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When the Brain Won’t Make Music

Curtis Bisbee

Acoustic guitarist John Heasly of Alexis was making a pretty good go of it playing bars and concert venues in the region.

But Heasly started finding it more and more difficult to finger pick – a style of playing in which the fingers and thumb move independently of one another.

The neurologist I talked to called it 'Musician's Dystonia' because it's pretty common with musicians.

“I just assumed it was because I wasn’t practicing enough,” Heasly said.

Yet the more he practiced, the more difficult it became to finger pick.

The problem only happened when Heasly finger picked. He continued to flat pick – or strum – and do other tasks with his right hand without a problem.

This frustrated Heasly for years.  Then, during an on-line chat with another musician, Heasly learned he might be suffering from a neurological disorder called focal dystonia. Heasly confirmed that with a doctor.

Credit Rich Egger
John Heasly

“The neurologist I talked to called it ‘Musician’s Dystonia’ because it’s pretty common with musicians,” Heasly said. “I was really disappointed and frustrated when I first figured it out.”

Although Heasly now knew the source of his problem, he still had to struggle to work through it because there is no cure.

Neurological, Not Physical

Dr. Anil Dhuna of the Burlington Neurology Clinic said it’s not known why some people develop focal dystonia. He said it happens during specific motor skills. Such skills require certain sets of muscles to contract while others relax. But in cases of focal dystonia, no muscles relax.

I can't play like I used to but I can play a little. And that's good enough for me.

However, Dhuna emphasized it is not a physical condition. 

“It’s not happening in the limb. It’s happening in the brain,” said Dhuna. “We do know certain parts of the brain are more involved, (such as) the globus pallidus area.”

Credit Rich Egger
Dr Anil Dhuna

He said the only thing doctors can do is treat the symptoms.

Dhuna said certain types of dystonia can be treated with Botox or other medications.  Patients with a task specific dystonia, such as focal dystonia, are often referred to a movement disorder specialist.

Interview about focal dystonia with Dr Anil Dhuna

Dhuna said his clinic does not see many cases of focal dystonia, but he also said the condition is nothing new.

“We’ve known this for over 100 years at least. It’s been described in the literature. It’s only now that we’ve been able to kind of come to some treatment options for these individuals,” Dhuna said.

He said focal dystonia usually happens to someone who is doing a repetitive task for a long period of time. He said the brain reacts to the repetitive task and won’t relax certain muscles, but it’s not known why this happens.

Not Just a Hand Problem

Saxophonist John Vana teaches in the School of Music at Western Illinois University. He developed focal dystonia in his hands in 1988, the year before he came to WIU.

“I developed interesting hand positions and things like that when I played the instrument. And frankly sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t,” Vana said of his struggle to compensate for the problem.

Credit Rich Egger
John Vana

Like Heasly, Vana struggled with focal dystonia for years before he discovered what was wrong.

Nonetheless, Vana was able to continue performing and teaching classical music on the sax for a couple decades. However, about three years ago the problem began to affect his facial muscles.

“Some days the faces behaves and sometimes it just decides not to,” said Vana.

He said it was difficult to come to grips with because the only time his hands and face wouldn’t work was when he tried to play the sax.

“That was shocking to me when that happened because I couldn’t figure out why in the world the other stuff was normal, but then I pick up the thing I wanted to do more than anything else and it was affected by that,” Vana said.

Once focal dystonia affected his facial muscles, Vana could no longer play classical music on the sax because it requires a tighter embouchure, or mouth control. However, he could still play jazz, which allows for a looser embouchure.

Vana loved jazz when he first picked up the sax in junior high school so he viewed this as a chance to return to something he enjoyed.

“I had not played jazz a lot since I had gotten the job here,” Vana said. “So I thought maybe there was a silver lining in this. It turns out I started playing a lot of jazz and now I’m teaching more jazz in the studio. I think that’s a blessing.”

Switching It Around

John Heasly also learned how to compensate.  He bought a left-handed guitar and re-taught himself how to finger pick, this time left handed.

Credit Rich Egger
John Heasly with his left-handed guitar

“I’ve taken a lot of time. I’m being careful with it because one of the things that doctors think causes this condition is when you put a lot of pressure on yourself, a lot of anxiety. And that’s what I was doing. So I’m taking it very slowly because you can get it in the other hand too,” Heasly said.

Like Vana, Heasly shied away from the stage for several years. About two-thirds of his songs require finger picking so he did few public performances. 

But last year fellow musician Chris Vallillo asked Heasly to fill a slot for the Hickory Ridge Concert series at Dickson Mounds Museum after another performer canceled. Heasly agreed to give it a shot and - like Vana - he rediscovered the joy of playing live.

“I can’t play like I used to but I can play a little. And that’s good enough for me,” Heasly said.

He said it took four years to get to this point. He plays some songs right-handed and some songs left-handed, depending on which techniques they require.

The love of music eventually won out for both Heasly and Vana. Even when the brain said they could not do something, the heart said they should – and they did.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.