Elizabeth Shahane

My mother keeps a picture of me reaching for the piano before I could even walk. Sound was a delight to me. Even when confined to my highchair I would shake crackers to see if they made noise. I remember crawling about the house opening drawers in order to hear the hollow closing. Nothing ever made the same sound twice. I was elated when my parents asked me if I wanted to take music lessons because an instrument meant instant sound—sound I could make myself, whenever I wanted.

I fell in love with the piano. I played everything I came across. At the age of six, I would wait for the commercial breaks in order to pick out jingles. In junior high my teacher placed me in guilds and small competitions, which I loved. During high school I worked in order to send myself to music festivals. I availed myself of every opportunity to hear performances. I spent time with other people who loved music as well, learning theory and music history together. This gave me a taste of what I thought would be conservatory life and I set my heart on it. I remember collecting conservatory catalogs and pouring over the glossy pages. That would be me there on the front cover— the hardest working, best pianist they had.

I was not quite seventeen when I began to experience pain in my left shoulder. I was practicing six to seven hours each day at that juncture and was busily preparing for auditions. I took a month off at the advice of my teacher. The pain only worsened, so I developed my own regimen. I bought a strap and two ice packs and tethered them to my shoulder. I practiced this way for two more months. In that time, I lost a great deal of speed and accuracy and in return, gained headaches, occasional nausea, and numb fingers.

The next year did not unfold at all as I had planned. Instead of visiting Eastman for auditions, I went for an MRI; instead of auditioning at Juilliard, I visited a neurologist. I did physical therapy and tried anti-inflammatory medications. Then I saw an osteopath and went to a chiropractor for adjustments. I flew to the Cleveland Clinic for Dancers and Musicians with the thought that perhaps a specialist might see something definitive. When he did not, I went for weekly cortisone shots. At least then I experienced some relief and could sleep at night. The last trip to my general practitioner resulted in a statement I will never forget: “Elizabeth…you’re simply not built for competitive music.”

What was wrong with me? I watched as my friends won scholarships and excitedly moved away to school. Meanwhile I shoved my glossy conservatory dreams far under my bed and packed my CD’s in a box. Reality was beginning to set in and my girlhood dreams needed to be put aside. One more month of rest wasn’t going to change a thing. This was my fault, as far as I was concerned. I hadn’t been able to figure out what my problem was and I couldn’t practice my way through it. I decided that if my arm was numb, I could make myself numb too.

After a year of calculus and chemistry I found myself in a studio with Edna Golandsky. (I am not sure which of these classes made me realize that my heart was still in music, but I am certain it was one of them.) I came with a head full of reservations. I had seen multiple physicians over the past two years. How was I to develop any sort of new technique with a numb hand and an aching shoulder? Despite my doubts and fears, I began studying with Edna two years ago. By incorporating the proper movements into playing, I experience therapy. I also learned that it is possible to undertake a specific, exact study of virtuoso playing. This technique has been and is more than simply my road to recovery. It is my vehicle for making music at the piano. Today we are busily picking out new repertoire and I am well on my way to becoming exactly what I wanted to be—someone who can produce music herself, just the way she wants it. 

Elizabeth Shahane

Student in Piano Performance, Hunter College, City University of New York