In search of the lost chord

Playing an instrument after stroke

This post is quite a long rambling one, but it’s of special interest to instrumentalists. We would love to hear from musicians or anyone who has recovered or improved movement and fine motor skills.

Pre-Stroke, my major hobby, apart from the things I pretended to enjoy, walking, gardening, decorating, D.I.Y., etc. was playing guitar.

Gill and I performed, whenever we both managed to get home in time, at various folk clubs around the area. Since the stroke, my left hand has taken over some of the right-hand duties, using power saws, drills, paintbrushes, with mixed degrees of success. I did appear on T.V. a couple of years after the stroke. Caused by stepping back off the third step of the stepladder to admire my wallpapering, followed by two minutes of fame working out how to untangle T.V. and me and work out how to explain the new look, forward-leaning, screen.

Gill described some of the hand and finger exercises I do in an earlier post on touch. These have been enhanced by lots of stretches and weight exercises over the years which are gradually showing results. (So much for the “no improvement after six months” prediction – it just takes work. And to be fair, none of the professionals we encountered here in Somerset subscribed to that anyway.) I can do basic tasks with my right hand, though fine motor skills are non-existent. My lovely physios said I shouldn’t think of it as my bad hand but, as my left hand is so good and has had to work to learn new tasks when at an age when it should be retiring, what else can I call it? The left hand, though, draws the line at learning to write, which made signing for the on-line shopping deliveries I have become so accomplished at ordering very difficult. Not a problem any more, thanks to Covid. They dump the parcel and run.

In spite of my on-going improvement over 7 years, my right-hand fingers and thumb are very stiff and numb; they tingle, feel at times as if they are gripped with pliers, are incredibly heavy, and randomly spasm or jerk.  Not wishing to complain, but did I mention the pain? Temperature sensations are very confused in the right hand. In a warm room, or after I have been exercising, it can be icy cold. At night in a cool bedroom it often radiates heat.

Anyway, back to playing my guitar, or guitars x 5. It didn’t take long for me to realise that adequate performance relies substantially on having a working hand on each corner. One hand, in my case the left, dazzles the audience by racing up and down the fretboard, in the hope of pressing the correct string down, at the right time and in the right order. The sound is created by the other hand, my right, strumming or plucking the strings. This may be either classical or finger-style or using a pick (plectrum) to strike the strings. Either style offers many opportunities for failure. I am still unable to hold a pen for more than a few seconds before it goes flying across the room. With practice with the plectrum, I may be able to aim it through the sound-hole of my acoustic guitar which, at least, saves me crawling around the floor to try and find it. Finger-style playing is even more fraught. Timing is critical for a good tune. Unfortunately, I never know which one, or more, of my fingers and thumb will hit a string, which string/s they will hit, or when. They may even miss completely or get stuck between the strings. This is fine for totally original music, less good for anything that should be recognised.

We spent hours going through all the musical instruments we could think of that can be played one-handed and – apart from possibly trumpet or cornet, both of which could take me back to the after-stroke state of uncontrolled dribbling – were unsuccessful. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know.

.

Whoaa Terry hold your horses there, you’re glossing over the interesting bits.

Right at the start, only months after the stroke, there was a short-lived flirtation with the keyboard. My theory was, and still is, that 1) it would all be as new to the left hand as it was to the right and 2) the left hand would help train the right – basic five-finger exercises are pretty useful. But sitting comfortably at the keyboard was the problem back then. It might be worth re-visiting now.

Singing? Put off for life by a teacher. A common experience for this generation.

Brass?  What about a left-handed trumpet? Or better still French horn, which is always played with the left hand pressing the valves, with the bonus that it provides a nice warm place to rest the right one? Well, the problem with brass instruments is that you need good control of lips and jaw, not to mention muscles of the tongue and cheek. (And preferably have cushiony lips to start with.) Even your teeth can get in on the act.  I challenge any non-player to read the Wikipedia description of the different types of brass embouchure – and the very technical disputes thereon – without at some point wincing and wondering, how does anybody do that? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embouchure

Strings? Like the guitar, a fiddle or cello entrusts the fingering to the left hand. It did seem possible that the action of bowing would be a good exercise for the weak right arm, because it requires controlled, even pressure against the string. So, we thought we might be on to something here. A violin would be awkward to hold, and provide Terry with the opportunity to screw up the rotator cuff of his left shoulder so as to match the right. But the cello had appeal, and we got as far as making enquiries about borrowing an instrument. If there’d been an affordable and ready option, we might have tried it. In the end the cello was rejected on the grounds that it was going to sound bloody horrible for a long, long time.

