A Guitarist’s Nightmare 10- getting back to normal Summer and fall, 2012

As time progressed I was able to do more and more- I could put my right hand behind my head where before I couldn’t even touch my nose, weight restrictions were lifted by Dr. Griffin, I COULD DRIVE A CAR AGAIN!, I resumed a regular performing and practice schedule almost, off the narcotics, and therapy sessions were cut way back. One thing I found very touching was meeting people who had heard about my accident that had also had orthopedic surgery and came up to me at the concerts. It was wonderful to meet people who had had similar experiences. I was able to do my normal routine except that I was getting bad wrist pains at times and I would often wake up with my left hand numb (a symptom of tendonitis) . Also if I set my right elbow on a hard surface in just the right way the pain was excruciating. But I was functional pretty much and forged ahead.

I made a point one afternoon of hiking the trail alone that I had the accident on. I used a hiking stick, something that had I used a few months back would have prevented the fall. My heart was pounding but I was not going to give up a favorite trail. When I posted my exploit to facebook my friends were not too happy with me, but I did it. No freakouts or stumbles.

the trail!

the trail!

I got back into the recording studio with engineer Jon Sawa and asked him about doing a music video together. We had a piece picked out, the Danza by Edin Solis for the soundtrack, and I wanted to be in the video but not IN the video, in other words let the scenery and landscape be predominant at times if that’s what was warranted, and get away from a static film of a guy in a room with a guitar. I would be not so much the featured “artiste” as “guitar monkey”. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for.

The first shoot seemed to start well enough. We drive out to a field near Hampton cove where there’s a single oak tree, we get set up to shoot. And the camera gets finicky and decides it doesn’t want to come out and play that day. That Lumix acted like a snotty three year old brat for every shoot it seemed like. Eventually Jon would coax it out of its camera tantrum and it would play fine for a while but then do its ”I don’t wanna!!” routine all over again. But we did get it done. We shot in about a dozen locations throughout north Alabama in temperatures ranging from 35 to 95 degrees. We shot in a cotton field, on a hiking trail five minutes from where I had the accident, an abandoned shack, a cabin in the historic park at Burritt Museum, and eventually, THE PRIME LOCATION. More on that in the next post.

I had a lot of fun working with Jon and the Prototype Multimedia crew. At the cotton field shoot, Jon wanted me to duck down quickly while holding my guitar to get the shot he wanted. So he would yell “Go down Phil! Go down!” I finally said, “Jon, I know it’s just semantics, but could you say get down instead of go down?” The phrase “it’s just semantics” still cracks us up. This video is from our day at Burritt. It was freezing cold that day. 

A Guitarist’s Nightmare 9- first concert

Summer 2012

That summer I settled into a routine of visits to therapy, therapy exercises at home, practicing, and playing. I wasn’t allowed to drive a car for quite a while and Ingrid had to drive me to gigs. The Albany Bistro in Decatur asked if I could play one and I agreed. They were willing to let me play a shorter set than usual if my pain got too bad, but I did my normal time. The wait staff even carried my gear out to the car. I wasn’t expecting that.

My first public concert was scheduled for City Lights and Stars Series on July 20th, three months since the accident, the Classical-Blues Cabaret with me, Ingrid on piano, blues guitarist Dave Gallaher, Ken Watters on flugelhorn, Emily Jones on guitar and mandolin, and Darrell Tibbs on percussion. It was a musical dream team, but I was apprehensive about how well I would do and worried that the mental and physical trauma would put me off my game. I was getting stronger every day, the swelling in my wrist had gone down to the point I could wear a watch again, but I was unsure of myself. Here’s a video I put up on YouTube:

It was good to be out again, and see friends. I went to have lunch at Lowe Mill, an arts complex in an old textile mill in Huntsville. We had lunch at Happy Tummy, got to catch up with people and show off my elbow scar. Dustin Timbrook, Lowe Mill’s social media guru, took a picture of it:

phil scar

As the concert approached we had rehearsals and I was feeling more myself. I gave tickets to my therapists and surgeon, and my plan was to publicly acknowledge them at the concert, let them take a bow.

