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Music injuries put passionate players on the sidelines

On April 20, 2012

  • Senior Kacey Hermening studies vocal performance and theater at DePauw University’s Schoo of Music. Mid-semester, Hermening discovered she had a hemorraged right vocal cord. Hermening was told to rest her voice until she recovered. In order to communicate, she used a small white board to write questions, responses, and comments. The white board reads. “Hemorrhaged vocal cord -- can’t sing/talk for 2 weeks.”

It was very difficult for DePauw senior Kacey Hermening to not be able to speak to her mom for 17 days, especially since she usually talks to her every day.

It was also difficult for Hermening, who is studying vocal performance and theatre, to not be able to sing in choir, voice lessons, coachings or her musical theatre scenes classes for over a month.

"It's a little unclear how I got the injury, but it's mostly caused from overuse or singing while sick," Hermening said in an email interview.

Over spring break, Hermening was diagnosed with a vocal injury - her right vocal cord was hemorrhaged in two places. Her ENT and speech therapist assumed that she had laryngitis without knowing and kept singing through it.

It's difficult to say when she first got the injury. There was an illness going around through the DePauw Opera cast of "Albert Herring" at the beginning of the semester, which Hermening thought was passed on to her. She found herself unable to sing during the weekend of the opera.

"Luckily, the show was double cast and I was able to have my double go on for me after my first night of singing," she said. "It was nice to at least get one performance in."

But after Hermening's diagnosis, she needed complete vocal rest and copious amounts of hydration. Along with being silent, she was drinking up to a gallon of water per day.

Before she returned to classes, she emailed all of her professors and informed them about her injury. They were very understanding of her situation, especially since she was not their first student who had encountered a problem of this nature. They also were aware that a small injury could become quite severe if left untreated.

"My mom bought a white board and dry erase marker for me, which I continued to use in communicating with everyone," Hermening said.

She brought her white board with her to classes, and used it to answer and ask questions by writing on it. Although the injury did make participating in classes difficult, it didn't completely affect her academics.

In terms of communicating with family and friends, Hermening utilized text messaging, Facebook and email.

"I don't know what I would have done without technology," she said.

The most challenging part of healing from this injury for Hermening was trying to be patient. After she accepted that the only way to heal was by not talking and hydrating, it was simply a waiting game.

Hermening finally received the "all clear" from her doctor's appointment last Thursday.

"The doctor couldn't even believe that my vocal cord was hemorrhaged and said there was no sign of damage or injury whatsoever," she said.

After finding out the good news last week, Hermening called her mom to tell her, and they both cried on the phone, overjoyed with the update.

However, it's unknown when Hermening's voice will be back to normal. Though she is able to speak again, she's not certain when she will build up the stamina to speak for extended periods of time.

"I can tell that my voice has definitely become weaker since the injury and becomes fatigued more easily," she said, adding that she needs to meet with a speech pathologist to begin voice therapy.

Hermening was able to do a few warm-ups last Friday with her voice teacher, though. Her doctor said that she could do warm-ups and even potentially start singing right away, but she can tell that she'll become fatigued more quickly now, as her vocal cords haven't been used in over two weeks.

In terms of the future, Hermening is hoping that the injury hasn't affected her career options. She plans to head to a program in New York this fall for musical theatre, and her doctor said that she should be completely fine.

"My injury was not as severe as it could have been, in that I needed no surgery ... so I'm lucky for that," Hermening said.

In comparison to a sport-related injury, Hermening thinks that a music-related injury is pretty similar in the sense that athletes and musicians both devote time and livelihood to their sport or instrument.

"When that is taken away, your entire routine changes. Athletes have to participate in physical therapy, and I'll need to go to speech therapy for exercises in gaining my full strength back again," she said.

In terms of music-related injuries at DePauw, Hermening is certainly not alone.

Senior Joy Mulhollan was diagnosed with tendonitis, commonly known as tennis elbow, during her junior year of high school. Although Mulhollan, who is studying general music and Spanish, most likely didn't receive the injury from playing her bass, it began to affect her musical performance.

