In 2008 Chris George, leader of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and one of the finest violinists of his generation was diagnosed with focal dystonia, a neurological condition that affects muscles, causing involuntary muscular spasms. Chris experienced it in the little finger of his left hand – a devastating blow to his career and his confidence.
As the leader of such a high profile orchestra, Chris was in an extremely exposed position in his job, being required to play solos requiring considerable dexterity and to direct the orchestra from the leader’s seat when there was no conductor. ‘There were some pretty draining and appalling times’ admits Chris ‘ for example playing the violin solos in Pulcinella at the BBC Proms in London. It was live on TV and I didn’t use my 4th finger at all and played the whole piece with this ridiculous fingering. It was incredibly stressful and was affecting me psychologically as well. I started to lose my confidence and not feel free to perform as before.’At first Chris wasn’t very proactive about his condition ‘I thought I was just being tense. I had fears of course that I had MS or something like that and for a while I was in denial but eventually I did face up to it and started talking to people. Focal dystonia seemed to be the obvious answer.’
The first thing he did was go to see a neurology and dystonia specialist in Hannover, who did a few tests. ‘He watched me play and confirmed that I had focal dystonia. My reaction was “great thanks very much- so what shall I do about it?”’ One of the treatments he suggested was botox. This treatment involves injecting botox into the infected area. ‘It’s supposed to hamper some of the synaptic impulses which go to the muscles’ Chris explains. ‘The argument is that it hampers the most recently learned ones, so your old habits, which are ingrained for years, are allowed to carry on as they have previously. But I couldn’t find any instances of it working well and I thought it felt very superficial . It only seems to treat the symptoms and wears off in weeks and then you have to have it done again.’
Chris decided to try a more holistic and intrinsic approach. ‘There are two obvious approaches which are psychological and physiological. I was going to osteopaths to make sure I was relaxed and in good shape physically. I also visited Alexander Technique experts to help me use my body and mind properly. I went to people who are experts in focal dystonia; Joaquin Fabra in Madrid approaches it from a psychological point of view, helping you to learn new ways of playing’.
Chris tried countless techniques and approaches. But one afternoon, during a rehearsal with the SCO, he finally snapped. ‘We were playing Mendelssohn Scottish Symphony, the very fast, last movement and I was blagging it. I was only playing half the notes. I just knew I couldn’t go on. I stood up and said ‘I’m sorry, I can’t play. I’m going to leave”’. And so after three years of tremendous struggle, he decided to walk away from his career as a leader and he walked out of the rehearsal.Only a handful of Chris’s closest friends knew of his condition. They tried to persuade him to carry on. They thought he was imagining it or exaggerating it in his head. ‘But I knew something was very wrong. I felt the stress. “No, please believe me” I said “it’s really not working!”. I told everyone immediately that I was dropping out. The orchestra were amazing and they helped me enormously which they were in no way obligated to do. It was a fantastically generous and loving thing.’
Chris carried on trying to play on and off for another couple of years. ‘I sat at the back for a few tours which was great fun socially but I could not enjoy playing the violin anymore.’ Is it easier now he’s not under the pressure of leading? ‘I’ve always said, that it’s got absolutely nothing to do with pressure of the job. I loved it and it felt like my perfect job. I was very happy. I don’t think that was why I got focal dystonia and I don’t think it made it any worse. It does make one ask the question why did it happen? What did trigger it? Because presumably there was something that did.’ So are there theories? ‘It does seem to happen to many people in prominent jobs as far as I’m aware. It’s not just repetition. It seems to happen to slightly intense people who are often in positions of playing in public a lot. I think there may be an emotional element to it.’
Although Chris can never be sure why he was struck with this condition, he hasn’t let it end his musical career. After he gave up the violin, he embarked on a Master’s course in conducting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. ‘It was a huge leap sideways. Orchestral musicians don’t always have the greatest respect for conductors and I’ve heard the phrase ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ so many times! As a leader you have to show conductors respect even if you don’t like what they’re doing. As a leader, even when I totally disagreed with them, I would try and find out something they wanted which was beneficial.’ Previously Chris had always preferred an orchestra playing without a conductor. ‘I would look at some conductors and think “yeah yeah but we can do this without you!” he grins. ‘As I thought about it more though, I realised there are definitely times when you do need a conductor. Mahler symphonies of course, but also for the rehearsal period in all sizes of orchestras, you need a designated leader of events. I do think having directed from the fiddle and been a conductor, it’s definitely easier to listen objectively when you’re not playing a difficult instrument. As a player we think we’re listening and we pride ourselves on being really aware of what is going on but actually when you’re not playing, it is much easier to listen. Then you are in a better position to be that designated leader.’
Does he feel confident with his stick technique yet? ‘It’s coming. It’s an ongoing process. The best way to learn is to keep on doing it.’ Is it hard to only be able to practice when you’re in front of an orchestra? ‘You can do certain things on your own at home but you don’t know what works until you try it out in front of an orchestra. I don’t feel I can do everything I want to at all yet but I’m certainly getting better at it and it’s a really interesting process.’ Having been an orchestral player, does he worry about what the orchestra think of him? ‘Of course. They see every mistake I make. But it actually works the other way around too. As a player you don’t realise how noticeable you are to the conductor. You think they don’t notice you because there are so many of you. But the conductor notices everything! You look around and people’s faces tell you so much! It’s amazing when you see these people who are just p****d off and bored. It’s so obvious and you think “come on! I can see you! At least pretend that we’re trying to do something together here!” he roars with laughter. ‘Conversely, when you see someone who’s looking at you and really concentrating and trying to play, then it’s a really lovely experience. So those are the people I need to focus in on.’
What’s next for his career now? ‘I just conducted a tour with John Grant and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Northern Sinfonia. It was great fun, we played to sold out halls everywhere. But most importantly I was greatly encouraged by feedback from the orchestras. It meant a lot to me. I also teach violin at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Saint Andrew’s University which I love’.
It’s hard to imagine the impact focal dystonia has had on Chris’s self confidence but I for one, am thrilled we haven’t lost him as a musician. This poacher with the inner strength to pick himself up and transform himself into a gamekeeper after such a struggle, is surely someone to watch out for…
Click here to read more about Chris or book a lesson with him
18 June 2017