Journey of Discovery

David Leisner talks to Colin Cooper

Classical Guitar, June 1997

After his 1979 New York debut, David Leisner was clearly headed for a major performance career with performances around the US and in Canada and Europe, a Silver Medal at the 1981 Geneva Competition, and abundant critical praise. He was commissioning and premiering many new works by major composers such as Philip Glass, Virgil Thomson, Ned Rorem and others. His debut recording ‘The Viennese Guitar’, issued in 1980, was the first to feature the works of Johann Kaspar Mertz (half of the album was Mertz, the other half Giuliani). This album plus Leisner’s published editions of Mertz helped to reestablish his central importance in the guitar repertoire of the 19th century. Another composer who David Leisner championed was Regondi, whose works he introduced in programmes as early as 1981. In 1984, he was about to sign a recording contract with Nonesuch Records when he began to have problems with his right hand.

David Leisner is on the faculties of both the New England Conservatory in Boston and the Manhattan School of Music in New York, and enjoys it immensely. He taught at the latter for three years and has been commuting to Boston for 16 years. When I met him in New York, he was about to leave for the Midwest to adjudicate. It was early in the morning and time was limited, but he generously stayed and answered my questions when there must have been a lot of other things to do.

A composer, guitarist and teacher, he shared second prize with Manuel Barrueco in the 1975 Toronto competition, when Sharon Isbin carried off the first prize. and Eliot Fisk took third. Over in France that same year, Roberto Aussel, Eduardo Ferndndez, Miguel Angel Girollet and Baltazar Benitez were sharing the honours in the Radio France Competition. It was a good year for revealing guitarists of talent.

Nine years later, David Leisner began to have problems with his right hand. With patience, perseverance and a fine intuitive sense of discovery, he has fully recovered and is now performing again.

DAVID LEISNER: It’s been quite a journey. In 1984 I had the beginnings of a hand condition, now known as focal dystonia. it is the same condition that the pianists Leon Fleischer and Gary Graffman have. They made this condition famous. It happened to them quite a few years ago, and it’s been talked about ever since. It’s a condition where the fingers, the ring and pinky in my case, curl into the palm without control and without pain. No pain is the distinguishing factor. You don’t know where the problem is. It could be in the hand, it could be in the arm, the shoulder, the back. If you have no pain to pinpoint it, it becomes very elusive and difficult to fix. And in fact no one until now has cured focal dystonia. It is the performance problem that has stumped the performing arts medicine community and the musical community.

When it happened to me, I gradually cancelled concerts one by one, and finally stopped everything. I went to experts and doctors and alternative specialists of all sorts. I went from one to the other, doing exactly what they told me to do, all telling me they could help me. And each time my hopes were raised and then dashed down to the ground.

I did five years of this. I went to different cities around the country; I spent a good deal of money, time and psychic energy, and at the end of the five years I felt like a spent rubber band, in every way. The last treatment I underwent, an eclectic Eastern kind of treatment, did me damage. And I thought, ‘I’m fed up with this, it’s not worth it’.

I had found out by that time that, in fact, it was well known in the performing arts medicine community that nobody knew how to cure this condition. So I stopped everything. I didn’t even try to continue on my own to try to make it better. Then one day I picked up the guitar and started to pluck the strings. I just wanted to make music with my fingers (though in the meantime my composition career had taken off, and of course my teaching continued, and so on, and there were lots of things to do). So I plucked away, realising that I was able to play many pieces with two fingers – thumb and index finger. It was sounding so good that I thought ‘Well, if it sounds this good without practising, if I practise a bit it might sound really good’. So that’s what I did, I started to practise and to figure out fingerings, some of which were very unorthodox and often surprising. I really was playing some very impressive virtuosic repertoire with thumb and index, for instance the Richard Rodney Bennett Sonata and the Paganini Sonata – pieces that are even difficult for people with five fingers.

I just found that where there’s a will there’s a way. It took a little persistence, a little ingenuity, but there were almost always ways around the problem.

