My Brush with Task Specific Dystonia
Task specific dystonia or focal dystonia is a condition so feared among performing artists that it is rarely spoken of. That is because it has been a career ender for many accomplished musicians. It is a neurological problem that is only dimly understood but is most commonly triggered by over practicing coupled with anxiety. Many well known musicians have suffered from it, most famously the pianist Leon Fleisher. Some, like Fleisher, have recovered, while others have stopped playing or performing. Others have modified their techniques to continue performing.
What Happened to Me
The glitch occurred after several months of practicing for an audition. In hindsight, the audition was a bad fit for me. For one, it was a percussion position and I have always been more of a timpanist. Also, I had a day job and preparing for a major audition is a full time endeavor, much like training for the Olympics. Intellectually, I knew the project was quixotic at best.
In spite of my concerns I had my reasons for attempting it. It was for a big job in my home town orchestra–there would probably not be another opportunity for me to give it a try. Also, I had a friend and fellow extra player who was participating. I told myself that if I could somehow advance past the prelims, it would bode well for future extra-hood. So, armed with my carefully constructed rationalizations I persisted, flailing away at the long list of excerpts and solos in every waking moment that I was not at work. After many months of this and the attendant dread that my slower than expected progress engendered, it happened. I was tapping on a practice pad during my usual warm up when all of a sudden my right hand sort of seized up. I shook it out and took a break but it was no better when I tried to continue. It soon became apparent that something was wrong with my right index finger. An A-B comparison with my left index finger revealed that is no longer moved smoothly through the arc of its motion, it was on or off, like a binary switch. Not good. The digit needs to be continuous in its motion. Analog, if you will. I withdrew from the audition shortly thereafter and hoped that a break would fix things. It didn’t.
At first, I didn’t know what it was. I had heard of the condition but wrote it off as ‘nerve issues,’ which wasn’t wrong, exactly. Nerves were at issue. If I had been a full time performer I might have panicked more than I did. Also, I was very lucky. It was limited to one finger as opposed to several fingers or the whole hand; a comparatively mild case. I could still play with some minor tweaks but I couldn’t put in long hours practicing as I had in my school days. I quickly found that if I warmed up slowly and methodically it made a big difference and I was able to continue on as a part time player.
A New Way of Playing
A few years after onset, I started the WirePilots with my brother Dan. The plan was for me to play frame drums like the bodhran and the tar, but that soon gave way to a more elaborate set up based around a Korg Wavedrum and a cajón. I hold a stick (actually a Hot Rod or some variation thereof) in my left hand and nothing in my right, which I use on the cajón or Wavedrum. If I’m not holding a stick, there’s no dystonia. The glitch is task specific and that task involves sticks.
After nine years I decided to try Botox injections. I went to a neurologist and they quickly confirmed my diagnosis. I was told it was a classic case with spasms in the right index finger. It took a while to get the Botox from a specialty pharmacy and it wasn’t cheap, as I hadn’t met my prescription deductible yet. Still, I went ahead and got the shot. She injected me between the forearm and wrist at the bottom of the arm and it took a few seconds. I was told that it would take three to five days to take affect. If it took affect. The percentage of people that it helps is low but there really isn’t any other therapy that doesn’t involve multiple expensive sessions with a specialist like Joaquin Farias in Toronto. They said it would only be $750 out of pocket for me to get another shot of botox. A mere $750! I declined, as non-rich people do. In fact, I would have declined if I was rich. I had lost interest in botox and later learned that even if it worked (see Leon Fleisher above) it doesn’t last; you have to keep going back to the botox well.
I have given up on fixing the glitch and that’s OK. With a good warm up session and regular practice there isn’t anything that I have to play that I can’t play. In fact, I rarely think about it. I didn’t have to quit music or make too many changes and for that I am grateful.Posted on: March 16, 2022, by : Ted