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Artist Blog Series #8: Tristen Jarvis

Welcome to the eighth 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 Tristen Jarvis, a bassist and professor at Ithaca College.

What is your name (and preferred pronouns)?

My name is Tristen Jarvis. My preferred pronouns are he/him/his.

Where do you currently work, and what is your instrument/voice type?

I currently work at my alma mater, Ithaca College! I’m ¾ of the way through my

first year teaching at the college level. My official title currently is Lecturer of Music, but functionally speaking I have been serving as the Interim Professor of Bass, teaching all of the classical and jazz bassists’ lessons (along with teaching some chamber music!).

What was your injury, and how did you get injured?

I developed left-arm carpal tunnel syndrome in December of 2021 which turned into cubital tunnel syndrome by February of 2022. There are many reasons/ circumstances that led to my injury, but the most basic way to describe what happened was that it was caused by chronic overuse.

While I was, indeed, heavily preparing for an intense orchestral double bass audition at that time, the most pressing circumstance for the overuse was actually my sleeping habits. In an ironic twist, I had worked for years to become a self-appointed “great sleeper” (meaning I could sleep for long enough hours simply without waking up, which is no longer my definition of great sleep… but more on that later). While I thought I was getting fantastic sleep, I would tuck my arms in as tight as possible, folded in front of my body while positioned on my left side. The irony turned out to be that by achieving such prolonged periods of uninterrupted sleep every night while positioned this way, I was actually compromising my wrist and elbow positions, completely cutting off proper blood flow, which ultimately contributed to my injury experience of carpal tunnel and cubital tunnel.

Hence, when I increased the usage intensity of my left arm for heavy orchestral audition preparation, I discovered I was losing most of my repairing agency and I sustained too much damage for me to continue playing. I did not play my bass from Dec 7, 2021 – April 7, 2022, and ultimately elected to have surgery.

What were the biggest challenge(s) of your injury?

The biggest challenge of my injury was the epiphany that most of what I thought for my entire life was “good” for me wasn’t actually good. After a few visits to an Orthopedic specialist, I had to think very carefully and critically about everything I’ve ever been taught, which includes diet/exercise/health/wellness (let alone how to play my instrument).

For the first time in my life, my conception of what things were intrinsically “good” or “healthy” was shattered. I’d had a few injuries when I was a child and as a teenager, but they were always from a specific sudden moment or incident/accident. I’ve had times when I was sick (including contracting COVID during the pandemic, which was the sickest I’ve ever been), but there was always medicine readily available to both confirm *what* I had, and recover from it quickly. Until these left-arm injuries, I’d never had a health issue “develop” gradually over time, shrouded in mystery where you slowly notice how you feel worse and worse and you don’t know why.

I believe what I am attempting to describe is known as the Cumulative Injury Cycle. Simply put, the biggest challenge was the entire reprogramming of my mentality on health after having this be the first time ever going through the Injury Cycle.

What was your recovery like? What struggles did you face trying to overcome your injury?

At first, I took the advice of medical professionals and immediately stopped playing. I was then advised to monitor how my arm felt for an entire month while I abstained from playing and adjusted my sleeping positions (which included wearing a wrist brace every night, which turned into an entire elbow brace when the Cubital Tunnel entered the fray).

Learning how to sleep in these new positions was an enormous struggle. This was also the first time since I was 9 years old that I did not play a musical instrument for more than a few days. Since I was not playing/attending any rehearsals for my orchestral job at the time, I sunk into a sedentary lifestyle more than ever before (not good for my recovery at all, but I didn’t know). I spent most of every day on the computer attempting to learn about the human arm, reading exercise journals, kinesiology articles, and anything else I could get my hands on to find out why I had developed an injury.

I noticed very quickly how much conflicting information exists on the internet, thus I became overwhelmed by the vast existing literature and struggled with the unknown. The longer I abstained from playing, I wondered what it would be like if I actually never played the bass again. Was this injury that serious? I just simply did not know. I had some anxiety from not knowing how this was all going to turn out, yet I felt I had no choice but to play the waiting game and be at the mercy of the results from my next doctor’s appointment.

One month of abstaining from playing my bass turned into two months upon my doctor’s discovery that my Carpal Tunnel had been almost entirely mitigated, but had unfortunately then caused a spike of inflammation in my Cubital Tunnel, so I was back to waiting and repeated the whole process, focusing on recovering the elbow region. If my improvement after the second month wasn’t adequate, I consented to have them repair my nerve surgically.

On January 31, 2022 (week 8 of abstaining from playing), I stumbled upon The Functional Musician website. I totally forgot that Austin Pancner owned and operated a company for musician’s injury prevention – as fate would have it, he and I were currently in the same orchestra!