An interview with David Leisner (Guitar Review)

by Carol Lehman

Guitar Review, Summer 1994

[Please note that this interview took place in 1994, two years before David Leisner’s complete recovery from focal dystonia. His answer to the question about “the single most important aspect of technique for guitarists to be aware of in order to avoid causing physical damage” is an early
description of how he eventually cured himself of focal dystonia.]

In 1984 David Leisner was forced to abandon his career as a performer by a neuromuscular problem in his right hand. After five years of seeking help from an array of Eastern and Western medical and muscle “experts”, he began to
develop his own solution. His injury taught him a difficult lesson. While others might have found the path too arduous, his love of music, coupled with perserverance and thoughtful observation, enabled him to prevail. After a seven year hiatus, he is performing again, triumphing over convention and communicationg the joy of his art to others.

Carol Lehman: How would you describe your performance injury and the resulting condition?

David Leisner: When I play, the ring and little fingers of my right hand curl uncontrollably into my palm. The painless nature of my condition distinguishes it from many similar ones.

CL: What medical diagnosis was given for your condition?

DL: There were any number, but the most common was focal dystonia. The general consensus was that it seemed to be related to a muscular condition rather than a neurological one, although there was never any conclusive
evidence either way.

CL: When did you first realize that you had a problem?

DL: In 1984 I began experiencing a loss of speed in my playing over the course of a month or two, towards the end of the concert season. When it was over, I began to investigate what was happening while practicing. As I continued practicing more carefully than ever, my hand responded less and less to what I asked of it.

My condition deteriorated rapidly. In the beginning of the new season in September, I gave a concert in the Portland, Oregon area, in spite of my problem. During this concert I actually had to refinger music during the program, which included the Villa-Lobos Twelve Etudes! It was a rather
harrowing experience.

CL: That’s really something!

DL: Of course, I was terribly depressed afterwards and knew that I could not play another concert right away. So I started to cancel upcoming concerts one by one. Finally, maybe half year later, I decided to just stop performing

CL: How did your go about investigating a possible cure and what were some of the first steps that you took?

DL: The first thing I did was to go to a guitarist here in New York who has had quite a bit of experience in working with people who have various hand disabilities and curing them. My first suspicion was that there was something
wrong with my technique but after a number of sessions, I felt that no progess was being made and that what was being taught to me I already knew. Simultaneously, I went to a chiropractor, but he did not help me.

Then I went to a Shiatsu practitioner; the best one in the area, a real master. Shiatsu, by the way, is best described as acupuncture without needles.

CL: A deep pressure-point massage?

DL: Right. It combines massage with an understanding of the pressure points and the meridians of the body. While Shiatsu did not help my condition in any obvious way, I did feel that it was something that could be helpful, so I
continue that treatment to this day as regular preventative care. Over the course of five years, I visited a neurologist, a clinical kinesiologist, a biofeedback specialist, a physical therapist and a myotherapist.

The pianist, Leon Fleisher, tried myotherapy. Did you have any positive results from this treatment?

DL: Leon Fleisher went to the same myotherapist that I went to in the Washington, D.C. area. While I think that myotherapy can be very successful in dealing with problems similar to mine, it did not cure me, and it did not cure Fleisher. These problems that we say are similar are in fact highly varied, so please understand that when I’m answering your questions about the success or failure of any of these treatments, I am only speaking for myself. Myotherapy did not work for me. I also went to a hand specialist. Ironically, he know the least about this particular condition.

CL: Did this doctor suggest surgery?

DL: Amazingly enough, no one, including the hand specialist suggested surgery. He said that surgery was not an option at that point. This surprised me because
I had heard of many peope with similar conditions who had had surgery recommended. Some did have surgery, with no success. I went to a Hoshino therapist…

CL: What is that?

DL: Hoshino is an unusual form of therapy based on Eastern ideas which involves hand-on treatment like Shiatsu, but with deeper muscle manipulation,
more like Rolfing. It’s an eclectic therapy. While this practitioner has had a long string of successes, especially with musicians, he not only did not succeed with
me, he was also the only person that caused further damage to my hand. My condition actually got worse after working with him. Fortunately, about a year later, my hand returned back to where it was when I first went to him. I went
to many different types of practitioners. Each said to me, “Yes, I can cure this problem,” and no one did.