I emailed the Huntsville Times arts reporter Paul Wallen about what I had been through and we did a phone interview. He did a great job and told my story accurately and sensitively. It was cool to have my x-ray in the paper.


(to view the article, copy and paste the link into your browser)


The concert went really well, I opened with a solo, the Prelude from Bach’s first Cello Suite. It was good to be back onstage, I did fine. Dr. Griffin was not able to attend but Jessica and Nicole were there. The piece I chose to dedicate to them was Leo Brouwer’s Una Dia en Noviembre. I alternated the melody with Ken, it’s really cool hearing it on both guitar and flugelhorn.. Ingrid played piano and tied it all together. Jessica and Nicole got up and took their bows, Nicole loved it but Jessica was a little freaked out by having to get up in front of the crowd. It was a great moment for me to get to acknowledge what these women meant to me and thank them for all of their hard work and skill.

After the show I got to visit with them and Nicole pointed out I was rubbing my wrist a lot. Yes, the left wrist was having issues. I hoped they would go away eventually.


A Guitarist’s Nightmare 8

Summer, 2012

I fell into a routine as best I could, the visits to therapy, trying to up my practice time on the guitar (breaking the sessions up into 15 minute increments throughout the day and alternating pieces that required different techniques, coddling things along which I despised) , preparing for a big concert with trumpeter Ken Watters, Ingrid on piano, blues guitarist Dave Gallaher, and percussionist Darell Tibbs. The left wrist bothered me a lot as far as the playing went, the shattered elbow was gradually getting more and more range of motion. Let me put it this way, at therapy I would tell Nicole and Jessica things like “I was able to brush my teeth today with my right arm!” or “Look, I can almost touch my nose, how cool is that?!” Reacquiring the basic dexterity we all take for granted was a long, painful process.

I need to tell this about my in-laws, because it contributed greatly to the guilt I was feeling about the accident. I mean, what kind of idiot trips over a root the size of a pencil and then disrupts the lives of all who care about this dweeb for the next few months? They had just gone through a horrible ordeal not seven days earlier. Their mother, Traudel von Spakovsky had died the week before. It was completely unexpected and devastating to us all. She had just had Easter dinner with me and Ingrid the week before she became ill. I had a lot to do Easter weekend, trying to get ready for some performances coming up and had discussed putting off having her over for dinner to another time. In the end, I thought, “It’s Easter. This holiday means something to her, I will cook her one the the dishes she really likes. I’ll catch up later on the practicing.” The dish she liked was grilled rack of lamb. It’s tricky to do on a charcoal grill because you have to keep a constant watch on it so the fat doesn’t flare up into a grease fire and ruin an expensive cut of meat. I cooked it, we sat down and had a wonderful time together, and in a week she was gone. The whole family just barely got to the hospital to be with her when she took her last breath. To this day I can’t cook that dish without thinking about her, and I would never have forgiven myself if I had gone with my original plan to have her over a week or two later. The von Spakovsky family were superb in how they dealt with the estate, there was no petty squabbling between family members, they’re a class act. I don’t blame them at all for occasionally questioning my wife’s choice of husbands. I question it all the time. I played this piece with Gianni Graffeo, Ingrid’s nephew, at the memorial service. Afro-Cuban Lullabye

Most people were very considerate of us and what we were going through. I say most, not all.

Ingrid and I are members of a local professional organization, and she had been serving as treasurer for a few years. A new president came to office, and began pestering Ingrid extensively, wanting to review every detail about the books. It’s a tiny account, barely over a grand. At one point El Presidente decided it should be switched to Quickbooks. There are barely a dozen entries a year, including deposits and checks written, it could be done on clay tablets with Babylonian cuneiform, although postage would be an issue. Ingrid handled the account just like ours, writing down the entries in the checkbook. Duh. What was she going to do, clear out the account and drive to Tunica? I could tell she was getting upset and suggested emailing El Presidente, and remind her of our situation. So she did, and here’s the reply.

I know that you have had a lot on your plate recently and I know that I have contacted you frequently about ….. financial concerns. Given your situation, I am sorry about that but at the same time I must get the …. things for the coming year wrapped up this week because I have plans for June.

