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Overcoming My Focal Dystonia part 1 – Introduction

I feel that I am now beginning to overcome my dystonic playing (at the time I wrote this- it was March 2014, now its 2016.. time flies!) and want to write about my experiences with trying to overcome it.  I hope that the information I provide will help others who are also dealing with the sort of problems and issues.  I plan on having a series of posts that will include what I think were my causes, solutions and my process of overcoming my dystonic playing.

I’ve read and heard about many different stories of how other people’s dystonia began and I think I was no different.  But I also think there were some indicators of my playing before that I should have recognized and thought of to correct or do.

I first noticed wonky-ness in my right hand during my undergrad studies.  Even though I felt that I had full control of my hands, during my tremolos my M finger would curl involuntary into the palm of my hand at the mid joint.  I didn’t think much of it, and continued to push myself into harder and harder rep.  Flash-forward a few years to my preparation for graduate auditions.  I thought a ‘good short-cut’ would be to put a rubber band connecting my pinky and ring finger together, so that they move more together.  At the time I thought it could only help me, but in hindsight I now think it is a terrible idea.  It was also around this time of graduate auditions that I began to notice that I was starting to lose control in my playing.  After all my auditions were finished, I thought that my problems were because of overpracticing and took the summer off until the start of school to play again hoping that my playing would return to normal.  But it never quite did.

My playing spiraled out of control during the ending of my 1st year of my masters.  During that time, I  switched teachers, in which their teaching method and style was completely different than what I was taught. My former teacher totally revamped my technique particularly in my right hand.  I did not take any time off to rebuild my hands but instead continued to charge forward in my rep playing.  Eventually to my dismay, I did not get any better (at that point in time I was regularly practicing 5-8 hours a day) and had to be put to easier rep that I could barely play through.  I knew that something was wrong when I could barely play through a Sagreras P-I-M-A arppegio etude.

I decided to get tested for common hand problems like carpel tunnel, and questioned with my teachers and peers if I had symptoms of other injuries like repetitive stress, etc.  The hand specialist that I went to first diagnosed me with guyon’s tunnel syndrome.  At that point, I had a gut feeling that I didn’t have guyon’s tunnel but decided to seek treatment and PT anyway because I thought it couldn’t hurt.  I went for a series of PT sessions that went for a few months, in which it still did not stop my involuntary curling (the PT was really great though!  It totally helped with temporary relief of my muscle tension in my forearm.).  I went back to the hand specialist and it was then he suggested that I have focal dystonia to which I was then sent on my way to get further testing.

I took an EMG to rule out any muscle or nerve problems in my hands.  Surprisingly, the test showed that the nerves in my left hand were slower in response than my right hand, but still to this day I do not have sort of issues with my fretting hand and lack of control, etc.

With the results the hand specialist referred me to a specific doctor that dealt with hand issues among musicians, particularly with dystonia.

In hindsight, meeting with the doctor to find that I had dystonia was a blessing for me because it truly made me look my technique and rebuilt it in a way that works with my body.  I still do remember playing Bach’s 997 Prelude in which I couldn’t help but have my fingers flail and curl without any control.  The suggestions he gave me to treat my dystonia I still remember and use to this day.  The doctor told me the medical perception of musician’s dystonia; it is not curable and told me plan to take time off away from any sort of professional playing to tackle the situation.  The doctor told me various ways that people deal with it, pills, shots, etc, but I really focused and hooked on the idea of restructuring my practice regiment and physical aides to combat the involuntary movement.

I thought it was ridiculous that the doctor first suggested that I change my practicing to 5 – 10 minutes a day.  Without explaining why, I was against this idea because I had recitals and gigs that I had to prepare for that would need valuable practicing time.  I did not implement this idea at first and it wasn’t until later that I realized how right his suggestion was when implementing of what I thought the concept was in my own recovering process (I will explain more later).  After playing the Bach 997 Prelude, the suggestion the doctor gave me for physical aides I immediately saw the value and utilized them immediately.  He had a few Oval-8 finger splints (originally designed for trigger finger, but had usefulness for dystonic movements of the fingers) that he let me try on.  I tried playing the Prelude again but this time it sounded way better and musical.  Even though I still had the urge to curl in my fingers, the splints prevented them from doing so and they allowed me to play again.

After that meeting, I went and bought some Oval-8 splints for myself in which I used to play.  After several months, my teacher (switched again the beginning of my 2nd year of study) arranged a meeting with one of her friends to talk to me about dystonia.  What I learned from this meeting also was also a revelation in which the concepts I learned about I use in my retraining.

I was shocked to find out that many guitarists today have developed some sort of hand injury, and many of them had developed focal dystonia that inhibits their playing.

Another thing that really stuck with me though was the idea of using various objects as a physical playing aide.  My teacher’s friend recommended me to use a ping pong ball in my palm of my hand.  It was done so that when I played, my fingers involuntary curling would be stopped by the ball.  My teacher took this concept a step further when she helped me shop and find a cat toy that was the same size as a ping pong ball, but lighter and more flexible to allow greater movement of the fingers.  I used the cat toy to finish my studies, play my master’s recital, and other music festivals and gigs.  It was really convenient because you couldn’t see that I was grasping a the ball in my hand unless you were looking me playing from the side; most audiences may have not even realized that I had a problem even though I have told previous students and clients that I had troubles with dystonia.

After graduating and being relieved from the fear of not being able to graduate in-lieu of massive student loan debt I’ve accrued, my playing became less serious as I was able to finally think about what it meant to play guitar.  I thought my choices were to continue playing with dystonia, or to stop playing and try to rebuild my technique from the ground up.  I accepted that a professional career performing would be out of the picture in the immediate future and began to think about my career options in music with and without dystonia.

I came to the point that using physical aides to play was now hindering my ability instead of helping it.  I was left with starting to play classical guitar again like a beginner who was being introduced to the concepts.  Since then (almost a year now) I have tried to not use any aides even when playing gigs.  I now only use it if all the sudden my dystonic movements get really bad during a gig.  It was definitely a humbling experience and continues to be.  But thankfully to my previous retraining, I feel that the concepts I used and adopted while using the physical aides sped up my retraining when I applied them to my playing.

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