Returning to Playing After Surgery

(by Rick Stout)

While most members of The Cleveland Orchestra enjoyed some much-needed vacation this June, I spent my time preparing for our summer season by practicing more than I had in months. After having shoulder surgery in January I had to put my horn down until the middle of May–a break of over four months. For a brass player, muscle strength and coordination is seriously weakened by time away from the instrument, and a significant and thoughtful rehabilitation of one’s playing is necessary after an extensive break. 

 Just like the physical rehabilitation following a surgery, practicing after a long break must be approached progressively and with attention to form and fatigue, slowly building endurance and strength over time.  The physical therapy I experienced after multiple shoulder surgeries taught me to take an athletic approach toward strength training.  During therapy sessions we employed a wide range of methods to challenge the neuromuscular system: we lifted weights one day, worked fast twitch muscles the next, did cardio on both and mixed in a day for recovery, then did core strength (or the shoulder equivalent) the next, and so on.  Although it was necessary for me to begin practicing in fairly short sessions, I used a similar approach of consistent strength building with variety and an element of unpredictability.  On the first day I played for a whopping ten minutes, but after just a couple of weeks I could play for a couple of hours daily.  I modeled my practice schedule on a baseball pitching method outlined to me in therapy that involves alternating increases in duration with frequency of practice.  For example, start with two sessions per day of 10 minutes each, then increase them to 15 minutes each the next day.  Drop to three sessions of 10 minutes each, then three sessions of 15 minutes each and continue working this way to build up your endurance.  This proved to be a great map to follow to increase my total practice time fairly quickly while preventing overuse injuries to muscles that had become disused. 

 It wasn’t all work all the time during the rehab period.  A couple of trips to visit family were stretched into mini-vacations, and I found that I could do exercises with red and yellow tubing somewhere warm just as easily as I could in Cleveland–maybe better!  I was also able to take advantage of a free Friday night–a time I would otherwise have been working–to receive an award at my high school back in Texas.  At first I was convinced they must have made a mistake.  It was humbling to see my plaque on the wall and great to see some familiar old faces.  I finally realized I had overstayed my welcome when the family dog bit me, so I didn’t stay gone long.

 Through it all, I missed playing music with this fabulous orchestra and I’m happy to be back, starting with Monday’s concert in Public Square.  It’s great to begin the summer with such a festive and fun event.  I’m looking forward to seeing you all there!