Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Shaking with the Music

This past month has certainly seen a lot of music-related activity, both good and bad, and its effect on me personally has also had its bright and dark sides.

Part One - The Kashima Philharmonic

The Ninth Regular Concert of the Kashima Philharmonic took place at the Kashima Workers' Culture Hall on August 30th. It was a strange performance for a number of reasons. First of all, up till then, the "regular concert" (i.e. the classical performance) was always in winter, whereas the "pops concert" was in summer. However, thanks to a monumental f***up on the part of our central committee events beyond our control, we were unable to book the KWCH for our regular pops date in June. August 30th was they earliest they could get it. That left us with a dilemma; while we had lots of time (January to August) to prepare for the summer event, we'd have only a few months after that to prepare for the subsequent winter one. Since the "regular concerts" have always been more difficult than the pops ones, I suggested reversing the schedule only for this year. Surprisingly, they took my advice.

However, they didn't take my advice with regard to the concert repertoire, and they wound up making the same mistake yet again. Three years ago, at the regular concert, we did Beethoven's 5th Symphony and pulled it off reasonably well (though only by the slimmest of margins). That apparently jacked up the egos of the committee, particularly the chairman, because they decided to do Beethoven's 7th, a more difficult work, the following year. That piece was clearly over our heads, but once again we somehow managed to pull it off with only a minimum of squeaks. That led our chief to decide to do Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, an even harder work, the year after that. Although most of the regular members of the K.P. seemed happy with the resulting performance, it showed our weaknesses all too clearly, and most of us with more experience were less than enthusiastic. Herr Maestro Ogawa had already resigned as our musical adviser, citing irreconcilable differences with the orchestra's management. I was asked for my opinion, since I had served as rehearsal conductor, and I responded by giving the committee a good flaming. I demanded that they stop insulting our members and our supporters by choosing tunes simply on the basis of their own personal preference. Yes, we could choose high-level works and give a C+ performance, especially if we stacked the orchestra with professional ringers, but we'd be making fools of ourselves. Besides, our more experienced regular members were already threatening to walk out if the committee didn't choose a more realistic repertoire.

So what did our chairman decide? The overtures and one aria each from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" and "The Magic Flute". Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" and "1812 Overture". They're all excellent and very popular tunes, but they require an average level of musicianship that we simply don't have. Our professional concertmistress/violin trainer immediately resigned, and several of our most talented and experienced members went on "extended leave" (and are not expected to return). We were left with a skeleton crew.

I won't bother going into too much detail about the preparation, but suffice to say that, on those times I wound up conducting rehearsals, I was extremely frustrated. The string section, though made up largely of beginners and inexperienced hobbyists, made a valiant effort, and I appreciated them the most. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the wind section. Some of the most experienced members simply didn't seem to give a damn, so week after week they kept making the same mistakes heedless of my or the professional director's instruction. Months passed with virtually no progress. Two weeks before the performance our condition could still only be described as sorry.

As for the concert itself, it wasn't as bad as I feared it would be, but since our ranks consisted of about 50% ringers, college level if not professional, I supposed it made sense. The 1812 Overture in particular went quite well, if you overlooked a couple of bad entrances and one brief train wreck. Still, I wasn't really satisfied, and I also had a new problem to deal with.

Part Two - A Nervous Wreck or Wrecked Nerves?

Back in 2004 or so I was carrying a heavy amplifier (not mine) from a studio to a car parked several blocks away. About two-thirds of the way there, my left hand suddenly gave out on me, and I wound up dropping the amp. (Luckily it wasn't damaged.) After that I started having problems with weakness, shaking, and numbness in the thumb and first two fingers of my left hand. I went to the hospital and had some tests done, with the resulting diagnosis being that I had carpal tunnel syndrome. I was given medicine, a combination of B-vitamins and steroids, and it seemed to work. The problem eased, though it never went completely away. During the years that followed, my left hand would sometimes become slightly tingly and shaky if I worked it too much, though never as badly as in the beginning.

