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Dystonia

Read about pianists who have had dystonia, but experienced great benefit after studying the Taubman Approach.

The following represents portions of a response to a letter in Clavier magaine, January 1999.

… For those unfamiliar with this neuro-muscular problem, it is particularly frustrating in two ways. Firstly, the condition is not necessarily painful, so it can progress quietly to a debilitating level. Secondly, the problem is primarily involuntary, so it is the most difficult of all arts medicine injuries to overcome. In addition, dystonia is a physical puzzle that medical research has not yet solved.

I worked with Edna Golandsky to overcome my specific problem, the control of the right index finger. Because this particular pedagogy is both pioneering and scientific, the understanding gained from working with one person adds to the knowledge available to the next. Perhaps for that reason I had positive results in regaining the fluency in my right hand.

Fortunately, I began working with Edna Golandsky within eight months after I realized I had a problem. Beginning in the fall of 1992, I commuted for lessons twice a month for the first nine months. After that, because of my schedule and money, sessions were less frequent.

In spite of a frustrating setback – I broke my right wrist in the fall of 1996 – I made remarkable progress and feel fortunate to have found someone who both understands the injury and has the insight to correct it. While I still need to make progress in certain fast passages, I will perform with two hands again this year in a recital that includes a variety of pieces, ranging from Debussy Feux d’artifice, Chopin Barcarolle, Bartok Suite Op. 14, and a group of Brahms pieces from Op. 76 and 118.

I am indeed grateful to Edna Golandsky, Dorothy Taubman, and to all dystonia students who came before me.

- Ruby Morgan 

Furman University

Greenville, South Carolina

 


 

Music, for as long as I can remember, has been the most important part of my life. I grew up listening to the recordings of Rubinstein, Horowitz and Gould and reading books by Loesser and Schonberg. Another constant companion was my physical discomfort in playing. I didn’t know it was supposed to be any other way. My teacher during high school advocated many of the ‘old school’ tenets including finger isolation and strengthening which I was later to discover were leading causes of injury.

At the conservatory level, I had the opportunity to work with some of the country’s most illustrious artist/teachers. These teachers were each more than capable of imparting their credo of artistic values to students, but were completely ill-equipped to handle a student who was still struggling with the piano. Many of them noticed the symptoms of bad playing – finger lifting, a thin, brittle tone, lack of forearm participation – but none of them were able to propose a comprehensive program to eliminate my bad habits while replacing them with more efficient skills.

It was with this history that I entered the final recital semester of my doctoral program. A few months after I had passed this recital, I was at home practicing Liszt’s A Major Concerto, when the phone rang. As I picked up the receiver, I had the sensation that the forearm tendon leading to my 4th finger had snapped like a rubber band. After this, not only was playing the piano an unpleasant experience, it was a physical impossibility. My hand was simply too weak.

For years I tried one form of therapy after another to no avail. By this time my injury had actually worsened and could now be categorized as focal dystonia, a condition in which the player loses control of his/her hand and in which certain passages trigger a physical spasm causing the fingers to pull involuntarily beneath the hand. It was at this point that I decided to give up music altogether and become a stockbroker. As I was starting my new life as a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, I decided to give my mangled right hand one last chance and take a few lessons with Nina Scolnick, a specialist in the work of Dorothy Taubman.

From the beginning, Nina impressed me as being a wonderfully caring and involved teacher. Firstly, she had the patience to read and memorize an incredibly detailed 5-year history of my injury and symptoms – something that even I was too impatient to re-read in its entirety. Secondly, she was able to use this knowledge to tailor a very specific program to my extremely tricky hand.

The hardest thing about focal dystonia (which any medical doctor will tell you is not curable) is that the player has no control over her movements. Thus arises the conundrum: how does one change something over which one has no control? Nina had to invent new and creative ways to trick my hand into doing the right thing. At this, she is truly extraordinary.

Nina has also changed the way I hear music. A consummate artist who has an amazing wealth of knowledge concerning music of Schubert and Mozart, she has given a great deal of thought to the relationship between sound and movement. In Nina’s conception of music, there are no ‘dead spaces’, so arm movements continue as a means of linking ideas which are separated by rests or by longer notes. Additionally, she is particularly brilliant when it comes to finding innovative ways of synchronizing movements with the rhythmic aspects of the music.

When I started lessons with Nina five years ago, my descending right hand scales went at the ‘break-neck’ speed of one note to the tick of the metronome at 100. Today I play them at 192 in sixteenths. Unfortunately, I am only able to make the trip from Michigan to California 2 or 3 times a year, otherwise I’m sure I would be even farther along. When I last saw Nina, she declared me to be symptom-free: something I thought I’d never hear, and I’m sure at times, something she thought she’d never be able to say.

To anyone who is suffering with a hand injury and thinks it is so bad they’ll never find a way out of it, I would say there is always a way out as long as there are a few people as caring and insightful as Nina Scolnick.

