Focal Dystonia Part 1

Focal Dystonia of the Hand: Part 1

What is focal dystonia?  Focal dystonia of the hand is a condition characterized by a loss in motor control of one or more fingers.

I have been a musician for close to 30 years now, and though I began playing the saxophone, I shifted exclusive attention to the guitar about 15 years ago. When I first began learning, I was quite intrigued by the guitar and practiced as often as possible, sometimes upwards of 12 hours a day.  In my mind, I wanted to become the "best" guitar player ever, and since I began at a later age I felt I had a lot of catching up to do.

I studied scales and theory, had no friends, and tried to learn as many songs as I could.  The work began to pay off after about 3 years, and I was developing a reputation (or maybe just an swollen ego) as one of the "young Philly jazz guitar dudes".  I was performing regularly and paying my dues with much confidence.  Then one day....I couldn't play anymore!

The fingers of my left hand (fret hand) had lost nearly all of the dexterity and control that I had labored over perfecting for those first 3 years.  At first, I thought that maybe I was just practicing too much, and after a break for a few days I'd be good to go again, but that moment NEVER came.  I began to see a physical therapist, an acupuncturist, a chiropractor and just about anyone who could offer a remedy for my problem - there may have even been a psychic in there somewhere :-).  One day I went to see a classical pianist who suggested that I may very well have "Focal Dystonia".  I had never heard of this, but the sound of it made me believe I was dying.  He then explained to me how FD effects people who use their hands for finite works i.e. typists, surgeons, and, of course, musicians.

There are actually very few muscles in our fingers, and it is quite easy to permanently damage your hands if you do repetitive tasks with them.  If you had to use an ax to cut down a tree, though you would be holding the ax in your hands, it would require the muscles in your forearms to actually do any real damage.  Believe it or not... playing the guitar, or the piano requires nearly as much force.  You may recall the famous and flamboyant pianist, Liberace.  Though it looked like his playing was arrogant and drowned with bravado, he actually had great technique.  I bet his hands never hurt him.  Liberace used his arms to play - not just his fingers.  The great jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery also (minus the rhinestones) played this way. If a guitar teacher tells you to hold a stiff hand position with your fret hand then he's setting you up (hopefully unintentionally) for FD. The muscles all over our body are useless without one thing to put them in action, the brain.  You just can't move without it.  FD is essentially a misfiring of the electrical impulses of the brain which causes the effected areas to either contract or curl up.

After my diagnosis, I began trying to figure out ways to play the guitar with this "condition".  The possibility for linear expression (e.g. "ripping guitar solos") was not an option anymore, and up until that moment, it was a big part of my practice and what I liked to do most.  I also enjoyed writing songs, and after going through some intense depression sessions (listening to lots of Nick Drake and John Fahey records), I began to see the guitar differently.  I started focusing on my right hand more and not using a guitar pick.  Soon I was at it just like before, only this time, the guitars were acoustic, and the playing was more orchestral.  I started learning to play as many folk and blues tunes as I could and creating my own tunings for the guitar to accommodate my left hand's shortcomings.  The breakthrough for me was when I realized that I could use the thumb on my left hand to fret chords.  I haven't written a song without a thumb chord in it somewhere since.

I've been playing the guitar for 15 years now, and 12 of them have been with FD.  Though it is still frustrating at times for me (I can't teach, or play bar chords), I feel more fulfilled and creative as a guitarist than ever.  The music I write for guitar is played in standard tuning about 90% of the time.  Some have written to me inquiring about the tunings for songs, and all I can say is "try using your thumb more".

To be continued...