Making Music with Essential Tremor

Every person with essential tremor (ET) faces the prospect of progressive impairment. This means that over time, accomplishing daily tasks such as drinking, using eating utensils, zipping or buttoning clothes, doing email, etc. may become embarrassing and extremely challenging. In addition, losing the ability to perform one’s job or professional responsibilities threatens an ET patient’s livelihood.

This is especially so for career musicians, since virtually all musical instruments require the use of hands. A powerful movie, “A Late Quartet,” shows the plight of a cello player whose artistry is eroded by the onset of a hand tremor (in this case, due to Parkinson’s disease). Not only is his individual performance affected, but his disease has technical and emotional implications for his fellow members of a famous string quartet.

I came across an interesting online community with an extraordinary range of discussion weblogs. One of them was launched in 2013 by a forum member who posed this question: “I have a worsening degenerative hand tremor and can no longer play conventional rock music on guitar. What musical instrument could I take up that could accommodate this condition?”i

The responses were creative. Hopefully, they ultimately provided the encouragement needed by the guitarist to channel his or her music-making abilities into other areas. Suggestions included percussion instruments (drum, cowbell, maracas, marimbas, etc.), brass instruments, harmonica, autoharp, and others. One suggestion I found particularly interesting: a theremin, which is an electronic instrument that requires no touch at all!

Compensating for a disability requires motivation, open-mindedness, a positive attitude and a support community. The above weblog is an excellent illustration of such support. ET is an unpredictable condition. Many patients may never experience a troubling progression, while others may find themselves virtually disabled. When hand tremors no longer respond to medication, or a patient is not interested in pharmaceutical or surgical control, the Sperling Medical Group offers noninvasive MRI-guided Focused Ultrasound (MRgFUS) for ET. In many cases, the restoration of earlier abilities – whether signing one’s name or once again playing a musical instrument – feels like a welcome miracle.


About Dr. Dan Sperling

Dan Sperling, MD, DABR, is a board certified radiologist who is globally recognized as a leader in multiparametric MRI for the detection and diagnosis of a range of disease conditions. As Medical Director of the Sperling Prostate Center, Sperling Medical Group and Sperling Neurosurgery Associates, he and his team are on the leading edge of significant change in medical practice. He is the co-author of the new patient book Redefining Prostate Cancer, and is a contributing author on over 25 published studies. For more information, contact the Sperling Neurosurgery Associates.

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