AAN 2004 Public Leadership Award goes to Leon Fleisher, musician who overcame dystonia

04/21/04

World-renowned classical pianist and San Francisco native Leon Fleisher will be only too happy to let his hands speak for him when he takes to the stage as keynote speaker for the American Academy of Neurology's (AAN) 56th Annual Meeting in San Francisco, April 24 May 1.

Fleisher, who will also receive the AAN Foundation Public Leadership in Neurology Award for 2004 at the luncheon, will demonstrate his recovery from a career-crippling case of dystonia in his right hand when he performs a 20-minute piano solo with both hands. The luncheon will be held from noon to 2:00 p.m. PT in the Yerba Buena Ballroom of the San Francisco Marriott Hotel, on Wednesday, April 28.

Fleisher's illustrious early career as a pianist was interrupted in 1965, when focal dystonia forced him to give up the concert hall tour. For the next 30 years, he taught music and conducted orchestras while always holding out hope for a treatment that would enable him to regain full use of his hand. He also emerged as a spokesman on behalf of dystonia patients everywhere, advocating for greater public understanding for the muscle-impairing disorder that afflicts millions worldwide. Recent breakthroughs in treating dystonia enabled Fleisher to resume playing the piano with both hands, a remarkable feat that few other musicians of his stature have accomplished. New research revealing the beneficial effects of using botulinum toxin to treat dystonia among musicians will also be presented at the AAN annual meeting this year.

"Mr. Fleisher's perseverance over the decades is an inspiration to all of us in the neurological field," says Kenneth Viste, MD, chair of the AAN Foundation. "His remarkable comeback as a musician is proof that people can recover from debilitating neurological disorders, and his selfless commitment on behalf of dystonia research and education merits a standing ovation in itself from the both the neurological community and society at large."

Trained in the art of classical piano beginning at the age of four, Fleisher debuted on stage at Carnegie Hall in 1944. Over the next 20 years, he performed in concert halls around the world en route to becoming known as one of the premier classical pianists of the 20th century. Then in the mid-1960s, his career was tragically interrupted when he was stricken in his right hand with focal dystonia, a crippling neurological disorder that caused the muscles in his hand to contract and become misshapen.

Decades of grueling practice and performing on the piano, beginning at the age of four years old, resulted in Fleisher's suffering from focal dystonia. Focal dystonia is a particular form of the disorder that most commonly affects people who perform repetitive and synchronous movements over a long period of time. Although musicians are among the most commonly affected by the disorder, it also occurs with great frequency among dentists, surgeons, writers and others who depend on using their fine motor skills.

Fleisher's latest involvement on behalf of dystonia patients is in the launch of the Freedom to Play campaign, an effort by the Musicians with Dystonia program and sponsored by the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation to raise awareness of dystonia, reduce the stigma associated with the condition and urge sufferers worldwide to seek help. Fleisher is serving as primary spokesman of the new campaign, which was launched March 30-31 in New York.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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