Spotlight is the Music Network's regular podcast shining the spotlight on someone involved in music in their working life.
Amélie Addison is a baroque cellist and musicologist, based at the University of Leeds.
In this second part of a podcast recorded at Forum 2018 with Music Network assistant Becky Chevis, Amélie shares her experiences and pearls of wisdom about coping with injury and chronic pain as a baroque cellist. With refreshing honesty she tackles issues of self-pity, the ‘shoddy little temptations that go along with daily suffering’, the new glorious body that Jesus has prepared, and how Jesus is with us during pain. Below is a transcript of the interview.
(Please listen to part 1 of this podcast to find out more about Amélie's work and her conversion whilst a student at music college.)
- Becky: We’ve spoken in the past about your history with repetitive strain injury and I wondered if you could tell us a bit more about that because I think you’ve faced a lot of those things which many of us musicians really dread.
- Amélie: Yeah, so the first time that I injured myself playing the cello I displaced a rib joint when I was about 15 which was really painful but it kind of healed on its own and it was alright. Much more seriously at the beginning of my second year of my undergraduate degree I tore a ligament in my index finger in my right hand, so as a cellist that basically meant I couldn’t play because that was my bowing hand and I couldn’t really hold anything or do anything with that hand for quite a while. So that was a really difficult experience which meant that I was excluded from pretty much everything that was happening in college for a term and getting back into it was tough. The rest of my degree I really struggled with confidence and feeling like I wasn’t very good.
With music there is an assumption that if you injure yourself it is because you’ve got bad technique and to some extent I think that is sometimes the case, but there is not enough recognition that sometimes you just injure yourself because it is a really physically demanding thing to do. So that was hard but I did get back into playing again and I did manage to finish my degree and carry on and that is an injury which has pretty much healed – I don’t really suffer with it anymore.
However, when I was in London, because I was studying part-time but also doing a lot of teaching and a lot of gigging, travelling around on public transport with my instrument and so on, I ended up with a chronic repeititve strain in my neck and shoulders and that’s something that has been with me now for 15 years or so at varying levels of intensity. So sometimes I haven’t been able to play at all; sometimes I’ve been able to play but it’s been very painful. Often it’s been a case of managing it with physiotherapy and doing various forms of exercise, which can be quite time consuming and it gets very exhausting trying to keep up those routines in order to be able to play.
Just at the moment things are tricky because I’m waiting on the results of some medical tests because my symptoms have got worse, and I’m losing some function in my left hand which is making things very difficult at the minute. So that’s how that’s developed.
- Becky: Thank you. I loved hearing you talk a few months ago about how your faith and particularly your prayer life spoke into these physical limitations that you face: could you tell us a bit more about that?
- Amélie: Yeah definitely. In a way it is a bizarre situation because it’s not something which you would wish on anybody, but at the same times in some ways I’m deeply thankful for these kinds of situations that I’ve faced because I think that I would not know God as well if I hadn’t been through them.
The initial injury to my finger happened very early in my Christian life - I’d only been a Christian for about six months at that point. So it was quite a shock because I’d started thinking through this whole idea that God’s given me these gifts and that I can use these gifts to worship him and glorify him. Just as I’d started to think about that and get excited about it, all of a sudden it’s taken away and at that point I didn’t know if that injury was permanent or whether it was something that could be healed.
So that shook me quite a lot to start with, but I’ve got a very vivid memory of going home on the day when I realised that I was going to have to be signed off everything at college for several months, and sitting in my flat by myself and realising that there were two ways I could go with this: either I could just fall into a pit of self-pity and wallow in it, or I could try and think of positives in that situation, and I started to make a list of thing to be thankful for. By the time I got down to the end of the second page of A4, I realised that this wasn’t going to be the end of the world. But the thing that was really powerful was that on that list I’d obviously listed the material things like 'I’ve still got a roof over my head,' 'I’ve got parents who love me' – but because I’d become a Christian I was able to write things like 'I know that God loves me,' 'I know that he has a future for me', 'I know that Jesus died to save me and that ultimately my eternal future is secure in him.' That was the point when I realised that no life circumstances were going to change that – nothing could take that away from me. So that was a really profound thing to grasp as a young Christian.
