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Two Hands. Infinite Spirit.

A paralyzed hand didn't stop pianist Leon Fleisher.


A star by the age of 16, Fleisher debuted with the New York Philharmonic in 1944. Little did the "pianistic find of the century" know his right hand would later become paralyzed and his career "retired."

The trouble started in 1962 when Fleisher's little finger began feeling weak. Instead of resting, Fleisher practiced harder. Eventually all of his fingers curled under. And then they became numb.

Later it was diagnosed as dystonia, the third most common neurological movement disorder. Fleisher now realizes that playing the piano is an athletic feat. "Musicians are athletes of small muscles. No one ever tells a violinist or piano player to stretch before or after they play. I learned this from bitter, bitter experience," he said in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio.

Throughout Fleisher's struggle, he kept his spirits high through teaching and conducting, not to mention performing. Refusing to give up playing, he pored over the limited left-handed repertoire — and won a few Grammys in the process.

While being able to perform one-handed helped, nothing raised Fleisher's spirits higher than a woman named Tessy Brungardt, a Certified Advanced Rolfer at The Ruscombe Mansion Community Health Center in Baltimore.

From Brungardt's Rolfing treatment — a form of deep tissue massage — Fleisher could finally play with both hands after nearly 40 years. As part of his treatment, he received small injections of Botox. And while most people don't run to the piano after receiving their first Botox shot, it was then that he discovered he could finally play with both hands again.

His most recent CD, "Two Hands," marks his first two-handed recording in 40 years. It's a musical biography of sorts and includes pieces by J.S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti and Schubert, among others.

Despite everything, Fleisher hasn't lost his sense of humor. In a recent performance at Carnegie Hall, Fleisher played "Sheep May Safely Graze" by J.S. Bach as an encore. The only thing missing was the joke he had planned with his students. Because the hall wouldn't allow his students to bring in tape recorders, there were no surprise "baa" sounds accompanying Fleisher's encore as he had hoped.

When asked about the silver lining in his recovery, Fleisher told Minnesota Public Radio: "I got the awareness that my relationship to music wasn't exclusively as a two-handed piano player. I discovered that I was a musician and there were many ways to discover that connection." S

Leon Fleisher performs at the Modlin Center Wednesday, April 5, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30. Call 289-8980.

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