2011 MTNA Conference – Tuesday Morning: The Performers Network

This morning’s plenary session was a presentation by a group called The Performers Network, comprised of Dr. Barry Bittman, Dr. Neil Cherian, Ingrid Jacobson Clarfield, David Marcarian, and Dr. Kathleed Riley. Dr. Barry Bittman, a neurologist and researcher, began the presentation with the remark, “What we’re about to present is truly revolutionary. It’s an approach that has never been used.”

They are providing a solution-oriented approach for a long-standing challenge. High level musicians, educators, and students with symptoms interfering with their ability to perform have great difficulty finding appropriate medical consultations and treatment. There are many resources available for athletes. And in reality, all musicians are athletes and need access to solutions for their challenges. Clara Schumann is an early example of someone who sought out appropriate treatment for the painful challenges she faced from over-practice.

Many problems we experience are related to the neuro-musculoskeletal system. Instrument specific health problems are related to excessive force, static loading, and repetitive motion. Athletes of the small muscles are susceptible to a condition known as focal, task-specific disorder. There are really no good resources currently available.

The group’s objective is to develop the first comprehensive, interdisciplinary, medically-based, world-wide performance enhancement and treatment network for musicians based upon evidence-based scientific protocols. Pedagogues who are often approach first for solutions to this problem will be linked to a network that will provide solutions. Key elements will be:

  • Evidence-based protocols and programs
  • An interdisciplinary team
  • State-of-the-art technology
  • High level instruments
  • Global network

A new ProformaVision software program has been developed, along with an approach called The piano Perceptions. Utilizing Internet Midi capabilities that have been designed by George Litterst, musicians everywhere will have access to this program. There will be tools that will allow a performing musician to be monitored so that problems can be correctly identified, diagnosed, and treated.

Kathleen Riley is the music performance and rehabilitation specialist for the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute. She gave a demonstration of how the system works. She has wires attached to her that send signals to the program. The program then monitors the shoulder movements, records audio, records images of both hands playing, and tracks the midi data from the performance.

This information is so important, not just in terms of working with individual students, but in being a part of a larger network. Kathleen proceeded to share some of her “aha” moments. She has worked with many musicians who suffer from focal dystonia, tendonitis, and severe scoliosis. When Kathleen hooks them up to the system and is able to provide valuable feedback to the students, it is amazing to see the results. Not only is it the teacher telling a student what looks or sounds incorrect, but students are able to see and analyze the results for themselves. Students who previously couldn’t even get through certain pieces are able to play completely pain-free.

Ingrid Jacobson Clarfield took the stage next. On March 27, 2007, she had the pleasure of being on stage at the MTNA Conference in Toronto dancing the tango with George Litterst. But on the morning that she returned home from the conference (exactly four years ago today), she suffered a stroke that left her entire left side paralyzed. Her journey to recovery was, and is, still long, encompassing a wide variety of therapies. She lived for two months in a rehabilitation center and then began therapy three times a week. In addition to Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy, Ingrid has had Cortisone shots and Botox injections. She has also been fortunate to take advantage of some of the latest technology available for stroke patients. She wears a sensor in place of a “big ugly brace with big ugly shoes. I can’t wear ugly shoes. Please notice the cute shoes with bling.” 🙂

Since last July, Ingrid has been working with Kathleen using bio-feedback. Prior to working with Kathleen, the extent of her piano playing was using her right hand while resting her left hand on an arm rest. She showed a picture of herself in a wheelchair with a keyboard in her room at the rehab center. She points out, “Please notice that I accessorized even while in the wheelchair.” Her biggest goal was to be able to get her left hand up on the keyboard. She then made her way to the piano and demonstrated the use of her left hand playing a few keys on the piano – to the hearty applause of the audience.

For those wondering how they would ever use this, David Marcarian, a former NASA researcher and inventor of the system, took the podium to address this question. This is not just ordinary technology; it is medical-rate. There is no other equipment under $30,000 that meets this standard. On top of that, the system is very simple and easy to use. They used an 8-year old for their beta testing.

Dr. Bittman introduced Neil Cherian, a neurologist who is part of the team that enables users of the system to do something with the feedback that teachers and musicians receive. This network is bringing together industries that have formerly never talked to each other. It is truly inter-disciplinary. Their mission is to provide comprehensive and coordinated health care tailored to individuals in the performing arts. A musician/performer/therapist is only as good as their tools. They are improving the tools. Imagine a “medical jury” where a whole slate of people reviews your performance and provides feedback either in general or to help find solutions for specific problems. The “jury” includes a Neurologist, a Physical Therapist, an Occupational Therapist, a Piano Pedagogue, an Ortho/Hand Specialist, a Psychologist, a Music Therapist, an Internist.

Many of the issues that pianists face have nothing to do with the point of pain or the location where the symptoms of the problem are realized. With this system problems can still be identified and solved. Even those who may not be experiencing any noticeable problems can use this system as a preventive tool. It is very patient-centric. Dr. Cherian foresees that in the future every neurologist in the country will have a keyboard in his office to utilize in rehab for stroke victims. There has to be widespread availability. Through these global networks and technologies every musician can have access to centers and tools and experts. They are re-inventing the word, “tele-music.” Additional partners will continue to be identified as the program moves forward.

This optimizes personalized healthcare for musicians by offering the first world-wide network for individuals facing performance-related health issues. He concludes, “I can talk your ear off or show you something that will blow you away!” With that statement he introduced Charity Tillemann-Dick, who gave an impressive vocal performance. The presenters met Charity at the Cleveland Clinic last year. She had endured a double-lung transplant. (Read yesterday’s post about Charity.) Dr. Bittman stated, “You just heard the first opera singer in the world sing with someone else’s lungs.”

Charity reflected on her piano teacher and all that she taught her about what it means to be a dedicated musician. Although she is the only of her family of eleven children that has become a professional musician, every one of them has learned to pursue excellence in their lives because of the influence their music teacher had on their lives.

The session concluded with a brief time for questions from the audience. It will be exciting to see what the future holds with these exciting new developments!

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