So, I started with little informal concerts. First, half a concert, then a whole concert. Then I got my confidence up and I decided, ‘OK, I’m going to do this in public now and see what happens.’ I tried it in Boston, a major hall, in 1991. It was a hit. I had a rave review. The audience loved it. Nobody knew that anything was wrong with my hand. They thought that my hand had recovered. So I began to do concerts in that way.

About a year later, I gravitated intuitively towards the idea of involving the larger muscle groups, in the upper arm and shoulder, in the stroke. Something somebody said one day made me wonder what would happen if I just swing at the string. I came home that day and started to do that with these large motions that were involving my upper arm.

Within five minutes of doing this, I was able to use my ring finger, that I hadn’t used for eight years. Five minutes! Now, you have to understand that until this time I couldn’t even place my right hand at the strings without the fingers curling in. At this moment, not only was I able to put my hand at the strings but I was able to actually use the ring finger to pluck the string independently. I knew I was on to something.

I proceeded to refine these ideas, and I came to find out – and I’m quite sure of this now – that the focal dystonia place is here, in the back of the shoulder, at the apex of where the arm meets the torso.

I started to feel, as I plucked the strings, the contact with that area and also the triceps area in the upper arm. I would think of my hand as a big nothing, a big blob that was attached to my arm by way of a stabilised wrist. And the wrist, being stabilised, made the arm and the hand move as one piece. And I moved this large lever from the elbow down, from the string up towards my face in this large motion. As I grabbed the string I would feel the string’s tension in those large muscle groups in the upper arm. And I would pull it towards me.

Sure enough, within a year I was able to use my middle finger much more, and in another year I was able to use my ring finger in concert, and as of this year my hand is one hundred per cent. I may be the only person to have completely recovered from focal dystonia. If there are others. I am not aware of them.

I’m very excited about it, of course, not only for myself but also for other people. There are many, many guitarists and pianists, and a number of bowed string players and other instrumentalists, who have exactly the same problem and do not know how to fix it. I think I have at least the beginnings of a sense of how to fix it.

The basic understanding is very simple, and that I think is the beauty and probably the rightness of the whole thing. Einstein said he could explain the Theory of Relativity to a six-year-old. I thoroughly believe that. This idea is not to be compared to Einstein, God forbid! But I think it’s an important and far reaching and basic understanding of how the arm works. It’s something that I teach all my students. None of my students ever have any hand problems, and I want to prevent them from having problems in the future. A very nice additional effect of this whole thing is that one gets a bigger sound and a more beautiful sound with less effort.

Can faulty teaching or faulty learning cause the syndrome?

I wouldn’t care to lay blame. I would simply say that we’re learning. Technique in the guitar world is maybe just past the infant stage. The keyboard instruments and the bowed string instruments have hundreds of years of technical expertise and tradition behind them -

But they still get this problem sometimes!

That’s true! This is, in fact, a 20th century problem that has to do with larger concert halls, more pressure to play faster, louder, more often, more difficult repertoire. And what we are beginning to find out is that the technique that instrumentalists in general have developed is not up to those tasks.

So we learn as we go along. People like me have to fall down and pick themselves up again, but maybe to the advancement of the whole thing.

There seems to be a similarity with the degenerative disease called the Dupuytrens syndrome, in which the fingers curl inwards. It’s difficult to reverse, but I believe it can be checked.

It’s completely different, because that apparently can be fixed in an office visit: a subtle incision is made – I think one that needs only local anaesthesia – and it’s a cure. But this is something very much more complex.

Has it cut into your composing time, this recent increase in playing activity? How do you balance these two things?

I must say this is a very difficult balance, because I’m attempting to have serious careers in both performance and composition. (I’m not just writing guitar pieces, I’m writing orchestral works, large chamber works, vocal music with piano.) However, I’m fortunate that I’m the kind of composer who does not have to compose every day. There are two kinds of composers: one who needs to write every day – an automatic appointment with the Muse. Then there’s the other kind, like myself, who only write when we have something to say. With my dual career, I’m fortunate that I’m this kind of personality, because it allows me the time to practise and perform during the times that I’m not composing. In fact I compose usually only two or three times a year, and when I compose I do nothing else, I have no appointments, no teaching, and it leaves me entire days free for several weeks.

