Katrina Clarke | Aug. 24, 2015 | Toronto Star
In a dark rehearsal space in Toronto’s west end, Daniel Schwartz pinches a drumstick between his thumb and forefinger, watches with resignation as his three free fingers reflexively curl toward his palm, and hits his drum with a sad-sounding thud.
It’s those three fingers that almost cost him his drumming career.
Schwartz is a self-taught drummer who plays in Toronto-based country-rock band, The Key Frames. He had natural talent but eight years ago decided he wanted to up his drumming game and started taking lessons — a decision he now believes triggered the onset of a rare, incurable neurological disorder.
“At first I had no idea what was going on, I just thought, ‘Oh, there’s just something kind of strange with my hand here,’” he said, recalling watching the fingers on his left hand clutch in when he played drums with a new technique. “I’d just practise more and more … The more I did it — I didn’t know this — but the more it was cementing itself in my brain.”
Frustrated, Schwartz turned to the Internet. There, he found a community of musicians suffering from similar symptoms affecting muscles in their eyes, vocal cords, mouth, neck, hands, and feet. They had dystonia; a rare neurological and movement disorder that disrupts signal from the brain to muscles, causing involuntary movements and postures.
Schwartz went to a neurologist who confirmed it and told him, “There’s nothing I can do for you.”
“It was kind of awful,” he said in an interview at his band’s rehearsal room. “I would sit there watching it … It’s weird to think that if you sit there and concentrate on something, that you can’t stop it.”
According to Dr. Alfonso Fasano, a neurologist at Toronto Western Hospital, the disease is split into two key groups: secondary dystonia, meaning the condition is caused by another condition, such as cerebral palsy, and primary dystonia, which experts believe is caused by a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors, such as repeated movements. There is no known cure but treatments can include muscle relaxant Botox, drugs, deep brain stimulation and rehabilitation. Anxiety and stress can worsen dystonia, a relatively new disease that doctors are still working to understand, he said.
Primary dystonia affects around 300,000 North Americans and between 1 to 2 per cent of musicians — there is even a name, musician’s dystonia, for those affected — according to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation Canada.
For Schwartz, who has a form of dystonia called focal dystonia, meaning only part of the body is affected, drumming was becoming increasingly difficult. His left fingers wouldn’t relax to let him guide his drumstick properly, but instead reflexively tensed up when he played.
But Schwartz, now 45, wasn’t ready to give up.
Another neurologist recommended he try Botox to relax the muscles in his arm. He got injections, but treatments were painful and interfered with his personal life — he couldn’t punch punching bags at kick boxing or grip a hockey stick. His livelihood didn’t depend on drumming — he’s a program co-ordinator and instructor with Humber College’s protection, security and investigation program — so he scrapped Botox.
He tried everything from acupuncture and hypnotism to participation in a deep brain stimulation experiment (he later found out he was in the control group). All the while, Schwartz kept playing with his band, trying “crazy shenanigans,” like drumming with homemade coat-hanger wire hand braces.
“I got more and more creative as I got more and more desperate,” he said.
In 2010, with the help of others with dystonia in the GTA, he even helped bring over a man from Spain who claims to have dystonia-curing abilities. His tips didn’t work, nor did anything else.
“It was kind of depressing,” said soft-spoken Schwartz, who has played drums since he was 16.
In the meantime, dystonia spread to his right foot. He couldn’t properly control the kick drum anymore.
“If you can’t keep time on your kick drum, you can’t drum,” he said. “It’s impossible.”
It was only when chatting with a fellow drummer in Trinity Bellwoods park in 2012, that a viable solution materialized — he suggested transforming the drums into a left-handed kit.
Schwartz scoffed. A right-handed drummer all his life, he thought it was impossible.
But it worked.
By turning the kit around, he was able to control the kick drum with his left, fully functioning foot. He also now leads with his right hand and plays open handed — meaning he doesn’t cross his arms, like a typical left-handed drummer would. He’ll also sometimes tuck in the three fingers on his left hand so he can get a good “roll” on the drum.
“It’s confusing. It’s very confusing,” he said while demonstrating the system.
When Schwartz plays now, his calm confidence belies the frustration he’s endured. He said he’s resigned himself to his condition and hopes his story helps other musicians who might be suffering.
But dystonia “definitely” holds him back musically.
“I would love to be able to go back to right-handed drumming to be honest with you,” Schwartz said.
Then he turned, gave his kit a concentrated look and unleashed a crashing wave of music, overpowering the tiny room.
The Key Frames play at The Dakota Tavern at 249 Ossington Ave. on Sept. 12.