Despite losing the function of the third and fourth fingers of his left hand through focal dystonia and a shoulder injury, violinist Clayton Haslop was determined to continue playing. Here he shares his story
I do not recall the actual date when it truly sank in that I was facing a career- and life-altering change in my violin capabilities. There had been weeks, months perhaps, of denial: ‘Why? I am such a relaxed player. How could such a thing really be happening?’ I was just entering the most productive phase of my career: acting concertmaster of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Los Angeles Opera; sought-after recording artist in the Los Angeles/Hollywood music industry; and I was always preparing for some solo or chamber music appearance that took me to venues throughout North America. And yet, something was going amiss.
The first indication was a strange misplacement when I attempted to play a whole step between my second and third fingers. Without a concerted effort, my ring finger curled to the side as it followed the second finger to the string. Every other hand movement was normal. Initially, a little forethought provided an adequate workaround: ‘Remember to think ahead, keep that finger relaxed, and you can control it.’
It was about the time that I realised that this strategy was at play all too frequently, and that I was altering my fingering choices in an attempt to avoid ‘an issue’, that the dreaded words ‘focal dystonia’ came to mind. Mind you, this was happening 25 years ago, when there wasn’t much talk about the condition in musical circles, and many musicians suffered in silence while seeking dubious ‘cures’ from the most unlikely sources (more on this later). Identified many years ago as a neurological condition affecting a muscle or group of muscles in a specific part of the body and causing involuntary movements, focal dystonia is still not fully understood. My knowledge of the condition was limited to what I knew of the great American pianist Leon Fleisher. In 1964, aged 36, he was forced to retire from active concert life owing to its crippling effects on his right hand. It seemed a very rare condition, yet soon after my diagnosis I was to learn that as many as 12 to 14 per cent of people reliant on fast, repetitive movements of small muscles are eventually challenged by it: typists, vocalists (in the vocal cords), brass and woodwind players (the embouchure) – the list goes on.
As the months went by, it wasn’t just whole steps that troubled me. Half-steps became an issue, then 3rds, and finally, any call on my third finger carried a potential for embarrassment. Yet through creative practice strategies, sweat and what I refer to as ‘smoke and mirrors’ I managed to soldier on.
Preparation became a refined science. Anything I could do that would help embed the correct physical motions became gold. Effective strategies involved memorisation of the music, body memorisation (recalling the physical feelings of playing the music), verbalisation of the beats as I played them (silently in concert), walking in time to the music (only in practice!), the measuring of vibrato oscillations (effective for relaxing the hand and timing movements) and, of course, finding creative fingerings. Although these were not cures, they worked. For more than a decade they worked.
The use of creative fingerings, I might add, was particularly interesting. In my early twenties I was privileged to spend many an hour in the presence of Nathan Milstein, both in his masterclasses and at his home in London. During these sessions I came to understand why he was viewed as ‘a violinist’s violinist’ by so many professionals. He once said to me, about the time he was 80, ‘I am now more interested in violin playing than I am in music itself.’ It was no surprise, then, to see him offering up wonderful, innovative fingerings that opened the violin and made it ring to its fullest extent. As I was facing my dilemma, his lead became one of my important lifelines, reminding me to look at all the possible choices at my disposal. Surprisingly, this has been equally productive when playing with just two fingers!
When I began to play this way in earnest I realised that there are a host of fingering alternatives available for just about every passage. And it continually astonished me – as the months went by and my flexibility and fluency increased – that the opportunities for creative fingering solutions to thorny passages were expanding.
There was another important lesson from Milstein that proved invaluable, particularly later, after I returned to the standard repertoire using two digits. Milstein was known to change passages when he felt a better musical effect could be achieved by doing so. He, of course, would be the first to say this is not to be done capriciously or frivolously, yet there are times when it is artistically defensible to make alterations to a composer’s choices (Leopold Auer’s changes in the Tchaikovsky are taken as urtext by many).
Yet as the years passed, it became clear to me, even though my friends and colleagues professed to hear nothing amiss, that the compensations were getting harder and harder to find. My mid-forties (in the mid-2000s) found my position in Hollywood at its apex: as the concertmaster for James Horner, Michael Giacchino, Don Davis and other major film composers, I was the first to get a call to play in the orchestra of just about anyone who came to Los Angeles to record. Simultaneously, I was riding the wave of a newly launched string quartet and was regularly invited to appear as soloist with orchestras in various parts of the US. Yet as anyone who has lived with focal dystonia will tell you, these opportunities carried with them a relentless, gnawing stress; one never knew when the wheels would come off.
Even though my friends and colleagues professed to hear nothing amiss, the compensations were getting harder to find
All this brings me to the search for cures. In the early days, frankly, I didn’t even consider one. The malady itself was not fully understood. Brain mapping, for instance, had not evolved far enough to allow for definitive conclusions (there are yet areas of conjecture), and focal dystonia has always been a highly individualistic affliction. Nevertheless, some lucky people find that it resolves itself of its own accord, given time.
For those not so lucky, I was to learn, there were a number of avenues one could explore in the search for relief, depending on whether you were inclined towards allopathy (‘How about an electrode in your brain? Or hand surgery?’), alternative options (‘How do you feel about acupuncture needles?’), psychophysics (retraining), pharmaceutics (Botox injections) or, a particular favourite of mine, the ‘energetic’ (practised by medical intuitives, shamans and hypnotists). I eventually tried all of these save the electrode implant – I wasn’t about to have any foreign bodies in my grey matter!
