London-born Canadian Liona Boyd was one of the most popular figures on the international classical guitar circuit from the mid -’70s through the turn of the millennium. She became a musical icon in Canada (winner of five Juno Awards), toured the globe, played for world leaders (from Queen Elizabeth to Fidel Castro), appeared often on U.S. television, recorded many well-received albums, and was living a comfortable life in Beverly Hills—until her career was suddenly and inexplicably jeopardized in 2002. Unknown to her (at the time) she had developed musician’s focal dystonia, which affected the middle finger on her right hand and thus left her unable to play advanced pieces, derailing her career.

Below, edited from a recent phone interview, Boyd recounts some of the many ups and downs of her own long journey dealing with FD. Unlike David Leisner, who claims to have fully recovered from his FD, Boyd is not “cured.” But she has successfully reinvented herself as a singer-songwriter (who still plays some classical pieces). These days she splits her time between living in Toronto and, during the winter, Palm Beach, Florida. This year will see the release of a new CD of her original songs, called No Remedy for Love, and also the second volume of her autobiography, which will deal in part with her struggles with FD—a topic about which she has been courageously vocal in recent years. 

I didn’t have any pain. I didn’t lose any sensation. The first manifestation was that my tremolo, which was always very smooth, started to become uneven. It was my favorite technique—I loved to manipulate the dynamics and the pacing, and I became well known for it. Laurindo Almeida said I had “the best tremolo in the business.” Then the arpeggios started getting uneven, so a piece like Spanish Romance became impossible because the middle finger wouldn’t behave itself, and the alignment of the fingers was all messed up. I was on a long tour and struggling every night. I felt I was fighting my fingers. I was constantly looking in the mirror trying to figure out, “What am I doing wrong? Did I file my nails incorrectly?” It was a complete mystery to me and I’d sometimes cry myself to sleep at night in hotel rooms.

At first, the NIH [National Institute of Health] believed that FD was a neurological disease, which was totally the wrong word. It’s a condition. It doesn’t affect anything else but a very specific repeated motion, which for me involved the middle finger. I thought there was something wrong with my hand that perhaps my fingers were growing together! But it’s in the brain, and it’s triggered by repetitive motions in the fingers when overplaying an instrument. Over time, the specific finger maps in the brain can become confused or “smudged,” as they say. Irony of ironies, the last classical concert I did during that period [in early 2003] was a benefit concert for UCLA’s brain research department, but no one, including me, knew I had focal dystonia. At that point, I quit performing.

At the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California, they ran some tests that determined that I had no neurological damage, and actually they were the ones who first diagnosed it as Task Specific Focal Dystonia, which is also sometimes called Musician’s Focal Dystonia. Of course I didn’t want to believe that too much guitar playing could be harmful. I thought maybe there was some unconscious reason, like I wanted to leave my marriage because my husband was always slightly jealous of my guitar—he didn’t really understand it. When I started having problems he thought I could just paint instead! [Eventually she asked him for a divorce, but they remain friends.]

The NIH knew it was caused by over-practice and they thought Botox might be a solution. It temporarily paralyzes the muscles, so your fingers become limp. Then, as the strength is coming back, you retrain the muscles. But the NIH admits it has not had success with guitarists, or very limited success, so I think that’s the wrong protocol. I went up there four times and I was injected with Botox, but it didn’t work for me. They also made me a few splints—I remember working for hours and hours with the splints trying to make my fingers behave. It was very frustrating.

Then I tried all these wild, crazy things:  Rolfing, hypnotherapy, acupuncture—which isn’t wacko, of course, but which didn’t work for me—Alexander Technique [for posture]. I visited a witch doctor who danced around me and spat on me, claiming it would improve my energy. I tried Scientology for about a month at the Celebrity Centre [in Hollywood]. I met Tom Cruise there and he said, “We can cure you!” But $2,000 dollars later …nothing! I spent a fortune on all these different therapists, flying all over the country consulting various people.

I’m still not “recovered” from it. I have improved a little bit by relaxing my right hand. Dr. Joaquin Farias, a world expert in FD, said what it would involve to really get back my former technique is sitting down every day and consciously retraining my fingers over a long period. The problem is, I’m so excited about this new chapter of my career as a singer-songwriter that I always have projects on the go, and I’m a driven personality, so I haven’t had the time to devote to that, and I also have a busy personal life in two countries.

What I did was I quit performing for a few years, then I played with pick for a while, and I became a singer-songwriter, which has actually been in me since I was a little kid—I was always writing poetry and stories. I even wrote some country songs for a while. But I never in a million years thought I would sing. I found that I do have a voice, and really enjoy singing. Nobody expects me to be Celine Dion! I was lucky that I could do something else in addition to still playing classical guitar, which will always be my great love.

I perform some classical pieces, but I play with a more relaxed technique and it’s changed my repertoire. I play some of the easy pieces, like Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie, and I can manage a few little Tárrega pieces, but I can’t play Bach’s Chaconne. The arpeggios are still not as smooth as they were, I use my thumb more, and the tremolo still eludes me, which is frustrating. But quite  honestly, I don’t have any great a desire to play my former repertoire, because I did it for so many years.

I feel terrible for the many musicians—and there are thousands who struggle with focal dystonia, often terrified that they’re not going to be able to support themselves and their families, so they keep quiet about their condition. After I decided to come “out of the closet.” I felt I had a mission to warn other musicians about this. It’s hard. It’s emotional. You feel so desperate. We’re all so in love with the guitar, or whatever instrument we play, that the thought of not having it in our lives is devastating. I know that I was lucky to reinvent myself and I’m truly loving what I do now. It feels almost like a new life. And it never would have happened if I didn’t develop this condition.

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