"If you don't take enough time off, it can reoccur, which has happened throughout my time at DePauw," Mulhollan said.

The type of treatment she initially needed was the support of an arm brace and taking time off from playing. According to Mulhollan, tendonitis is an injury common among bass players and musicians who play other string instruments.

At first, it took a couple of months for her to heal from tendonitis. But she had continued to play, so the exertion was aggravating the situation.

"But after I went to the doctor and he realized what was wrong, he said the only way to make it heal was to take time off, which was easier to do in high school," Mulhollan said.

Taking time off at DePauw has been quite a different story. Whenever her arm starts to hurt, she has to stop before it gets worse. She's had to take time off since she's been at DePauw at least three times.

Unfortunately, tendonitis is not an injury you can permanently heal from. Mulhollan has to do a lot of stretching to prevent it from coming back.

"When you can't play, it's like not being able to study," Mulhollan said, "It means that you're not able to make progress in your ability to play an instrument, and it's just a real downer."

Apart from affecting her playing ability, Mulhollan said that the injury has affected her whole life, since there were everyday modifications she needed to make in order to accommodate the situation.

"Opening a doorknob can be painful. Typing with my lower two fingers can be painful," she said.

If Mulhollan were to pursue a career in musical performance, she know that tendonitis would definitely affect her career outlook, especially since she would have to practice for auditions several hours per day.

"I know that my injury would reoccur, due to that physical stress," Mulhollan said.

Unfortunately, tendonitis isn't the only impediment to musical performance that Mulhollan has experienced while at DePauw.

Last September on a Wednesday evening, Mulhollan decided to go on bicycle ride to the nature park. But while she was going 30 mph down the hill behind the tennis courts, her bike hit a speed bump and the tire threw itself away from the bike. She immediately crashed.

"I was unconscious, and when I woke up ... I tried to scream for help," Mulhollan said.

Luckily, a van driver who was passing by the area called 911 and the police arrived shortly thereafter.

Mulhollan experienced a concussion and sustained a number of facial injuries from her accident. She still has scars by her lip, on her shoulder and on her hands.

Though she mostly recovered after about a month, her arm movements were restricted due to the injuries. Thus, she had difficulty playing her instrument, and she had to leave early during a concert that Sunday after her accident.

"Even now, I get residual headaches," Mulhollan said.

Though Mulhollan's music-related injuries were quite different, they affected her similarly in the sense that once she was feeling up to practicing, she needed to make up for lost time.

Thus, she doesn't think that a music injury differs from a sport-related injury at all, since both impediments put the person on the sidelines in that they are not able to do what they love.

"In all our daily activities, musicians have to be extremely careful."

Q & A with Dean of the School of Music:

How many students in the school of music encounter music-related injuries each year?

-The data is difficult to collect, so the information is anecdotal. However, it is not uncommon for students to have injuries. There is a wide range of what the School of Music considers to be a music-related injury, including sore throats and carpal tunnel syndrome.

What is the most common music-related injury among students?

-Apart from sore throat issues that singers encounter, injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome can occur from several hours of practice.

What is the most serious injury a student has encountered?

-A trumpet player separated the muscles in his embouchure, the use of facial muscles and shaping the lips to the mouthpiece of woodwind or brass instruments. It was a significant problem that needed to be addressed surgically.

How long does it typically take for students to heal following an injury?

-In some cases, it could take a week. In other cases, it takes years.

-What are some other examples of injuries you've seen or heard about?

-Several injuries occur in the throat area. Singers who sing improperly can potentially damage vocal cords if they sing too loud, too long, too high, etc.

-How does the injury affect their academics?

-It wouldn't affect the student's academics directly, since the students would not be penalized for a medical problem. However, the injury might take an emotional toll on them.

-What is the typical protocol after a student is injured?

-Typically, the student's teacher is heavily involved in the process, especially if the student is on campus.

-How does the injury affect their career options?

-Often times, the injury will not affect their career options at all. But like in sports, it is possible to have career ending injuries. It all depends on severity of injury and what type of injury it is.

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