Friday, August 12, 2005

Courage in the face of adversity

I finally got to listen to Alex Klein! I just purchased a CD yesterday of Wind Concertos by Cimarosa, Molique, and Moschelles (Cedille Records) and it features Alex Klein on oboe and Mathieu Dofour on flute. I haven't listened to it closely yet but so far I was very touched by his playing. I found his playing to be very clean and beautiful.

The jacket insert mentioned his problem with focal dystonia and so I searched on it some on the web. I found the message below on the oboe BBoards.

Sometimes I feel guilty that I spend a lot of time feeling sorry for myself for not being able to start young, blah, blah, blah. And here is this heartwrenching story of someone at the very top of the game having to deal with a very cruel twist of fate. I don't know him but I feel like if I met him I'd maybe just cry. I can't fathom what went through his mind as he first struggled with all this. It takes a very strong and special person to deal with this the way he has.

Dear friends and colleagues,

The departure of any principal player from any major symphony orchestra for whatever reason is always newsworthy. When someone departs earlier than expected for reasons that cannot be immediately understood, a natural rise in hearsays and half-truths usually occurs.

In order to satisfy this natural curiosity over "what is going on", as well as to pass on the knowledge I have obtained through my ordeal, please allow me to offer a few words on the subject.

Firstly, I am not quitting the oboe, and plan on playing for many decades still. I am also not "disabled" in any way that would compromise my ability to play anything I have enjoyed playing before in the oboe repertory, be it a Bach sonata, a Pasculli concerto or a Brahms Symphony.

Secondly, the name of the beast is "Musician's Focal Dystonia". It is not at all related to tendonities, carpal tunnel syndrome, over use syndrome, repetitive movement syndrome, or any other muscular ailment used to describe problems encountered by musicians. Focal Dystonia is a neurological issue, not muscular, not tendon-related, not bone, not posture. The issue is supposedly located in the brain. Practicing more or less won't matter. Playing faster or slower won't matter. It is completely painless (at least in my case), offering no tingling in the fingers, no dormant feel, no spike pain of any kind.

So, what is going on?

My situation is (if I can say "thankfully") small in comparison with other musicians who have acquired this illness, and it is limited only to the 3rd and 4th fingers of my left hand, and, by its close association with the 4th finger, the pinky is also thrown in as a co-conspirator. These two (or three) fingers don`t work in synch anymore. Playing, say, from a B to a G, will invariably create a fumble, as the third ("A") finger is too slow to come down and the forth ("G") finger is too fast.

This occurs because the message being sent from the brain, asking this or that finger to come down at a precise time, gets garbled somehow, perhaps because of the death of a neuron or two somewhere in the middle of the pathway, and the fingers then get "confused", unable to respond properly and on time.

Inevitably, and as it occurs with every part of our body that receives less nerve or movement input, there is a little bit of atrophy involved. Some patients see their hands gradually curl or attain a disformed look. That is not as clear in my case, but I did find that I can play better if my hands are not centered on the oboe, as if my fingers are gradually curling down and away to the side, away from the oboe.

That led to the idea of adding "bridges" to the oboe, and I attached a number of them on the upper joint, to the point that the fingering on my oboe now resembles that of a saxophone, with the affected fingers now playing away from the main body of the oboe. That seemed to help take some pressure off the muscles I was using to force my fingers into place.

The addition of the bridges, plus numerous muscle treatments designed to undo the secondary damage and tension being added to my muscles as I tried to continue to play, have helped me regain most of my playing abilities.

With time, I am now able to play up to an hour a day or so without incurring too much muscle tension. If I play beyond that, my muscles are not able to relax by the time I play again the next day. If I do this continuously, in a few weeks I will develop tendonities from the muscle and tendon stress I am putting the hands through. This has happened a few times.

The answer now seems to be for me to reduce the amount of playing I do, so that it can fit into the hour or so a day which I can do. Hopefully, with time, I can enlarge this time span, and that is certainly my goal. But handling the intensity of orchestra playing right now (many days we play upwards of five hours, not counting practice time) is inconsistent with the kind of work I need to do to help me heal. So, I had to kiss farewell to my 9 wonderful years at the Chicago Symphony. This also means that, for the time being, I will not be playing orchestra, opera or full recital concerts on a regular basis. Playing them for a week here or there is less of a problem, so long as I have the time to relax in the weeks following the stress. It is the recurring tension that adds to the problem, not orchestral playing in itself. Similarly, the problem is task-specific, and so it occurs when my brain detects I am about to play the oboe. I can play scales, long tones, or Paganini caprices, the difference is meaningless.

I will now dedicate more time to the kind of oboe playing that I can do without adding this extra stress to my arm. Chamber music works, solo works and recordings are all great possibilities, as they can be easily managed within my limitations. However, I will still perform larger concerts a few times a year, as it is my desire to keep pushing the envelope on occasion and see if I am making any progress towards normal playing, and to keep learning about this illness and see what I can do to improve. Will I play regularly in an orchestra again in the future if my condition improves? I doubt it, but at this point I am not ruling anything out. The only thing I am sure of right now is that maintaining the time commitment required of me in a major orchestra is slowing down my chances for a full recovery.

I am extremely sad to leave the CSO and Chicago. I love everyone there and admire them more then they will ever know. Life sometimes throws us some curve balls. And this time my number was up.

Much love to all of you, and happy reed making!

Alex Klein


dulciana said...

Wow - I'd never heard of MFD. What a touching letter!

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