CL: You investigated these therapies over a course of how many years?

DL: About five years. And not all of these people are in New York. I spent a tremendous amount of time, money (most of this is not covered by insurance) and energy, especially psychic energy, trying to find a cure. I was very good about taking advice and doing exercises that were suggested. I really put all my trust and all my effort into every one of these treatments. Each time my hopes were raised to the skies and then dashed to the ground.

CL: At what point did you become so disillusioned with the process that you decided to give up searching for a cure?

DL: The last treatment I tried was the Hoshino treatment, and when damage was done to my hand, I thought to myself, “I have to stop. This is not getting anywhere. Maybe there’s something I can find within myself to help me.” That was probably the smartest move I made in those five years.

For a long time I simply did nothing about it. And then I started to think about supination and pronation. Supination is the rotation of the right arm clockwise from the elbow, so that the palm of the hand turns upwards. Pronation would
be rotation in the other direction, counterclockwise, so that the palm faces down. I noticed that since my injury, my hand was supinating more than normal. As many times during the day as I could think of it, while walking or
standing or sitting, I would gently pronate my arm, over-compensating for the incorrect adaptation which the injury had caused. After doing this for some time, I began to notice a very slight improvement – an increased confidence and strength on the pinky side of my right hand. Then I noticed that when I went to sleep at night my elbows would go out to the side. My arms would create a sort of a “V” shape next to my body. So I tried, as I went to sleep to bring both my arms in straight, but relaxed, by my side, and to pronate the right arm as much as possible.

CL: You’re describing a sort of body awareness and mind-control.

DL: That’s right; just the beginnings.

CL: How did you develop the technique that you now use? Did it evolve out of this gradual process of physical awareness?

DL: It was all a very natural unfolding of events. I think these daily exercises that I just described gradually increased my confidence in controlling my hand
in very slight and subtle ways. During this time I occasionally picked up the guitar, playing it any way I could. (Of course by this time I was starved to make music).

CL: I can imagine.

DL: I would pluck the strings any way I could and the more I did, the more I realized that what I was doing was plucking with the thumb and index finger while the ring and little fingers were curled into my palm. My middle finger was usually out with the index finger, but often tended to be pulled in by the curled-up fingers. The more I played the more I realized that my playing was sounding
quite good and that all I neeed to do was practice more. I felt that I could develop the technique of playing with just the thumb and index finger by simply refingering pieces. Over time, this became more and more sophisticated, to the
point where I felt confident enough to perform half a recital for some private audiences. After some time I progressed to giving full recitals for private audiences. I finally went public with it in 1991.

CL: And now you’re playing full concerts.

DL: Yes, since 1991 I’ve had a full schedule of performances, and I am almost back to where I was in 1984.

CL: You’ve mentioned in the past that there is repertoire which, with your new technique, you would be more inclined to perform. Are there any pieces which you would consider off-limits at this point?

DL: I keep discovering that pieces I thought were off-limits are now possible if
I really put my mind to it and try to figure out clever way of working around my handicap. For example, I have now found ways of doing a number of the Villa-Lobos Etudes, which I thought a few years ago would be completely
unplayable, and I have included them in my programs for a couple of years. The same may prove true for a piece like the Ginastera Sonata. I thought I would never be able to play that piece in my condition, and yet the last time I
looked at it, several solutions to specific problems occurred to me, and now I think it may be possible to play it again.

CL: It’s obvious that you’ve made some very interesting observations about technique as a result of this process. In your opinion, what is the single most important aspect of technique for guitarists to be aware of in order to avoid
causing physical damage?

DL: As a result of my injury, I have come to understand one very important thing. It has to do with the use of the large muscle-groups in the arm. It seems to me that the recent generation of guitarists and teachers, including myself, has emphasized the use of the knuckle joint. While I think that this is a good thing and necessary for playing the instrument well, I also think that there is more to
it. When you use either the fingertip or the entire finger from the knuckle joint, you’re only using the smaller muscles in the forearm. What you need to do is
involve the larger muscle-groups in the upper arm. Now this is very much more subtle than moving the finger from the knuckle joint.

