In 1997, after a very successful 20-year career as a professional trombonist, my playing started to deteriorate - it was the strangest thing. While on a Boston Symphony tour to the Canary Islands at the beginning of the year, I had difficulty controlling the sound of the instrument. I noticed it a few months later, while subbing as Principal Trombone in the Detroit Symphony, and then again during a Boston Pops tour to Japan. It would come and go, which made it even stranger. My lip would quiver, I’d get air leaks, and notes would just stop speaking. As you can imagine, I started to get very concerned.
After meeting up with some doctors who had no idea what was going on, I met Dr. Michael Charness who diagnosed me with Focal Dystonia on our first visit - with almost no testing. He later told me that my symptoms were quite consistent with Focal Dystonia, and that he could have diagnosed me over the phone, but preferred to see patients in person to be sure. It was nice to have a name for what I was dealing with, but the information I could find about it was not reassuring. There was no known treatment.
I became a test subject, trying out everything to see if something might work. We tried rest, drugs (Sinemet, Artane and Gabapentin), Botox injections (no not in my forehead!), acupuncture, Alexander Technique, Rolfing (massage), physical therapy, and chiropractic intervention. I thought about getting a biofeedback machine, but had already lost momentum by that time. Trying to sort this out was emotionally exhausting. None of the treatments seemed to have much effect on the dystonic muscles. The doctor was happy to keep trying things as long as I was willing, but I wasn’t sure how much longer I had it in me to try.
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Lawrence Isaacson is a conductor and educator based in Boston. Biography >>