Though no one compares music-playing to fighting on a battle ground, the lives of musicians and those of soldiers are closely linked. While soldiers live by Gen Douglas MacArthur’s solemn words: “There’s no substitutes for Victory,” symphonic musicians live by “Practice, practice, practice for the sake of Music!” As soldiers serve their country with profound sense of honor and duty, musicians serve their Master with devotion and dedication to make the beauty of sounds the composers had intended with their instruments.
Injuries are inevitable for soldiers on a battleground, as it is for the musicians in the “front line.” When a soldier is injured in the line of duty, his nation recognizes him or her by awarding with Purple Heart or Silver or Bronze Medal, but when a musician is injured in the line of “duty,” he loses job, suffers shame and humiliation of losing his ability and shrinks to “disabled.”
This happened to Alex Klein, 51, the principal oboist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who, at age 36, became a victim of a rare neurological disease called “Focal Hand Dystonia” that disabled him from playing his oboe. But more than a dozen years of fighting with his unseen enemy, he not only miraculously recovered enough to play but also won an audition for the same position he had held earlier in the Chicago Symphony, that had been vacated a year earlier. This is a story of human strength that endured evil of a debilitating disease.
John Von Rhein wrote: “May 2001, Klein, then serving as principal oboe of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, found himself losing control of his fingers when he played. He was eventually diagnosed with a neurological disorder known as focal hand dystonia. The affliction sent garbled signals from his brain to the third and fourth fingers of his left hand, forcing them to curl under. Those involuntary muscle contractions cost Klein, one of the world’s foremost orchestral and solo musicians, the thing he loved and did best, playing the oboe. Worse, the dystonia robbed him of his identity and self-esteem as an artist.
“The condition grew so bad that he was unable to perform more than sporadically in the position to which music director Daniel Barenboim appointed him in 1995. He tried various means of controlling the incurable affliction. He endured many hours of acupuncture and physical therapy, some of it extremely painful. He played with softer reeds. He had his instrument altered to allow his fingers to reach the keys more easily.
“He sweated out CSO rehearsals and concerts, playing as much as his muscles could tolerate without causing further stress or risking injury. He withdrew from performances at the last minute after his left hand went AWOL. The insidious thing was that when he was away from the oboe, his fingers worked just fine. It was only when he performed that his fingers got confused and stiffened. Practicing longer and harder only made the task-specific disorder worse. He was faced with the realization that he could no longer provide the level of playing and section leadership expected of a musician in his position.
“And so, in April 2004, after nine years in the orchestra, Klein (retired) and then returned to his hometown of Curitiba, Brazil…(to) his parents’ home. ‘It was the most depressing time of my life,’ he said, looking back on the terrible chain of events that included the breakup of his first marriage. ‘I had nothing to do and nowhere to go, and no home. I sat on the couch for months.’
“He hesitated to take up playing the oboe again. Whenever he did, after a couple of days, his fingers would tighten up… Eventually (his) need to make a living forced him to turn his attention to other means of musical expression. …He took up conducting and music administration. He taught master classes. He founded and directed what is said to be Latin America’s largest music festival, the Santa Catarina Music Festival. He launched and directed the Program of Social Inclusion through Music and the Arts, a Brazilian orchestra for at-risk schoolchildren inspired by Venezuela’s El Sistema music education program.
“His determination to keep the focal dystonia at bay (and to pursue the oboe-playing) persisted. He refused to abandon his dream of playing once again with a major orchestra. In April (2016), Klein tested the waters by sitting in as guest principal oboe for CSO performances of Mahler and Verdi under music director Riccardo Muti. He and everyone else were more than pleased with the results.
“Two months later the CSO invited him to audition for his former chair in the orchestra’s woodwind section, a chair vacated last year by Eugene Izotov. ‘At first, I told them no,’ said the 51-year-old Klein, wary of taking so great a leap and possibly failing. ‘But my colleagues and the administration encouraged me, with full knowledge of what I could and could not do…’ He played for the audition committee and Muti. Lo and behold, he won the audition. His reappointment as principal oboe of the CSO took effect with last Friday’s concert…
“‘It feels as though I never left,’ Klein remarked after a recent rehearsal. ‘Coming back to the orchestra I love feels like a dream. I never thought this would happen again in my life… And my colleagues are giving me the same support I remember getting when I left the orchestra.
“Klein is far from alone in his struggle with focal dystonia. The Dystonia Medical Research Foundation estimates that 1 to 2 percent of professional musicians are living with the disorder, almost all of them classically trained and most of them male. That amounts to an average of one musician in every full-sized symphony orchestra, and an estimated 10,000 professional musicians worldwide.
“Pianists Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman, each of whom lost control in his right hand because of focal dystonia and have since found ways of coping with its effects, helped bring the disorder to national prominence. It took Fleisher decades of strenuous effort and treatment to regain full use of his right hand and return to performing with both hands.
“Not only is there no cure for focal dystonia, at present, but its cause remains a mystery to medical science. The disorder typically sets in at the height of a musician’s career, around 35 to 40 years old. (Klein was diagnosed at 36.) Like Klein, most instrumentalists with dystonia fight hard to regain their optimum playing ability — it’s a question of hanging onto their identity.
“For a musician, the instrument is the source of their sustenance, their emotional well-being,” said Dr. Anna Conti, a neurologist at Mercy Hospital St. Louis who works with musicians battling focal dystonia. A concert pianist in her off-hours, she is empathetic with the psychology of other musicians. ‘For them, the person and the instrument are one. When they are unable to communicate through that instrument, it’s as if their whole world falls apart.”