On March 14, in the early afternoon, it finally stopped snowing. I had about 8 inches of the wet, heavy stuff covering my driveway and front sidewalk, and I seemed to be unable to start our old snow blower with its pull cord. I knew what I had to do: shovel. No matter that I am in my sixties. No matter that I had to go downtown a few hours later and play Eugene Onegin with my aching back and painful wrists. That is March in Chicago, and that is the end of opera season. It’s all performances, at a time when you are the most fatigued. Your nights are long, because you are performing for 3+ hours and fighting the road conditions to get home.
As that last shovelful of snow got tossed off my driveway, my right shoulder started to cramp up and I knew I could shovel no more. Hit the Advil, sit for an hour, take a hot shower. Allow for more slow warmup than usual. Remember that the end is near, both of winter and opera season.
Here are a few stories from our orchestra about the physical challenges faced at the end of another long and difficult season.
Heather Wittels, violin:
When I discovered how physically difficult Norma was to play, I confidently announced to my friends that I would be super strong by the time we were done with it. I really kept that in mind while doing planks and other shoulder work at the gym throughout the Norma run, and while it never got easy or stopped hurting to play it, I do think I built up some muscles in my arms, shoulders, back, and even obliques. I'm still glad it will be a few years before we play it again.
Channing Philbrick, Trumpet
At this point in the opera season, long term fatigue can be an issue for brass players: there is not enough recovery/healing time. Even if we are rotated off an opera there are often two or three other operas rehearsing or performing every week which we still play. A typical symphony schedule would allow an entire week off to rest, recover, and practice. That is a healthier situation because having time to rest and do "maintenance practice" can help prevent injury and enable us to maintain a high level of performance.
Mike Green, Principal Percussion
As principal, I do try to alternate cymbal assignments so that no player is assigned those instruments two consecutive operas. There is "wear and tear" on the shoulders and back playing heavy hand cymbals.
Lewis Kirk, Bassoon
As a principal player I am loathe to call in sick when I have a cold or other manageable ailment (which I am just getting over now). I really do not want to ask a colleague to come in and play a complex, lesser known opera like Onegin with a very idiomatic conductor unless absolutely necessary.
Robert Hanford, Concertmaster
I spend 20 minutes alone on open strings for smoothness, full sound, and bow changes — going back to basics to avoid injuries. My right arm wants to have tennis elbow, my left arm wants to have golfer’s elbow, and I have an old shoulder injury I deal with. For all of us, with rehearsals finished, we’re ready to unwind. (But lucky for audiences, that is not to be. His performance of the Waxman Carmen Fantasy and Dvorak Fantasy with the Chicago Philharmonic is Sunday, April 9th, at 3 p.m. at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall at Northwestern University!)
Amy Hess, viola
I get the usual tightness and soreness in my upper back. But if I go too long without stretching it out or getting a massage, it shows up in weird places. One day the tip of my finger hurt too much to even play on, but all I had to do was stretch the side of my neck and it went away. I'm sure there's a logical medical explanation, but it was bizarre.
Calum Cook, Principal Cello
I bought [a special] chair in the UK and brought it back on the plane as a checked bag, getting some funny looks along the way. It is fully adjustable so that whatever shape or size you are, it is possible to find a position that is comfortable for long concerts or operas. I thought it would be a good investment given the back trouble I endured in the first half of this season. Along with my new chair I purchased a new set of straps for my cello case, a backpack system. During November and December, I had multiple visits to acupuncturists, massage therapists, chiropractors, and physio-therapists - none of which was covered by insurance! But if it saves me one episode of back trouble it will have been worth it.