Wow. I have plans for June. We were dealing with the grief from the loss of a family member, my recovery (which was far from certain then), and Ingrid making frequent trips to her Mother’s house to help out with the estate, but El Presidente had plans for June. How clumsy of us not to fit this into her social calendar. She then informed us she would be coming to our house to collect the documents. I called her and told her “do not come to my house. Ingrid has resigned as treasurer effective immediately and is taking the documents to ……. (the only other member who was a signature to the account).” Over and done with right? But no. She came to my house anyway and banged on my door like it was a drug raid. I didn’t answer the door, it was a bad pain day and I wanted to be left alone. She pounded for a very long time, and eventually left. This is trespassing, if you’re told specifically not to come to someone’s house and you do, the homeowner has the right to call the police and have you removed. What kind of person would do this anyway? It’s basic human decency not to bother people with trivial matters when they are dealing with real life issues and have asked you to leave them be. I could not even conceive of doing this to a colleague, harangue them about a triviality, then go bang on their door while they were in pain recovering from surgery after being asked to leave them be.

This Kafkaesque tale goes on, when I emailed the executive board protesting this absurd behavior, El Presidente wanted to sue me for libel. Later in the year Ingrid had lunch with a board member to discuss this and was told that at a planning meeting when it was suggested that Ingrid and I present a program the next season, El Presidente slammed her little fist on the table and said “WE DO NOT MENTION THE WEAVERS!” To me this brings to mind Southpark, season 10 episode 10 when Cartman is appointed hall monitor. “Respect muh authoriteh!!” At one point I decided to check the bylaws to see why the president was given such power. Well guess what- El Presidente’s actual powers are to preside at meetings and appoint committees. That’s pretty much it. So Ingrid and I are blacklisted and our privacy was invaded by someone who assumed powers that were not theirs to begin with. At that lunch Ingrid was also told that when El Presidente was recovering from an illness she became annoyed at being sent a mere email, she insisted she be left alone. @!@W#@$#%^^!&* 

A Guitarist’s Nightmare 6

April-May 2012

The three weeks of house arrest dragged on and on. Several people were incredibly kind to me and Ingrid during this. Mrs. South and her son (he studied  guitar with me for several years) brought some food by. She was horrified to see my left arm bandaged up, she thought it was just the right elbow. Brian Hudson (a former student) brought me a copy of Kieth Richards’ autobiography and mowed the lawn. He also took me for a walk around the neighborhood. I hated not being able to exercise much, that felt really good. My friend Wayne Thompson visited. He’s a very accomplished guitarist (another former student) and it was tough on him to see me all bandaged up and unable to do much. I would have had a tough time if the situation were reversed. As a musician, what do you say to someone who might never be a musician again?

I did make one excursion, I had a final exam to give for beginning class guitar. I could have just given grades based on what the students had accomplished to that point but it was an exam where they played for me one-on-one and they had been working towards that. I had some help giving the test and we got it done.

Finally the three weeks were up and it was off to the Orthopaedic Center to see Dr. Griffin and get my stitches out. After processing and xrays I was in a little examining room and the xray tech comes in and puts this on the computer screen. Holy @$#%! I’m not against abstract sculpture it just isn’t what I would go out of my way to acquire. Now I have this permanently installed. I was told that my ulnar nerve had been moved to accommodate all of the hardware and the process of installing it. That made sense, Even to this day it feels like the signals to my right hand have been rerouted somehow. I could tell that as soon as I woke up from the operation.


It does have its own special charm as a work of art, so I put it up on Facebook. The wristplate is creepy too, just not as massively impressive as the elbow sculpture.


I was set up for therapy sessions, asked if I needed more narcotics (no, not yet), told I could play guitar if I wanted, and sent home. A very, very long hot shower was the first thing I did. I felt wonderful.

Eventually I worked up the courage to get a guitar in playing position and see if anything would work. It didn’t. After three weeks of inactivity my muscles were rubbery, I had horrible range of motion in my right arm, and the left wrist was excruciatingly painful. But I persisted and got through five whole minutes, and towards the end it wasn’t entirely incoherent. Maybe this will get better. It was pretty discouraging but I told myself “tomorrow you try for ten minutes.” Tomorrow was my first round of therapy too, I wondered what that would be like.

