Professional musicians rely on strong, healthy bodies to practice their art, and when injury strikes, it can threaten livelihoods as well as quality of life. Part of the mission of the new Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine is to improve understanding of, and treatment options for, medical maladies that afflict professional musicians.
Classical guitarist Brian Hays knows this issue all too well — so much so that he was an early and strong supporter of the center, which is an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Peabody Institute and Johns Hopkins Medicine and the University.
Hays’ professional musical career was cut short in the mid-1980s, when he developed focal dystonia, a neurological movement disorder estimated to afflict about 2 percent of musicians, according to The Dystonia Society, a British advocacy group. Renowned musicians with the con- dition include pianists Leon Fleisher and Glenn Gould, and rock star Keith Emerson. It can affect anyone from singers to bagpipers to banjo players.
“Dystonia is common, but underreported,” says Hays. “Musicians think you can’t tell anyone because you won’t have a job. This is unfortunately sometimes true, but it impedes progress. Luckily, some brave souls and the openness of the internet have helped crack that wall.”
Patients with dystonia lose control over certain muscles, causing involuntary spasms of the affected area. In Hays’ hand, the wrong finger would move when plucking a string, making it virtually impossible to play the guitar or even type on a keyboard. His tenure with the San Diego Guitar Quartet was over.
Hays, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of California at San Diego, became an avid student of medical research into dystonia and sought treatment from experts in the field. Many were guitarists who had trained themselves to play differently, since “normal practice” was ineffective. One even reversed his hand positions.
Serap Bastepe-Gray (BM ’96, MM ’99, Guitar), a physician who serves on Peabody’s Guitar faculty and is a co-founder of the center, says retraining has been rated as a more effective treatment for musicians’ dystonia than medications and physical therapy. “Much like the training of a musician,” she says, “retraining a musician with dystonia requires an individualized approach. Most musicians use a ‘cocktail method,’ where they combine various strategies. Unfortunately, little is known about the formal content and effectiveness of various approaches in the management of this condition.”
Hays became active in an organization called Musicians with Dystonia that had been formed by Stephen Frucht, a neurologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and Glen Estrin, a noted French horn player who toured extensively with performers such as Frank Sinatra before contracting dystonia of the mouth and facial muscles.
Although Hays eventually regained his ability to play the guitar recreationally, he continued to seek additional knowledge about dystonia causes and treatments. “We’ve known for years that it can be cured,” he says, “it’s just that nobody’s had the prescription so that it can be cured every time, and there’s no quick fix.”
When he learned that Peabody and Johns Hopkins were establishing a Center for Music and Medicine, Hays offered $25,000 in seed money to fund a pilot research study to improve understanding and treatment of dystonia for guitarists. The study is being conducted by Bastepe-Gray and Alexander Pantelyat, a neurologist and center co-director.
Hays later followed this gift with $50,000 to launch a matching campaign to raise awareness of the Center for Music and Medicine. Most recently, he and his wife, Tammy, have named the Center for Music and Medicine as a beneficiary of their estate plans. Of particular interest to Brian Hays is educating the medical community in proper diagnosis and treatment options, and teaching young musicians how to recognize symptoms and seek help.
“The word is finally out so that musicians have awareness of what dystonia is,” says Hays. “Now we need everyone else to be aware that preserving the health of our artists is a needed, valuable endeavor in our community.”
Bastepe-Gray says she is very excited for the work ahead and the center’s future. “Today more than ever, the resources of the medical community are being harnessed and directed for the goals of musicians’ health,” she says. “Brian’s interest in the mission of Center for Music and Medicine and his incredibly generous support of our work makes it possible for us to continue our exploration of the underlying causes of focal dystonia and the establishment of effective therapies to return musicians to their musical avocation.
“We look forward to our growing partnership with Brian and Tammy Hays in working to achieve this goal.”
— Christine Stutz