The condition forced the musician and early music specialist to make a radical career change - he is now a conductor


What were the first signs that something was wrong?Instead of sounding even and regular, my scales started having holes in them. It was lifting the fingers that was the problem, rather than putting them down. In April 1990 I recorded Biber’s Rosary Sonatas, the most virtuosic music you can imagine, and by May I was not able to play because my fingers were frozen on the fingerboard. I had a sabbatical and in December I went to a doctor in Berlin who said that there was no cure.

What were your first thoughts?

I thought that I had to practise more than the eight hours a day I was already doing: ‘Let’s practise twelve hours.’ This was completely the wrong thing to do. Then my head was affected – I got nervous. You sit in a hotel bed at night, thinking, ‘Will my fingers work tomorrow?’ The worst thing is that it’s in your brain – the idea of people knowing that you are not faultless. My last performances in May 1990 were miserable because I felt that my performing life was over, that it had to come to an end. I quit, and sat copying music and marking parts for future performances – but there weren’t any for the next five years.

What medical help did you get?

When this started, there was not even a word for musicians’ health crises. The whole subject of focal dystonia was just developing and there was not the professional help that there is today. I went to Berlin University and they told me what I had, but by that time it was too late. I don’t know anybody who has really overcome this.

When did you decide to learn violin bowing with your left hand?

A friend of mine is a librarian in Harvard who looks after the papers of Rudolf Kolisch, the violinist who played the violin the other way round. She suggested I try it, so I went back to music school and I practised, studied and performed for ten years, playing this way.

What made you give up the violin completely?

At the end, in 2000, I felt that even when my fingers worked properly and were in tune, I couldn’t achieve my former artistry with the bow, so I changed back, despite the dystonia. I went to a doctor in Hanover and he gave me something bizarre: I took medication for Alzheimer’s disease. Unbelievably, I could play, because the medicine relaxes the muscles completely. I could trill; I could play anything I wanted. But I wasn’t me any more. My mental health and personality were so affected that I couldn’t stand myself. Normally I’m Mr Active, but when I took the ‘happy violin’ pills, my colleagues had to come to my house and drag me out of bed because I was so lazy. They had to put me on stage and come back later to take me off. I could move my fingers but I couldn’t move my legs. This went on for days until the medication ran out, and I couldn’t stand it any more. I decided that I had to quit the violin totally.

What is the outlook for someone who gets your symptoms?

Nobody I know has recovered from focal dystonia. It is the most dangerous thing you can have. Some say, ‘I’m fully recovered,’ but it stays, in my experience. And the self-confidence that you lose by being ill and no longer perfect is very difficult to overcome. But there is no law that people have to play healthily until they are 65. My best time was aged 32 and thereafter I already felt a decline, without being ill. Man is constructed by nature to be 28 or 32 – that’s our lifespan if we still behaved like animals, if we didn’t have houses, but lived in nature. After that the body declines.

Would things have been different if you’d had access to the medical care that exists now?

No, because I’m the sort of musician who plays until he gets ill – I deserved it! I did some wonderful musical things with a violin in my hands, but that was enough. Playing the violin involves tiny millimetres of micromovement and this doesn’t work if you practise twelve hours a day, so it doesn’t surprise me. I am the type of player that has to go mad at a certain time. As a conductor I have found my place in music – I’m giving my musical experience. There’s a preselection by the heavens, who may last long and who may not. But I’m not in tears about it.

This article was first published in The Strad, October 2009. For more articles on string player health and well-being subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here.