I was diagnosed with FD in September 2010, though it had been clear to me for some months that there was a problem. My arpeggio patterns had become uneven and inaccurate when played at speed and my tremolo technique had almost completely collapsed. While preparing for an exam in June of that year I tried to polish my tremolo technique, to increase the speed and clarity. As the exam loomed I worked harder and harder only to find the results were getting worse and worse. The frustration was unbearable. It became harder and harder to distance myself from the problem and I sat for hours trying to force the fingers to work . I dropped the piece from my exam, puzzled as to why my fingers had let me down.
The piece was 'Recuerdos de la Alhambra' by Francisco Tarrega and I had already performed it as an undergraduate. But putting myself under pressure to get it the next level seemed to have had disastrous results. The piece demands for lightening fast repetition of the p,a,m,i pattern in the right hand. I soon discovered that not only that piece, but any that included that repeated pattern were affected.
While teaching that summer, a student asked me if I could play the famous 'Romance', a piece that utilizes the p,a,m,i pattern throughout. Most guitar players learn this piece very early on and is not thought of as a challenging piece to perform. As I begun to play in the class I missed nearly all the notes with my right hand. It was then that I knew something was seriously wrong.
Intuitively I thought had somehow trained my fingers to move the wrong way, and started to go over some very simple exercises to remedy the situation, but my hand seem to have forgotten how to learn. I was aware of many physical injuries that befall a practising musician, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, RSI, and tendinitis, but none of those symptoms seem to fit. I should mention here that I had been treated for tendinitis in my right shoulder in the spring of that year. The problems related to to my shoulder went on to seriously impair my progress recovering from FD. There have been also been studies looking at the relationship between injury and the onset of focal dystonia, but even now i can not say if this was the case.
By now my fingers were starting to curl up and the hand ended up in a spasmodic twisted position if I played the arppegios for more than a couple of bars. There was no pain in the hand related to these movements, they just moved in this way as if some one else was controlling my tendons.
I started a search of internet forums and websites trying to find someone with similar problems to myself. Most musicians I spoke to just seemed to think I needed to practice more and this blip would soon pass. It was around this time I came across this video on youtube.
I was floored when I saw it. This guy's hand was moving in the same spasmodic way,(compare it to my own video at the top on the right) playing one of the very same studies I was having problems with. This was my first introduction to Focal Dystonia.
These videos were taken just after my diagnosis in 2010. Watch out for the middle finger curling up into the palm, and the compensatory extension of the other fingers.
As soon as I had a name for my condition I began to search for a cure. After lots of research online I came across Katherine Butler on guitarist Mark Ashford’s website. I booked an appointment and saw her shortly afterwards. In the consultation I played for her to display my symptoms, and afterwards she performed some sensory tricks on my right hand, such as wrapping tape around my fingers.
She confirmed the diagnosis as focal dystonia, and even though it came as no surprise at this point, I was devastated. After reassuring me that recovery was possible, though difficult, she outlined a programme of sensory retraining. These exercises are described in detail elsewhere on the site. I began the retraining programme in earnest, keeping a detailed log of my progress.
At subsequent sessions Katherine made a special plastic ‘glove’ that moulded to fit my hand and acted as a splint, holding my middle finger in place as I played.
At this point I was still continuing with my Masters programme at Trinity College of Music. I was trying to continue playing by modifying my technique, and bypassing the middle finger of the right hand almost completely. I had to drop certain repertoire and re-think my approach to the pieces I kept. Unfortunately my shoulder/arm pain was not subsiding, despite two powerful cortisone injections, and by this time I knew I would have to leave my studies, at least for a while. A subsequent MRI scan revealed tendon entrapment in my shoulder joint, which resulted in keyhole surgery in February of this year.
These problems have hampered my FD recovery and retraining programme, but the enforced break has given me time to re-think my approach to my practice and my music. I returned to college after my surgery had healed and now hope to complete my final recital in September. I will be relying on my modified technique in my right hand, but hope to be able focus on my retraining programme after my final exam.
There is still the question of how my shoulder problem and focal dystonia are related, if at all, but they have both demanded a new approach to my practice, to my music and ultimately to my life. I will update the site with my progress as it happens, and hope to use some of the positive stories I have discovered from fellow focal dystonia sufferers to inspire my rehabilitation.
I am updating my progress with FD. watch this space...