I have taken a phenomenological approach in my work. This means that I create solutions from working directly with my clients and seeing patterns of cause and effect. In this way I have been able to successfully understand how to cure Focal Dystonia. It also means that I have seen the common patterns in clients who suffer from Focal Dystonia. One of those is that they tend to have a higher than normal level of demanding perfectionism.
Demanding Perfectionism Defined
Let me define what I mean by this term, people who demand perfectionism regard anything short of perfect as being unacceptable, even though perfect is an impossible goal. In addition they base their measure of worth or even worthiness on being perfect.
The demanding perfectionist as well as fixing on an impossible goal muddles together actions and emotions believing that this will get them to where they want to be. They have confused excellence and a desire or ambition to express all of their talents and potential with being perfect and they believe that striving and demanding will help them. They often in addition confuse reaching their potential with competing with or comparing themselves to others.
In reality, the actions that we take are completely separate from the emotions that we feel and the thoughts that we have as we do so. Let me explain myself further. Do you remember the children´s game which consisted of a tower of small wooden blocks? Each player has to pull out a block and place it on the top of the tower without the tower falling over. The action is to remove the block and place it on the top, whether you feel calm, nervous, pressured or stressed about doing so is a completely different issue.
The Power of Inner Stillness
If we relate this to music, the development of precise and excellent technique and musical expression requires thousands of hours of repetition of good quality exercises and well-chosen pieces of music. The emotions that you feel and the thoughts that you have as you do so are really unrelated to whether you complete them or not.
What is more, we have had the direct experience with childhood games like the one I described above that when we feel nervous, pressured or stressed we have less control over our fine motor skills and we are more likely to send the tower tumbling to the ground. On the other hand when we feel calm and centred into a kind of inner stillness our control is much greater.
This means that if you are calm and centred in your inner stillness whilst you practice your instrument, you will be far more precise in your fine motor skills and your technique will evolve faster. This requires you to trust in your ability and the learning method that you have chosen. In this way you can give time to the time that your brain needs to make all the necessary neuronal connections to perfect your technique.
In other words the inner pressure that is created from the inner dialogue of comparison, self-criticism, and expectations of immediate or faster results only serves to slow down and get in the way of the learning process.
How Perfectionism Negatively Affects your Technique
In order to really grasp this it is important to understand what goes on in your brain as you learn the highly complex fine motor skills that are necessary for excellent technique. The part of your brain that thinks, analyses, demands, criticises… is the neocortex and it is the only part of the brain of which you are consciously aware. It is very skilled at this job, and we could call it your “I number 1”. At its best this part of your brain is excellent at setting goals; however, it is the deeper part of your brain which will actually get you to your goal.
This deeper part of your brain, which is called the sub-cortex, which we could call your “I number 2”, is the part that learns and executes your fine motor skills; it is also completely outside of your conscious awareness. So that even though your neo-cortex would like to be in charge and tell your body through your inner dialogue, what to do and how to do it, it is actually completely ineffective when it does so. This is for two reasons, firstly it has almost no control over what happens in your sub-cortex and secondly the vast majority of your brain activity goes on in your sub-cortex as it is the power house of your brain.
As the sub-cortex is outside of your conscious the best service that you can give it is to provide it with high quality exercises which will enable it to learn the necessary fine motor skills. As you let go of trying and simply trust its capacity to learn it will naturally use the exercises to develop excellent technique, taking the time it needs.
Trying is a neo-cortical, “I number 1”, activity, it gets in the way of learning and it implants tension in the muscles which inhibit the development of fine motor skills. The sub-cortex doesn´t try, the sub-cortex just is, knows what to do and does. The nearest that we can get to touching its processing is through feeling and following the inner sensations of the body as you practice, without interfering or criticising it and from a place of inner stillness. If there is a lack of accuracy or mistake, the sub-cortex will learn and correct it without any involvement required from the “I number 1”.
Demanding Perfectionism and Focal Dystonia
If we add to this realisation Donald Hebb the Canadian Neuropsychologist´s discovery that “neurons that fire together wire together” we can begin to understand how demanding perfectionism is one of the key underlying causes of Focal Dystonia. If a musician has practiced during years with feelings of stress, pressure and demanding of learning faster, being better, getting it right or getting it perfect, they have wired this stress and its accompanying muscle tension into the fine motor skills they use to play their instrument. They have built in a propensity to suffer from Focal Dystonia.
In my experience, when a musician with this propensity has 2 or 3 stressful experiences close together this emotional charge creates an overstimulation of the messages that are sent to the body and they can develop Focal Dystonia. These type of stressful events are highly varied they can include music based events such as a highly demanding series of concerts, exam stress, important auditions, difficulties or feelings of competition with colleagues… They can also include events that have nothing to do with the musician´s career, such as a relationship break-up, the death of a loved one, economic worries, an accident…
Prevention or Cure?
Once the musician has Focal Dystonia we have to work through and release the entire complex of neuronal connections between the fine motor skills muscle movement and the neuronal nexus of tension and demanding they have developed over years of practice. The neuroplasticity and neurogenesis techniques that I use work at a relatively accelerated speed and are highly precise. This means that the recovery process usually takes around 15 weeks. In addition I teach my clients how to master the ability to centre themselves in inner stillness and enjoyment as they come back to playing their instrument. In this way they are protecting themselves in the future from the Focal Dystonia reappearing. They also find that as they play from these new psycho-emotional states their performance reaches new levels of excellence.
I am passionate about the way we are taught music, as so much can be done to prevent Focal Dystonia if we learn to play music feeling emotions such as calmness, stillness, enjoyment and self-love. However, my passion goes further, as musicians we have a special sensitivity and ability to express feelings and move others through music. This sensitivity and passion for music flows out of a very deep place from within and it is very sad when it becomes squashed by the assault of demanding perfectionism, tension and suffering. The joy, freedom and flow of music is its essence and it is vital that it is taught from this essence.