Focal Dystonia


The Dream, Focal Dystonia, and the 5 String Banjo


The Dream

In 1996 I was hot after a career as a banjo player in an alternative rock band. I had written much of the new music for the 5 string banjo in Colorado and proceeded to move to Southern California to pursue the possibilities of this unique style and band instrumentation becoming a commercial success. In addition to my banjo/voice the band included electric guitar (specifically bottleneck slide for leads) bass, and drums. It's difficult to describe verbally what this music sounded like, but it was kinda' like Bela Flec meets Journey. Click HERE for a sound sample of the way it WAS..

The Dream In Peril
I noticed a bit of a twitch in my right index finger when performing forward rolls (a rapid thumb index middle) but it was only on occasion and didn't seem to thwart the vast majority of my playing. When the recordings were nearing completion I began rehearsing the band which would soon perform the music at some LA clubs. This would hopefully prove the music viable not only in the form of recordings but prove it successful on stage. Building up a following would help my cause as well. To this end my practice time, both personal and with the band increased to no less than 6 hours per day. That's when (what I realized much later) my full blown Focal Dystonia kicked in.

My index finger became so eratic that I could no longer play the avant-garde licks that characterized this music. Right off the bat I chalked it up to fatigue and told the guys in the band to give me a week to rest. However, each ensuing attempt to re-establish my repertoire was met with the same unexplainable malady of my index finger.

The Dream Doctor?

So on I went to see what the medical profession had to say about it. During the next 6 months I saw a hand surgeon, a carpo-tunnel specialist, a physical therapist, an osteopath and a chiropractor. All of them were baffled by my description of a loss of motion which involved no pain. 'Couldn't be tendinitus or carpo-tunnel and at that time no-one had any answers. I finally had to inform the band that the problem seemed to be long-term and I could no longer expect them to stick with me when they had other opportunities.

The Dream Dashed

After countless attempts to regain my former prowess I finally had to shelve any aspirations of success on the banjo. Each failure to regain the expertise I once had threw me into a depressed funk and I was no longer much fun to be around. This meant that I would have to forsake all the music written for the project, as well as the recordings made. This made me question even further my move to California in the first place.

I began to pour my efforts into instruments that I loved less, but could still play, particularly violin/fiddle. I finished up a few loose ends on my recordings with these instruments and had a CD created which included all of the recordings from Colorado and California, for no other purpose than to sell a few of them and to have it as a keepsake of the project I had poured my heart into for over a decade. (As well as the instrument I had poured my life into)

Hope?

A few years ago my brother in law Dr. Mark Harrison sent me an article about "Focal Dystonia" a condition which explained my symptoms precisely. In essence it is a slight brain injury which smears the rapidly passing signals to the fingers. It is probably due to overuse of speedy passages which are rehearsed so many times over that the brain ceases to recognize the specific micro-movements within a given musical passage. The good news was that my condition finally had a name and there were actual medical professionals who were beginning to work on this condition in the late 1990's and early 2000's. 

The bad news was that the only known way to manage the condition was to switch to playing left-handed. I considered this, but now that would also mean switching to left handed with instruments like the violin and cello, which would complicate matters much more than if banjo was my sole instrument. I was also running a successful music ministry playing everything but the banjo and I was having some reasonable success as a Celtic fiddler. I would need years off of work to make such a switch so this option was (and currently is) off the table.

I have recently been finding practice techniques over the web which aim to slowly reteach the brain to play, by varying the physical technique used so that the brain has to rethink the motions involved. I occasionally make it back up to about 70% of my former capabilities and the thought is still interesting enough for me to give it one more try, usually every summer. I can now play well at slow tempos, which doesn't help me much on banjo, but for my finger-style guitar at church it suffices well. I continue to seek help and am currently in correspondence with Dr. Alison McKenzie who is an expert on the condition from Chapman University. 

'Hoping the art of medicine can catch up to the art of music on this issue! It has affected a host of musicians, some of whose names you may recognize: Kieth Emerson (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer) Billy McGlaughlin, famous classical guitarist Liona Boyd, and a whole mess of banjo pickers, which doesn't surprise me given the physically demanding nature of the instrument. Who knows how many musicians in the past have given up their craft not knowing anything about this condition before it finally got a name about 15 years ago?

May God bless the progress of those who might find answers as well as the hearts of those who have had to lay down their beloved instrument.

AE

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