Musician’s Focal Dystonia Update and How I’m Playing My Bagpipes

During Autumn of 2019, while the kids were away at school during the day, I made great progress in playing competition style tunes. This culminated in competition success at the Salado festival in November. Starting in December, however, my playing gradually decreased and I came back into it once the Spring 2020 semester started and the kids were away again. However, I was plagued by my focal dystonia, as if all progress had been lost. Previously, this dystonia would result in unrhythmical pauses in my playing. However, it had started to manifest psychologically as chanter cut outs as I’d encounter finger movements affected by my specific dystonia (vigorous contraction of the left pinkie upon and preventing most E grace notes from sounding).

I struggled with various solutions to the dystonia to try and boost my confidence and hopefully address the chanter cut outs at the same time. One solution was consistent with retraining the muscles in a different way to do the same thing, which is no easy task, but known to circumvent dystonia. I tried doing this by simply moving my top hand fingers further over onto the chanter to more closely mimic the finger placement on the bottom hand. This actually helped somewhat as it gave the chanter a different feel allowing the E gracenotes to sound without triggering the dystonic muscle firing sequence. However, I still struggled with the chanter cutting out at points where the dystonia would, or used to, manifest. It’s like my brain had decided it was better to have no sound than garbage sound. “Here comes the part you suck at, better just give up!” This was very demoralizing. But then I fixed it.

I decided I needed to change my approach to playing the bagpipe. Specifically I needed to address keeping the pressure constant and decoupling how I filled the bag with air from the music itself. I’m not saying my blowing rhythm was, or ever has been, attached to the musical rhythm. I had started letting the pressure drop when reaching dystonia inducing passages in the music. My solution to these chanter cut outs was to keep my breath intakes very, very short to the point that as soon as my lips parted to intake air I’ve already started closing them again. I’m making a point to be blowing through every dystonic passage as best I can and in general just always keeping the bag topped off with no hesitations in refilling the bag. You may see this in a set of recent videos I made about Ackland 480 Overtone drone reeds. For whatever reason, this has taken my mind off the dystonia allowing me to resume a more normal hand placement on the top hand of the chanter and still sound notes with correct rhythm, but it has also improved my overall steadiness to better than it ever has been.

I know I can’t get my hopes too high that this will be much of a permanent solution to my focal dystonia. It does not negate its effects entirely, just by a significant fraction. I believe it is linked to the confidence that I am going to sound this bagpipe as full as I can and whatever happens…happens, and so by random chance I generally play better even in dystonic passages; as opposed to not having the confidence to play well resulting in the chanter cutting out. So, my advice, keep that bag as full as you can as often as you can!

Link to the youtube videos mentioned above:

2 thoughts on “Musician’s Focal Dystonia Update and How I’m Playing My Bagpipes

  1. Well, it always amazes me how the dystonia problem with the state of mind as the focal point has been, it seems rectified, by adjusting air delivery to the pipes. The bagpipes are indeed a fickled instrument. Wishing you continued success.

    My problem is nerve damage (neuropathy) to fingers, never quite sure where the fingers are in relation to the chanter holes. The mind wills me through.

    The common factor is mind and mindset.

    Cheers
    Keith

    1. Hey Keith,

      Are there specific examples you could provide regarding air delivery and dystonia? I find the “blowing correction’s” effectiveness odd because the dystonia first hit me on the practice chanter! Ah well, keep on keeping on and stay positive.

      Thank you for reading!
      Patrick

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