The essay below is from the recently published book
101 Inspirational Stories from
the World's Best Flute Players
edited by John Sinclair and published by Windplayer Publications.
I was diagnosed with focal dystonia of the hands in March of 2001. Dystonia is a neurological disorder that causes unusual movements and cramping, which means I became unable to use my fingers in the way they were trained.
It came on slowly for about a year as I watched my skill and technique completely deteriorate. It was particularly frustrating because I was at a high point in my career: recording my second solo CD, performing in England, planning a recital tour in Brazil, serving as principal flute in an orchestra. I thought that maybe I was just out of shape and needed to practice harder.
Researchers have not been able to find a clear cause or cure for dystonia. My doctors were not unkind, but they were direct about how serious the condition is. I went through an incredible period of mourning -- of loss. The question was, how could I continue to express myself musically? I didn't know if I'd have to put my flute away and never play it again.
My music director, Ermanno Florio at the Houston Ballet, watched me come unglued and said, ‘Hey, take a year off and figure this out. We'll hold your job for you.’ That was great because I was in such an emotional state that I needed someone with a level head to consider the other side of this.
I took 18 months off from performing. I saw Dr. Emil Pascarelli and his assistant Vera Wills, a musician who is highly skilled at helping affected musicians rebuild their instruments to accommodate the odd movements brought on by dystonia. She told me the choice was mine to accept my condition and then try to discover a way to make music in my limited capacity. It was very difficult for me because in the classical world we are trained that ‘this is the right way to do things and this is the wrong way.’ I had to throw all of that out the window and become creative in using all the tools that I had developed over my career to find new solutions.
I had such great support from many people -- for one, I was Miss Young before I had dystonia and now I'm Mrs. Rasch! My husband, Richard Rasch, just ‘held my hand’ through the whole nightmare. I've also been very lucky to have colleagues who have supported me -- particularly Peggy Romeo, the second flutist in the Ballet's flute section.
I now play again on a somewhat limited basis, and as I improve, opportunities continue to open up for me. I take one day at a time, and I practice very carefully and deliberately. I will no longer be able to play ‘perfectly,’ but my sound, my phrasing and my understanding of music have not been affected by this condition. Some people have said they notice a deeper or more relaxed tone in my playing -- maybe more of a maturity in it.
I still have something to express, and I've found that letting go of ‘perfection’ has only enhanced the singing voice of my playing, as well as my deep desire to continue a life of music.
This excerpt is used with permission from the publisher.
Copyright © 2003 Windplayer Productions
Copies of this book are available at windplayer.com
In August, 2002, I returned to work at the Houston Ballet Orchestra and continued where I left off, performing in my position as Principal Flute. I found some fantastic alternate fingerings and played in some very creative ways to perform Cinderella, Carmina Burana, Dvorak Eighth Symphony, Madame Butterfly, Manon in addition to many other orchestral works. It was wonderful to return, play with my colleagues and have a last taste at what was a very important part of my life. Unfortunately, my condition declined and my dystonia got worse. On September 12, 2003, I had to come to the difficult decision to resign from my position as Principal Flute. The entire orchestra, and our Music, Artistic and Executive Directors all celebrated with me at a champagne reception. The good news is that I now have the energy and desire to focus on my teaching and writing. Stay tuned to the next chapter
For more information on dystonia and dystonia research, please visit Dystonia Medical Research Foundation.