More recently it’s been less of a case of having a sudden injury that was very intense for a while and disappeared, and more of a case of coping with pain on an ongoing daily basis. It's been difficult in lots of ways but again I think I’ve found real riches in scripture that have helped me with that, and also in the experience of trying to just give myself to God in that situation.
So one of the features of the kind of injury that I have is that I often have to do the type of exercises where I’m lying on the floor pretty much in a cross shape really, so with arms spread out. To do that actually really hurts because the nerves all down my arm are inflamed and so that’s a very tangible reminder of the cross. As I’m lying there I’m thinking, well first of all Jesus knows exactly what this feels like because on the cross he suffered that and infinitely more – he had both shoulders dislocated and you know the nails that went through his wrists would have crushed the nerves, so what I experience is the palest shadow of what he went through, but it tells me that he understands. And it also just bowls me over to think that I would never have chosen this, but he went freely and willingly to the cross to that unimaginable agony, and he did that for me. I love the verse that talks about 'for the joy set before Him, He endured the cross,' [Hebrews 12:2] and what was that joy? It was the joy of knowing that me, and people like me, would be saved - so that is a wonderful thing to be reminded of.
And it’s not just that Jesus understands my pain from his experience at the cross, we know that by his Spirit Jesus actually lives in us. Life can be a lonely experience because there is so much of what we go through, whether it is physical pain or mental distress, that other people might be able to empathise with if they’ve experienced something similar, but they can never really be in the midst of that moment with you; but Jesus can, because he has given us his Spirit to live in us, and that’s just a really amazing thing, I think.
I think I’ve found a lot of comfort from Scripture, and particularly as a musician I suppose from Scripture that is set to music. As a baroque cellist I’ve played Handel’s Messiah a lot of times and one of my favourite verses is from Job chapter 19 verses 25-27 which of course is one of the key movements in the Messiah. It is so amazing to be able to say that I know that my redeemer lives and that at the last day he will stand on the earth and the worms will destroy this body - this broken messed-up flawed body - but in my flesh, in my new glorious body that Jesus has prepared for me, I will see God with my own eyes - I myself will see him, and that’s just the most amazing thing to be able to hold on to.
As a string player it is really interesting to me that ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ is one of the hardest movements to play in the Messiah – it’s really difficult, it’s in a difficult key and there’s lots of unison bits – it’s really difficult to get in tune. When I play it, it feels quite anxiety-inducing and quite stressful and hard to get through on a physical and technical level but the truth is just so amazing and I think often that’s like life – actually it's hard but you have these shining truths that are in the middle of it all. I’ve found things like that really helpful.
Obviously the Psalms are a great place to go, especially when I feel like I don’t have the words to express what I’m feeling – there’s a lot of expression of pain in the Psalms and sometimes those words say things better than I could say it myself. But there’s also so much beauty in the poetry and so many musical settings of psalms and worship songs based on psalms.
Sometimes when things are really difficult, I can’t play but I get a lot of joy from singing instead, and then at other times I find it becomes almost physically impossible to sing and I can’t get the words out of my mouth. In those situations [going to church or CU or a worship event and] being able to listen to someone else sing the words, and to sing in my heart even if I can’t in my voice, can be very healing.
One of the hardest things is that you can feel very frustrated when it feels like your best means of glorifying God and worshiping God is taken away, and there is a real sense of loss and bereavement that goes with that. I think it is difficult in some ways because my injury is hidden so other people can’t see that anything is wrong most of the time, and that can be a very lonely place to be. But what it has made me do is revaluate what is enough and what is ‘good enough’. I think certainly when I was at college, and to some extent afterwards, I had ideas about how many hours a day I should practise, how many concerts I needed to be doing in order to have what counted as a career. I’ve had to radically revise downwards all my standards of what I think is enough because I can’t physically do it.
