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!
This was a eureka moment, and I set up a meeting with Austin to discuss his 12-week recovery program. We both agreed it was a no-brainer that I needed to work with him, and I started his course a few weeks later. With Austin’s guidance as a trainer, coach, and mentor, my recovery swung aggressively into a positive experience. I became educated in postural restoration, breathing mechanisms that are fundamental to human mobility, exercises to promote blood flow in any area of the body, and, most importantly, gained the skills to reframe the challenges of my mentality on health into something akin to updating my operating system on a smartphone or computer. Over time this gave me the confidence to be patient with my recovery, to trust my body rather than doubt it, to embrace the plasticity of my brain, and to choose to evolve into a different type of artist that will prioritize longevity and functionality over all else.
Since I had scheduled a Cubital Tunnel Release surgery for late March of 2022 at the recommendation of my doctor right before working with Austin, I made the tough decision to go through with the surgery while in the middle of Austin’s program. I knew that would be the hardest part of my recovery, but I committed to the procedure and was skillfully guided through post-surgery recovery by Austin.
That week of not being able to use my left arm could have been a disaster for my progress in his program, but I must express how beneficial it was to have Austin draw connections from his program to my post-op recovery. When my bandages came off, we went right to work on my left arm taking baby steps, making incremental progress to stress the idea of patience and resilience. It was due to the development of this patience that I was able to return to playing my bass by April 7th. I played a recording session and two concerts within two weeks of that date, and finished Austin’s course towards the end of May 2022. I was genuinely ready to return to playing and didn’t rush any part of post-op recovery. This process was my proof that our bodies are immensely adaptive, restorative, and truly capable of things beyond our imagination. I have been playing my bass without issues ever since!
Throughout my recovery, there were unique challenges every day, every week, and every month, but because of Austin’s program, those challenges were synthesized into education. For that, I am eternally grateful. Every step of my recovery lives as a picture in my head when I am performing or teaching today. I am more excited for the future each new day and have since remained eager to innovate, optimize, and evolve.
What was the biggest lesson you learned during your recovery?
Trusting my body’s ability to repair! We are so lucky to have the bodies we have. They are capable of amazing processes given the slightest “tweak” or adjustment. Witnessing my own body conquer this injury + surgery changed my perspective forever.
What was something that surprised you during your recovery?
I was constantly surprised at how many reparative exercises could be done with the body alone, with no tools or machines. There is a vast literature of things you can do with just your body that trigger autonomic processes to repair, and most people have no idea about it.
Before my injury, I was well aware of the benefits of weight training/resistance training, but the things I learned through Austin was proof that our bodies alone are capable and it was often a shock for me.
At the risk of explaining this very poorly, one example was being shown how holding certain static poses while choosing to breathe in a specific way might have a larger impact on our ability to move, yet rotating a part of the body while doing the same breathing technique might have a larger impact on blood flow to that immediate area (doing the same exercise but adding a “tweak” to it fundamentally feels the same but targets an entirely different system depending on how it’s done). This was such a game-changer for learning how to run diagnostics on my own body that I didn’t think was possible.
Something else that surprised me was discovering how certain mobility routines before going to sleep can initiate responses in the brain that change the quality/ depth of sleep you get, regardless of how long you sleep. This discovery fundamentally changed my definition of “great sleep” (sleep is the swiss-army knife of all health issues and needs to have a high quality, not just a high quantity).
I also acknowledge that obtaining gadgets/tools/accessories to use in recovery is obviously encouraged and advantageous; I just want to impress here how surprised I was at the available list of things the body can do on its own.
What are you actively doing to stay healthy and pain-free?
When I finished Austin’s program, he left me a document that contained a record of all the things we worked on and how to advance with them. Every day since then I’ve been keeping a daily mobility routine for the morning and before bed, and frequently use the written/video/recorded resources of his that I acquired from working with him. I have maintained the habits I learned from Austin for proper hydration (like carrying around a giant 120 oz water bottle all day), I focus on my posture all day in everything that I do, and I am dependent on getting the highest possible quality of sleep every night, I have regular protocols for “warming-up” and “warming-down” when I play my instrument… The list goes on and on. Every facet of what I do all day every day has been modeled after Austin’s course. To me, all these pieces of the wellness puzzle are dependent on each other, and if I want to be optimized then I must commit to them all. It is an incredibly fulfilling way to live life!
Do you have any words of encouragement for someone currently going through an injury?
You will make it through this. I have no words to accurately express how powerful and adaptive your body is. It can handle anything you might doubt it could handle. I strongly advise working with Austin/getting educated about postural restoration, objective science-based protocols for breathing, proper hydration, getting amazing sleep, and learning functional mobility strategies – BEFORE pursuing surgery.
Any other final thoughts about your recovery journey you’d like to share?
Talking about my injury/recovery/Austin’s course is one of my favorite topics and I’m happy to share much more, should anyone want to learn about my story. I enjoy being an open book about my experience and would encourage anyone to please not hesitate to reach out if you have questions about something you read regarding my path. I believe it’s important to be transparent about health issues as an artist – I never thought I would even have an injury story, and I feel that injury prevention is a discouraged topic for discussion among the music community. The only way to dismantle that is to unapologetically hold frequent open conversations about health & wellness. The more we talk about it, the more it becomes normalized. Some day it will NOT be common for musicians to experience an injury at some point in their career. If that day is to be soon, we must spread the good word to cultivate an arts community that promotes health and wellness as intrinsic components to artistry, rather than obstacles to artistry.
What are you currently working on musically? Do you have any projects you’d like to plug?
Not anything specific at the moment; I’m enjoying a balance of intense private research from my teaching duties that are punctuated by gigging around the community in restaurants, social clubs, weddings, parties, recording studios, etc. – My most recent research involves mapping the fingerboard of the double bass with an overlay of the harmonic series up to the 10th-partial that is expressed by different colored visible “dots.” This has been inspiring me to compose original music for the bass with fresh voicings/techniques that I plan on recording soon. My research/composition has revealed amazing implications for universal double bass intonation, practice methods/protocols, and codification of the vast history of double bass pedagogy. I share as much of this as possible with my students at Ithaca College, along with strategies on how to live a musical life pain-free (all thanks to The Functional Musician!)