In the October edition of CHA, I invited readers to send me their personal reminiscences and anecdotes about the famed Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. Dr. Daniel Proctor responded. This is his story:
It was a cold, windy October day
“In October of 1982, I was an intern at the CMCC Herbert Lee Clinic” writes Dr. Proctor. “My personal insurance agent, Mr. Ray Roberts, called me to explain that he was the executor of the estate for one of his other clients and that this client had owned a number of physiotherapeutic modalities. The name of the client was confidential. He asked if I might be interested in taking a look at these modalities and possibly making him an offer to purchase the equipment. Since I was still an intern, and did not yet have a practice to use the equipment myself, I approached one of my clinicians, Dr. Silvano Mior, and asked him if he would accompany me to appraise the equipment.”
“It was a cold, windy October day when we met at an aging brown-stone type apartment on St. Clair Avenue West in Toronto. The building looked like it belonged in an old style movie set. The elevator was the iron type which required you to slide the door like a cage to close the elevator and engage the lift. We traveled to the penthouse level and entered a strange apartment with six rooms. The hallways, living room, dining room and bedrooms were all painted either dark purple or flat black. There was no furniture in the bedrooms although one bedroom had some very old children’s toys including a baby carriage, a rocking horse, some game pieces, a doll and an old stuffed animal, possibly a teddy bear.”
“I was perplexed by who could have been the occupant of this apartment, especially since it did not look like anyone had actually lived in it for years. There were only a few pieces of furniture in the entire penthouse. In the kitchen there was a large table covered with music sheets, piled over two feet high in the centre. In both the living and dining rooms were two full grand pianos, also piled with sheet music. Aside from this, there was no other furniture in the apartment.”
“One of the bedrooms had the physiotherapeutic equipment. There was an ultrasound unit, a hydrocollator, a diathermy unit and a number of cervical collars and back braces, most of which were in their original packaging. The equipment was of the style one would expect to be commonly seen twenty-five years earlier. We had no idea if any of it worked. On the wall, were two black-and-white framed pictures. The first was a picture of a familiar looking young man in his twenties. He sat on a therapeutic table and was using this ultrasound unit on his own left shoulder. Supervising his self-directed treatment was an elderly physician wearing an old style clinic tunic which buttoned tightly across the neck.”
“The second picture was of the same patient, now in his forties. He was sitting in the cockpit of an airliner wearing the captain’s uniform. The view was forward but the “pilot” had his head turned back toward the photographer. Mr. Roberts said that this picture was of his client and it was actually meant as a joke. The client had been “deathly afraid of flying” so someone had inserted a picture of the client’s head on a pilot’s body. Although he did not reveal the identity of his client, I was left with the impression that this was someone of significance.”
“We completed our business and agreed to take the equipment. It was a few days later that I came to appreciate who this person had been. As a listener and collector of classical music, the sight of the two grand pianos and mounds of sheet music, my thoughts were drawn to the world of classical performers. I then realized that I had been in Glenn Gould’s penthouse, and had been fortunate to have had the opportunity to purchase his equipment. When I approached Mr. Roberts with my suspicions,” Dr. Proctor tells us, “he admitted that I was correct.”
A Chiropractor’s Gould
“Gould’s health history is of interest for us as chiropractors”, writes Dr. Proctor. “Similar to athletic injuries, artistic performers in music, dance and even theatre often present to us with overuse injuries or trauma. I have seen violinists, trumpet players and guitarists with shoulder, hand, back and neck injuries. I have had vocalists unable to reach their range due to a tempero-mandibular joint (TMJ) problem. Even actors have presented with anything from spinal to extremity injuries, including sprains and fractures. These patients are as elite as any athlete, and susceptible to the same type of conditions,” he concludes.
His legendary hypochondria aside, Gould was no exception.
Kevin Bazzana’s definitive biography, “Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould,” notes that Gould’s “whole musculoskeletal system was a constant source of concern,” originating from a serious back injury he suffered as a ten year old while at the family cottage.1 His first exposure to chiropractic stemmed from the same incident. “Over the next few years he was taken to many doctors, though only his neighbourhood chiropractor, Dr. Arthur Bennett helped.” 2 Dr. Bennett himself believed that that Gould’s life-long musculoskeletal complaints originated from his childhood injury.
Dr. Herbert Vear inherited Gould as a patient when Bennett retired and treated him over a twenty-year span beginning in the mid-1950s. Vear had no doubt that Gould’s spinal problems were not imagined. There was, he stated, “early cervical disc degeneration observed on cervical x-rays” and “functional biomechanical stress to other areas, in particular the upper and mid-thoracic spine”. Dr. Vear also recalled that “he had mild thoracic pain and discomfort which often affected the lumbar spine as well.”3 He identified Gould’s chronically poor, unstable posture as the source of his musculoskeletal problems which was further aggravated by his famously awkward, hunched-over keyboard style. His lifelong refusal to use any other piano seating but the under-sized, folding bridge chair his father modified for him in 1953, would not have helped matters either.4
Gould was particularly anxious about physical contact when someone touched or leaned on his shoulders, and frequently complained of swelling, stiffness, and pain in his joints, fearing that he was predisposed to arthritis. Some of his complaints were strange.
