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Overcoming my Focal Dystonia Part 2 – Incremental improvements in the beginning (1st Year with videos!)

This is a repost from an older blog into this one about my FD.

With my most recent youtube post of my playing ability since my FD

as of 4/26/14, my rendition of Extreme’s More Than Words 

(I know it’s not perfect, but look at my tremolo ^_^v!)

I feel that I have documented important breakthroughs, along with bitter disappointments with my progression of overcoming my FD.  I decided from the outset of my FD that I would try to video record any sort of progress that I made with my FD, leaving no shame in my playing condition and my lack there-of in technique and performing abilities.   I figured to myself as long as I kept doing these videos, I could have some sort of hope in curing myself to at least be able to play again recreationally as a hobby.  Maybe these videos could potentially be helpful to others who are having the same sort of experiences with their FD as me and could use some encouragement and cheering on.  I  also wanted to watch these videos in the future to remind myself not to suck and maintain my drive to become the champ poster-boy (girl, it) virtuoso player that all conservatories want you to be so that they can make more bank from you (royalties if I do please/ok/thanks, just kidding).

Strangely enough, I had a video of my playing before I was officially diagnosed with FD.

Musically inbetween a rock and a hard place (during my masters in 2011) – Notice my primal scream before my real downfall around 3:56; for those interested in primal screams

Before this recording, my playing was quickly deteriorating to the point where I felt my teachers and colleagues were questioning my ability to play at required level for the program.  My teacher progressively gave me easier and easier pieces that I could barely play without stopping or having a phrasing meltdown, let alone trying to play a piece all the way through.  In efforts to improve by  critically listen to my playing, I decided to video tape my jury pieces to see how I could swing discussions of how crappy my playing was to my teachers and jury members.  As you can see, my playing gotten to the point of where I couldn’t even play simple P-I-M-A-M arpeggios in a Sagreras study (which my teacher tried getting back to the basics; bless her heart), and also my trouble with the Lauro Valses without pooping all over the melodic and musical integrity (“powering through” pieces (using sheer will to control the muscles and dissipate tension by actively releasing) used to be my forte, but clearly this video shows a technical debacle going down).  In the video it showed my active concentration on trying to release the tension in my RH at the sametime that I was was trying to be musical in my phrasing and interpretation, which totally messed up my playing having multiple trains of thought running.

What I thought the problem was that the uncontrollable curling of all my fingers at the midpoints, and was a relatively easy fix.   I also thought that to solve my problem, I could just will it to unflex at that joint to be able to play smoothly (at the time my main/only strategy of overcoming any technical problem was to “power through”), but that didn’t work out too well for me.  My teachers offered various suggestions and alterations to my RH position which further confused my concept of what was considered ‘correct’ RH technique.  As time went on, I quickly became more and more frustrated, but determined to reach an ideal of what is correct playing while at the sametime helplessly observed my playing go further out of control.

By the late spring of 2011, my playing eventually hit a rock bottom to where I couldn’t play a coherent musical phrase and was allowed to delay my 2nd jury hearing.  I went on an adventure visiting multiple doctors to be tested for various hand injuries (being misdiagnosed and treated for guyon’s tunnel syndrome).  After my diagnosis of FD, I weighed my options with my teachers and family about whether or not I could continue my studies and if I would be forced to quit playing guitar.  I was truly devastated by the possibility of wasting all that money just to go half way and being forced to quit, having the feeling of going through this alone because my friends and peers not being able to relate and understand with me, and the very real chance of not being able to do what I dedicated a significant part of my life to; playing and expressing myself with the guitar.

In hindsight, I can now say that I think my FD recovery is a two step process – 1. Fixing all the wonkiness and clearing up any and all issues with RH ergonomics and facility.  2.  Dealing with and minimizing mental and emotional garbage that is attached to my concept of playing guitar “well” or “professionally.”

In the beginning of the recovery (a year or so into it) I only focused on improving my technique, doing things that I talked about in my previous post (hand-aids like finger splints, holding objects in the palm, etc).  It was only mildly successful.  Unfortunately, I was only able to play semi-passable and had to depend on these objects to even be play.

1st video of progress – no hand aid when playing (winter of 2011, approx. 6 months into training)

what you don’t see is that my fingers continue to constantly curl in and I still am actively

trying to release and relax them

 2nd video around the same time – FD getting the best of me with a very clear loss of control over repeated RH patterns

I eventually became fed up with my perception of playing terribly and opt’ed to use only hand-aids to continue playing.  After completing my 2nd and 3rd jury, with the approval of my master’s recital program, I realized that I would not be able to complete my studies without the crutch of hand-aids, which I used on and off for performances for the rest of my first year of recovery.

8 months into recovery, I tried mixing it up and put an oval-8 splint only on my M finger that was ultimately unsuccessful 

Using a mixture of a pingpong ball/cat toy ball, and oval-8 splints on all fingers except the thumb, I continued to ‘power through’ (why didn’t I learn the first time?) expecting to see a change.  Only that it didn’t, it actually made things worse.

my bag of tricks – finger splints, fingerpicks, pingpong ball, and the cat toy ball

I had no control of dynamics, and my phrasing and musicality suffered.  Still, I continued to practice and even played a couple of concerts and my recital with the use of these aids.  I thought my M finger was the culprit, and that if I could somehow stop it’s curling, all the other fingers would magically stop having a mind of their own and follow directions again.  I went against the recommendation of my treating doctor of only practicing up to 15 minutes a day and practiced up to several hours a day trying to fix my RH problems.   Even now I still practice as much as I can (as time allows, unfortunately the real world catches up fast after graduating).

During my last year of my studies, I was fortunate enough to take both alexander technique and dalcroze.  Even though at the time I thought it was a waste a time, I’ve come to realize it actually did help me complete the first step of my actual recovery; to become aware of my FD movements.  Because of the classes, I begrudgingly spent many hours doing yoga and reevaluating body mechanics in music.  But in all honesty I probably wouldn’t have gotten to this stage of recovery without them.  I can still remember vividly the reaction of the class when doing a demonstration playing Villa-Lobos’s Prelude 1 in AT class and for a split moment being able to play 2-3 seconds of non dystonic movement, after clearing my mind briefly with the advice of my AT teacher (Debra Adams, you are awesome!).  It really hit home for me when I took a video of this phenomenon:

involuntary sideways movement of my A finger, 11 months in

I realized that my M finger wasn’t the real culprit to my dystonia, it was the relationships between the fingers when various types of muscles where used in my finger strokes.  In the video it shows that my A finger has involuntary sideways movement when performing a free stroke.  But what this video doesn’t show is that in my mind, when I was firing the muscles to perform the A finger stroke, the other fingers where also involuntarily firing, causing confusion and creating weird and excess tension in my hand.  After this realization, I took the task to really try to recover by not using hand-aids anymore as a crutch in my playing (This was an easy transition because I no longer had the requirement to perform at my highest level because I was able to graduate, thank God).  Because of this, my playing took a real heavy dive and had to start over again learning and playing from square one.  I spent many hours a day doing simple free and rest strokes with one finger, not focusing on what is ‘correct’ technique, but trying to become aware of the muscle relationships involved with performing specific strokes with various fingers and finger combinations.  I felt that I was moving at a snails pace and doubted my ability to recover.  Thankfully it did start to pay off and I slowly began to improve, even though at the time it wasn’t noticeable to me.

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