I’m also fortunate that I write quickly. Once I begin writing, after the initial period of gestation, it comes out quickly, in a white heat. Then of course there’s time spent refining and the dreaded job of copying, which is terribly time consuming.

You don’t use a computer for this?

No I don’t. I’m totally illiterate in computing. Hopefully some day I won’t be, because it can be a great help.

What happens if you want to write something but you have a number of concerts or other engagements to fulfill? Will your Muse wait for you?

Of course! I store it up. It’s like a solar cell. I really believe that the important ideas stay. One can have an idea one day, say a melodic or harmonic fragment, and think it’s the greatest idea one’s ever had. And then a week later you think: ‘Well, maybe it’s not the most exciting thing’. The really important things stick with you, I think; they’re persistent. I’m not afraid of losing them.

Are you performing a lot?

This is a very busy and exciting season for me. In addition to concerts in Cleveland, Columbus, Atlanta, Philadelphia and a bunch of other places, I’m doing a unique series of three concerts, in both New York and Boston. The opening concert of the series is an all-Bach programme. This is, I believe, the first time a guitarist has presented such a programme in a major hall in either city. Then comes a recital of the early Romantics – Paganini, Schubert, Giuliani and Mertz. And last is ‘Music since 1976′, which will include the Sonatas of Alberto Ginastera and Richard Rodney Bennett plus works by Joan Tower, Peter Sculthorpe, Yours Truly, and a terrific new piece written for me by Randall Woolf, a very talented younger composer living in New York. The series in New York will take place at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, while in Boston it will be in three different venues. (The New York concerts began on 18 November 1996, continuing on 20 March and 12 May 1997. The Boston concerts began on 16 November at the Longy School, continuing on 9 March at the Gardner Museum and 4 May at Jordan Hall – Ed.).

I’m also playing at a number of summer festivals. I’m doing my yearly residence of six weeks at the Bowdoin Festival, which people usually don’t know how to pronounce (Bo’-den – Ed.), doing quite a bit of performing there. in addition to my teaching. And then I play at two very fine chamber music festivals in the Southwest, the Bravo Festival in Colorado and the Angel Fire Festival in New Mexico.

They’re keeping me very busy in both places, with both chamber music and solo performances. Last summer I played with some great musicians, like flutist Eugenia Zukerman, baritone Kurt Ollman and violinist Ida Kavafian. Working with such high-calibre artists is very stimulating. I hope that all this performing, especially my series in New York and Boston, will make a bit of a splash because I want people to know that I’m back. I returned to the stage in ’91, but now I’m back with all my fingers intact, and while my playing in those first couple of years was strong, now I feel completely like the virtuoso that I used to be, but better. It’s a whole new level of playing.

In the virtuoso days, you came near to winning the Toronto Competition in 1975.

That was a remarkable competition, because it was the first international competition for guitar in all of North America. There were a number of exceptionally talented young guitarists who were dying for this opportunity, and here at last it was placed in their laps. The prizewinners were Sharon Isbin, who took first prize, Manuel Barrueco and myself, who tied for second prize, and Eliot Fisk, who took third. Well, that’s a very impressive bunch of American players! I, you see, had only been playing classical music on the guitar for about three and a half years, so I must say that I was very happy with my second place. I couldn’t complain. There were others who were not as happy with their positioning, and then there was a lot of controversy about it. But competitions are always like this.

People may say that the wrong decisions were made, but I felt at the time, and I still feel that, for that time, the way everyone was playing then, it was absolutely the right decision. With players that good and ultimately that important, it doesn’t make that much difference. We’ve all gone on to bigger things.

It opened up a few doors for me. And when I won a prize in Geneva in 1981, that added to it. It helps. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is the strongest reason for doing a competition, if at all. Otherwise they’re terribly wearing, and often decisions are unfathomable.

