Kristin Davidson on Dystonia: Another Kind of Recovery
My story of injury and recovery won’t sound like others in this collection.
My dystonia first manifested while playing principal on tour with the Marine Band in 2008. That wasn’t an unusual or new role for me, so a change in regular demand or practice wasn’t a likely cause. Many of the signs that others have had were also true for me, including mid-range flexibility loss, tremor in specific ranges, and loss of sensitivity/response. Also, like others, equipment change compounded the issue. Fear and anxiety, which were never prominent concerns for me in performance, became cripplingly, chronically present.
I eventually lost my ability to play. From that point on, my life went through complete neurological medical assessment, sustained specialized attempts at retraining, a compressed assessment of career change options, a graduate degree in a different field, and then retirement and career change. Today I am five years into that new career, and ten years post-injury.
Many of the contributors to this site had treatment experiences that were similar to mine in regards to medical or musical/neurological specialists. In my case, I went through Bethesda Naval Hospital, Johns Hopkins, and eventually Columbia University Hospital where I was seen by Dr. Steven Frucht. I was referred to Laurie Frink for study, but eventually did an extended study for retraining with Jan Kagerice at the University of North Texas.
One reason for my lengthy assessment was my military neurologist’s concern over a family pattern of Parkinson’s. At that time I was forty-two years old and, of my five older siblings, two had been affected by Parkinson’s. I lost my sister to it in 2014. I’m profoundly grateful that my doctor at Bethesda took the care to look at my complete health history and rule out any underlying causes that, honestly, would have concerned me more than losing my ability to play.
It would be pointless for me to detail what solutions I attempted to implement. Others in this space have done it much better, and with an eye to detail that I don’t have after ten years. More importantly, that’s not the kind of recovery I’ve had.
In living through whatever transition is waiting for you, you may encounter several things that I encountered. One was curiosity. Other players are naturally inquisitive as to what’s up with you, what may have been your warning signs, if those symptoms resemble any sensations they’ve been concerned about, etc. Preventative thinking is natural, and almost surely they mean no harm.
Another less benign development was that members of my family circle didn’t quite grasp the profundity of the loss. My family cuts a pretty broad swath of culture, so I eventually just put that in a certain pigeon-hole in my brain labeled “Just Not Getting It.” The idea of one’s lost musical voice as a phantom limb is meaningless to those who don’t speak that language. It gave me no comfort to hear, “Well, at least you can still play the piano.” (I’m a hack.) It being a bad time in my recovery, I think I responded, “That’s like telling a man who’s lost his wife that at least he still has his dog.”
Perhaps the most stressful aspect of all this was my continued need to provide. Everyone is faced with financial reality, though some have more dependents than others. In the end, this made my results easier to accept. I’ve been able to successfully redirect into a career completely unrelated to music. I have fun and it’s satisfying – although I don’t feel quite the degree of mastery I felt on the horn, and I suspect I may never. The logistics of career change are something I never want to go through again, but still, I’m grateful, and so are my kids.
I can’t say enough about how the understanding and support of my colleagues and the leadership in the Marine Band made a huge, perhaps defining, difference in my recovery. Support took different forms. Many simply asked if I was okay and accepted a short answer. Others tactfully gave distance as a way of reducing a perception of scrutiny, lessening pressure. One colleague, during a suicide prevention seminar, commented that when people think they are losing everything, it’s important for them to look at a broad picture of the blessings they have in their lives: intellect, drive, community, the regard of your friends and colleagues, and commitment to and support of your family. I will never forget how grateful I was that someone else in the room could say that when I couldn’t. I was in a place in my recovery where every day was composed of exactly those elements in excruciating deliberation.
Some of us will not regain playing after injury. Everyone has a last concert. Sometimes it’s possible to see the redefinition of our purpose coming, and sometimes it’s not. As I was reading the excellent contributions to this site, a common theme kept sounding in my ear: to sustain your musicianship after injury you will become a different player than the player you used to be. I would add that it may also be true that to sustain yourself, you may have to become a different person entirely.
Musician’s Well asks:
What was your professional life like pre-dystonia?
I was late in my career as a musician in The President’s Own U.S. Marine Band. During my time there, I served primarily as a sectional symphonic band player, with substantial time as associate and co-principal. Much of what they did (and still do) is concert work or ceremonial support that resembles concert settings, but there was also a significant outdoor ceremonial music component that could be physically challenging – cold, heat, marching, standing, and the like. For the majority of my playing life, none of that gave me all that much difficulty in responding to the less-than-ideal physical playing situations, or rebounding to play more sophisticated concert works the next week.
