world of playing piano concertos. The only problem was that I knew that Maurice, an expert in American music, strongly preferred to do the pieces as written. So I called back Hanna, informed her I would play both pieces under the condition that I would add some improvisations in a few spots. Hanna was thrilled and relieved and said she would convince Maurice to go along with my artistic demand, or should I say vision. Hanna is a very strong woman and I knew she would have more luck in this than I would. Sure enough, Maurice reluctantly agreed.
The concert went amazingly well. I was in “the zone,” the written passages came off as if I had been slavishly practicing them for months, (maybe better), and the improvisations had a nice flow too. As I suspected, a classical critic from the New York Times was there. Vivien Schweitzer gave me a nice review, noting I seemed “unfazed” by filling in at the last minute and that my playing was “notable both for its flair and languid, sultry expressive gestures.” Lesley and I gave each other knowing smiles and I said, “As usual, you were right dear…” Perhaps that should have been the headline in the New York Times.
When I walked into physical therapy two days later, Caryl handed me the review and said “I thought you might want a copy.” Not that I was “busted,” but I told her the whole story and promised that my “time off” would now begin. While she administered her ultrasound heat treatments and massage, I would talk to her about issues with the music world and how as a free-lance musician taking time off was so difficult – not only from a career/business point of view, but also from missing the daily playing I am so used to and which is so much a part of my being. I would also tell her about issues with my students. Having worked with many students at Juilliard and privately, she understood many of the physical and emotional pitfalls students deal with. I began to realize that this wasn’t just physical therapy, but talk therapy too, and I was grateful that I was now forced to allow space for me to take the time to reflect, reevaluate old habits, and think about new beginnings.
(to be continued)