A Dancer Dies Twice

The documentary “Restless Creature” about the great American ballerina Wendy Whelan focuses on her transition into retirement. Every scene was shadowed with angst-ridden trepidation. She seemed incredulous that her career was nearing the end until, finally, she wasn’t.

She was suddenly done worrying, done wondering, and was planning for the future, with new works and collaborations. “I think I came up with the idea for my last show”, she says to her friends over lunch, “I woke with a really clear mind. I’m having a new piece created for that night only”.

The end of the documentary follows Whelan’s preparation for that final performance. She commissioned pieces from her favorite choreographers, learned new works with her dance partners, and performed to her devoted fans. Her fears were brought to a natural end and closure with a huge public party. She marked the evening with colleagues, family, friends, and fans. She said goodbye, and honored her role of 30 years with the same ballet company. There was a shower of flowers; she celebrated.

Watching made me realize that one of the things we (musicians who suffer from focal dystonia or have other career ending performance injuries) don’t get to do is celebrate the end. There is no closure. The hope of recovery lingers painfully for years and years, without a party, without a final piece, without a goodbye to the career we once held dear. I am at a point of playing with dystonia almost as long as I played without it. There is almost 20 years on either side of the day of diagnosis.

This post isn’t meant to solicit pity but, rather, to offer that a grieving process needs to be acknowledged. Whelan grieved for the end of her career. She recognized the sadness and honoured it properly. She gave it a good send-off.

About fifteen years ago, my friend and colleague Amy Likar and I were talking about the end of my career as I then understood it. She wisely asked me “Have you grieved yet?” I can finally say yes.

What’s next? I’m planning a party.


Title from Martha Graham “A dancer dies twice—once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.” (borrowed from Maroosha Muzaffar’s Atlantic piece).



Carry That Weight

I sometimes take a maxim from our body mapping pedagogy and mull it over, almost as a mantra, to find more depth in the idea and more meaning for my teaching. One such idea “Anything that limits rib movement limits the capacity for a free breath” begs the next logical question, “What is limiting my rib movement?”. That question can lead us down a rabbit hole of awarenessing and somatic experience. To narrow our focus let’s start with the arms.

Studying videos of busy street scenes in both the Edwardian era and the present day allows us to compare how we have changed our habits with regard to arms in movement. These two short videos are particularly striking.

In the Edwardian-era video, people are rarely holding something in their hands or arms, except for a cane or umbrella, which seems to be used fashionably and expressively, almost as a tangible extension of personality through movement. There are no bags, purses, coffee cups, food, phones, water bottles, or books in the hands or squeezed between the upper arm and ribs. Their arms are free for arm movement and therefore their ribs are free for breathing movement.

We tend to organize ourselves to accommodate what our arms are doing and lose the sense of our whole bodies in the process. This is so relevant to playing an instrument or singing while holding a choral folder. Any extra effort in our arms can lead to whole body patterns of tension, including ribs held in place, thereby reducing the full excursion of the ribs on an inhalation.

How often do you walk without carrying anything in your hands or arms? Take an intentional moment to do so this week. Have your coffee before you leave the house. Go for a walk without your phone and let your arms swing freely. Let your muscles habituate to this free pattern of use. Allowing the ribs their full free movement in any activity will begin to translate to habit on your instrument.





Ring the Bell

I keep a wire basket on my office desk. Each time I find a new piece or movement I can play without dystonic movement, I write its name on a small card and place it in the basket. In my daily routine of playing, my intention is always to focus on musical gesture, which leads me back to this basket of repertoire and pulls me away from repeated patterns. It has been important for me to take the time to make music with what I can do now (regardless of how slow or how simple those movements are), and not spend every playing moment retraining and testing my capabilities with exercises.

In his “Gratitude (yoga) Flow” class, Jason Crandell discusses the dichotomy of the balance between, on the one hand, being goal oriented and on the other, taking the time to be grateful for where we are (See Crandell’s Gratitude Flow @yogaglo.com).

He states, “In yoga we embrace various paradoxes. You are working to facilitate change, and you are working to facilitate improvement. At the same time you are also working to accept and embrace the body as it is, to accept and embrace your personality as it is, and to accept and embrace your current station, wherever you are in this lifetime.

[We are] engaging in a certain amount of transformation, and not becoming an endless black hole of constant improvements and betterments…Don’t just accept where you are, embrace it. Accepting is still a subtle pejorative. Accommodate [where you are] and embrace it.”

This acceptance is a direct way out of the cyclical patterns of perfectionism, which, beautifully characterized by Catholic monk Kilian McDonnell, “straineth out the quality of mercy*”. Mercy for yourself, where you are, and where you’ve come from.

Ring the bell that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

*mercy: compassionate treatment of those in distress (merriam webster)



Benefit From Adversity

Practicing Buddhist and physician Alex Lickerman challenges readers to reflect on a “completely different way of considering the awkward, the uneven, and the difficult” in his book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self.

He writes, “Victory over the obstacles that confront us isn’t as much about liberating ourselves from adversity as it is about obtaining the greatest benefit as possible from having encountered it.”

