I’m not sure the first time I noticed it, but an incident from an early gig sticks in my mind. During a matinee of On Your Toes, something strange suddenly happened with my left hand and the flute solo in “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue” wasn’t just right. I got “the look” from the conductor and some of the guys looked away and smirked. Embarrassed, I tried to laugh along good-naturedly, but the moment got logged in my brain. A warning.
Over time, I noticed that something strange was going on with my hands. You’d think it would be obvious, but it wasn’t at first. A general clumsiness could make it awkward to get keys out of my pocket or to pick up change. There was also occasional soreness and puffiness in the meaty part of both hands. Difficult licks that I had to play resisted coming around. I’d try all the tricks I’d been taught by my famous teachers, but sometimes no amount of practicing would clean up the passages.
When the problems began I was a young musician without health insurance, so I didn’t immediately see a doctor. I was fortunate, in spite of my hands, to eventually get my own Broadway show and the health insurance that came with it. In my quest for a cure, physiatrists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, physical therapists and neurologists, along with lessons, yoga, Alexander Technique and Feldenkreis classes, became my social life.
The roller coaster of hope and disappointment would begin each time I tried something new. At the initial visits the practitioners said things like, “I feel I can help you” and then, a few visits later, “I think I see some movement.” But nothing moved and nothing helped. I stretched and iced throughout the day, had extra keys and extensions added to my instruments, and tried to practice less while maintaining a busy playing schedule.
Some of the procedures were painful and included jabbing long needles into pressure points or sitting for extended periods in traction. When the doctors suggested injections of Botulism toxins, or an operation to move my ulnar nerve from my elbow to my forearm, I declined, drawing the line at becoming a science project.
As pay-for-play musicians, we’re only as good as our last note and expected to be close to perfect every performance. This can sometimes be a stressful way to pay the rent, but with my hands not cooperating, the stress factor increased exponentially. At performances I could only sit there with the clock ticking, knowing that there was nothing I could do but wait for my hands to betray me.
And they did. A renegade finger would pop off a key, as if of its own accord – and if it happened during a solo, I’d hear an amplified mistake bouncing off the back wall of the theatre. Trying to protect my career, I’d make excuses or be reduced to silence. It was frustrating that I could play 99 percent of the music fine, but as a woodwind doubler often playing the first book, the other 1 percent was becoming a deal breaker.
I was eventually diagnosed with focal dystonia, and pronounced incurable. This was a huge blow but ultimately a relief in a way. As much as I miss my career, performing, and the camaraderie of musicians, I now believe the most debilitating thing was not the problem itself, but the damage caused by having to keep the secret of its existence.
I told virtually no one, because at the time I believed that if people knew about my problem, I would lose the gigs that I needed to try to get cured. Occasionally a doctor would ask me if I knew another patient, a musician, and I’d worry that my secret was out. My life had effectively been on hold for over ten years, and this secret had wormed its way into every aspect of my personal and professional life.
Ten years of bottled up fear and uncertainty took its toll. Finally, feeling isolated, I knew there was no way out – except to get out, of music. It was difficult to change careers at nearly 40, with no traditional resume or work experience, but after a few rough years I’m now the Financial Services Manager at a major public relations firm.
My layman’s advice to anyone suffering with this is to face it head on. See a doctor immediately and be on the lookout for personal danger signs such as depression, drug or alcohol abuse, as well as for relationship or financial problems. During this traumatic time, search out trusted musician friends who understand that not being able to play goes to our very cores.
Remember that you’re not alone. This is a real disability and there are caring government and private organizations that offer help. And if you need advice or a sympathetic ear, contact me through Allegro – I’ve been there.