Rachel Morgan

Music, for as long as I can remember, has been the most important part of my life. I grew up listening to the recordings of Rubinstein, Horowitz and Gould and reading books by Loesser and Schonberg. Another constant companion was my physical discomfort in playing. I didn’t know it was supposed to be any other way. My teacher during high school advocated many of the ‘old school’ tenets including finger isolation and strengthening which I was later to discover were leading causes of injury.

At the conservatory level, I had the opportunity to work with some of the country’s most illustrious artist/teachers. These teachers were each more than capable of imparting their credo of artistic values to students, but were completely ill-equipped to handle a student who was still struggling with the piano. Many of them noticed the symptoms of bad playing – finger lifting, a thin, brittle tone, lack of forearm participation – but none of them were able to propose a comprehensive program to eliminate my bad habits while replacing them with more efficient skills.

It was with this history that I entered the final recital semester of my doctoral program. A few months after I had passed this recital, I was at home practicing Liszt’s A Major Concerto, when the phone rang. As I picked up the receiver, I had the sensation that the forearm tendon leading to my 4th finger had snapped like a rubber band. After this, not only was playing the piano an unpleasant experience, it was a physical impossibility. My hand was simply too weak.

For years I tried one form of therapy after another to no avail. By this time my injury had actually worsened and could now be categorized as focal dystonia, a condition in which the player loses control of his/her hand and in which certain passages trigger a physical spasm causing the fingers to pull involuntarily beneath the hand. It was at this point that I decided to give up music altogether and become a stockbroker. As I was starting my new life as a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, I decided to give my mangled right hand one last chance and take a few lessons with Nina Scolnick, a specialist in the work of Dorothy Taubman.

From the beginning, Nina impressed me as being a wonderfully caring and involved teacher. Firstly, she had the patience to read and memorize an incredibly detailed 5-year history of my injury and symptoms – something that even I was too impatient to re-read in its entirety. Secondly, she was able to use this knowledge to tailor a very specific program to my extremely tricky hand.

The hardest thing about focal dystonia (which any medical doctor will tell you is not curable) is that the player has no control over her movements. Thus arises the conundrum: how does one change something over which one has no control? Nina had to invent new and creative ways to trick my hand into doing the right thing. At this, she is truly extraordinary.

Nina has also changed the way I hear music. A consummate artist who has an amazing wealth of knowledge concerning music of Schubert and Mozart, she has given a great deal of thought to the relationship between sound and movement. In Nina’s conception of music, there are no ‘dead spaces’, so arm movements continue as a means of linking ideas which are separated by rests or by longer notes. Additionally, she is particularly brilliant when it comes to finding innovative ways of synchronizing movements with the rhythmic aspects of the music.

When I started lessons with Nina five years ago, my descending right hand scales went at the ‘break-neck’ speed of one note to the tick of the metronome at 100. Today I play them at 192 in sixteenths. Unfortunately, I am only able to make the trip from Michigan to California 2 or 3 times a year, otherwise I’m sure I would be even farther along. When I last saw Nina, she declared me to be symptom-free: something I thought I’d never hear, and I’m sure at times, something she thought she’d never be able to say.

To anyone who is suffering with a hand injury and thinks it is so bad they’ll never find a way out of it, I would say there is always a way out as long as there are a few people as caring and insightful as Nina Scolnick.