Brad Wheeler, Globe & Mail, CA - The issue of drummers and health has bubbled up of late. Phil Collins’s new memoir comes with a cheeky title (Not Dead Yet) that refers, in part, to debilitating health caused by 50 years of hitting things with sticks. After a Genesis reunion tour in 2007, an MRI revealed that Collins had crumbling neck vertebrae. “If I don’t have an operation forthwith, paralysis and a wheelchair are in the cards,” he wrote.
Collins’s case isn’t an isolated one. The recent rocumentary Time Stand Still follows what was likely the final large-scale tour by the Canadian rock trio Rush. The band’s retirement from the road has happened, in large part, because of drummer Neil Peart’s tendonitis and diminishing physical abilities. “My style of drumming is largely an athletic undertaking,” Peart wrote in a farewell piece published in Drumhead Magazine. “Like all athletes, there comes a time to … take yourself out of the game.”
Peart’s analogy to sports is spot on, according to Dinah Hampson, a physiotherapist and owner of Toronto’s Pivot Sport Medicine Clinic. “I have drummers who can’t feel their hands, who can’t hold their sticks,” she says. “And the first thing I ask them is, ‘Have you been to the gym today, have you done any push-ups this week, have you prepared your body for the physical tasks that you are now demanding that it does?’”
Common problems include frayed tendons from overuse and repetitive strain damage to the small muscles of the hands and forearms. Unless the injuries are treated – usually through strengthening and physiotherapy that involves finding muscles to compensate for the damaged ones – the problems only get worse as the drummer ages.
Drummer Mike Belitsky, 50, is a member of Toronto’s Sadies, the favourite psychedelic-country band of Gord Downie, Margaret Atwood and Neko Case. When he was younger he played through any physical issues, figuring they’d dissipate. “But all of sudden you hit 45,” he says, “and it becomes something that won’t go away.”
Belitsky has battled tears in his common extensor tendon. He’s endured cortisone injections and had to wear a brace after shows during tours. Even mundane activities are affected. “Brushing your teeth becomes a choreographic routine,” he says.