One of the most difficult issues to deal with post-dystonia diagnosis has to do with identity. As someone who essentially chose my career at the age of eight, my daily life of practicing and performing was my identity. These activities defined my relationships, my friendships, and the way I communicated with people. Flute repertoire served as the soundtrack to my whole life.
Since for many years even listening to the flute triggered dystonic motion, I lost access to associations between events and music I had made for decades. Although it might not necessarily be true, I believed that I communicated in a more nuanced way through my flute than I did with words. Not being able to play seemed to have suddenly cut off my most profound way of communicating.
Oddly, the common characteristics of those diagnosed with focal dystonia (and, perhaps, contributing factors to developing the disorder) are the personality traits that inspire success from the start. Eckart Altenmüller, head of the Department of Music-Physiology and Musician’s Medicine at the University for Music and Theatre in Hannover describes these traits in his article “The End of the Song? Robert Schumann’s Focal Dystonia” published in Music, Motor Control and the Brain:
“Risk factors for developing musician’s dystonia are male gender, extensive cumulative practice time, extreme motor workload concerning the temporal and spatial quality of the affected movements and personality traits such as proneness to anxiety and perfectionism.”
Except for “male gender”, obviously, this describes me well. My ambition, my perseverance, my desire to get things right, my enthusiasm, and my energy were so linked to my personality. If my identity and personality were among the reasons I developed dystonia, would I need to change my whole self, my identity and personality, in order to retrain?
Wouldn’t it be easier to use my personality and work-ethic and put them to work for me in order to retrain? Inspired by David Vining’s goal of repeated spasm-free repetitions, I began to think about retraining in a more practical and organized way with daily sensory and movement work, always combined with musical thought.
Once I decided to intellectualize the retraining and face it head-on, a funny thing happened – my identity and personality did begin to change. My daily habits, which now include meditation, yoga, and a reduced awareness of (or, if I’m honest, an obsession with) time, have lessened those characteristics Altenmüller describes: the extensive cumulative practice time, the extreme motor workload, and proneness to perfectionism.