Almost lost in the crush: Pianist Peter Donohoe was never afraid to risk his hands doing household chores or building work - but then he never thought that simply opening a window could cut short his concert career . . .

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The Independent Culture
My family and friends have always panicked about my doing things that might endanger my hands. I recall that in 1982, as I was percussion-drilling into a concrete lintel over a window of the house that my wife and I had recently bought, everyone was worrying about the possibility of my slipping and drilling into my left hand, rendering it useless for the Wigmore Hall debut I was to make the next night. It was the same a few months later when my brother-in-law and I were moving about four tons of concrete slabs around the house by wheelbarrow - that was only days before a competition I had entered in Moscow. My view was always that if you were aware of any danger, you automatically guarded against the possibility of anything happening that could affect your playing. Of course, musicians need their fingers to be more sensitive and damage-free than just about any other professional group, but I always felt that to avoid everyday household jobs for this reason was to miss the point and smacked of being precious. You have to be wary of chain-saws, of course, but, within sensible limits, you should be prepared to do the things others do and not be a hot-house flower.

The time fate comes and bites you is when you are not doing anything that you would expect to be dangerous. 4.45am, the morning after flying from London to Cincinnati to begin an American tour, was not the time to catch me at my most attentive; and when I woke up feeling hot but disinclined to use the air-conditioning, I did not anticipate that the modern, steel-framed, double-glazed, sash window with a blade-like lip at the bottom would come crashing straight down again after my opening it: it did, and sliced through the flesh around the main knuckle of the index finger of my left hand, bruising the bared bone, breaking the nerve sheath and severely crushing the nerve inside.

I didn't know what had happened at all for some seconds. All I knew was that I couldn't move away. Eventually, I realised with relief that, since I couldn't move, my finger was at least still attached to the rest of me and not lying on the side-walk nine storeys below. I prised open the window with my right hand and bled all over the carpet as I headed for the bathroom to be sick, thinking incongruous thoughts like 'Will the lady who cleans the room be angry?' and 'I hope this doesn't affect tomorrow's rehearsal'. I was particularly fascinated by the way the blood ejaculated from the wound in time to my heart-beat.

After much fuss, a brilliantly performed microsurgery operation in Christ's Hospital, Cincinnati, nine stitches and an unbelievable amount of self-pity, the result was that I was forced, reluctantly, to cancel all engagements for nine weeks (around 20 concerts). This was mainly because the crushed nerve had caused the total loss of sensation in the finger from the injured knuckle to the tip. The feeling has now almost completely returned. I am back at work and able to fulfil all my engagements, although there are certain pieces that I am still unable to take on. It might seem strange to be playing Bartok's Second Concerto (as I am in Paris on Tuesday) and yet to avoid Rachmaninov's Third, but the heaviness in Bartok or Prokofiev relies upon the octave-playing fingers (thumb and little finger) and only uses the index finger for more florid music, whereas Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, or Chopin and Liszt, use the index finger in many more ways, sometimes very strenuously and repeatedly.

Nine weeks under such circumstances seems an extraordinarily short time to be incapacitated after an accident that could have ended my piano- playing for good, and brings home to me how miraculous was my escape. Luckily, my finger was in a pointing position and so was hit on the side; had it been flat, the tendon would undoubtedly have been permanently damaged and the bone more vulnerable to being broken (in which case there would only have been the skin on the lower side to prevent the finger being chopped off altogether). Luckily too, this all took place in a city where there happens to work one of America's leading hand surgeons - a brilliant man called James Plettner (who, ironically, had a ticket to attend one of my Cincinnati concerts).


There were some people who suggested that I use the accident as a publicity stunt. But my management and I agreed to keep it dark, only informing those dozen or so promoters whom I was forced to let down, until such time as the extent of the damage could be fully assessed.

The most frequent reaction, however, has been to ask if my fingers are insured. The answer is that it is irrelevant, because the hotel is. If the hotel had not admitted liability, I would have been in the financial mire. My fingers have never been separately insured (as opposed to the rest of me), partly out of superstition and partly because the premiums are ludicrous and related to the amount of playing one does (which is about the only time one is safe from injury). The last time I put this in print I was inundated with offers of 'reasonably priced' policies, so for the benefit of any insurance salesmen reading this, please may I refer you to my financial advisers, who are based in Rockall?

The serious side of this is the degree to which such an injury - comparatively unimportant to most people - constitutes a survive-or-break situation for musicians, surgeons and a very few other professions (a bit like an athlete injuring a knee or ankle). Most of those who worked for my wife and me on our house - plumbers, builders, electricians and so on - had suffered some kind of unpleasant, painful, or even permanent injury in the course of their work. Yet pianists and the like can so easily have their whole lives altered or even ruined by one second of bad luck. I no longer look askance at those among us who refuse to carry suitcases, build rockeries, lay patios, or chop down trees. The whole point, like that relating to drinking and driving, is that it only has to happen once to ruin a life.

Since I began my concert career, I have only once before cancelled an engagement - when I contracted a stomach virus in the Philippines. Out of nearly 1,900 concerts since 1970, it was a record of which I was proud. I suppose I was due for a bout of cancellation. The period away from the piano has been an education almost worth the injury. The total absence of practising reminded me of my student days, while the extent to which the injury did not substantially affect my ability to do anything other than play the piano reinforced what I have said about the difference between musicians and the rest of the world. The real lesson, however, came upon my return to the concert stage, the week before last. Following my enforced break, I feel twice as in love with the music, and the process by which it is created and recreated, more balanced as to how globally important the musical world is (I have always thought it was unbearably self-important, and am now even more convinced) and four times more nervous than before.

Part of the upside of the whole business was the support I got from other musicians in the early stages of my recovery. Since about 1980 one of my annual commitments has been to donate my services for a Christmas concert in Manchester in aid of the Macmillan Cancer Fund. Sometimes I conduct, sometimes I play a concerto: this year was the first time I had planned to do a piano recital - the one thing I was unable to do. Within six days, some 30 musicians had volunteered their services to help me over my difficulty. We gave a whole concert of chamber orchestra music, and to see all the hard work they put into it was one of the most gratifying experiences of my professional life.

To return to the scene of the incident: the day after my operation I attended the concert in Cincinnati at which I should have played the Rachmaninov Third Concerto. My place was taken by Alexander Toradze, who gave a beautiful performance. I made sure that he was unaware of my presence until afterwards, because I know what effect the awareness of having a colleague in the audience can have on an artist. I was thus deeply touched when, before playing, he made a warm speech to the audience in which he sent his and the audience's best wishes to me. The magic of this moving moment between two colleagues was mildly broken by the conversation taking place between the old couple seated behind me: 'What's he talking about?' said she. 'Oh, this guy's not the one in the programme,' came the reply. 'The one who was supposed to play has crapped out on us.' That man will never know how close to the truth he was.


Peter Donohoe launches a complete Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle at the University of Warwick Arts Centre at 8pm on Wednesday 3 March (0203 524524). His new Chopin CD (Etudes Op 10, Ballades Nos 1 & 4 and Waltzes Op 64) is out now on EMI Classics (CDC 754416-2)

(Photograph omitted)