That all changed during the full rehearsal the day before the Kashima Philharmonic concert. About two hours into the practice the thumb and first two fingers of my left hand suddenly felt as if they'd been numbed by cold. They also shook violently, and I could not get them to move properly. That also threw off the balance with my other hand, the result being that I pretty much couldn't play, though as principal clarinetist I had no choice but to keep going. The problem continued to the next day, and my playing was disastrous during the dress rehearsal. I put everything I had into the concert itself, and I was able to do my job reasonably well, but once we got to the encores my control was completely gone, and my solo in Tchaikowsky's "Flower Waltz" (our first encore) was clunky and awkward (and after that my playing was pretty much a comedy of errors...a very BAD comedy...). Depressed and demoralized, I was about ready to throw in the towel right there and then.

The following weekend was the annual two-day Anniversary Festival at my school, and as always the music club conducted the "La Boheme" live-music tea room. As always, I was asked on the spot to fill in a couple of gaps in the program. First I was requested to do a sax solo, so I got my languishing alto out, found a pianist to accompany me, and quickly worked up a rendition of "My Funny Valentine". I was also asked to be ready to do some guitar performances, so I got my acoustic guitar out and spent some time practicing it. I wound up not doing the guitar slot, which was probably a good thing. I did do the sax slot, and it went really well, which was both a joy and a complete miracle, because by then my left hand was almost completely numb, and when I ended my performance and got set up to direct the jazz band my hand was shaking violently. The thumb was almost frozen, and the first two fingers moved only very slowly. I was sure I was finished.

That was on Saturday, September 5th. The problem ebbed, but it didn't go away. The tingling, stiffness, and weakness right up to today (the 7th).

Part Three - The Cure?

(Cue the opening strain of The Cure's "Lullaby")

I've spent some time reading up on how to deal with CTS, and I have learned a few things. For one thing, the problem is due to swelling rather than damage to the nerve itself, so ordinary aspirin or ibuprofen can relieve the symptoms (which I've already discovered works). However, Kellie, one of my Facebook friends, suggested that I try yoga. Specifically, she mentioned something called a "taffy pull". No explanation was given, but I used my imagination. I tried gripping my left wrist and pulling my arms against each other.

There was an abrupt CRACK, and all of the tingling, shaking, and weakness immediately ceased. I mean if someone just flipped a switch. Suddenly I had full strength and sensation in my hand. The swelling around my thumb was still there, but it seemed to start going down. Not long afterward, I started getting cramps in my hand as if long-unused muscles were suddenly being exercised. Even now my left hand feels overworked but not numb or weak. However, as I type this, I still feel a bit of the swelling around my thumb and wrist acting like a bit of a brake. There is also a very mild tingling in the lower palm, which could be due to either the remaining swelling or continued pressure on the nerve. At any rate, I know now that this is something I can deal with, and I don't have to worry about giving up instrumental music just yet! :)

Part Four - Impulse Buying

I'll end this post by talking about CDs. I bought a number of them for various reasons over the past couple of months. Some of them were simply additions to collections (i.e. Rush or Tangerine Dream). Others were either recommendations or simply things picked up because they happened to catch my eye (i.e. they were on sale). Perhaps the most notable ones were:

Superfly (Superfly) - I haven't bought many CDs by Japanese artists simply because so few have caught my attention. However, the blatantly '60s-esque, psychedelic cover of new group Superfly's debut LP had me wondering. Then, spurred on by recommendations given to me by students, I popped into a used CD store one day and grabbed a few albums to try. All of them but one fell into the "not bad but not special" category. That lone exception was Superfly. Contrary to popular belief, "Superfly" is the name of a duo, not the very visible (and solely pictured) lead vocalist, Shiho Ochi (though now apparently Superfly does consist only of Ochi). Guitarist Koichi Tabo also has a lot to do with the group's success, but the charismatic Ochi definitely steals the show. Both her appearance and her vocal style are modeled to a considerable extent after Janis Joplin, though the music shows a variety of '60s influences including Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones. It's sometimes very cliche '60s retro, but it's very entertaining to listen to. Tabo's guitar work is excellent. Moreover, I appreciate Ochi's singing voice, which is strong rather than cute and is also...thank god...ON KEY! The CD itself is made to look like a miniature 45 record. That pretty much sums it up.

