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Recovering from Focal Dystonia Through Somatic Reeducation—A Case Study of a Pianist’s Return to Performing Advanced Repertory Through a Stepwise Pedagogical Retraining Program

Barbara Lister-Sink
Dr. Barbara Lister-Sink

Focal dystonia continues to be a perplexing neuromuscular disorder, disrupting the studies and careers of musicians, often with devastating consequences. In pianists, focal dystonia is characterized by a loss of voluntary control of the muscles attached to the fingers, stiffening, and atypical movements. As recently as 2000, no consistently effective treatment had been found and prognosis for recovery was low. Recent studies have been encouraging in determining causal factors and effective treatments. However, less attention has been given to the anecdotal success and benefits of specific technical retraining programs in biomechanical efficiency and somatic education as a rehabilitative option. This case study demonstrates how a 28-year-old female pianist with a 6-year history of bilateral focal dystonia regained the ability to perform advanced repertory in concert through a step-wise, sequenced pedagogical approach based on neurobiological principles of learning complex motor skills, utilizing adaptive neuroplasticity capabilities to establish new neuronal pathways in the relevant cortical and subcortical regions, albeit as yet unmeasured. It incorporates somatic whole-body education and specific training in the coordinations and sensations of a biomechanically efficient piano technique.


Barbara Lister-Sink, Ed. D., internationally acclaimed pianist and acknowledged global leader in injury-preventive keyboard technique, is a graduate of Smith College, the Utrecht Conservatory and holds an Ed.D. from Columbia University. A Steinway Artist since 1977, Lister-Sink has performed and recorded as soloist and with many of the world’s most distinguished musicians throughout North America, Europe, and Australia. Her DVD Freeing the Caged Bird – Developing Well-Coordinated, Injury-Preventive Piano Technique won the 2002 MTNA-Frances Clark Keyboard Pedagogy Award. She has taught on the Eastman School of Music Artist Faculty and was formerly keyboardist for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra prior to returning to her native state. Lister-Sink was chosen by Musical America Global as one of America’s “30 Top Professionals of 2018” who have contributed to the music profession as innovators, independent thinkers, and visionary leaders. In 2021, she received the Frances Clark Keyboard Pedagogy Center’s Outstanding Service Recognition Award. Dr. Lister-Sink has dedicated her life to helping thousands of keyboardists worldwide remove technical obstacles and enhance their musical artistry.