Megan Coiley

So yesterday, I was in the middle of writing an essay when I stopped all of a sudden and ran to the piano, totally inspired, and began practicing these Scriabin preludes I’ve been learning. The end. …Big deal, right? Well, for me, it kind of is. Two years ago, that scenario would have been completely impossible. You see, two years ago, I had focal dystonia.
Dystonia is a condition in which the brain loses control over a specific part of the body. In pianists, this is usually caused by excessive curling, stretching, and isolating of the fingers while playing. This disorder is said by the medical profession to be incurable. By itself, dystonia is painless; however, I had already been injured for four years before developing it, having had run-ins with tendonitis, carpal tunnel, thoracic outlet syndrome, and “localized and radiating pain.” Therefore, all of the involuntary contracting of already inflamed muscles and tendons involved in this new injury definitely hurt.
When I began showing symptoms of dystonia, I was a senior at a performing arts high school preparing to give my senior recital. About two months before the recital, I noticed that my hands were more curled than usual, and they were beginning to spasm involuntarily – suddenly tightening into fists for a second or two. I didn’t really think much of it, and I kept practicing. They didn’t spasm when I was playing, so I didn’t mind. What did bother me was that the faster I tried to play, the slower my hands seemed to go. This frustrated me to no end. I felt like I was losing control over my playing, which is exactly what was happening. I also noticed that as I practiced to play a piece faster, my hands actually moved slower. I gave the recital and stopped playing completely, but my hands continued to get worse, gradually becoming more and more curled until one day, I woke up and couldn’t open them at all. I used a pair of wrist braces full-time to keep the bridges of my hands from collapsing, the last obstacle preventing my hands from becoming two useless balls of tangled fingers.
At this point, I was dropping most things I touched, had to wake up three hours before going anywhere, and was using voice-activation software to do my schoolwork. Any typing was done with pencils stuck in my fists – a VERY slow process (but still faster than knuckles). When I attended the Golandsky Institute’s summer symposium for the second time that summer, I became known as the “girl with no hands.”
I began studying with Edna Golandsky at the end of August 2008. It became immediately apparent that the movements I had used at the piano had translated into everything else I did in the course of my day. The culprits of my injury – curling, stretching, finger isolation, collapsed wrist, tension, relaxation, etc. – were not just present when I played the piano. I curled when I held a mug of coffee. I twisted when I opened a door. So…we began by working on turning a doorknob. Eventually, I graduated to holding water bottles. Finally, one day in September, I got to touch the piano. I learned how to drop on one note consistently without pain, and then how to move from note to note, then intervals. By November, I had no signs of dystonia, and all pain was gone.
It is currently November 2010, nearly three years since I first showed signs of dystonia, and as I mentioned, I am learning some Scriabin preludes. I am no longer injured – the only time I ever feel discomfort when playing is when I move in an unhealthy manner, in which case, I correct the movement and continue without problems. My life has essentially returned to normal. I typed this document without using pencils. I write papers, bake, and of course, play the piano, without any issues whatsoever. Most importantly, I do not have to wake up three hours before going anywhere...thank goodness. I am currently in the process of opening my own piano studio, hoping to earn my certification through the Golandsky Institute so that I can teach the Taubman Approach professionally. It is my belief that every pianist deserves the opportunity to learn this technique. I cannot imagine what could have happened had I not come across it. Certainly, I would not be leaping from my computer to sit at the piano and practice Scriabin for an hour.