Absolution (Muse) - Olivia has often gone on about Muse on her blog, and I liked a couple of songs she linked, so when HMV Japan announced it was having a 30% off sale on import CDs I decided to add this album to the pile to give them a try. I believe my first impression on listening to it was, "What is this, 'Queen does OK Computer'?" Seriously. The melodic progressions and overall mood show a very strong Radiohead influence, but the vocalist's voice and style say Freddie Mercury loud and clear (and some of the guitar riffs say Brian May just as loudly). However, there is an intensity to the music that goes far beyond Radiohead as well as progressive inventiveness that goes beyond Queen. You can't predict what this band is going to do next; just when you think you've got them figured out, you're suddenly hit with a piano break compliments of vocalist/lead guitarist/pianist Matthew Bellamy that shows a firm grounding in Debussy or Rachmaninoff...and then you're carried off by creative synth work. Frankly, this band is huge. Their music is huge. I feel drained (in a good way) listening to it, meaning it's not something to leave looping on and on in the car stereo! I definitely intend to check Muse out some more!

Viva la Vida (Coldplay) - Coldplay is one of those groups that apparently a lot of people love to hate despite or even because of their popularity. They get a lot of vitriol directed at them on blog or forum sites like Fark. However, I've noticed that Fark's shyte list tends to include artists I like (e.g. Mannheim Steamroller and Jethro Tull among others). I'm sure many if not most Americans are probably sick of Coldplay, judging from their apparent ubiquitousness, but thanks to my being marooned on the planet Japan, I'd never heard them! That led me to grab this CD purely on an impulse buy. I had to see what they were all about. What can I say? Who do they remind me of? U2? Definitely. The Moody Blues? Absolutely. My Bloody Valentine? In the guitar work, yes. REM? Old Pink Floyd? Yeah, I hear them. And those are all groups I like. But this is still Coldplay. Like Muse, they are anything but predictable, though they are on a completely different line of the spectrum. This is good chilling-out music, and I find it both very pleasant and very listenable. The Farkers can spew and drool about Coldplay all they like. This one is staying in my car stereo for a while.

Now...I think it's high time I worked on a new composition...


  • I don't listen to any of the music you listed in your Part Four, but I certainly enjoyed reading your descriptions -- you write so vividly ;-) As for your CTS... just as you were describing the initial weakness and tingling, I thought of chiropractic treatment. A friend of mine was diagnosed with CTS and was advised to get surgery. Instead, she got a really good chiro who solved the problem. I'm so glad you've found something that relieves the problem!

    By OpenID nikkipolani, at 8:32 AM  

  • I also have carpal tunnel syndrome, mostly from working with heavy vibrating powertools, but also from computing. Hasn't got real bad yet, and I hear if you do get surgery it may not be totally effective. The question is whether or not scarring has occured.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 9:12 AM  

  • I hope that method keeps working for you. Scary stuff when you have to perform at a high level...

    I am ready for some new music adventures...I should check out the new tunes.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 11:50 AM  

  • Nikkipolani
    Some of the musicians I work with have recommended a local chiropractor, so I think I'll check him out. It would be good to do something about this.

    Mine's not really bad yet, either. Actually, one of the regular symptoms of CTS is tingling so strong that it keeps you awake at night. I don't get that, so the doctor I saw back in 2004 was reluctant to call it CTS even though I had all the other classic symptoms. I have NO INTENTION of getting surgery on it unless it becomes chronic and debilitating.