A Guitarist’s Nightmare 5

Huntsville Hospital, April 2012

The pain was pretty bad after the surgery, and I hated feeling so trapped- my fingers worked but I couldn’t move my right arm at all and the left wrist had been operated on too, a metal plate had been installed. I figured the right arm and elbow probably looked like an erector set. I learned how to get around the room while hauling the IV stand with me. I couldn’t wait to get out, but with another surgery looming thought it would never happen. Luckily for me they eventually decided that the broken scapula could heal on its own without surgery so I was sprung after a few days. Everyone at Huntsville Hospital was very nice and I was very well taken care of. At one point the orderly was changing the sheets and when he was finished I asked “Don’t I get a chocolate mint under the pillow?” he said “How about I get you a bag of chips?” We had a good laugh. But when all was said and done, I wanted out of there. I felt like I was in jail. I very much appreciated the visits of friends and family. Ingrid’s brother Alexis came to see me several times, and my friend Kristey Fry.

My task for the next three weeks was to keep still, change the bandages every day, and take medication as needed for pain. And try not to go crazy. While it might seem a lovely vacation to be given a bottle of eighty percosets, told to do nothing but rest and rot your brain with Netflix as much as you want for twenty-one days, in reality it was maddening. I tried the best I could to be positive but I kept thinking that I would never get through this, I’d never play again, and that music as a career was over for me. The grayish tinge to my right hand and the first look at my scars when the bandage was changed did nothing to lift my spirits. On my left wrist it was about an eight inch scar, the sutures holding the skin closed, and it was swollen. I remember staring at it thinking “This will never be functional ever again.” The right arm was a huge zipper of a scar around the elbow I had shattered. The way I coped was to have the attitude of wait and see. Don’t celebrate defeat until you actually achieve it.

Kristey made it a point of coming over every day pretty much to assist with changing the surgical dressings. It’s a lot harder than you might think, there was a lot of ground to cover, taping the sterile dressing to the wounds and then wrapping them up with gauze. Here is the bandage team, sorry the shot is out of focus but so was I. Ingrid is on the left, Kristey on the right. Both of them excellent at yelling at me if I tried to express defeat or tried to feel sorry for myself. They took all the fun out of it.


A Guitarist’s Nightmare 4

Huntsville Hospital, April 2012

As it turned out I was not operated on that evening, the new plan was for me to be operated on Monday afternoon. So I was still on the morphine and IV diet. No food, no water. Word got out pretty quickly about the accident. I got a message to the people in charge of the local arts festival that I would not be able to perform that weekend. My friend Ginny Kennedy at our local public radio station WLRH made an on-air announcement. It was nice to know folks were thinking of me. The music office at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where I’m an adjunct professor, sent a bouquet of flowers to my room. The dean’s office at the College of Liberal Arts sent a HUGE bouquet. My dear friend Kristey Fry came to see me almost right away, and Ingrid called Dave Gallaher, so he came to the room as well. It’s got to be hard to see a fellow musician in the condition I was in.

Dr. Bill Cox, a cardiologist who takes lessons from me stopped by when he had a break. Kristey got on to me when she heard me tell the nurse my pain level was not a 10 out of 1 to 10. “Always tell them the highest number! That way you’ll get more morphine!”

Eventually I got to meet my surgeon, Dr. David Griffin. He explained what they were going to do and eventually asked what I did for a living. When I told him I was a concert guitarist he reacted as if someone had punched him in the stomach, he bent forward exclaiming something like “Oh, Jeez!” or something along those lines. I thought, well this doesn’t seem promising at all. He told me I would never have full extension in my right arm again, and was curious about what range of movement I needed to play. Now this was just for the elbow and wrist, the broken scapula would be another surgery.

The afternoon turned to evening, still waiting for the trip to the OR. And we waited, and waited. Finally they hauled me off. They put some kind of happy juice in my IV bag because I was not apprehensive in the least. The next few hours would determine if I would be a musician ever again, nothing at ALL to worry about. I might as well have been waiting for my sandwich order to get to me at Happy Tummy, no worries at all. That was SOME kind of happy juice! They took me into the OR, and asked if I could move off the cart I was on to the operating table. I said sure. My legs were working if not my arms. No need to be picked up. They juiced me up and I konked out. I woke up groggy, nauseous but not too bad, in a lot of pain, but as disoriented as I was I moved the fingers of my right hand to see if I could. They worked! Maybe I could get through this.

