Pop Pilates: Never Ever Getting Back Together Workout

The Fourth of July 2012 was the most poignant and triumphant performance of my life. As a longtime percussionist and arranger with the Boston Pops orchestra—I have been with them more than half of my life—the musical high point of the year is the concert on the nation’s birthday in the park that winds along the Charles River in Boston. More than 800,000 spectators squeeze onto the Esplanade while another 7 million watch on television as we perform.

Although this was my 30th year with the Pops, I was more nervous than I’d ever been: It was my first time playing with the Pops since I’d had a stroke that paralyzed my entire right side five- and-a-half years ago, leaving me unable to play.

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From almost the moment the stroke happened, I had been determined to get back to this band shell—no matter how long it took. And two and a half years later, here I was, feeling like an excited teenager as I looked at the audience, the river and my fellow musicians. But if I hadn’t discovered Pilates years earlier, I don’t know if I would have managed to return.

FROM LITTLE DRUMMER BOY TO MUSIC MAN

I’ve been a musician almost my entire life, starting in elementary school in Binghamton, NY, where I grew up. I was a music major at Eastman School of Music in Rochester and at the New England Conservatory of Music. When I became a percussionist with the Boston Pops at age 25, I was overjoyed. It’s a dream job for a percussionist because you get to play a vast array of orchestral and world percussion instruments [drums, xylophones, bongos, congas and cymbals]—usually more than a dozen in a one concert.

Pop Pilates: Never Ever Getting Back Together Workout

By age 30, I was the youngest-ever chair of the jazz department at the New England Conservatory. Several years later, I became the chair of the percussion program at the Boston Conservatory. But my first love was always the Pops.

PILATES, TAKE ONE

A lot of musicians have issues with posture as well as neck stiffness, tightness in the hands and arms and lower-back problems. As a percussionist, I use my entire body when I play, and I’m on my feet for hours at a time. Musicians are always looking for ways to play better, and that often means finding new ways to keep our bodies flexible and in shape. So in 2001, after reading a great biography about Joseph Pilates, I knew it was the method for me.

Soon after, some dance instructors at the Boston Conservatory directed me to two Pilates instructors, Pamela Shore and Clare Dunphy. I was incredibly lucky to have great teachers from the start. Pilates helped enormously with

my strength, flexibility and balance. It made such a difference in my stamina during practice and performance, and in the lengthening and stretching of my arms.

When their studio was sold a couple of years later, I did matwork at home, or in hotel rooms when I was traveling with the orchestra.

A WARNING SHOT

Fast-forward to a morning in November 2009. I had made a bowl of oatmeal and I thought I had grabbed it off the counter with my right hand. But when I looked, the bowl was still on the counter. Startled, I tried again, and again I thought I had picked up the bowl—but my right arm was still down by my side.

I knew something wasn’t right, so I drove myself to a nearby hospital. In hindsight, that was the worst thing I could have done, but my first thought was that I had the flu—I certainly didn’t think it was a stroke.

When I got to the ER, they said I had suffered a TIA [transient ischemic attack], which is a mini¬stroke or a warning stroke. I was given a heavy dose of aspirin, told to go home and sleep, and that I should be fine. They told me that only about 2 percent of these incidents turn into a full- fledged stroke.

But that afternoon, after I took a nap, I was making a to-do list, and I could not move the pen off the paper. My hand felt like it weighed three tons. I knew then something was really wrong, even though I had no pain. I returned to the hospital, and almost as soon as I got to the ER, I had a full-fledged stroke and passed out. When I woke up, the right side of my body was totally paralyzed. It was as if someone had drawn a line down the middle of my body—one side worked, the other side didn’t.

DOWNBEAT NEWS

The first day or so of a stroke, no one is entirely sure what is happening. They stabilize you as soon as they can so that you don’t get worse. Later, they determined that I had suffered a cryptogenic stroke, which means there is no known cause, which made it even more frightening.

When you’re half-paralyzed, it’s brutally hard to move in bed. But as I was trying to move my lower extremities, it dawned on me that I could still feel my powerhouse. If I could just get strong enough there, I thought, then I should.

OPPOSITE PAGE: HOLLENBECK PLAYING THE ORCHESTRAL CRASH CYMBALS IN THE BERKSHIRES, THE SUMMER HOME OF THE BOSTON POPS

Be able to create enough balance to swing my legs around.

It occurred to me that as soon as I could, I’d start doing Pilates. I knew it would help me get better. Settling for less was not an option.

“So much of it is mental: If you decide you’r e going to do something, you find a way to do it.”

REHAB, ACT ONE

After a month in the hospital, I was moved to Spaulding Rehabilitation in Boston, which is like the Harvard of rehab. Everything on my right side drooped and I couldn’t talk clearly because the right side of my face and my tongue were also affected. For a month, I had six days a week of intense physical and speech therapy. I was wheeled into Spaulding; a month later, I walked out of there, though my movements were somewhat spastic and uncoordinated.

