I have received over recent years a number of questions concerning finger disabilities, where a formerly-working finger becomes uncoordinated and stops working as well as it had. This can be a heartbreaking change for a committed musician, as the letters below indicate. While I wish I had a fully satisfying answer for these musicians, I can only offer a few bits of advice and some possible ways of addressing the problem.

I offer these letters partly to let people know they are not alone, and that even one of the best banjo pickers ever, Tom Adams, has had to face this problem, which in his case was diagnosed as focal dystonia.


More information about FD

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S.O. writes:

I am 44 years old and have been playing the banjo for 24 years. I practice for at least an hour a day and consider my skill level to be advanced. Recently I have noticed that my right hand is not as accurate or as nimble as it once was. For some reason it has become difficult for me to do a reverse roll, a forward-reverse roll, or any picking pattern that involves using the middle finger followed by the index finger. The problem seems to be mostly with the accuracy of my index finger – missing notes, lacking touch. I do fine without picks, but once I put the picks on I seem to have this problem until I have played for 15 to 20 minutes.

Also, I am noticing that it takes me longer to warm up, and warming up is much more critical than it used to be. I used to be able to rip right into fast songs. Now I have to build up to them. If I play a gig it is essential that I practice for 10-15 minutes backstage before going on. If I have layed off practicing for a week I can hardly play for the first 30 minutes.

I know you recently turned 60. Is this just one of the downsides of getting older? Are these common complaints? Any suggestion? I don’t consider myself to be arthritic in the least.


Dee writes:

Pete,

Ever heard of a picker whose right thumb and index “go bad”, causing difficulty “pinching” the strings (like in flint hill special when you go to the “c” chord) and in hammer ons (like foggy mtn breakdown), catching the tip of the thumb pick in the back of the index’s finger pick resulting in the thumpick and fingerpick sailing across the stage? my speed is also effected.

I have been evaluated by 3 hand surgeons who don’t have a clue what’s going on (I don’t have carpal tunnel).

After picking for for 42 years, I’m about READY TO HANG IT UP! .

Any advice??


Dee,

So sorry to hear of this problem. It certainly reminds me of what one of the banjo greats, Tom Adams, contracted a few years ago, called focal dystonia. His index finger became erratic, to the point that he has chosen to play only two-finger style in public. This was a serious loss for the banjo world (Tom quit his illustrious lifetime career as a full time player, and got a “straight job” for the first time in his life), and of course a cruel blow to Tom himself, though he does do some public playing still.

I can’t tell you details on this, but I have a friend who got focal dystonia and unlike Tom, managed to beat it with a sustained effort over a long period, and maintain his successful career performing mostly on fingerpicked guitar. If you’ve not heard of focal dystonia, I guess the thing to do would be to “google” it and check it out as thoroughly as you can, to see if that may be the problem. If you have already done that and feel stymied, I would be willing to put you in touch with Joe, who is a nice guy and would try to be helpful. But I’d say first thing would be to explore the available literature to see if f.d. matches your symptoms. The condition is apparently pretty obscure, so it wouldn’t shock me if three doctors hadn’t heard of it. Also, the problem for both Tom and Joe was I think limited to the index finger, so maybe that means it’s something else. Just guessing here, obviously.

I’m sorry I can’t be of more help. I wish you the very best with this problem. You know, we all lose our abilities at some point or another, especially thanks to just aging. Saying goodbye to abilities (and people) you’ve been attached to for a long time seems to be one of the hardest parts of life. But we all have to do it; it’s inevitable — some sooner than others. I humbly offer you the suggestion that you might find solace in all the time you were able to play in a much more satisfactory way, if in fact you no longer can do that. Undeniably, there is still a lot you *can* do, and I hope that if nothing can be done about your condition, there is a great future for you doing something from that set of things that you still can do well and with pleasure.

I wish I could offer you more than these words, but that’s my best for now.

Pete Wernick


Jim writes:

Lately however I have discovered that I simply cannot do a forward roll in any kind of playing speed, I trip all over myself with the index finger and it has gotten to the point where I just think I will give it all up.


Jim,

I’m very sorry to hear of the trouble you’re having. Without seeing you actually playing, and working with you in person, it’s hard to get a good grasp of the problem. Is the tripping with the index finger a new thing, or a characteristic of your playing for a while?

If it’s a new thing, then it sounds like something more in the neurological category. It might be good to see a neurologist, and show him the problem by taking your banjo with you.

Before you consider actually abandoning hope of playing banjo, I’d hope you would consider styles of keeping rhythm that don’t require three fingers. Simple strumming can be very appealing with an in-tune, nice sounding banjo playing behind singing. True, this is not the dream of a bluegrass banjo player, but for many, the simple sound of a nicely strummed banjo is far better than not playing music at all.

There are a lot of handicapped people that find ways of playing music that are immensely satisfying, to both the player and to listeners. They usually involve accompanying singing, so if you do sing a bit, that could be a very positive route to consider. If you don’t sing much, but would like to, I assure you that is a very learnable skill (there’s an article on learning to sing in tune, on my web site).

Without hearing you and working with you in person, I don’t know what else to offer. I’m sorry I can’t give you a simple and sure-fire solution, much as I would like to. I wish you the best of luck in finding a way to keep going on the banjo!

Pete Wernick