What’s been really amazing is how God has still continued to use that; I’ve still been able to do some playing in the last few years with Christian groups in a kind of outreach setting. It’s been really humbling because I find that now, if someone else has enjoyed my performance and if God has spoken to them through it, or if they have been blessed by it in some way, then actually I don’t have a right to say it’s not good enough. It’s definitely been humbling in that way.
I’ve thought about this again recently and just been reminded: what does the Bible say that God requires of me? Jesus says that the work of God is to believe in Him whom God has sent and that’s it. That’s all. Obviously belief is something that translates into action in different ways but if I’m not able to serve God in a particular way it doesn’t mean that doing his work is closed to me. And again, I was reading Micah 6 vs 8 this morning, 'What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with your God', and I can still do all of those things. So I'm trying to move on from grieving for the things that I can't do.
One thing I've realised recently as well is that I might be losing my musician's hands but I've still got my musician's ears and heart and imagination, so I guess I'm starting to pray and to think about how God might want to use those in ways that aren't limited to playing the cello, and maybe there are things that I can do. I’ve never thought of myself as a composer but I wrote a folk tune last year which people have enjoyed, and I tried to say something in that about beauty coming out of loss. I called it ‘The Pearl of Great Price’ because I was thinking of when Jesus says, that the kingdom of heaven is like a man searching for fine pearls and when he finds one he goes away and sells everything he has. It’s that reminder that if I lose everything that I consider valuable, if I have Jesus then it doesn’t matter. It's all worth it. So maybe I can write more folk tunes about Jesus - [laughs] who knows!
- Becky: Thank you! You’ve written with encouraging honesty about the day to day battles that come with being a Christian musician going through the things that you are going through at the moment. Could you share a bit about that?
- Amélie: So everyone who is alive I guess has to face up at some point to the problem of 'Why does a good God allow suffering?' That is a really profound theological question. It is worth thinking really deeply about those things and that is something that I have spent some time doing. I think that there isn’t time to talk about all of those things now, but for myself I find that the cross really provides the best answers to that in ways that I’ve already spoken about - Jesus sharing in our suffering but also promising us redemption.
Something that gets talked about a lot less is the day to day coping with suffering when it is ongoing. There are lots of shoddy little temptation that go along with it that you don’t always expect. The temptation to self-pity is a huge one and it can be really hard to resist that especially when you see other people having what looks like a better life or a better career and it's really easy to be envious.
I think I’ve struggled quite a lot recently because it feels as though the physical limitations that I’m facing are almost playing into my spiritual weaknesses and almost making them worse in some ways. So, one of my big struggles is managing my time, because I have to spend a lot of my time on exercise and therapy in order to just be able to function, so that really makes it harder managing work but it also restricts the time I have to serve at church and the time I can just spend socially with people and build relationships. I’m naturally quite an introverted person – I already have to make an effort and go out of my way to be sociable and to build relationships with people, so it is a big temptation to use my physical problems as an excuse just to back away from all that and to avoid it all.
I think there are also temptations that I didn’t expect; when you feel physical pain a lot there are temptations to distract yourself from that or to mitigate it by looking for physical pleasure or mental distraction in ways that are probably not very healthy - that would look different for different people. I think what happens is that you start to self-justify and to say, 'Oh well, I’m just trying to make myself feel a bit better, so it doesn’t really matter if I do this or if I just lose myself in distractions.' These things actually might in themselves might be quite innocent but they mean that I take my focus away from God and that I’m not really engaging with God about the pain that I feel, I’m just trying to avoid it.
So I think that’s a big challenge to make sure that I'm actually facing this with God rather than just trying to grit my teeth and put up with it and not really talking to God about it because that definitely doesn’t help. Taking every element of my struggles to God in prayer is so vital even though it’s often one of those things that I shy away from doing because I know it is going to be painful - but you feel better afterwards.
Becky: Thank you - that gives us/me a lot to think about. Thank you so much!