When I began experimenting with these ideas, I would think of my hand as a big blob, a mass of nothing, and move that blob as I plucked a string, with no additional help whatsoever from the wrist, in an exaggerated motion upwards towards my face. This way I could feel the involvement of the larger muscle-groups in the stroke. For example, if you want to pluck the third string, you
think of your hand and forearm as one piece, unified by a wrist that is stabilized and not tense, and you pull your blob of a hand up past the sixth string, not outward, not away from the guitar, but straight up towards your head. First of
all, you will hear a sound that is much larger and rounder than you expected.

CL: Why is that?

DL: Because you’re working with a larger muscle. It’s as if you’re trying to move a big rock. You can try to move the rock by pushing it with your hand, or you can be more effective by putting a shovel underneath the rock and
pushing down on the shovel which helps you move the rock more easily. It’s a bigger lever. If you’re only moving it with a small lever, then you’re using more force to get less effect.

So when you move the string with your big blob of a hand straight up towards your face, you can feel the larger muscle-groups “in the string”.” It’s subtle, but you can feel it. As soon as you are confident of that feeling, then you can recreate it without the exaggerated movement that you must use in the beginning. The upward pluck, of course, is for movements by the i,m, or a fingers. For thumb movement you pluck downward in exactly the same
manner. Here you can feel what Segovia and his disciples called the “weight” of the arm. The thing that always confused me and others was that the “weight” concept was described in reference to an upward stroke. When one thinks of weight, one imagines a downward force, so when you combine an upward stroke with the concept of weight, you want to drop your hand down after the
stroke rather unnaturally. In fact, I think what Segovia and his students were describing without have the necessary anatomical knowledge was the involvement of the larger muscle-groups.

When I discuss these ideas, many people immediately object by saying, “There’s too much movement.” I always tell them two things: The first is that in the
early stage of learning any technical skill, freedom of movement is more important than economy of movement. If you emphasize economy over freedom in the beginning, your hand gets tight, and damage can be done. I’ve
witnessed this all too often. The second is that the faster you play, the smaller your movement must be. However, for most speeds, your hand can actually move quite a bit. As long as that movement is free and loose, it’s fine. By
loosening the wrist, which is a very subtle receptacle of tension, and involving it very little in the motion of the hand, the pathway down the arm, from the neck to the hand, becomes free and open.

If I had known in 1984 what I know now, I probably could have prevented my injury. In the beginning I thought that it came about as a result of faulty technique, but every aspect of my technique was approved by the medical professionals whose opinions I sought. There was nothing I was doing that was anatomically disadvantageous. The only thing wrong, something that nobody pinpointed, was that I was not involving the larger muscle groups, and as a result the smaller muscles probably just tired out.

I believe that I’m not only speaking about my own situation, but about guitar playing and, in fact, instrumental playing in general. I think that many of the injuries that now plague instrumentalists would no longer exist if they involved the larger muscle-groups more in their playing. The reason why performance injuries have achieved almost epidemic proportions can be explained by the fact that the demands on instrumentalists have become increasingely greater over the years. Competitions, for example, require more difficult repertoire, and faster, louder playing. These heavy demands are made on instrumentalists who
don’t support then with a technique based on use of the larger muscle-groups. So some muscles in the arms and hands eventually give out.

CL: Would you recommend other exercise such as a sport or yoga?

DL: Yes. One of the many things that I learned as a result of this miserable experience was the importance of stretching throughout the day, especially after practice. When we sit practicing for half an hour or an hour or however long, we are bent over our instrument and we contract our muscles unnaturally in the process. What we should do immediately afterwards is expand and stretch.

After a practice session it is extremely important to do a series of exercises that stretches not only the fingers, the hands and the arms, but also the neck, the
shoulders, the upper and lower back, and even the legs, because they all form the foundation upon which the hands and the arms work. Without having that foundation in good condition and in a flexible state, the hands and the arms are
going to tire. So it is extremely important to find out what stretches are beneficial for those parts of your body.

