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Piano Virtuoso Fleisher on Overcoming Disability That Nearly Silenced Career

July 18, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the 1960s, piano virtuoso Leon Fleisher lost the use of his right hand due to a condition called focal dystonia, but he focused on teaching and continued to play pieces designed for one-handed pianists. Jeffrey Brown and Fleisher discuss how he overcame the disability that nearly ended his playing days.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, Jeffrey Brown talks to piano virtuoso Leon Fleisher about his many lives in music spanning nearly eight decades.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: It was one of the great mysteries of modern music. Leon Fleisher, an internationally-renowned concert pianist, suddenly lost his ability to play.

The loss stretched into years — more than 30 years, in fact. But it also opened up another world, as tragedy turned into a kind of triumph and an even richer life in music, on stage and off.

The story is told in the book “My Nine Lives,” a memoir Fleisher wrote with music critic Anne Midgette.

You wrote in the book, “When the gods want to get to you, they know right where to strike, the place that will hurt the most.”

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Did you — did you feel that?

LEON FLEISHER, “My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music”: Most profoundly, of course, yes. It’s — my little tragedy was — was positively Greek in its scope.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fleisher was the stuff of myth from the start: a child prodigy raised in San Francisco who gave his first recital at age 7, and, at 10, began studies with Artur Schnabel, one of the 20th century’s greatest pianists.

When we talked recently at his Baltimore home, Fleisher spoke of Schnabel’s most important lesson.

LEON FLEISHER: Music has a structure. Even though you can’t taste it, you can’t touch it, you can’t smell it, it’s there. And a great piece of music, greatly played, is as palpable, as three-dimensional as — as anything else in life.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you think of the composer as constructing the work, and then your job as the — as the player is to reconstruct it?

LEON FLEISHER: Yes, in a sense, to discover what his structure is.

Also, the role of the performer is a very dicey one, because, in today’s culture, in today’s society, everybody wants to have a star. But, in music, for example, the performer is indispensable, but he or she is not the star. The music is the star.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still, the music business needs its stars, and Fleisher became one. He made his Carnegie Hall debut at age 16.

And in 1952, he was the first American to win Belgium’s prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition. Later that decade and into the early ’60s, Fleisher made acclaimed recordings of Beethoven and Brahms concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.

But, in 1965, over a period of many months, Fleisher began to notice a problem. The fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand were cramping and curling up, and no one could tell him what was wrong or how to fix it.

So, literally, they just froze up there and you couldn’t uncurl them?

LEON FLEISHER: Well, only with enormous effort. But, you know, they have to be ready to work.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you’re sitting at the piano and you feel them like that?

LEON FLEISHER: Yes. Yes. It doesn’t work.

(LAUGHTER)

LEON FLEISHER: I don’t know any…

JEFFREY BROWN: I will bet that doesn’t work.

LEON FLEISHER: I don’t know any music for eight fingers.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Fleisher is laughing today, but, back then, he writes in his book, his career was in jeopardy, his personal life, including a second marriage, was in tatters, and he even considered suicide.

LEON FLEISHER: I was in a state of deep funk, deep depression, yes, yes. I had all kinds of untoward thoughts.

But then I woke up one morning with the help of friends, students and I suddenly became aware that my connection, my relationship was with music, more than with the instrument.

If there was a way that I could remain active in music without playing with two hands, well, I had to find it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s what he did, beginning with the surprisingly rich repertoire of music written for just the left hand, including pieces composed by Maurice Ravel and others for their friend Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who lost his right arm while serving in World War I.

Fleisher also devoted himself more to teaching, mostly at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. Not having the use of one hand, he says, actually made him a better teacher.

LEON FLEISHER: It stopped me from a certain kind of teaching, which was the lazy kind of teaching, where you push them off the chair and you say, this is how I think it should go.

(LAUGHTER)

LEON FLEISHER: I had to put all this stuff into words.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in the 1970s, Fleisher took on a whole new role in his musical life: becoming a conductor. He worked with the Baltimore Symphony and with orchestras around the world.

All the while, he sought treatments and help for his ailment, everything from aroma therapy to Zen Buddhism.

MAN: Leon Fleisher is back. For the first time since 1965, he has completed a concert performance with both hands.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1982, feeling stronger, Fleisher made a first attempt at a two-handed comeback. He made it through the concert, but realized it was what he called an evening of pretense. He wasn’t really healed.

It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that his problem was given a name: focal dystonia, a neurological disorder that can be triggered by repetitive movement and stress and attacks a particular set of muscles. And while there’s still no cure, a treatment involving shots of Botox and a massage technique known as Rolfing allowed Fleisher to uncurl his fingers and play, and, this time, at the start of a new century, to realize a true comeback.

Now in his 80s, he plays worldwide, performing pieces for two hands and one hand, sometimes with Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, his wife of 28 years.

LEON FLEISHER: When it works, when it’s going, it’s a state of ecstasy. All the dendrites are firing. And we’re dealing with some of the greatest creations in human history, this music.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 2007, Fleisher was one of the top American artists celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors.

How important was it to you finally to make what you could call a successful comeback? Would you have felt yourself a failure if — if…

LEON FLEISHER: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: No.

LEON FLEISHER: No, no, no, no. I mean, if I can, I will. If I can’t, I won’t. You know, there is an enormous amount of repertoire that I have not done that I have yet to look forward to. It will keep me off the streets.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, Leon Fleisher will be off the streets and in concerts halls this summer.