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Pianist Leon Fleisher's recovery from a neurological disor

Dave Horne

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Fleisher finds his way back to piano - with both hands


Pianist Leon Fleisher's recovery from a neurological disorder has been compared to cyclist's Lance Armstrong's triumph over cancer. Both overcame extreme physical odds to tremendous acclaim and success.


Fleisher will perform Saturday at the Ames City Auditorium.


Forging ahead with music, despite a diagnosis of right hand focal dystonia, was the key to his achievement.


"Make sure that everything that you do is concentrated and purposeful," Fleisher, 81, said during a phone interview from his home in Baltimore.


He was referring to a practice technique, but his words resound like his life's mantra.


Fleisher, a wunderkind, made his New York Philharmonic debut at age 16, when most teens are focused on getting a driver's license. At 37, his career was stopped short when the ring and pinky fingers on his right hand began curling uncontrollably toward his palm. Eventually, he was diagnosed with focal dystonia, a neurological condition that causes unwanted muscle contractions. For nearly 40 years, he endured different therapies and techniques to help his right hand function.


"The medical profession is remarkably unaware, to a large extent, of focal dystonia," Fleisher said.


During those four decades, he never stopped doing what he loved most, making music.


Fleisher began conducting and emerged as one of the nation's most sought-after teachers. He performed left-hand piano pieces and expanded the repertoire, performing new works by notable composers and giving the U.S. premiere of the Hindemith left-hand piano concerto in his hometown of San Francisco. He also stayed hopeful that one day, he would be able to play with his right hand.


"I, in effect, was testing my hand every day, literally ... Trying to play from this angle, that angle, low wrist, high wrist, all this," Fleisher said.


"I remained, to a certain extent, in a kind of shape (that) no way could atrophy have set in."


Fleisher found that rolfing sessions (soft tissue manipulation) combined with Botox injections once every four months help tame the dystonia, although he makes it clear he is not cured.


"Once a dystonic, always a dystonic," he said.


He made his two-hand comeback in 2004 with a Carnegie Hall recital and a recording titled "Two Hands." Fleisher's story was told in an Oscar Award-nominated documentary by the same name.


In addition to performing, Fleisher appears at medical conventions and teaches his students about taking care of their hands, which means no more than four or five hours at the piano a day.


"I'm doing everything I can to help bring awareness (of dystonia)," he said.


Fleisher's memoir is due out in 2010, and in his recent recording of three Mozart concertos, aspects of Fleisher's life come full circle. He is conductor, two-hand performer and collaborates with his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, who will perform with him in Ames on Saturday.

No guitarists were harmed during the making of this message.


In general, harmonic complexity is inversely proportional to the ratio between chording and non-chording instruments.


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What a story!

There are/have been actually some classical pianists with problems in their hands. I remember a French pianist who abandoned his recitals for years until his right hand came back to life. It has to do with lots of hours of practice and, in some cases, it's psychological.

I can't imagine something more terrible for a musician to happen. And it's something of a miracle when the hands are coming back to life.

Some years ago i saw a jazz gig where the piano player's right hand was barely functioning - the guy had developed a technique to play with his remaining strength/fingers of the right hand to comp and add some lines and use a lot his left hand to solo. It was fantastic!

Be grateful for what you've got - a Nord, a laptop and two hands
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I went to a master class led by Fleisher about two years ago when he was playing a concert with my mom's orchestra here in Montgomery County, Maryland. I was blown away by the talent of the 16-17 year-old kids that performed at the master class, but I was even more blown away by Fleisher's abilities as a teacher. Truly inspired teaching, and I'm sure the kids got a ton out of it. (I know that I did.) He was also funny as hell.


Sadly, though, the consensus of the orchestra members was that his performance at the piano was really no longer world-class (undoubtedly because of his hand issues).



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