Enter our most exotic candidate – the Theremin. Dear Reader, if you want to spend a fascinating hour lost on the internet forgetting you own worries, start googling the Theremin. Invented by the Soviet physicist Lev Termen, a.k.a. Leon Theremin, who emigrated to the USA and patented it in 1928. Now this has a real wow factor. Dulcimer, uilleann pipes, zither, all sorts of instruments turn up at a Somerset folk gig, but I’ve never known anyone pitch up bearing an electronic box with two antennae. Moog still make them. At first sight it looked promising – after all, the player just stands there waving his/ her arms in the air. No physical contact with the instrument at all. A cinch. You can get a sweet sound from it and it lends itself to legato playing, with plentiful opportunities for creative portamento (in other words, you slither around and only stop when you find the note). But a casual investigation of YouTube’s thereminists confirms that and the hand movements have to be incredibly precise. Also, the sci-fi sound beguiles for a few minutes… after which it becomes truly, mesmerically, fascinatingly unpleasant.

Anyway, the point is, my dear husband betrayed the underlying reason for all this Goldilocks-style time-wasting when he confessed, ’But I want to play the guitar.

Right. Let’s work towards that, shall we?

When people ask, ‘Is Terry playing guitar yet?’ – and they do – I always answer, ‘well, put it this way, he hasn’t sold them.’ In fact, he’s recently swapped one. The guitars he had were all just too uncomfortable to hold without shoulder pain – too heavy, the body too deep. His new Ibanez  is super-slim and rather lovely (second from the right on the photo).

It took a year or two after the stroke for Terry to be able to tap a regular beat. Recently though we’ve been doing qigong and he keeps in time with Jeffrey Chand’s ’Buddha stomp’ pretty well. A transferable skill? All he has to do is turn a clog dance into a Giuliani study.

A major barrier to his playing, however, is that he doesn’t want me to hear him practise. It’s been known for me to get home early and hear strains of Pink Floyd floating down the stairs, with him strumming along. Would somebody please tell this man to get over himself and COME OUT????

Looking forward…

As a result of writing this post, we re-visited the keyboard idea. Maybe its time has come. So watch this space.

This month has brought new inspiration.  A friend drew our attention to the experience of Scots musician Edwyn Collins (of A Girl Like You fame). His recovery from two brain haemorrhages is chronicled in his wife Grace Maxwell’s book, ‘Falling and Laughing’ (ISBN 978-0091930004, also for Kindle). He overcame severe aphasia to sing again. Long before we knew we were going to be interested in stroke, the BBC made a documentary which you can find on you tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2CxIxce5m4 as well as lots of footage of him gigging eg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pku0Pb4Espw   There’s very touching footage of Edwin and Grace playing the same guitar, her strumming whilst he makes the chords.

Just for once, I need the last words.

I resent the insinuation that I do not have useful lips, as I am always happy to demonstrate. Secondly, any slight reticence I have to Gill listening up at me when I am not expecting it is because I try to maintain professional standards at all times. Practising is private, performance is public and I am shy. We would love to hear from musicians or anyone who has recovered or improved movement and fine motor skills. Also, any suggestions for the elusive one-handed instrument that actually sounds musical. Contact us at tandg@ourstrokeblog.org .

Do  watch Edwyn Collins. Stroke or other illnesses can be devastating for the patient and family. For Edwyn, as a young, professional musician, this was even more apparent. His attitude and determination to make the best recovery possible, compromising where necessary, and return to performing is truly inspirational.

2 thoughts on “In search of the lost chord”

  1. I saw a geranium played once at WEOBLEY village hall. Interesting, fascinating and musical – for 2 or 3 minutes. The trouble is that the performance lasted much longer.
    What about a finger over the holes blow in the end type instrument?

  2. Hi
    Thank you so much for your kind words. We try to use our own experiences rather than rehash already published material. Glad it was useful. Terry

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