The only time we see arthritis in a musical context is when we hear of professional musicians who have been playing at such a high level that they essentially wear down the cartilage in a joint. This is known as osteoarthritis; this often occurs for musicians in small joints like their hands, wrists and fingers.
But what happens when you get a young high school student whose entire life revolves around music and they develop Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis? That is exactly what happened to me.
I have always been interested in music from a very young age, from watching orchestras perform on stage to listening to recordings. I started playing the violin at age 7 and have played since then. I currently play the trumpet and I am also a singer working to complete my final musical grade this year in high school. I am a musical theatre and film music buff and compose a lot of music for large, classical modern ensembles. I also make it a priority to play in any band possible.
The musical journey I was looking forward to had just started in high school. I got very ill and as the year progressed, the more symptoms I began experiencing and the joint pain became very severe. My fingers and wrists were swollen – hot and painful. I was diagnosed with Juvenile Arthritis - my worst nightmare.
I went through various phases when it came to my diagnosis. I was isolated and I had no community of chronic illness warriors. Not only this but I had never met or seen a musician with chronic illness. The thought that some silly illness that couldn’t be cured could erase a full hobby of mine and a large part of my personality was terrifying.
As my condition progressed and my mental health worsened, I established that the only way I would be able to cope was to just have fun with music. Instead of worrying about what music I couldn’t play, I started to look at just having fun by making music.
Since my condition is still nowhere near close to remission or even vaguely pain-free, I decided that I would simply adapt my style of playing. Now, I focus less on performing immensely challenging pieces and work on my musicality and versatility as a musician.
This journey with music and arthritis wasn’t easy in the slightest, I was ridiculed by friends saying something along the lines of dropping my violin due to my arthritis. These comments are always very invalidating, and even though I knew my self-worth it always left me with feelings of imposter syndrome and self-doubt.
What kept me going through this tough patch was the quickly developing chronic illness-music community online. I learned about Alice Ping (@alicepingviola), a professional violist, who has Ulcerative Colitis and another condition. Manami Ito (@manami.ito_8) a Japanese nurse, Paralympian and violinist with one arm to the new songwriter sensation BLÜ EYES who wrote a viral song about her experience with chronic illness entitled “You'd Never Know”. All of these people chose to defy the odds by creating representation and inspiration for the chronic illness community; this gave me the motivation to keep going and work hard at my craft. They and others showed me that it is possible to be a professional in the music industry with a disability by showing both the challenges and triumphs.
So is arthritis or chronic illness a nightmare scenario for musicians?
Initially it was a nightmare scenario, but in the long term absolutely not. I have been able to achieve a much higher standard of musicianship with my chronic illnesses than without it. It forces you to evaluate your musical journey in one swift move that you would have never done if you didn’t have a chronic illness. It made me more musical and versatile. I find that once you push through the negativity and physical challenges, it becomes much easier and much more enjoyable.
One suddenly realizes the power that music has, whether you are a professional or someone just starting. I firmly believe that if you have never played an instrument before, it is a life-changing experience that everyone should consider regardless of age, chronic illness or disability. In fact, if one has a chronic condition like arthritis, it is an even better idea to start music in some form or another. Listening or playing music allows the body a time that is different to all of the normal challenging activities. Yes, it takes up energy or spoons as those in the community like to refer to it as. Yes, it might be painful sometimes, but you will develop a unique style of making music with your condition. More importantly, you will discover a state of mind that one with a chronic illness could only dream of – a state of escapism.
I can summarize my musical and chronic illness journey with an exchange that nearly everyone asks me. “You have arthritis? How can you play instruments then?” I always answer the question the same way “With patience, perseverance and passion."