Identity and Musician’s Focal Dystonia

identity and musicians focal dystoniaWhen two people meet for the first time in a formal setting, they often shake hands, exchange names, and invariably the standard albeit cliché ice–breaker question of “So, what do you do?” will come up.

An amateur musician may respond by saying something like “I’m a computer programmer”, “I’m a graphic designer” or “I’m a truck driver”. The conversation may then lead on to hobbies and other interests. “I play the guitar/trumpet/drums/piano in my spare time” – or words to that effect.

The conversation in itself appears rather benign, and seems far from a possible factor in creating Musician’s Focal Dystonia.

However as musicians – and this is particularly relevant for professional musicians – our sense of self is almost always inextricably linked with our perception of how well we play our instrument or instruments.

So when a musician meets a new person for the first time in a formal setting, the question asked of the musician may be formulated the same as in the conversation above: “So, what do you do?” However a musician will often answer “I am a guitarist/trumpet player/drummer/pianist”. Again, at first glance this seems like a rather harmless response.

Identity and self-worth

Now, what happens if a computer programmer, graphic designer, or truck driver has a bad day at work? Would this have an effect on that person’s sense of identity and self–worth? Most likely not.

However, what happens if a musician has a bad day at work, giving a poor performance to an audience of a thousand or more people? Would this have an effect on a musician’s sense of identity and self–worth? In many cases, yes.

In essence, if we have a good practise session, or give a good performance, there is a tendency to feel good about ourselves. If we have a bad practise session, or give a bad performance, there is a tendency to feel bad about ourselves.

Building neuro-associations

If we have a good practise session, or give a good performance, we generally look forward to our next practise session or performance. Why? Because we had fun and the nervous system wants to experience pleasure. We build a positive neuro-association to the instrument.

On the contrary, if we have a bad practise session or bad performance, our sense of ‘looking forward to the next practise/performance’ is generally diminished. If we have several poor practise sessions/performances in a row, we may start dreading our next session with the instrument. Why? Because the experience was emotionally painful, and our nervous system wants to avoid pain. In this case we have built a negative neuro-association to the instrument.

Neuro-associations affect our emotional feeling towards playing. And this in turn has an effect on our physiological response.

This is generally true of all musicians – both professional and amateur. However the effects are often stronger in professional musicians. This is because our sense of self–worth is strongly tied to how well we play our instruments.

Client: “You know, it’s gotten to the point that I just need to look at my horn case and I break out in a sweat and start shaking. I don’t care what any neurologist says, there has to be a psychological component to all this.”

Me: “Exactly. You’re right. A typical neurologist will tell you that Musician’s Focal Dystonia is incurable, but what they really mean is that they don’t know how to cure it. In my opinion, it’s not about finding a cure at all, as Musician’s Focal Dystonia is not a disease. Rather, it’s a learned condition. And if we can learn how to get Musician’s Focal Dystonia, we can unlearn it.”

Back to “I am vs. I play”

You are not a trumpet player/drummer/guitarist etc. You may think you are now, but I am going to try to convince you here that this is not the case.

In the English language, the whole self is involved in just two words: “I am”. As soon as we say “I am a guitar player”, we exclude everything else about ourselves including our entire personality – the qualities that are unique to us. This is dangerous because what happens if we are involved in an accident, and lose the use of one or both hands? Or let’s say, what happens if we develop Musician’s Focal Dystonia, and can no longer play?

“So, what do you do?”
“I am… umm… I used to be…”

You are NOT what you do.

I cannot emphasise this enough. If you are suddenly unable to do whatever it is that you do, do you cease to exist? Of course not! You are you. You are a person. You have a unique personality, and a unique life experience.


The question is then how should we structure our sentences – both vocally and internally – to avoid this pitfall? Quite simply, instead of saying “I am a guitar player”, say “I play the guitar.”

This is a very subtle change in sentence structure, but it has a profound effect on how we feel about ourselves when it comes to playing an instrument. If we have a good day, our feeling of self–worth is not artificially elevated. If we have a bad day, our feeling of self–worth is not unduly affected. Again, why is this important? Because we are wired to do whatever we can to gain pleasure, and whatever we can to avoid pain.

My experiences with identity and
Musician’s Focal Dystonia

Prior to when my own Musician’s Focal Dystonia became apparent in 2005, my entire identity as a human being was fused with my ability to play the trumpet. If I gave a good performance, had a good practise session, or won an audition, my sense of self–worth increased. If I had a bad day, my sense of self–worth decreased.

As far as I was concerned, I was a trumpet player – every other part of my being was secondary. I certainly took care of ‘the musician’ – I practised diligently, sought out the best teachers and best schools, strived to improve my sound, register, speed, phrasing etc.

However, during my own recovery from Musician’s Focal Dystonia, I realised that I needed to put Jon Gorrie ‘the person’ first. I changed my self–talk and sentence structure from “I am a trumpet player” to “I am Jon…and I play the trumpet.”

Given that I had been a ‘trumpet player’ for more than 10 years, it did take some time to adopt this new approach: I am not a trumpet player. I just play the trumpet. However, no longer was my sense of self–worth wound up in how well I could play the trumpet. There was a feeling of an instant release of physical tension when I adopted this shift in mindset. And this feeling of release in my whole body helped to ease my Musician’s Focal Dystonia symptoms.

From this moment onward, no longer are you a guitarist/flutist/drummer etc. You are [insert your name here!] You are you. You simply happen to play the guitar/flute/drums etc.

Adopt this mindset and you have taken a big step in disassociating your feeling of self–worth with how well you play your instrument.

Is your identity or feeling of self-worth/self-confidence associated with how well you play your instrument? Comment below.


One Response to Identity and Musician’s Focal Dystonia

  1. Rob Egerton September 27, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    Exactly! Before I went to Music College, playing the trombone was important to me, but just one of numerous things I did. Once at College, I distinctly remember making the conscious decision, now that I was studying properly, to change from ‘I play trombone’ to ‘I’m a Trombonist’. 3 years later, MFD had struck. I managed to get playing somewhat again, but it reappeared with a vengeance a few years later. It was only when, after reading Kenny Werner’s ‘Effortless Mastery’ that I realised how I had associated my whole identity with how well I played. Consequently, I reverted to ‘I play trombone’ and feel a great less pressure because of it!