Classical Guitar Focal Dystonia
-

Focal Dystonia of the Hands: Info for Guitarists

Holy Moly!  Focal Dystonia!  Of all the bum cards you could be dealt, this one is the bummer of the bunch.

After all the hard work you put into your playing, all the hours and days spent honing this craft, imagine losing it all.  Imagine your hands not working anymore.  Imagine doctors not having a clue what to do about it.  Imagine how tragic, distressing, frustrating and heartbreaking something like this could be.  Then double it.

Focal Dystonia is one of those silent maladies that is all around us that we rarely hear about.  My musical coach has it (though he staved it off for 15 years since he first got serious symptoms.  More on that later.)  And I have been surprised how often I am contacted by guitarists (typically advanced players, well-studied) suffering from the effects of Focal Dystonia.

 

What is Focal Dystonia?

Disclaimer: I am not a medically certified anything.  I don’t even know CPR.  If you suspect you may have focal dystonia, widen your research to beyond this guitar blog!
 

In a nutshell, focal dystonia is an affliction where your brain sends your muscles too many commands at once.  The result is a total traffic jam of muscle movements, which creates a clinching spasm.

Instead of playing an arpeggio pattern, say, PIMA, You instead have a cluster of fingers all at once.  Like this:

FDPIMA1

Nice and tidy

FDPIMA2

All jumbled together

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Focal Dystonia Treatments

People and doctors are experimenting with many different cures and treatments.  (surprisingly, Botox is a common treatment!  Though the effects are temporary.)

One treatment, that could also help as a preventative, is practicing slow, exaggerated movements.

For this, you would break down all the separate motions that go into a stroke, such as an arpeggio, or I and M alternation.  Then you would play each in turn, slowly, exaggerating the follow-through.

(I was happy to learn that my methods for I and M alternation, and for playing arpeggios, jive well with this, because I suggest breaking down the movements to begin with.  I got lucky on that one!)

This is how my coach was able to continue performing publicly for 15 years after first diagnosing his focal dystonia.  He went back to square one, and practiced slowly, examining and retraining every movement involved with basic technique.  Never underestimate the power of patience and a serious work ethic!

 

Re-visit your basic technique

For us all, this is one more reason to slow down and focus on good technique.  If you haven’t in a while, this would be a great time to set aside a practice or two to re-visit your basic movements, and re-train any non-optimal habits you may find.

Here is a lesson on fundamental movement.

Here are 5 common mistakes guitarists make.

Here is the course on arpeggio technique.

Here is the lesson on I and M alternation.

 Other resources

Other avenues that may prove helpful:

1. The Alexander Technique – I have studied this for years, and it is probably the absolute best thing I have ever done for my daily quality of life and bodily health.  It’s not easy to talk about unless you have some experience with it, but it’s well worth the investment for lessons.  (For US residents, make sure you get an AmSAT-certified teacher.  There are others, but the AmSAT standards are miles higher.  If you are not in the US, I am sure you can do an internet search for a teacher nearby.)

2.  Body-Mapping – Body Mapping teaches the basic fundamentals of movement.  Some people compare it to the Alexander Technique, but that would be like comparing a story with an actual experience.  It’s a whole different thing.  Still, Body Mapping is quick and cheap to learn (AT is not) and is valuable for what it is.   It is simply intellectual knowledge, whereas AT teaches through bodily experience (i.e. you could learn all about a peach, or you could learn about a peach while actually eating one.)  If you get the opportunity to take a Body-Mapping workshop, I would encourage you to sign up.

3.  The Poised Guitarist – Thanks to Sasha Ahuja for turning me on to this guy.  He’s a guitarists who used Body-Mapping in his teaching, and specializes working with people with focal dystonia and repetitive stress injuries.  There are some great videos on his home page that are worth a watch.

4. Do you have others that belong on this list?  Let me know, please, either via a note or in the comments below.

 

Conclusion

If you have focal dystonia, you have my complete sympathies, and I encourage you to stay patient and dedicated to slow practice.

If you are all clear, I encourage you to thank your lucky stars and periodically return to fundamentals and basics.

Do you have any experience or knowledge on focal dystonia?  Please share it below!

allen mathews classical guitar

About Allen Mathews

Allen Mathews learned guitar as an adult, and has been a full-time guitar teacher for almost two decades to students age 4 to 96.  He has taught classical guitar at Reed College and Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and has been a guest lecturer and clinician at schools and universities throughout the U.S.  Allen is often praised for his creative teaching abilities, and his dedication to helping adults learn classical guitar.  He has a popular Youtube Channel offering regular classical guitar tutorials, and has gained fans worldwide for his weekly emails and articles at ClassicalGuitarShed.com.





Become a Member and Play More, Beautifully!


“The basics are the basics, and you can’t beat the basics.”
Charles Poliquin  

Join the program that takes you from the beginning fundamentals to advanced mastery, so you…

  • Move your hands safely and fluidly

  • Enjoy fulfilling practices and meaningful work

  • Play beautifully with expression and flow

Click the button to take a step towards an organized, effective guitar practice. >>>




Featured Courses

$39


jesu bach classical guitar

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring – Bach

One of the best loved of all classical pieces.

See more...


$39


read music guitar high positions notes

Play and Read Music in the Higher Positions

Learn to read music and identify notes on the entire neck.

See more...


$39


how to play segovia scales

Better Technique, with “Segovia’s Favorite Scales”

Detailed explorations of this popular technical tool.

See more...


$39


pachelbel's canon guitar

Pachelbel’s Canon in D

Great for beginners to intermediate players.

See more...


$47


how to read music for guitar

How to Read Music for Guitar

A full course to get you started reading music

See more...


$39


malaguena guitar

Malagueña, by Ernesto Lecuona

One of the most fun and recognizable guitar songs in the world!

See more...



See more…