What if we could let blessings dominate the experience of our difficulties, even as we face them? It’s a nice idea, but how do we make this possible in the moment we are dealing with those challenges? For me, the answer has been meditation.

Bessel van der Kolk shares his research about meditation and neuroplasticity in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma: “Being able to hover calmly and objectively over our thoughts, feelings, and emotions and then take our time to respond allows the executive brain to inhibit, organize, and modulate the hardwired automatic reactions preprogrammed into the emotional brain.” 

Of all the retraining processes with which I have experimented in the past fifteen years, meditation has been the source of the most profound transformation to my experience of focal dystonia. Because of my meditation practice I have greater physical control of the remaining symptoms, a broader emotional perspective, and an increased ability to “hover calmly and objectively” over my movement choices. An impression of an increased amount of time in each breath allows for a sensation of a suspension of time, a “different way of considering the awkward, the uneven, and the difficult”, and even, in the moment, an ability to examine and experience the benefits that come from adversity.





My Experience is What I Agree to Attend To

With a goal to have muscle release rather than tension become my habit, I often begin my practice with an exercise repeating whole hand release. I play a succession of resonant notes, completely taking my fingers off the keys in between each note.

The release then becomes part of the muscle training. I play with shorter and shorter whole hand releases, until, eventually, without a rest to release, the sensation of release is still there. I can then play consecutive notes without taking my fingers off the keys and continue to feel release as the dominant sensation.

In his Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard writes “…[a] task must monopolize all our attention and present a challenge commensurate with our abilities. If it is too difficult, tension sets in, followed by anxiety; too easy, and we relax and are soon bored.”

Ricard addresses one of the hardest things to be aware of (and admit!) through the retraining process: “…the task must…present a challenge commensurate with our abilities“. It is so difficult to reevaluate that level of commensurate challenge. Not only is my current level completely different from my pre-diagnosis ability but it is different moment to moment through the retraining process. The key is to tune into what is possible in that moment, to “agree to attend” over and over.

Title from William James The Principles of Psychology

Scheduling Triage

“One of the challenges with email is it makes you accountable to other people’s priorities and what they think is urgent,” writes American author and Twitter employee Claire Diaz-Ortiz.
My schedule diet culminated with taking email off my phone. For many years my habit of treating every email request as an emergency left very little time for any “awarenessing”, either in a concrete way (going to yoga class, making time for meditation, or walking to work instead of driving) or a more subtle way (cultivating whole body awareness in every activity). I put others’ priorities ahead of my own.


As a DMA student at Stony Brook I was often happily overwhelmed with music I had to learn, but do remember a day in my practice room where I flitted from piece to piece with the following dialogue floating around in my head:

“I need to work on the Boulez; my recital is in a few weeks…but, I have a concert tonight – I should work on the Mozart quartet…but, that Bach d minor Concerto is next month and I want to play it from memory… but maybe I should be spending more time on the orchestra parts for the rehearsal tomorrow…but..”. I alternated between scores on my music stand without getting anything accomplished.

Later that day I took charge of the stack of scores and made a chart on the wall sorting sections of pieces and movements into categories: ‘A’ for passages I wasn’t yet able to play, ‘B’ for sections I needed to review or speed up, and ‘C’ for passages that were ready to perform. From that day on in my practice I began each day with my ‘A’ list before moving on to the ‘B’ and then the ‘C’ lists.

Using that same approach I’ve recently put myself on a schedule diet. Very very few messages in my email inbox are an emergency; none are on my A list. I’ve decided to make my A list “awarenessing” (either in the concrete sense of making time for yoga, meditation, walking) or the subtle sense (cultivating whole body awareness and noticing the quality of my breathing). The B and C lists then get done with more ease, efficiency, and joy.

“Let us reflect on what is truly of value in life, what gives meaning to our lives, and set our priorities on the basis of that.”  – H.H. the Dalai Lama

It is Impossible to Learn What We Think We Already Know

Although this quote immediately invites us to examine what effect ego may have on our work, we might also consider how the idea can teach us more about our physical habits of holding tension. Borrowing directly from (and continually inspired by) Barbara Conable’s How to Learn the Alexander Technique, I often describe the process of inhibiting tension using her model of moving from X to X on a trajectory of tense to free.


A goal of getting from the tense X to the free X is unrealistic. Rather, at any moment in the day, regardless of your activity, consider traveling even a small distance towards the free X.

Barbara writes, “The model is a reassuring one. It saves the misery of the Am I There Yet? question by crediting a range of experience, and it focuses attention on strategies for reliably negotiating the student’s current range on the continuum. It promotes an ideal of gradual experimentation and libration rather than of Getting There.”

But what if we were also training ourselves to move that tense X further away?


What if we could retrain our bodies to move where “free” is, thereby experiencing more and more efficiency in movement, awareness of gravity, and balance in movement?

What does this mean for the practice room? Whether dealing with focal dystonia or not, we can all continue to search for and to be open to finding an even freer physical experience in order to execute our musical intentions and to be open to more direct and profound musical expression.

It is impossible to learn to play freely when we think we already know how to play freely.

Title from Epictetus