I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked why I don’t play the banjo anymore. The answer is complicated, and it struck me that the reason might make for an interesting story.

For over 25 years I played the five-string banjo in a well-known Pennsylvania bluegrass band called North Fork Alliance (for video, search for “North Folk [sic] Alliance on Bill Knowlton BG Ramble Show #1“). I was pretty good, making the cover of Banjo Newsletter in September 1992. I also played for a couple of years with Harrisburg-based High Strung.

About 25 years into playing, my right (picking) hand started to “misbehave.” I say misbehave because that is what it felt like: My fingers wouldn’t always do what I told them to do and sometimes did things I didn’t tell them to do. The result was spastic playing — my fingers were fighting my conscious commands — and that is intolerable for a musician. I went the traditional medical route to resolve the issue, and got no help. I ended up researching my condition and finally self-diagnosed as having task-specific focal dystonia, also called musician’s dystonia.

I moved to Maine in 2006, and not long after started playing with The NitPickers. Sometimes after a break, dystonia symptoms subside, and in my case they did. My relief lasted a couple of years, until the condition resurfaced with a vengeance. I remember flubbing the simple kickoff to “Vincent Black Lightning” in front of hundreds of people at the balloon festival in Lewiston and thinking, “That’s it. I’m not subjecting myself or others to the whims of my condition anymore.”

So, I quit the band (which went on to form the popular group Back Woods Road) and basically stopped playing. It was just too frustrating.

Along the way in Maine I again sought medical help but to no avail. The neurologist I saw found nothing and wasn’t interested in hearing about dystonia. I even went so far as to see an orthopedic surgeon, culminating in having a bone removed from my wrist to ease any nerve impingement. No luck. I tried acupuncture. No luck. I tried various drugs, legal and otherwise. No improvement. I even tried to learn to play left-handed. Too frustrating (want to buy a left-handed banjo, hardly used?).

I finally had to give up my identity as a banjo player because it was just not enjoyable to play badly. Others who have heard me post-dystonia will tell you I still sound good, but they are not aware — as I am — of the gap between what I know how to play and what I am able to play. That gap is full of frustration.

But what is task-specific focal dystonia? First of all, it’s one of many dystonias. What makes it task-specific is just as the name implies — it manifests when performing a specific task. I can move the fingers of my right hand rhythmically and fast in the air, but put a banjo in my hands and all bets are off. I never know what my fingers will do. Musicians tend to have it affect their hands, as do typists. I’ve heard of a fiddler whose bow arm was affected.

The key to understanding focal dystonia is that it is a neurological disorder having to do with brain plasticity. My problem is not in my right hand; it is in my brain. Focal dystonia occurs in people who have performed at high levels for years, and one theory is that the sections of the brain that control individual body parts start to overlap so that the affected parts are sent conflicting signals. There are other even more complicated causal theories.

Although the exact cause is still unknown and there is no cure, new treatments are popping up and there are some I have yet to explore. Part of me wants to investigate them, and another part doesn’t want to face the possible disappointment of failure to improve.

The good news is that I can still play a little. And as long as I don’t let my ego get too injured by my spastic attempts at picking, I can enjoy it. I spent three nights at the recent Blistered Fingers Bluegrass Festival in Litchfield and picked a bunch each night. To my knowledge, no one got hurt by my inept playing.

And I had a good time, which is what music is supposed to be about.

 

Rick Dale lives in Augusta.


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