Mary Ellen Haupert

Overcoming Dystonia

I suppose that I would describe myself as the ultimate control woman, one who spent a fair number of years as the maker of my own destiny. People that fall into this “driven” category manage to get a fair amount accomplished, but in my case, my ambition, paired with a faulty technique, was a recipe for disaster.

In the spring of 1994, I performed the MacDowell Piano Concerto No. 2 with the LaCrosse Symphony, just six weeks after giving birth to my third child. I knew it wasn’t good timing, but I just couldn’t let the opportunity go by. It was a real push. Three months after the performance, my RH index finger began to curl under ever so subtly. I tried rectifying the problem with homemade stints, but the curling only worsened. By the following year, I was unable to use my RH for typing and piano playing and resorted to LH repertoire exclusively.

The search for a cure was a long bedraggled journey from orthopedics to physical therapy to occupational therapy to rolfing to acupuncture….etc. I received an endless stream of theories that brought no relief and more frustration. At the end of this line of ineffectual local help came a referral to see Dr. Alice Brandfonbrenner in Chicago. She gave me a diagnosis of focal dystonia, and the cheery news that I would never play solo repertoire again. Depressing, to say the least.

A few months passed and I had to opportunity to share my story with a colleague from Luther College in Decorah, IA. He remembered that Bob Shannon, an old college friend and current faculty at Oberlin Conservatory, had some relief from a playing-related injury and suggested that I call him for advice. Mr. Shannon was sympathetic and recommended a trip to New York City to see either Dorothy Taubman or Edna Golandsky. His kind words offered a glimmer of hope!

Edna was fabulous in our first meeting. She guided me through that initial lesson and several sessions at the Taubman Institute the following summer with great care and thoughtful consideration of every aspect of my hand. Once I gave myself over the wisdom of the work, I made slow but sure improvement. I eventually was able to play one note without my hand collapsing! At the end of the summer session, it was clear that I needed to continue lessons and would need to find a teacher willing to make regular trips to the Midwest.

Teresa Dybvig was facilitating a support group at the Institute that summer which I attended regularly. Her direct but compassionate manner, coupled with the fact that she was willing to travel to teach the Taubman work, inspired me to return home and find a studio full of interested pianists willing to share expenses for her travel. That was the fall of 1996. Her teaching was so successful that her studio has grown to include studios in the Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago areas as well as in LaCrosse.

Teresa Dybvig’s persistent work and insightful eyes in the Midwest has brought healing to my hands and those of many others who were searching for answers. Terry and Edna belied that “experts” who said that I would never play again. They restored to me the joy of playing the piano. Today I don’t even consider myself someone who has dystonia. It is a thing of the past. I currently perform regularly as Assistant Professor of Music at Viterbo University, and play for services, sometimes several in a week, as Director of Music at the Roncalli Newman Center. I will be forever grateful for this tremendous gift in my life.

Mary Ellen Haupert