A delay in getting an accurate diagnosis only exacerbated the violinist’s shoulder problem


What was the issue that was causing you health problems?My left shoulder felt uncomfortable every time I raised my violin. We all get aches and pains playing these instruments but this was different from anything else I’d experienced. It started off as an inconvenience and built up over a three-month period. Before Christmas it was painful and I thought that a two-week break would solve the problem. I think most musicians believe these things will just go away. It did to an extent, and I was fairly optimistic after the holidays.

However, the sore and disagreeable feeling increased, but I ploughed on regardless, which was a mistake in retrospect. It all came to a head during a Beethoven cycle with John Eliot Gardiner. You have to play most of the time in Beethoven and the intensive programmes exacerbated the problem. In the end, I couldn’t hold my violin up any more and I had to retire in the middle of a performance.

How did you feel at the time?

Such moments are terrifying – your imagination runs away with you and you wonder if this is a career-threatening injury.

What did you do about your pain?

I went to see a sports therapist and he gave me a deep massage. But I think it made the situation worse, so the next day I went to the doctor, who diagnosed a rotator cuff injury and recommended a cortisone injection. I agreed to this – some years before I’d had tennis elbow and cortisone had solved that problem immediately. He said it would be okay in five days and I left feeling fairly good.

After five days it was as bad as ever and I was very concerned. I went to see a physiotherapist who gave me daily exercises, did some ultrasound, and said to come back the following week. There was no improvement so she referred me to a consultant, a shoulder expert. I told him the orchestra was about to go on tour with Valery Gergiev, so he pushed me through on a cancellation.

He diagnosed bursitis, an inflammation of one of the bursae, the fluid-filled sacks that fill the space between tendons and muscles and your bones. An X-ray revealed that I also had three torn tendons and a calcium deposit on the bursa. The consultant was optimistic and arranged for me to have an ultrasound-directed cortisone injection which he said was generally 70 per cent successful. He stressed the importance of continued physiotherapy after the operation, which he considered essential for a full recovery.

A few days later I had the injection. I was there for ten minutes. The doctor showed me the offending area on the screen and pointed a large needle at the offending part. He said I shouldn’t play or lift anything heavy for two to three weeks, and just concentrate on the physiotherapy and do nothing else with my arms. I had to accept that the tour was not a good idea. The orchestra wanted me to go anyway – because I’m the chairman – but pulling suitcases around could have caused me to go back to square one. In all I was off for two months.

Have you made a full recovery?

Every now and then I feel a twinge and I still wonder if it will return. I’ve stopped doing physiotherapy now but that’s a mistake – I should do some to keep it away. But when you don’t have pain you forget everything you’ve been through. I feel lucky in comparison to some friends who’ve had to take a year’s sabbatical to recover from shoulder problems.

Do you know what led to your shoulder injury?

The consultant said that it could just be that I’ve been playing the violin since I was five, and professionally for 35 years – that’s a lot of time to have a violin on your shoulder. I also fell off a ladder when putting up some curtains: he said that the pressure of landing on my hands could have gone all the way up my arms to the shoulder and caused the tendon injuries.

What advice would you give someone in your situation?

When you feel symptoms, at the outset, consider resting. And go and see a physiotherapist, because that definitely made a difference.

How do you try to keep healthy now?

It’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about – that’s the trouble. If the work is there for musicians we tend to do it and I think we probably overdo it at times. It’s a funny life because it can be a case of feast or famine. You can suddenly find yourself with a week with no work and the next week can be totally hectic, and you just have to accept that.

Interview by Ariane Todes

This article first appeared in The Strad's September 2009 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here.