This mdw alumnus launched his pianistic career at age seven. It was as a teenager that he began noticing initial difficulties with the motor function of his left hand—and at age 32, he was ultimately diagnosed with a disorder known as “focal dystonia”.
It’s precisely when problems arise that you practice even more in order to eliminate them—but all that does is exacerbate focal dystonia’s symptoms.
Andreas Eggertsberger was what people would generally call a child prodigy. He decided to learn to play the piano at age seven after hearing music by Mozart for the first time while in music class at school. By half a year later, he’d already mastered Robert Schumann’s Wild Horseman. He went on to win a 1st prize in the federal youth competition Jugend musiziert on his first attempt, and at age nine—while studying in the preparatory programme of Anton Bruckner Private University—he learned to play Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. He entered the piano performance degree programme in Linz when he was twelve and graduated at age 15, thereby becoming the youngest person in the history of that institution to graduate with honours. Shortly afterwards, though, this talented musician’s fate took a turn for the worse. Andreas Eggertsberger began noticing some initial difficulties in the motor function of his left hand—to which he initially paid little attention. “I figured I just had to practice more. After all, if I’d really had a problem, it would’ve been noticed in my lessons.” He continued his studies at Mozarteum University in Salzburg and then at the mdw. It was during a festival in Italy that someone else—a violinist colleague—noticed his incipient movement disorder for the first time. She called his attention to the fact that his left hand moved differently than his right—with the second finger extending while the third curled—which resulted in notes occasionally getting “swallowed”. He took this impression to the festival’s piano professors, but they reassured him that it was just an individual hand posture variant. “Though I was beginning to suspect more and more that something was wrong, my teachers convinced me that it was nothing.” When he attempted to make changes on his own, however, his symptoms grew worse. “I was at my wit’s end, which ultimately led me to start doing some research.” From the famous pianist Leon Fleisher, who’d had similar problems, Eggertsberger learned that what he dealing with might be the neurological disorder known as “focal dystonia”. According to the Austrian physicians’ journal Österreichische Ärztezeitung (No. 10, 25 May 2013), the term “dystonia” refers to disorders of motor function involving prolonged and involuntary muscular contractions. Focal dystonia is the most common form. Multiple tests administered by neurologists ultimately confirmed his suspicion. Eggertsberger was then referred to Dr. Eckart Altenmüller, a professor of music physiology and musicians’ medicine and head of the outpatient clinic for musicians at the Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media, who informed him that dystonia can be counteracted with retraining. Sixteen years had passed between the initial appearance of symptoms as a teenager and this diagnosis—with lots of ups and downs: “I started out as this highly gifted player, and then there were pieces that came along where I didn’t live up to expectations. When that happens, you do ask yourself whether people were mistaken in considering you highly gifted in the first place. So this diagnosis ended up giving me some clarity as well as some relief.” By the time his dystonia was diagnosed, Andreas Eggertsberger had enrolled in the artistic doctoral programme at the University of Michigan. He informed his professor, who told him that he had to continue preparing his dissertation concerts anyway. But when he then found himself unable to feel the distance between the keys, he stopped his lessons. Eventually, his left hand cramped up and could no longer be opened—leaving him incapable of even simple everyday motions like those needed to tie his shoes. He therefore decided to take Dr. Altenmüller’s recommendation and began a course of retraining with Laurent Boullet in Berlin. In the very first session, it was found that his fingers were compensating for an instability of the hand. Physical therapy exercises ultimately enabled him to play his dissertation concerts and earn his doctorate. “Over a period of two years, I visited Boullet every two-to-four months. He repeatedly analysed my hand, and I learned a variety of different exercises.” This retraining also led Eggertsberger to adapt his own practicing behaviour. He now focusses on efficiency of motion, on posture, and on producing sound without exerting great amounts of strength, which makes playing the piano less taxing and provides him with assurance in concert situations.
After two years of physical therapy, I was moving in the right direction and even developing ideas for exercises of my own.
It was five years after his diagnosis that the Linz-born pianist made his triumphal return to the concert stage—and 2023’s performing schedule will include his debut appearance at the Rudolfinum in Prague. This dedicated pianist now hopes to raise awareness about focal dystonia, since he believes that it was triggered by his enormous practice workload in combination with unsuitable technique. “During the summer, I’d sometimes spend between ten and eleven hours at my instrument even though a recommendable amount would’ve been four-to-five hours. And on top of that enormous burden came my poor hand posture.” Particularly in focal dystonia’s early stages, educators can play a positive role by initiating early intervention, reports the Österreichische Dystonie Gesellschaft [Austrian Dystonia Society] (dystonie.at). “One often sees how students move unnaturally and are tense, even though the results they deliver are good. Whenever that’s the case, there’s a huge temptation to just continue on that way, because it works. But what people don’t think about is how things will look in 20 years,” explains Andreas Eggertsberger. Which is precisely why it’s so important to him to tell his story and raise awareness of this neurological motor disorder—be it in blog posts, in lectures, or on his 2019 debut CD Dystonia. He finds it especially important that young pianists be given a foundation for healthy technique. “I recommend the book Fit 4 Piano by the pianist Rae de Lisle. There, she describes how children can playfully learn how to play the piano in a way that avoids injuries.”
It’s important that teachers observe their students closely and send them to a physician who understands movement disorders if they notice anything unusual.