A Musician’s Wear and Tear

A Musician’s Wear and Tear

You all know that a pianist depresses a pedal a great deal, right? Typically, the far right pedal is the one used most, called the damper pedal — which helps to sustain sound after your fingers have left the key, enabling one to move to the next chord or note… without interruption in the sound — that beautiful sustained piano sound we are all so accustomed to hearing. (I won’t go into any technical detail about the other two pedals, which are less frequently used — but you can certainly look it up, if you’re curious!)

About 5 years ago, I began to experience some intermittent pain in my left foot, particularly the big toe. Finally, I saw a podiatrist who x-rayed it, and told me that I had some arthritis in my big toe joint — the cartilage has worn away over time. At the time, we decided to implement a “wait and see” approach, since the pain wasn’t constant, and relatively tolerable. Then, after a particular painful bout with my foot last summer, I had a follow-up x-ray that showed further deterioration of the joint — so this time, probably would be a wise idea to do something about it before things progress even more.

This got me thinking about how many repetitive ups and downs I do with my foot while I play the piano, so I decided to do a little basic math — as an approximation, of course. Let’s see: about 20-30 depresses a minute x 2-3 hours a day x 6 days a week x 48 weeks (minus a few for vacation!) x 50 years playing the instrument yields = somewhere around 40 million depresses… that blows the mind. I don’t even want to think what my fingers/knuckles have been thru! While it’s possible that the repetitive motions are only part of the degenerative issue, it certainly seems suspicious that my left foot is fine. Although we depress the pedal mostly with the ball of the foot, the toe joint still moves.

Anyhow, next week I will have an outpatient procedure done on my foot called a cheilectomy, which should give me relief for 10-20 more years, if all goes to plan. I welcome the surgery, and am both grateful and hopeful that I don’t have to undergo something more invasive, like a bone fusion or a joint replacement (yes, apparently, they do toe joint replacements!). During the cheilectomy, they will clean things out, file down the resulting bone spurs that have caused the pain, and make sure that the joint can function as smoothly as possible moving forward. While I have some anxiety about this procedure, it is minimal — and I feel fortunate that medical science can make a positive difference — especially in a part of my body that is so crucial in my piano playing… although not as visible as the hands and arms.

The procedure got me thinking about a whole plethora of health-related issues: Getting older/what might be next around the corner, gratitude for my generally good health thus far, the realization that many have far worse and far more serious health considerations to deal with, navigating the complicated and often frustrating American health care thicket, how some people seem happy to share their health challenges while others choose to remain private, etc… As I age, I’ve become more sympathetic towards health challenges and surgeries that many of us will undoubtedly face in our lifetimes — and how having a support network behind the scenes is so very vital in helping us get through these often difficult hurdles.

When I was looking online at inspirational readings/poems that might help in times of health challenges, I saw a paragraph on the Poetry Foundation website that sort of succinctly summed up what we often face:

We feel that something isn’t right. We make an appointment and visit a doctor. We agree to have tests. We worry. We get the results, we hear the diagnosis. We worry. We go through treatment. We struggle to find the courage, the strength. We lean on our loved ones.

I will have to avoid playing the piano and driving for at least 10-14 days while my foot heals, and I know I’ll go a bit stir crazy sitting at home – but I welcome relief from the on and off pain that I’ve been experiencing these last 5 years or so. I’ll be away from you in services for a couple weeks, but you’ll be in the more-than-capable hands of substitute musicians-pianists Tom Monroe and Mary Ratcliffe. And on March 10, our wonderful Music Director Emeritus Tom Benjamin will lead the Chalice Choir in my absence. Enjoy!

In community,


  1. Gail Thompson

    Welcome to what being really mature becomes. You are right that worrying seems to a large part of the process and the waiting. Please be patient with your self. Your foot is as far from your heart and any part so pumping healing blood is an effort. You have such a good heart, trust it.
    We all need friends while we wait. We shall all be waiting with love for your return.

  2. Heather Dorst

    Wishing you good healing, Michael. May the rest be nourishing to you! And may you have many years of joyful and soulful music ahead of you!

  3. Mary Ellen Walsh

    Having recently had foot surgery, I can fully empathize with you! I wish you a successful outcome and recovery. Above all, listen to your foot! I’ve learned that time is your best friend. Don’t try to rush through your recovery.

  4. Chris Crandell

    So sorry that you’ve been dealing with this pain but glad that it can be remedied with outpatient surgery. Sending healing thoughts and wishes for a speedy, easy recovery.

  5. Inge Hyder

    Sending you healing thoughts — wishing you a good recovery. I sure hope you can fully enjoy playing the piano all the rest of your life. We need that!

    Hey, how about sharing again that great piece of all those pianists, including you, playing just a few notes at a time …

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