Before my patch in the Marine Band, I had spent my professional time at the usual smorgasbord of playing opportunities: I toured Europe for a year with a bus-and-truck company on two or three musical theater productions, played in an orchestra in Canada for one season, and before that, spent three years in the New World Symphony. My very first job was for Disneyland’s summer “marching band” internship. I like to joke that, in college, I would sooner have died than join the marching band, but I started and ended my careers doing things that looked a lot like that!
I say this, though, to reinforce that those kinds of physical demands didn’t give me any long-lasting concerns, and still enabled me to meet my production needs for sensitive concert work. For years. That is, until they did. It was a bit of a surprise.
What was most helpful for you?
The resource that was most impactful was my colleagues’ grace and understanding, and their willingness to see me as a human, not just a musician. That extended to their interest in my children and extended family.
Another resource grew out of an earlier involvement with my children’s musical lives. We were really lucky to have found an excellent RSCM (Royal School of Church Music) choir at St. Paul’s K Street in Washington, D.C. when my son was quite young. Initially, I was just interested in the high-level and developmentally appropriate environment for choral education. The music there at that time was just outstanding, and it’s amazing that my children got to work with professional singers weekly on the Anglican choral canon.
Over the years, that became a strong social, musical, and spiritual support for all of us through a lot of change. I mean, a lot. The organist and director of music, Robert McCormick, now at St. Mark’s in Philadelphia, was like another parent for my kids. He is a fabulous conductor and improvisateur, in addition being a great human being. My choir family from that time is still like a hometown to me. They were so wonderful in helping me redefine.
What I hope you take away, though, is that this helped me stay connected to sublime music in a medium that I could still bear. There was a significant portion of time when I could not listen to orchestral or symphonic band music that I knew intimately, whether live or recorded. My children have had two parents lose playing, so I’m deeply grateful that they’ve had an experience of their own that connects them to that beauty. I felt it was important to keep that alive for them.
By the way, I now listen to a lot of orchestral, choral, and popular music, probably in equal measure. And, because of my husband, a lot of tuba/euphonium literature.
Do you have any advice for those facing dystonia?
My advice would be to try to understand that, whatever the recovery, you will not be the same. Be willing to accept that some/many elements of playing (or life) will be profoundly different. Be willing to accept the possibility that some of those elements will be things that you completely did not see coming, and perhaps you will not even see as related to playing, and you may struggle mightily with that dissonance.
In what ways have you changed?
Among the ways I have changed is the fact that I am now much more aware of the wiring of my brain. I owe that to Jan Kagerice – it was one her first methods of assessment that has stuck with me. This type of assessment is entirely positive to undergo, but the awareness it produces, while productive, is uncomfortable.
Also, I’ve had to navigate areas of knowledge and professional skills with steep learning curves in the past five years, and can honestly say that getting to a place of fluency with those new skills and/or languages just plain takes longer when you’re not five years old (my age when I started piano). Here’s an example: I keep expecting new processes that I learn at work to be as integrated and embedded in my brain as immediately as, say, some of the basics of music performance that we all know (scales/arpeggios, melodic/harmonic intonation, interpretation, other idiomatic patterns and functions that we do all the time) and it’s just not ever going to be that easy. I know - music’s not easy. But I find gaining these new skills much harder.
Is there something that has been a grounding force, something that has kept you sane through all the tumult?
Without a doubt, my faith and my family – they are intertwined. My children are both singers, one contemplating a professional life in music. I’m glad I didn’t give up, if only for them. Also, I’m recently remarried to, yes, a musician – and just like finding a new life on the other side of injury, he is a daily reminder to me that hope is never fruitless. He’s a real blessing. He’s also the funniest guy I know.
What does life look like now?
Since retirement, I’ve mostly been a fifth-grade teacher, with a special interest in teaching writing. It was a relief to move completely into spoken/written language as a medium after losing music. I now dream of words.
In another of those “who-could-have-seen-this-coming” life events, I recently remarried – to another former military musician, Dave Zerkel, who’s fortunate enough to still have an active playing and teaching life. He teaches tuba and euphonium at University of Georgia, and travels and performs a good bit. I’d only ever read about life in the South, but now I live here! I’m still trying to make sense of that culture shift after living in D.C. for so many years.
We spend a lot of our time immersed in the food and music culture here. Athens is unusually diverse and vibrant. I’m currently working at a college preparatory academy with preschoolers (college admission starts so early these days!) which is delightful, and trying to find a way to devote more time to writing. My teen-aged daughter lives with us. She reminds us daily that we’re culturally illiterate.