The operation took a good four hours, they would update my wife Ingrid from time to time during this. Dr. Griffin was pretty happy with his handiwork. I was sent back up to my room and sent Ingrid home to get some rest, it was two in the morning I think. I was very sore and asked for morphine, was alone and with both arms messed up pretty much helpless, but I could wiggle the fingers of my right hand! Yay!!

A Guitarist’s Nightmare 3

Huntsville Hospital, April 2012

The hospital is just a ten minute drive from the clinic. We go in the emergency entrance, tell the receptionist who I am and we sit down. I’m thinking, I know Dr. Campbell said we’d be met right away but I assumed the worst and settled in for a wait of several hours. I was wrong, they hauled me off in minutes to be checked out. I was given a shot of morphine to dull the pain. That was a first for me, I’ve never been injected with narcotics before. It felt great, and narcotics were a constant companion for me for months, but to be honest the buzz wasn’t worth what I had to go through to get it. I was also afraid of becoming one of those twitchy losers you see at the pharmacy from time to time, the ones that always have an issue with their prescription. Anyway, a quart of morphine wouldn’t have dulled the mental pain. I just kept thinking that everything I had worked for decades was finished. But there I was, in the belly of the medical-industrial complex, all I could do was just sit and do what I was told.

I was hauled off to x-ray. I could walk, no being wheeled about, just follow the technician to the massive machines. She said as we walked, “You look familiar. Are you a musician?” I said “yes, I’m a classical guitarist.” “Oh now I remember, you played that concert with Microwave Dave at Three caves!” I said “yes, that was me.” “That was a really cool show!”. I agreed. Maybe there will be more really cool shows. Maybe not. Here’s a pic of the concert at Three Caves.


The damage tally after a series of extremely painful x-rays (I had trouble positioning things the way they needed to be to be photographed, but I did the best I could) was a shattered right elbow, broken left wrist, and broken right scapula. Overachieving is overrated for some things.

I was admitted, sent to a room, and the plan was that I would be operated on by the orthopedic trauma surgical team that evening. So no food, no liquids, just an IV drip and the occasional morphine hit. Unfortunately for me a bunch of goobers got themselves boogered up in a car wreck and I was sent to the back of the line. I assume at some point the phrase “hey would you hold my beer for a sec sweetie?” was uttered during the festivities. I was ok, I guess.

It was odd that the palm of my left hand was a normal pink but the right hand had a grayish look to it. This pic isn’t a selfie, it’s a someone elsie. 



Guitarist’s Nightmare 2-Quick-Care Clinic

   The Quick-Care clinic at Propst Drugstore occupies a small corner of the building, just a couple of rooms. I was first in line so they saw me right away. After examining me and taking an x-ray they called the owner, Dr. Allen Campbell, in to see me. I was told they could hear things go “crunch” in my right arm when they listened to it with a stethoscope. Not what I wanted to hear at all, it was starting to sink in that this really was as bad as I thought it was, maybe worse.

I kept thinking, “This is it, no career. It’s done.” Let me try to convey what this meant to me. When you see You Tubes of classical guitar, it’s not usually very interesting, just people sitting in a chair, plucking away. We don’t get to jump around onstage like other guitarists. When I share a show with Michelle Malone at the Flying Monkey I am always a little jealous of that. She looks so cool, bouncing all over the place during her set, and I sit in my chair during mine.