- Rachel Morgan

 


 

I was first introduced to Edna Golandsky and the Taubman work by a friend in the Philippines who had master classes with her. I was a year away from graduating with my Bachelor of Music degree and thus was preparing for my graduation recital. I was also in the process of applying for a Master’s program in the United States. My friend told me that if I was interested in doing my graduate studies in the U.S., I should try to get in touch with Edna to see about possibly studying with her. He showed me the videos of his master classes and I was immediately taken by what I saw. I sent her tapes and videos of some of my performances with a letter stating my interest in studying with her. I explained that I wanted to improve my playing so that I could overcome the limitations and problems I was experiencing.

I was accepted by her, as well as the graduate program at the City College of New York. I came here thinking I would finish a Master’s degree in two years and then go home to share what I learned. I changed my plans after I found out that many of my problems were due to dystonia in the second finger of my right hand, a condition that can take some time to correct. After already having played big and difficult pieces, it was not easy to accept the fact that I had to go back to basics such as five- finger patterns and scale passages. But the fact that my left hand was not injured and thus picked up the technique quite easily made me realize what learning this work could do for me. So I stayed on, and every lesson became the highlight of my week — always learning new things and at the same time feeling better and better on the piano.

I have been with Edna for a few years now and there is no sign of dystonia. I’ve regained control of my right hand and am slowly building repertoire. These days, pieces which seemed difficult before are surprisingly attainable. Gone are the days of hour long warm ups that leave me tired before I even start playing my pieces — I basically sit at the piano and start playing right away, fingers moving easily. If a problem arises, Edna has a solution. Finally, there is an answer to every technical problem that comes up.

Though my injury is gone, I am still refining my technique. At the same time, we are starting to work on the other aspect of performance — that of expressing the music. Here is where one discovers the true impact of the Taubman technique, as well as the vast knowledge that Edna can impart. With the coordinate movements of the technique as well as my teacher’s keen ear and knowledge of music, tone, phrasing, rhythm and so forth, I can finally realize and do what I want with the music. Now I know that limitations in expressing the music are not a result of an under practiced OR over practiced hand, but rather of some missing elements in the playing. I still have a lot to learn, but I know I’m learning the right way with the right teacher. It feels good to play again.

- Victor Dizon 

MA Piano Performance

 


 

I was diagnosed with focal dystonia in 1990 after having earned my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Piano Performance, as well as Solo Piano and Chamber Music Diplomas in Europe. After being told there was no “cure” or even effective therapy to deal with my condition, I spent the next ten years devising my own exercises and technical tricks (redistributing notes from right to left hand, leaving out problematic notes, etc.) that kept me going as a professional pianist. I maintained a full performing schedule, but was always uncomfortable and unsatisfied with my performances.

Edna Golandsky was invited to give a lecture and master class at the university where I was teaching. She piqued my interest, but the Taubman Approach seemed to be an esoteric system only accessible to severely injured pianists who could no longer play at all, and I thought that wasn’t me! I did have a private coaching with Edna and she was very supportive and encouraging.

With a grant from the institution with which I was associated, I attended two Taubman summer sessions, and I was convinced that this was the way forward for me. I spent the next two years traveling to New York on a monthly basis and incorporating the technique into my playing: the results have been remarkable. I have just finished accompanying 8 recitals and various juries, competitions and concerts in the last 2 months and am free of the technical limitations that have inhibited my artistic and musical expression for the last 10 years. I credit the patience, concern and support of John Bloomfield and Edna Golandsky for my return to pianistic well-being: I now enjoy playing the piano again, and look forward to my practicing and performing in a way that I have not for a long time.

For any pianist who is unsatisfied musically or technically, I cannot encourage strongly enough that he or she give the Taubman Approach a try. I was certainly skeptical at first, but am now totally convinced that it can make a dramatic difference in one’s pianistic and musical life.

- John Cozza

 


 

Overcoming Dystonia

I suppose that I would describe myself as the ultimate control woman, one who spent a fair number of years as the maker of my own destiny. People that fall into this “driven” category manage to get a fair amount accomplished, but in my case, my ambition, paired with a faulty technique, was a recipe for disaster.

In the spring of 1994, I performed the MacDowell Piano Concerto No. 2 with the LaCrosse Symphony, just six weeks after giving birth to my third child. I knew it wasn’t good timing, but I just couldn’t let the opportunity go by. It was a real push. Three months after the performance, my RH index finger began to curl under ever so subtly. I tried rectifying the problem with homemade stints, but the curling only worsened. By the following year, I was unable to use my RH for typing and piano playing and resorted to LH repertoire exclusively.

The search for a cure was a long bedraggled journey from orthopedics to physical therapy to occupational therapy to rolfing to acupuncture….etc. I received an endless stream of theories that brought no relief and more frustration. At the end of this line of ineffectual local help came a referral to see Dr. Alice Brandfonbrenner in Chicago. She gave me a diagnosis of focal dystonia, and the cheery news that I would never play solo repertoire again. Depressing, to say the least.