    As for getting CTS while computing, I've read that keeping your hand below elbow level while typing and trying to reduce the strength you apply is supposed to help.

    I still haven't mailed you the remastered version of Blue Taxi. It's sitting on my desk together with a couple of other copies and my father's birthday present. (His birthday was in July.)

    Facebook is ruining my life...

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:40 PM  

  • Wow!

    Good to hear that you got your hand sorted out! That sounds really horrible!

    Sax: I have always wanted to play sax. Trouble is I am sure I would be terrible at it! I must give it a try, though.

    By Blogger Rock Chef, at 5:48 PM  

  • Rock Chef
    I can't really say problem solved yet. This evening I recorded a mandolin track and some guitar overdubs for a new tune I'm working on. I was able to do it, but my hand got all stiff and shaky again.

    But at least I was usually able to "cure" it quickly by stretching or pulling it!

    Sax is a lot of fun! I only wish my guitar playing were better...and I'm sorry to say Yes-style "happening" bass lines are out for the time being...unless I bring in a ringer.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:52 PM  

  • The shinanigans with the orchestra are all too familiar to me. The Maui Symphony went down the same path and ended up being a skeleton Maui crew with professionals flown in from Honolulu at great expense for each concert. It isn't pretty to watch an organization self implode like that.

    I knew a guy with CTS which he got from driving from New Jersey to New York every day with a bunch of coworkers - "Carpool Tunnel...".

    Seriously, I'm glad to hear you found something that works. Yoga is great for a lot of things.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 5:39 PM  

  • Hello Moody,
    Sorry about the CTS. Over here people rush off to have surgery, which is NOT the way to go. Healing by other ways surely must be tried.
    Has your orchestra ever played Cohen's Alleluia. I reckon you don't need to play those old classics so much.

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 5:15 AM  

  • Yes, Muse is not something you put on in the background; listening is an activity in itself because their sounds create an experience. It's the only way I can describe it.

    I am always in danger of developing CTS, which is why I bought my own mouse and keyboard for all the daily use at work. Quiet, low impact laptop-style keyboard and a non-clicky, slightly angled mouse.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 1:37 AM  

  • We recently got the Coldplay CD and really enjoy it. You deserve a few treats after what you've gone through of late.

    The taffy pull sounds kind of ominous--especially the CRACK. Sounds like something a chiropractor would do.

    Wishing you complete healing of your precious musician's hand...

    By Blogger San, at 4:40 AM  

  • Kevin!
    I emailed you a link. Did you get it? I hope that wasn't MY amp that started all this???!!!!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:20 PM  

  • Panda-B

    I remember your story about the Maui Symphony...and what finally happened to it. As Admiral Ackbar said, "IT'S A TRAP!!!!"

    As I told Dave, I'm going to avoid surgery at all costs.

    A lot of the higher-ups in our orchestra seem to be allergic to anything "contemporary", which may be part of the problem. I will try suggesting that piece, though. Thanks for the suggestion!

    That is an accurate description of Muse, I'd say!

    It's possible that my (excessive?) computer use has something to do with it. Maybe I should look into a more ergonomic keyboard.

    The friend who suggested the "taffy pull" says that I got it totally wrong, but it definitely seems to have helped. :)

    Thanks for the warm sentiments!

    I thought I sent you a follow-up e-mail! I'll have to try again. Yes, the link worked. Thanks!

    It was Steve's amp. It happened when we were hauling our gear from the Platinum Studio(?) to that parking lot a few blocks away. (Maybe that's why Steve's attitude toward me suddenly soured, though he said there was no problem with the amp afterward.)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 1:01 PM  

  • It pays to have an amp with built in casters.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 12:39 AM  

  • Tell me about it! Especially if it has one of those horrible, thin handles that grind into your hand!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:02 AM  

  • The hills are alive, with the sound of muse...

    By Anonymous Dave, at 4:16 AM  

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