   I’ve been fortunate to get to work with some great musicians as well as play solo, and the collaborations get me into some cool venues. The York Arts Centre in England and Greenwich House in New York for example with my wife and pianist Ingrid von Spakovsky. We had a gig in Ocean City with flutist Pamela Whitman a while back, and I got to play Campanas del Alba for my solo at the the Music Pier. I could look out and see the Atlantic from the stage while I was playing to a huge crowd. Even got a mention in the paper for my solo. I was asked to play the guitar part for Mahler’s 7th with the Huntsville Symphony. After the performance during the applause conductor Carlos Prieto looked right at me and played air guitar and grinned. I get to do a show every summer at the W.C. Handy Festival with blues guitarist Microwave Dave Gallaher and Ingrid at the Zodiac Theatre. The audiences are incredible, they are so into the music and very responsive.  In the morning when I get my coffee and sit down with the Ramirez Elite, a beautiful guitar with gorgeous tone and response and play Bach to start the day, and have that sound envelope me, I realize it’s a privilege few get to experience. Even with my arm and shoulder in severe pain, I was  having to wrap my mind around the very real possibility that all of this could be gone. For good. That hurt a lot worse than the arm and shoulder.

   Dr. Campbell had heard me perform  several times and knew my concerns. I asked him point blank, “is my career over?” He said “You’re going right now to the E.R. at Huntsville Hospital. You will be met there when you walk in the door and the orthopedic surgery people will take you and throw some pins in that elbow and you’ll be playing again in a few weeks.” What I didn’t realize at the time was how desperately I would hang on to those words in the next few weeks, saying them over and over again in my head, hoping they would be true. So off to the E.R. I let Ingrid drive.

Guitarist’s nightmare 1-the accident

    I am home- I can see the Gulf on one side, the bay on the other from the 10th floor condo my wife Ingrid and I rented on Perdido Key. I love the sound of waves, I grew up on the Gulf coast, even worked as a deckhand on a few shrimp-boats.IMAG0733

   Now I’m a classical guitarist (my friend Beth calls me a gassical clitarist), and I smell better at the end of work than when I picked shrimp. I have some really cool gigs coming up with some amazing musicians, a few with the man in the mirror, my archenemy and nemesis. The scars on my left wrist and right elbow are fading now, a full year and three months since the accident that almost terminated my career.  It is time to write

We are hiking on a favorite trail of ours, just minutes from the house, and Ingrid says, “Last night I dreamed you were playing your guitar and a green snake was coiling up around your ankles.” Well that’s unsettling. Usually when she tells me her dreams it’s just trivial, like most dreams are. Mine are just silly and I try to get them out of my head as quickly as I can. “a green snake coiling up around my ankles”- wow. I wonder what that could mean. Ingrid’s late father, Anatol von Spakovsky, could foresee things. I think she got some of that, part of her Russian heritage. That coiling snake thing is creepy. Maybe it’s just nothing. I found out soon enough that it wasn’t.

    When I hit the ground I knew something was horribly wrong, this wasn’t just a fall with a few bruises. I was walking fast on level ground when the toe of my boot caught on a root. A very small root, the size of a !@*#&^?! pencil.

!@*#&^?! (I will not supply profanity in my blog, that is the reader’s prerogative. Be creative and mercilessly profane as you please; if I wanted to convey “gee willikers” or “mercy me!” I would have written it out.) Again, !@*#&^?!

After a brief stint airborne I landed full force on my right elbow and a bit on my left wrist. At the time I thought the wrist was OK. 

Instead of focusing on the excruciating pain like a normal person all I could think was “I won’t be able to play the concert Saturday. No more guitar ever. Career over.” Ingrid helps me up off of the ground, we hike back to the car, and head to the ‘Quick Care Clinic’ at Propst drugstore in Five Points. At this point I have deluded myself that all I have is a dislocated shoulder and it can be popped back in and I can play the concert in six days. The clinic is closed but will open in one hour, so we go home to wait. Ingrid helps me take a shower, even when I am lying to myself I kinda knew I might not get a shower for a long time. I was right.

  While waiting for the clinic to open I had the brilliant idea to try to assess the damage. I went to my studio, picked up  a guitar with my left hand, got it into position, more or less, and then with my left hand pulled my right arm into playing position. Moving the right arm was horribly painful but I was determined, if not especially smart at the time. So I played a measure or two of Bach’s Prelude from the 1st Cello Suite, and then the Preludio from Edin Solis’ Pasaje Abierto. The thought that this might cause nerve damage didn’t cross my mind. The results were less than spectacular, so I painfully extricated myself from my guitar and we went on to the clinic.