We have a few seasoned competitors in Europe now who are making a living out of competition winnings. They make more money than they would on the concert platform.

That’s deadening. One can forget the higher purpose of making music. I think that players need to put the competition in perspective. It’s just a stepping-stone, it’s not a goal. Real music has nothing to do with the stuff of competitions, nothing at all.

Did you have any formal training in composition outside the guitar?

I studied orchestration with David Del Tredici. David is not only one of the finest American composers, he also is a genius orchestrator. I audited some orchestration classes of his, and then asked him for private lessons when I wrote my first orchestral piece. It was an orchestration of a violin and guitar piece called Dances in the Madhouse, my best-known piece. I took it to David, who helped me immensely. He gave me to understand that my orchestration sense was already very strong, but he refined it with a whole world of detail that was new to me. Orchestration is one of the few aspects of composition, in my opinion, that is really teachable. And David Del Tredici taught it extremely well.

I also had a couple of very informal lessons with Virgil Thomson, who taught me in the space of one hour more than most people teach over years about the nature of setting words to music. He was such a master of it that again, like Einstein explaining the Theory of Relativity, he explained this whole discipline to me in the space of an hour. And it’s all that I think I ever really needed to know. Because I continue to harvest the results from that one session. He was very good to me, very kind; he believed in me as a composer. He was the first major figure to give me support as a composer, which I was very grateful for. I had some bad experiences early on with some academic people who did not like my music and made me feel that it wasn’t worth very much. Those were the days of stylistic dictatorship. Virgil re-established my self-confidence.

Otherwise I studied in college with a man named Richard Winslow, who taught at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, where I went to school. He did not do much about getting his music out into the world for performances. Instead, he was a bit like Mr Bach, quietly churning out pieces for church every week. He didn’t really care about getting major performances of them. I think his music was stronger for it. He was my compositional mentor, and planted in me some good basic wisdom about composition and artistry in general. He’s written a beautiful guitar piece, by the way, called Variations on a Tune of Stephen Foster, which Theodore Presser publishes; it was written for me and it’s a very, very fine piece.

The other teacher I had was Charles Turner, who was a former disciple of Samuel Barber. So there is an indirect line from Barber there too.

In general, my process of learning, in both composition and guitar, has been to teach myself. All these people I’ve mentioned were people I studied with for a
very brief time. As were my guitar teachers. I’ve studied with John Duarte, David Starobin, Angelo Gilardino – all for a very short time. They were all immensely important and helpful to me, each of them crucial to my development. But I always needed to return quickly to my own strong persona and figure out how to incorporate each teacher’s ideas into it.

Have you set a lot of words to music?

Oh yes, I have. I’ve written hours and hours of vocal music, some with guitar and some with piano. In fact in a couple of weeks I’ll have a major concert in Boston of my vocal music: three pieces with piano, two with guitar. With some rather stellar performers, major singers, Warren Jones the pianist. who’s accompanied some of the great singers in the world. It’ll be quite an event.

Bridge Records has also expressed an interest in putting out an album of my vocal music.

Are we going to have a guitar concerto?

I hope so. I expect to write one, but basically I have to wait for a commission opportunity, because it ties up a lot of time and it’ s not cheap to do copies of parts. I expect that somewhere along the way it will happen, and I very much look forward to that.

So do I. Going back to vocal music, I’ve always felt that the guitar was a natural to accompany the voice, and I can’t understand why there aren’t more voice and guitar recitals.

I’m glad you mentioned that. I agree. Not only is the voice and guitar a natural combination, but the repertoire is fabulous! There’s Britten, Handel, Schubert, all the contemporaries. What a great literature! So many yet-undiscovered pieces for voice and guitar – old pieces as well. It’s one of the most profound and substantial areas of repertoire we have.

And there’s so much that can be transcribed decently and honestly without losing anything.

Exactly! And Schubert is the prime example. The accompaniments are often simple in nature, and the guitar’s natural intimacy and humility serve them beautifully.

(reprinted by permission from Classical Guitar)