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)

Notes

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:

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