Play. If your knuckle swells to the size of an overripe plum, practice with the opposite hand, even though your piano teacher said to always play with both. Repetitive motion on an inflamed joint could be damaging. When a flare feels as if a Steinway grand just dropped on your body, try playing for five to ten minutes—one-handed or two. Or, simply brush the seductive pearly whites with your aching fingers in anticipation. If one chord is all you can muster, make it D# Minor and absorb its emotion. Franz Shubert said it depicts the “gloomiest condition of the soul.”
Listen. Research shows that music releases dopamine in the brain, which crescendos through the body putting the soft pedal on pain. When it hurts too much to practice, listen to the greats—Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Harry Connick Jr., to name a few. Swallow the sound, as if you were swept asea, rocking on waves, the notes building blocks to utter tranquility. Someone once said music soothes the savage beast. In this case the beast is arthritis.
Be inspired. When applying pressure to the keys feels akin to dipping your hands into a jug of broken glass, don’t get discouraged. Take a break and read about musicians who’ve suffered from arthritis and other debilitating hand injuries and persevered through pain and deformity. Leon Fleischer played with one hand for years due to a paralyzed right hand. Robert Schumann destroyed his hand by trying to strengthen his fourth finger. He created a grizzly gadget from sticks and rubber bands, which eventually crippled his hand and ruined his career as a pianist. Don’t try this at home! Schumann went on to become a great composer though. On days that you cannot play at all, write a melody. Byron Janis has psoriatic arthritis and endured multiple hand surgeries. Yet, his renditions of the Chopin nocturnes will turn you into jelly. Doctors told him to give up piano, but he kept going with a mind over matter approach. Adopt his motto: I have arthritis, but it doesn’t have me. Oscar Peterson played jazz piano with arthritic fingers. You can too.
Stay Positive. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is one of the most destructive and painful forms of arthritis that can affect every joint in the body. When arthritis of any kind (and there are over 100) attacks the precious hands of a pianist it is devastating. I used to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata seamlessly—my body falling into the music rendering me almost weightless—until that beast RA ransacked my right hand. Now, I can’t make an octave. As we pianists know, Beethoven’s chords often go beyond the octave. While it may cause you to weep buckets, realize that just because you don’t have the hands of an NBA player, there are scores of gorgeous playable music out there. Mozart was a short man with toddler hands. Some argue that his piano sonatas are the best music ever written. They can be played gracefully with small hands that don’t span an octave. You might require the dexterity of a spider monkey, but that comes with practice. Then again, it may never be anatomically possible to achieve enough dexterity to tackle some of Frederic Chopin’s pieces. As noted, in regards to the human hand, there was Chopin and then there was everyone else. Play the waltzes.
Relax. So often we become stiff during practice sessions and forget the importance of posture and relaxation. Relaxed hands mean less stress on damaged joints. Touch the keys gently, as you would a newborn kitten, with awe. If your fragile fingers are rigid with anxiety, breathe. Let the sound infuse into them like an IV push into your veins. No matter what key the piece is in, a peaceful hand is key.
Forget Hanon. The piano is not a gym. Performing those exercises repeatedly like a mouse on a wheel could harm your joints. Bach’s Prelude in C Major is not only a beautiful piece, it is an excellent exercise in chord formation and finger function. And why play scales over and over when you can play Mozart and reap the benefits without the boredom. Be economical with your keystrokes.
Interpret. While it’s tempting to wallow in a hot bath with Scriabin’s Black Mass Sonata, translate your pain to the keys instead. Your playing will be highly emotional and inform your struggle to get there. When my smashed and subluxed index finger reaches the high D in Chopin’s Waltz in B Minor it’s almost as if that lone note bears all the sufferings of the world. There is beauty in pain. There can also be magic in the pedal. Press it less deeply and change it more than once every two bars. Relish the passion.
Memorize. Sight-reading is a skill. So is playing by ear. But, memorization is art—a treasure that will stay with you forever. You’ll be able to sit down at an airport or a party and play a Gershwin tune or a Mozart rondo and wow bystanders. Let your fingers walk over the keys with their own little brains. Hint: playing a piece just before going to sleep will transfer it to your long-term memory more efficiently.
Accept. There was a time when losing the ability to play piano felt like someone took a garden trowel and gouged out my heart. Trying to play Schumann’s Toccata in C Major (it’s no wonder he ruined his finger) seemed an easier feat than learning to accept my limitations. The human hand has 27 bones, 29 joints, and 123 ligaments that perform together in concert. Eventually, I learned to listen to my hands. To treat them with respect when they are screaming at me. To rest. Mozart said, “Music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” Just as a rest is important in a piece of music, it is also essential for healing. Understand that you may never be the next Glenn Gould (although you could wear fingerless gloves and hum off key while playing Bach), but know that being able to play piano is a gift—an opioid-free transcendence that tethers you to eternity.
About the Author
Sheila Luna is a writer from Arizona whose prose has appeared in Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Heart and Flesh Literary Journal, Longridge Review, PILGRIM, Spry Literary Journal, and DINE: An Anthology (Hippocampus Books). Lately, she has been writing about illness, ability, and disability, especially about her mother who had Alzheimer’s dementia, as well as her own lifelong challenges with rheumatoid arthritis. Her goal is to use language to inform what goes on in our bodies and minds and try to find inspiration in the midst of loss. She loves baking, road trips, and Bach. Visit her at: www.sheilaluna.net