Welcome to the fourth post of The Artist Series, where I interview musicians who have overcome injuries to help demystify performance-related pain and inspire musicians to better take care of their health.
Our next guest is Levi Grant, a graduate student and trombonist at Stephen F Austin State University.
What is your name (and preferred pronouns)?
My name is Levi Grant (he, him)
Where do you currently work, and what is your instrument/voice type?
I’m currently a graduate student at Stephen F Austin State University and I’m primarily a tenor trombone player, though when I became injured I played the bass trombone.
What was your injury, and how did you get injured?
I injured both my upper and lower back around 2 years ago. When I first came to college, I wasn’t nearly as passionate about music. I originally came to college to become a band director, but I fell absolutely in love with playing the trombone. After a couple of semesters, I decided I wanted to become a professional trombone player and started pursuing that goal. Since most people decide to become professionals much earlier in life, I wanted to catch up as soon as possible. I started playing upwards of 8-10 hours a day between my practice and ensembles with almost no days off and very little rest during the day. After a while of this schedule, I started having back pain. It started off mild at first but got worse and worse as time went on. It came to a breaking point when I couldn’t lift or play the trombone without serious pain. My body was so damaged at this point that everyday tasks like doing dishes, carrying a laptop, or sometimes even walking gave me serious pain.
What were the biggest challenge(s) of your injury?
The biggest challenge of my injury was how my life was suddenly put on hold. Before I was hurt, I knew exactly what I wanted to achieve and what I needed to do to get there. When I got hurt, I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. I didn’t know if I could ever play trombone again or even live my life normally without serious pain. All the people around me got to keep practicing and improving, and I was actively getting worse by not being able to play. It was really hard some days to keep trying to get better since I felt so behind.
What was your recovery like? What struggles did you face trying to overcome your injury?
My recovery was a long process and was not straightforward at all. I re-injured myself numerous times by trying to do too much too fast. Initially, the doctors I saw thought it was a strained muscle and a combination of stress and exhaustion. As weeks and months went by and I still was in serious pain, I did physical therapy, yoga, saw chiropractors, and even saw a different musician injury specialist. I didn’t really make much progress for the first half a year or so until I started working with Austin. It was hard to have to start from scratch and build my body and my playing back from nothing, but I started making some progress and figuring out what I needed to do to get better. Even after I finished working with Austin I still had to keep working and pushing to get better on my own, but with the tools I learned I was able to eventually make a full recovery. The whole experience was almost 2 years from start to finish and honestly was the worst 2 years of my life, but I am so fortunate to be where I am today. By far the biggest hurdle during my recovery was not thinking I would ever get better. I had been in so much pain for so long that I thought that was how I would live the rest of my life, and convincing myself that I could live a normal life again was very difficult.
What was the biggest lesson you learned during your recovery?
The biggest lesson I learned was the importance of rest. I know it seems like a simple concept, but I didn’t understand how badly I needed rest. I used to think that the only way to improve was by pushing myself 24/7 with as little time off as possible, but that just isn’t the case. I’m actually improving so much faster by playing almost half as much as I used to simply by taking good care of myself, taking ample rest, and practicing efficiently.
What was something that surprised you during your recovery?
The biggest surprise during my recovery was that I still loved music. I was so burnt out and so angry with my injury that I thought I hated music and I hated the career that I was trying to pursue. When I finally got well enough to start playing again, I was honestly a bit shocked to see that I still loved music and the trombone more than anything. In fact, I actually gained a deeper appreciation for the ability to pursue and enjoy music. It was something I had worked so hard to be able to even pursue again, and I told myself I would never take it for granted again. I’m still so thankful every day to be able to wake up and do what I love.
What are you actively doing to stay healthy and pain-free?
I currently stretch multiple times a day, use a foam roller, carefully space out my practice times with timed breaks in between, jog frequently, track my sleep, do various core exercises, and monitor my diet to stay healthy. I’ve managed to make these things a part of my life instead of simply extra things that I have to do, and it’s gotten much easier with time. I actually feel better after my injury since I’m taking so much better care of myself.
Do you have any words of encouragement for someone currently going through an injury?
My biggest encouragement is just to keep pushing. It hurts physically and mentally and it seems like it will never get better, but if you keep your eyes forward and work a bit every day then you’ll get there eventually. There will be days when you believe from the bottom of your heart that you will live with severe pain for the rest of your life, but it gets better. I can’t promise that everyone will make a complete recovery, but it absolutely will get better than it is. Hang in there, ask for as much support from those around you as you can, and keep moving forward.
Any other final thoughts about your recovery journey you’d like to share?
Although it might sound a bit absurd, I think my injury was a necessary thing. I didn’t really understand what it meant to practice and to work effectively, so I put myself on a collision course with injury and burnout. In a weird way, my injury forced me to examine parts of my life and practice that I never would have looked at. I never would have had the motivation to explore exercise and health and to deeply examine my practice if I didn’t get injured. I was forced to take a closer look at these topics in order to get better, and the end result is that I’m a more effective learner and practicer than I ever would have been without an injury. Although I might have lost some ground in the short term, I think the things I’ve learned will pay dividends in the rest of my career.
What are you currently working on musically? Do you have any projects you’d like to plug?
I don’t have any specific musical projects to promote, but I did recently complete graduate school auditions. I got into both schools I auditioned to and received a scholarship to my top school as well. I’m currently waiting on the results of an assistantship application that I have high hopes for, and I’m excited to complete my master’s degree. I don’t think this would have happened without the help of Austin, and I’ll always be deeply appreciative of the work he does. If anyone reading this is struggling with severe pain and injury and can’t seem to find anything that works, I highly recommend his program.