Yet somewhere between acupuncture and hand surgery I suffered another setback – and it happened in a heartbeat. In a silly error of tiredness, I took a fall while in-line skating, with the impact causing a full, frontal dislocation of my left shoulder. In physiotherapy I was told that whatever function I regained within six months to a year would be all I could expect, and that a return to normal was pretty much out of the question – of course, my normal would be an already compromised hand.
As luck would have it, the injury happened at the beginning of the summer of 2008, just weeks ahead of a major house move. My calendar had purposely been kept open, with one exception: I had agreed to serve as concertmaster for the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, scored by Alexandre Desplat, in mid-July, just six weeks after the time of my fall.
My first thought was, ‘Cancel! You’ve not a prayer of doing this.’ Yet on the advice of my wife I held off. ‘Give it time,’ she counselled. A week before the sessions were to begin I was still not able to press hard enough to play more than mezzo forte, and my vibrato was only beginning to emerge through the pain. This was no condition in which to sit in the ‘hot seat’ for an important film. Yet fate was to intervene, on my side this time.
In a departure from normal procedure, the music was sent electronically to each musician a week in advance of our sessions. When I opened the files I couldn’t believe my eyes: there wasn’t anything above a mezzo forte nor any notes quicker than quavers (e) at a moderate tempo in the entire score. Not only that, the solos I was to play were all marked sotto voce, poco vibrato or similar. Had it not been for my condition I would have chuckled at the sight of such placid cues streaming from my printer. I could legitimately play every note of this score! And I did.
As the feeling and strength gradually returned to my arm, I found myself embracing some rather unusual training techniques. For years I had known that combining two discrete activities (violin practice with, say, walking or speaking) solidified my knowledge of a piece. Now I took it to a new level, riding a unicycle or dancing a hip-hop dance routine I’d picked up from my daughter as I played.
At the height of this madness, in fact, I was playing through the entire Bach Chaconne as I pedalled a half-mile loop through my neighbourhood. It was a unique musical–fitness experience, as the topography of my hilly route shaped the topography of Bach’s music. Looking back, I’m amazed that I recovered enough mobility in my hand to make those workouts possible, especially given the repertoire. And for a while it seemed I might be the exception to the rule – that I would recover most, if not all, of what I had had prior to the fall.
After years of feeling that every attempt at a step forward was met with an equal or greater contrary force, i was improving with practice
It was not to be. One year after from my shoulder injury, I realised I was chasing a chimera. Not only was I working way too hard for what were (by truly professional standards) less than spectacular results, but as time went on another disturbing trend emerged: the more I practised the more poorly my hand performed. That was a bitter pill to swallow.
Up to this realisation it seemed that rigorous training was somehow keeping the door open to recovery. Now the door was closing, notwithstanding all my practice techniques and compensations. In one last Hail Mary, I took the advice of a colleague, whose own hand troubles turned out to be tenosynovitis rather than the originally diagnosed focal dystonia. After consultations with his hand surgeon, and learning that I, too, had synovial deposits on the tendons of my fingers, I sought relief from a surgeon’s scalpel. Mind you, the excellent doctor himself was the first to admit that tendon-release surgery was in no way a slam dunk. Many people have synovial deposits without loss of function, while others can be truly crippled by them. I must have belonged to the former camp, as months after surgery, when the wounds had healed, I had simply lost more ground.
On top of that, I was submerged in depression, faced with no options save finding a new way to keep life interesting. Among other things, I acquired a real estate agent’s licence, undertook voice studies and spent a year making stained-glass windows. None proved a substitute for life as a violinist. And then a new light began playing around the edges of the dark clouds.
After learning that jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt had lost the use of two digits in a fire in his late teens, before achieving international recognition for his distinctive style, I resolved to take a page out of his book and relearn the violin using the two functional digits I have on my left hand. Until then, I hadn’t given much heed to the fact that both the shoulder injury and the focal dystonia issues pertained to the two fingers controlled through the ulnar nerve. The median nerve, with branches to the index and middle finger, was unaffected. And so began the newest chapter of my violin experience. What a relief! After years of feeling that every attempt at a step forward was met with an equal or greater contrary force, I was improving with practice.
At the time I made the switch, my dad happened to be in residence at an assisted living facility nearby. It was here that I found a willing and supportive audience as I made slow but steady progress building fluency and confidence in my new ‘binary technique’.
Initially, the accumulated memory of using four digits to play wanted to drown out my advances, especially when I was tired or in front of an audience. In fact, it was two years into the process before I could reliably perform a repertoire of 15 or so short pieces in public settings, and another year before I committed to playing my first recording session exclusively with two fingers. Four and a half years into the process, in June 2020, jazz violinist Doug Cameron released a video of me performing the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (bit.ly/310mcQT), a project that had required many months of preparation. Within two weeks, it had registered 200,000 views on YouTube and received hundreds of heart-warming comments and endorsements from around the world.
Haslop’s creative fingering solutions in the opening of the solo part of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto
Now the switch is complete. I no longer have to turn off the automatic, four-digit left hand part of my brain. When the violin goes under my chin, only three options are available: an open string, first finger or second finger. Sounds easy, right?
Tchaikovsky’s fiendishly difficult passagework is rendered even more so when playing with only open strings, and first and second fingers
A later lyrical section in the work’s first movement, shows the inventiveness of Haslop’s workarounds
I have one more story to tell. Several months prior to writing this I was invited to play quartets with colleagues, all of whom have been very successful in the Los Angeles music scene. They were not familiar with my challenging history, however, and I saw no reason to make mention of it during the proceedings. A few months later, the violist was forwarded the ‘two-fingered violinist’ video and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Had he really not noticed that I had been playing with just two fingers? I was delighted!