According to another biographer, Peter Ostwald, he once stated that “the bones of my back easily get out of alignment with my ribs” – whatever that means.5
“Chiropractors, physiotherapists, masseurs, and radiologists” writes Bazzana, “were a regular part of Gould’s life.” Following Dr. Bennett’s advice, that Gould required “patience and understanding, as well as treatments which were not painful,” Dr Vear provided him with conventional chiropractic manipulations and trigger point therapy.6
Gould also used therapeutic aids. Around the time of the Steinway injury, he acquired his own Siemens diathermy unit as well as, Bazzana reports, “a locally manufactured ultrasound unit that emitted high-frequency sound waves to stop pain and tension.”7 This would be the same Toronto Medical Company portable ultrasound unit that is with CMCC today. As we saw in the previous edition of CHA, it was Dr. Vear who introduced Gould to ultrasound therapy and it is likely that he is the practitioner featured in the photo noticed by Dr. Proctor in Gould’s St. Clair Avenue apartment.
About the time Dr. Vear left Toronto in the mid-1970s, Gould began to consult an orthopaedist who found no further explanation for Gould’s continuing musculoskeletal complaints, other than Dr. Vear’s initial diagnosis of poor posture. He prescribed non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs as well as sedative analgesics commonly used for headaches. “In short,” writes Bazzana, “he tried everything to ease his pains – everything, that is, but sitting up straight and getting a little exercise.” 8
‘My God, a Concussion!’
For Gould the dividing line between real complaints and imagined ones was, however, always a fine one. And he knew it.
On one occasion, in 1958, a reporter saw him stop in the middle of a recording session, groan, and announce, “I think I have appendicitis.” It turned out to be a minor cramp from sitting too long and he joined in laughing about it. During a filming session some years later, Gould was seen to gently bump his head on a microphone, collapse in a chair, and exclaim, “My God, a concussion!” 9
Not surprisingly, Gould’s hypochondria posed unique challenges in diagnosing and treating his perceived ailments. In the famous 1959 Steinway incident, Gould was embroiled in an argument with Steinway’s chief technician about how far to go in modifying his piano. Gould wanted the action to be lighter and more responsive. In the course of the afternoon, the technician, in what was probably meant as a gesture of friendly reconciliation, clapped him on the shoulder. Gould immediately became upset, claiming that he had been struck so forcefully as to cause pain and produce a physical injury. Fearing that he might never be able to play the piano again, he sued Steinway and Sons for $300,000 in personal damages. A specialist subsequently concluded that he may have been suffering from neuropraxia, a transitory condition that does not lead to permanent disability, as a result of “a minor traction injury to the various nerves entering his upper extremity and particularly the roots of the ulnar nerve.”10
For several years Gould continued to receive treatment for his ailing left shoulder from an orthopedic surgeon who put his entire upper body into a plaster cast (effectively immobilizing him) in hopes of bringing parts of his left shoulder into better alignment. It is problematic whether the treatment did much good, as is whether there was any significant injury in the first place. But, then, that was Gould.
Almost as much has been written about Gould’s health concerns and eccentricities, as about his pianistic virtuosity. With his death in 1982, a new and extraordinary posthumous life began. Gould is more popular today than he was in his lifetime. Sales of his recordings far exceed those of when he was still alive, he has been the subject of film treatment and several biographies – two published this year – conferences and symposia continue to be held in his honour, and his legend has infused the popular culture. Dead pianists are quickly forgotten. Not so with Gould. So active has his afterlife been that one recording company executive was prompted to comment that “dying was a great career move for him.”11
With all this attention, it seems fitting to let Gould have the last word. From a diary entry dated June 12, 1980:
“Some odd spots … on my abdomen – right of the navel, and in the area where the hiatus hernia is often knotted up.” At the end of the entry there is a P.S.: “Have taken bath; spots have disappeared.” They were ink spots from a pen.12
And that was Gould too. •
1,2,3. Bazzana, Kevin. “Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould” McClelland & Stewart, 2003; p. 353-355.
4. Hafner, Katie. “A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano” McClelland & Stewart, 2008; p. 21.
5,6,7,8. Bazzana, Kevin. “Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould” McClelland & Stewart, 2003; p. 353-355.
9. Bazzana, Kevin. “Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould” McClelland & Stewart, 2003; p. 359.
10. Ostwald, Peter. “Glenn Gould as Patient”. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/glenngould/028010-502.17-e.html
11. Bazzana, Kevin. “The Glenn Gould Legacy”. http://www.cbc.ca/radio2/feature-gould-essays.html
12. Bazzana, Kevin. “Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould” McClelland & Stewart, 2003; p. 359.
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