Professor Eckart Altenmüller’s article “The End of the Song? Robert Schumann’s Focal Dystonia” outlines Schumann’s heartbreaking experiences with a decline in control at the piano. His own self-critical entries in his diaries:

“The piano didn’t want to work yesterday; it was as if someone was holding me by the arm.”

are countered by his wife Clara’s compassionate responses:

“My dear Robert, don’t lose your courage if it is not flowing and going so well, like in the last eight days; practice patience, lift your fingers quietly, hold your hand still and play slowly: and everything must come back together.”

Altenmüller’s article was an inspiration for me to begin to think about improvisation as a new way to experience musical thought while interrupting my dystonic movement patterns. Schumann wrote “Do not worry about the finger!…It doesn’t bother me when I improvise.” According to Altenmüller, the “freedom of the choice of musical conduits made it possible for him to compensate for his movement problems while improvising.”

After an intense period of sensory retraining, I didn’t dive into rep I knew well, at least not in a traditional sense. I would close my eyes and choose a random piece off my shelf to play. I would begin as written, but soon (within a phrase or two) improvise in the style of the work. The idea was to communicate musically, but not in sequences or patterns and without repetition.

The creativity and presence needed for improvisation inspires a “beginner’s mind”. Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki wrote:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few…In the beginner’s mind there is no thought “I have attained something”… When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.”*

Treating my retraining-self as a beginner, as a young student, or as a toddler learning to walk, with “no thought of achievement, no thought of self” allowed me to approach improvising without expectations. My body (or, my beginner’s mind) seemed to avoid the notational patterns that caused the dystonic movement. It was possible to create musical lines without the expectations that traditional rep holds. The next step was to go back to reading traditional rep but to treat it is as improvised material, thereby using that “beginner’s mind” to avoid the movement patterns of dystonia.

*from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind



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