The biofeedback specialist that I worked with early on suggested swimming, and I’ve been swimming regularly ever since. I was very grateful for that suggestion. I feel that swimming has changed my life. It is such a healthy
exercise for general stretching, for improving breathing and circulation, and for improving the muscle tone of your entire body. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Certainly Yoga and Tai-Chi are wonderful practices too. There are any number of good ways of exercising and toning the body. Guitarists and other instrumentalists are athletes. What we do is athletic and we must be in good
physical condition to perform that activity.

CL: How has this whole experience influenced other aspects of your professional life? You’ve talked about technique, practice, and physical exercise, but what about philosophy and goals?

DL: The most important thing that I’ve learned is the necessity of balance between work and relaxation. Before my injury I was very much a Type-A person – very ambitious, and career-driven with a high work ethic. I can’t say that I have changed into a different person, but I do feel that a good deal of that drive has been softened in a very healthy way.

CL: Don’t you think that that would have happened in the course of life itself?

DL: No, not necessarily. I think things sometimes happen for a reason, and this could have been one of the reasons that my injury happened to me. Maybe I had to be shaken up and told, “Slow down, stop and relax a little bit.” For
instance, simply by stretching after practice, I’m doing my body a great deal of good and I’m also doing something that’s relaxing. There’s no goal in it, other
than to just loosen up. That has proved to be a very satisfying and liberating experience for me. Before, I might have felt guilty about taking time between work sessions to stare at the wall or take a walk, instead of making a business phone call or doing some other professionally related work in an “efficient” manner. Now, I can give myself permission to do those things which allow me
some space, and some relief from my professional activities.

As a result, I have found that my work has benefited enormously (I suppose it’s analogous to the technical freedom I was talking about before). I now have
freedom of movement and expression in my professional life, thanks to this time spent relaxing. I think that today we are all driven by too many different things. It’s happened very subtly and slowly. For instance, have you noticed
that many places of business that used to be closed on Sundays are now open? Have you noticed that places are staying open longer hours for business? Have
you noticed how many people take cellular phones out with them into the street to continue their business while traveling? We have extended our professional
lives further and further out of our offices and our studios. It’s a very dangerous and unhealthy phenomenon. Musicians are particularly driven individauls. They have to be, to a certain extent. But to exactly what extent is, I
think, the crux of the issue. I think that there is a point beyond which there is no return, and the results of the driven nature begin to rebound and work against us.

CL: Is there any repertoire that you would recommend for guitarists with a performance injury similar to yours, or for the beginning guitarist?

DL: In general, the nineteenth-century literature for guitar is the most natural for the hands. For the most part, that literature was written by guitarists who had an intimate knowledge of the instrument. One has to be careful of the
pieces that involve a lot of left hand stretching, say, the Regondi repertoire, which is wonderful music but was written for a shorter fingerboard.

CL: Wouldn’t you therefore recommend period instruments for this repertoire?

DL: Well, that can be very helpful. It depends on the hand. It depends on many things. Certainly, the period instrument will make it a lot easier to play that repertoire because that’s the instrument those composers were writing for. With Regondi it is particularly helpful. But with that one exception, the nineteenth-century literature provides a very natural outlet for the technique of both hands, and I don’t think one could do much damage to the hands by playing it.

CL: You said in an interview that regaining the use of your right hand was like falling in love again. Does the analogy still hold?

DL: Another thing my injury has given me is an increased awareness and appreciation of what I do. I’ve become much more grateful just for the ability to play the instrument and share it with people.

CL: A lot of joy is conveyed in your playing. Unfortunately one doesn’t often find this when one goes to hear music.

DL: I do think that some of the more intense joys in life can occur after some major difficulty or trauma. I’ve certainly had my share of those, one of which was the hand injury. I’ve been fortunate to be able to arise triumphantly from
what, for many years, looked like a tragedy.

CL: It’s evident that you’ve grown as an artist and as a performer as a result of this experience.

DL: One has to work within one’s limitations, not against them. Whether the limitations are inherent, or imposed from the outside, one has to work with them, and in that way, I think, one can move forward in life.

[The interview ends with a question and answer about “up-and coming projects”.]

Reprinted here by permission of Guitar Review