A few months passed and I had to opportunity to share my story with a colleague from Luther College in Decorah, IA. He remembered that Bob Shannon, an old college friend and current faculty at Oberlin Conservatory, had some relief from a playing-related injury and suggested that I call him for advice. Mr. Shannon was sympathetic and recommended a trip to New York City to see either Dorothy Taubman or Edna Golandsky. His kind words offered a glimmer of hope!

Edna was fabulous in our first meeting. She guided me through that initial lesson and several sessions at the Taubman Institute the following summer with great care and thoughtful consideration of every aspect of my hand. Once I gave myself over the wisdom of the work, I made slow but sure improvement. I eventually was able to play one note without my hand collapsing! At the end of the summer session, it was clear that I needed to continue lessons and would need to find a teacher willing to make regular trips to the Midwest.

Teresa Dybvig was facilitating a support group at the Institute that summer which I attended regularly. Her direct but compassionate manner, coupled with the fact that she was willing to travel to teach the Taubman work, inspired me to return home and find a studio full of interested pianists willing to share expenses for her travel. That was the fall of 1996. Her teaching was so successful that her studio has grown to include studios in the Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago areas as well as in LaCrosse.

Teresa Dybvig’s persistent work and insightful eyes in the Midwest has brought healing to my hands and those of many others who were searching for answers. Terry and Edna belied that “experts” who said that I would never play again. They restored to me the joy of playing the piano. Today I don’t even consider myself someone who has dystonia. It is a thing of the past. I currently perform regularly as Assistant Professor of Music at Viterbo University, and play for services, sometimes several in a week, as Director of Music at the Roncalli Newman Center. I will be forever grateful for this tremendous gift in my life.

- Mary Ellen Haupert

 


 

So yesterday, I was in the middle of writing an essay when I stopped all of a sudden and ran to the piano, totally inspired, and began practicing these Scriabin preludes I’ve been learning. The end. …Big deal, right? Well, for me, it kind of is. Two years ago, that scenario would have been completely impossible. You see, two years ago, I had focal dystonia.
      

Dystonia is a condition in which the brain loses control over a specific part of the body. In pianists, this is usually caused by excessive curling, stretching, and isolating of the fingers while playing. This disorder is said by the medical profession to be incurable. By itself, dystonia is painless; however, I had already been injured for four years before developing it, having had run-ins with tendonitis, carpal tunnel, thoracic outlet syndrome, and “localized and radiating pain.” Therefore, all of the involuntary contracting of already inflamed muscles and tendons involved in this new injury definitely hurt.
      

When I began showing symptoms of dystonia, I was a senior at a performing arts high school preparing to give my senior recital. About two months before the recital, I noticed that my hands were more curled than usual, and they were beginning to spasm involuntarily – suddenly tightening into fists for a second or two. I didn’t really think much of it, and I kept practicing. They didn’t spasm when I was playing, so I didn’t mind. What did bother me was that the faster I tried to play, the slower my hands seemed to go. This frustrated me to no end. I felt like I was losing control over my playing, which is exactly what was happening. I also noticed that as I practiced to play a piece faster, my hands actually moved slower. I gave the recital and stopped playing completely, but my hands continued to get worse, gradually becoming more and more curled until one day, I woke up and couldn’t open them at all. I used a pair of wrist braces full-time to keep the bridges of my hands from collapsing, the last obstacle preventing my hands from becoming two useless balls of tangled fingers.
      

At this point, I was dropping most things I touched, had to wake up three hours before going anywhere, and was using voice-activation software to do my schoolwork. Any typing was done with pencils stuck in my fists – a VERY slow process (but still faster than knuckles). When I attended the Golandsky Institute’s summer symposium for the second time that summer, I became known as the “girl with no hands.”
      

I began studying with Edna Golandsky at the end of August 2008. It became immediately apparent that the movements I had used at the piano had translated into everything else I did in the course of my day. The culprits of my injury – curling, stretching, finger isolation, collapsed wrist, tension, relaxation, etc. – were not just present when I played the piano. I curled when I held a mug of coffee. I twisted when I opened a door. So…we began by working on turning a doorknob. Eventually, I graduated to holding water bottles. Finally, one day in September, I got to touch the piano. I learned how to drop on one note consistently without pain, and then how to move from note to note, then intervals. By November, I had no signs of dystonia, and all pain was gone.
      

It is currently November 2010, nearly three years since I first showed signs of dystonia, and as I mentioned, I am learning some Scriabin preludes. I am no longer injured – the only time I ever feel discomfort when playing is when I move in an unhealthy manner, in which case, I correct the movement and continue without problems. My life has essentially returned to normal. I typed this document without using pencils. I write papers, bake, and of course, play the piano, without any issues whatsoever. Most importantly, I do not have to wake up three hours before going anywhere...thank goodness. I am currently in the process of opening my own piano studio, hoping to earn my certification through the Golandsky Institute so that I can teach the Taubman Approach professionally. It is my belief that every pianist deserves the opportunity to learn this technique. I cannot imagine what could have happened had I not come across it. Certainly, I would not be leaping from my computer to sit at the piano and practice Scriabin for an hour.

- Megan Coiley