David Leisner: On Overcoming Focal Dystonia and Learning to Play With Ease

I don’t remember when I first heard the term focal dystonia, but it wasn’t very long ago – perhaps 10 years ago or so. But in the years since, I’ve heard it come up more and more among musicians. And even if the term focal dystonia doesn’t ring a bell, you’re probably familiar with it. You may just know it as the mysterious hand injury that left pianist Leon Fleisher unable to play for many years. It remains a relatively rare condition – although a 2010 study (Altenmüller & Jabusch) estimated that as many as 1% of all professional musicians may be affected, which is a little scary… Indeed, focal dystonia can be a debilitating, career-threatening condition, and for many years it was considered incurable. It remains a challenging condition to treat – but in recent years, there have been notable stories of musicians who have regained the ability to play. And there are treatment approaches that appear to have been successful, at least with some individuals. Given that focal dystonia remains somewhat under the radar, I thought it might be helpful to chat with a musician who has experienced focal dystonia. And whose performance career was derailed for a number of years – but who ultimately regained full use of his hand and fingers.

Meet David Leisner

Guitarist David Leisner has enjoyed a distinguished career as performer, composer, and teacher. He has performed and toured all around the world, premiered a number of works by noted composers such as Ned Rorem and Philip Glass, and his own works appear across nearly a dozen different labels. Another interesting part of David’s story, however, is that from about 1984, he began struggling with focal dystonia, which progressed to the point where he was unable to play. Yet, through much experimentation and introspection, he found a more effective approach to playing the instrument, and managed to completely recover the use of his hands and fingers, enabling him to play once again as he did before. In this episode, we’ll explore:
  • What is focal dystonia? (2:17)
  • What was the first sign that something was wrong? (6:00)
  • The types of specialists that David sought out (9:05)
  • How he “faked” his way for a time… (11:52)
  • But then a light-bulb moment, and the beginnings of a more viable long-term solution (15:24)
  • The principle of large muscles vs. small muscles (24:01)
  • How this principle applies to pianists (28:12)
  • Why freedom of movement is more important than economy of movement (33:42)
  • The benefits of exaggerating new movements in the early stages of learning (42:16)
  • Why accuracy is not the most important thing in the early stages of learning (44:10)
  • Why you may want to make your motions as large as you can get away with, as opposed to as small as possible (46:59)
  • What should one do if they suspect they may be developing dystonia? Plus, David’s take on botox as a treatment. (48:59)


People David mentioned

More from David

David has been keeping busy in recent months with various recording and composition projects that will be released in 2021, but in the meantime, you can check out some of his most recent recording projects below:

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.

BOGO pricing is now in effect! (through 11:59pm Sunday)

Sign up anytime now through Sunday (Dec. 4) at 11:59pm Pacific, and you’ll receive a second bonus Beyond Practicing account – at no additional cost – that you can gift to a friend, colleague, family member, student, or teacher (i.e. a practice buddy to explore the course with 😁).

Click the red button below to learn more about the course and get the holiday buy-one-get-one-free offer.


Join 48,000+ musicians!

Get the latest research-based tips to level up in the practice room and on stage, from one week to the next.

You'll also receive other insider resources like the weekly newsletter and a special 6-day series on essential research-based practice strategies that will help you get more out of your daily practice and perform more optimally on stage. (You can unsubscribe anytime.)

Download a

PDF version

Enter your email below to download this article as a PDF

Click the link below to convert this article to a PDF and download to your device.

Download a

PDF version

All set!

Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 3-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.