I did more than a year of outpatient therapy. I also started to play music as soon as I could; I was obsessed

with getting back to it. But it was incredibly frustrating and, yes, depressing. Musically, my left side was a professional, and my right side was a beginner. I could play the drums normally with my left hand, but my right hand couldn’t even grip a drumstick.

GETTING BACK TO PILATES

In January 2010, three weeks after leaving Spaulding, I had my first poststroke Pilates session with Michael Salvatore, who owned a studio in Boston and had been recommended by a friend. From the minute I met Michael, he made me feel at ease and as if he didn’t notice I was disabled. I found out later that when he first saw me he thought my right shoulder was going to dislocate because it was hanging so low. At rehab they told me that muscles start atrophying after six hours of being laid up, so imagine what it was like after three months!

LEARNING THE HUNDRED, AGAIN

During our first session, we tried the Hundred. It was an exercise I’d done for years, yet I couldn’t hold the strap with my right hand or straighten my right arm. Because of my body’s misalignment, my neck was incredibly sore, so I had to use a cushion under my head. The mental and physical challenge was intense, because my hands moved at totally different speeds: the right at zero, the left at 100.

Michael did a lot of observation. At that first session, for instance, when I took off my pullover, Michael

noticed that my scapula couldn’t rotate properly. I had to shrug to get the arm up enough to take off the garment. He also realized that I didn’t have the kinetic awareness to move my arm from the back. I remember sitting on the Cadillac in that first session, trying to move my right shoulder blade while he touched me where he wanted the movement to come from. I thought I could feel my muscles contracting, and he’d look and say, “Nope, they’re not.”

From then on, all of the exercises, like Seated Shoulder Rolls and Self-Assisted Arm

Stretches, were performed with a focus on working from the back, paying attention to shoulder and elbow alignment and being sure the movements were coming from an engaged powerhouse. (one thing that helped tremendously was kinesio Tape, which enabled my back muscles to fire up and allowed me to do many moves sooner than I would have been able to do otherwise.)

When the first session ended, I offered Michael my left hand to shake, and he refused. He wanted me to move my right arm forward, even the slightest bit, and then he shook that hand. He said it was important not to let the left take over. I knew we were a perfect match— he was determined to help me and I was determined to recover. But we had our work cut out for us.

PRACTICE WITH A PURPOSE

Every one of my three-times-a-week classes with Michael was different, according to what was going on with my body. If it was a cold day, he knew my right arm would be difficult. other exercises might elicit a spastic reflex; instead of stopping the session, he’d just figure out the next logical thing to do to help counter that reaction.

Since my hands were vitally important for my work, we focused on restoring movement in them by, for instance, rolling a ball on top of a flat surface. It was extremely hard for me to do it with my right side because of how often my fist clenched. It was over a year before I could do it, and I worried I’d never master it. But I just kept trying, doing Pilates every day, both at home or with Michael.

HOPEFUL NOTES

Surprisingly, in about 10 sessions I was able to move to the Reformer and do Planks, which I credit to my previous study of Pilates. I remember how thrilled Michael and I were when I was first able to hold the external rotation in.

ROMANA ON PILATES

My shoulder after about a year of hard work. But honestly, even the smallest of things always felt like a great achievement.

HITTING THOSE PLATEAUS

Despite my efforts and focus, there were times when I hit a plateau and nothing got better. or even worse, I’d take a step backward. In rehab, they warn you that this is normal, but it’s still very discouraging. So much of it is mental: If you decide you’re going to do something, you find a way to do it.

As I became more mobile, I signed up for everything that I could think of to augment my Pilates sessions. I did acupuncture with electrical stimulation. I started aqua therapy. I got therapeutic massages. I started doing additional resistance work with Bob Cooley, a well-known expert on biomechanics who has trained olympians.

MAKING A COMEBACK

It took two and a half years of intense rehab, Pilates and other work to get back the fine motor skills I needed to get on that stage with the Pops that memorable Fourth of July. The performance went off without a false note. I’m so thrilled to still be with the Boston Pops. I’m happy to report that my playing is better than ever. My stroke has made me appreciate even more how lucky I am to have the privilege to work with these world-class musicians.

I still do Pilates. Michael moved his studio, Foundation Pilates, to New York City, so I now do matwork on my own. I haven’t been able to replace him!

APPLAUSE FOR PILATES

As a musician, I’m wired to know that practice makes perfect. So when Pilates came back into my life, I wasn’t discouraged by the repetition it required; I already knew that was the key to improvement. So often people give up on therapy too quickly because they can’t see how they’re progressing. Sadly, they resign themselves to being disabled for the rest of their lives. I didn’t want to live like that. And thanks to Pilates and an amazing teacher, I didn’t have to.

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