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Living with Schizoaffective Disorder

Athletes of the Small Muscle

"We are athletes of the small muscle."
-- Pianist Leon Fleisher

Michael David Crawford, Baritone,

February 11, 2006

Copyright © 2006 Michael David Crawford. All Rights Reserved.

My hands shake. They have been shaking for over twenty years.

They shake because of the medicine I take for my schizoaffective disorder. Many of the medicines for mental illness cause hand tremor; in my case it is the valproic acid I take to prevent mania that causes mine.

It got so bad in 1997 that I couldn't type: when I held my hands close to my keyboard they would shake up and down so hard that the banging noise brought my coworkers to see what was happening. Fearing I would no longer be able to work as a programmer, I demanded my psychiatrist find a way to make the shaking stop.

Hand tremor is most commonly caused by antipsychotics; I was taking risperdal at the time. My doctor prescribed cogentin, which reduces tremor caused by antipsychotics, but it didn't help. Finally he tried propanolol, which is usually used to treat anxiety but can also help with tremor. That did the trick.

Each day when I sit down to the piano to practice, my hands shake so bad that my fingers stumble over the keys. But if I persist in my practice, eventually my hands become conditioned and I can play competently. What I do is to play scales for an hour each day. That's what it takes to make my hands stop shaking.

When I've mentioned this before, some of my fellow musicians at Kuro5hin felt that I shouldn't bother with so many scales. But a University music theory text I've been studying, Tonal Harmony by Kostka and Payne, advises in its very first chapter that one should learn all the major and minor scales and practice them all regularly.

There are twelve major scales in Western music. I know the major scales for the seven natural notes, that is, for each of the white keys on the piano. There are twelve minor scales too, but they work in a more complicated way, depending for example on whether one is ascending or descending, so they are studied in three forms: the natural, harmonic and melodic minors. I know all three forms for C, D, E and A, and the natural minors of F and C-Sharp.

I started learning C-Sharp minor the last time I practiced because that's the key of the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, which I began to study last Monday. While it has three movements, the third one is heard only rarely. Kuro5hin's HackerCracker said:

... very few people can play the 3rd movement well. And it's too bad, too, since it's probably one of angriest pieces Beethoven ever wrote.

I finally was able to listen to it the other day, and agree it's an incredible piece of music. But it is far faster than I am yet able to play.

Playing so many scales is a good exercise, as each scale starts on a different key or uses a different combination of black and white keys. Now that I am able to play with both hands in parallel motion, I can practice playing with different fingers on each hand.

I have noticed just in the last few weeks that I am able to play far faster than I used to, but I knew a better exercise than scales for learning to play fast. Saturday morning I bought it at Tom Lee Music in downtown Vancouver: The School of Velocity by Carl Czerny. His Wikipedia article says The School of Velocity has "tormented piano students for almost 200 years."

There are forty exercises in the book. If I can learn to play them, I'm sure I'll be able to play all three movements of The Moonlight Sonata.

Still I must be careful: the reason Leon Fleisher points out that musicians are "athletes of the small muscle" is that excessive practice paralyzed his right hand. What promised to be a brilliant career was cut short at the age of thirty-seven. Only recently was a treatment found for his focal dystonia: botox injections into a nerve in his forearm are able to relax his fingers so he can play with two hands. He now works tirelessly to raise awareness of focal dystonia in the music community.

If you'll excuse me now, I'm going to go practice.

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