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Terry Syrek Interview

Learning to live and play with focal dystonia

By October 13, 2017News

We’ve just uploaded our interview with Terry Syrek to the Cracking the Code platform.

This interview is a revealing conversation about an elite player learning to live with a condition that severely affects his playing: focal dystonia.

We’re interested in learning more about musical health and the sorts of injuries guitarists face, and we were glad to have the chance to sit down with Terry and hear what it’s been like for him adapting to life with this disorder. He’s both a great player and a humble, friendly guy, and we hope you enjoy hearing his story.

You can find the full interview here:

Terry Syrek Interview

And here’s some additional detail about Terry and the interview, if you’re the yes-please-I-want-to-read-all-the-words type! —

Terry is not only an incredible shredder, but a vocalist, producer, writer, and instructor. He’s been recording and releasing music for decades, and has performed alongside such legends as Steve Vai, Marty Friedman, Paul Gilbert, John Petrucci, and Zakk Wylde. He studied at Berklee, and has over 20 years of teaching experience.

He also has focal dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that affects the motor control of his fingers and limits what he can play. It’s not well understood, and there’s no magic bullet treatment. Terry visited a number of experts to try to figure out what was going on, and his diagnosis was just the start of learning to live with a new reality.

While it’s altered his relationship to playing the guitar, this condition hasn’t entirely quelled Terry’s virtuoisic chops, and it certainly hasn’t dampened his musical creativity! In this interview, we learn how Terry found ways to continue to write innovate, virtuoso prog guitar excursions despite his dystonia.

The conversation ranges from Terry’s time studying at Berklee, and the rigors of professionally competitive practice schedules at a top-tier music school, to his journey of self-discovery and healing after being diagnosed with this condition.

Brendan Schlagel

About Brendan Schlagel

Brendan wears many Code hats, including interview production, website wrangling, marketing strategy, and product design.

Top Comments

  1. I thought long and hard about posting this ( I´m not really into internet forum debates which can easily arise on such a topic) but I then decided to do it anyway and put this info out there - if this info is helpful to you awesome, use it to get help. If you think what I write rubbish, just continue on your own path.

    I hope I can shed some light on this mysterious subject called Focal Dystonia.
    I had Focal Dystonia and I´m cured now. When it started to appear, my entire playing feel apart in two weeks - every time touched the guitar my ring and little finger curled up without me being able to control it. Playing open beginner chords was not possible, a simple pentatonic scale - unthinkable.
    The neurologist who diagnosed me said: “You know what this disease is called? Focal Dystonia. We don´t know where it comes from and what causes it, but you will never play again.” I told him I would find a cure. He just smirked.

    It took me around three and a half years to cure it. Yes, it´s totally gone, not just a bit better or improved, not an adaptation to get by, but TOTALLY GONE. As if it had never been there.
    The info that is out there about Focal Dystonia is false and doctors have no clue about it. They are on the wrong path and keep beating the heads against the wall insisting it must be neurological.

    I got over it with the help of Joaquin Fabra from Madrid, Spain. DO NOT confuse him with a guy called Joaquin Farias who is for injecting Botox, which is pure insanity. Avoid Joaquin Farias.
    I remember how confusing this was for me - two guys with identical first names, both claiming to be able to cure it…
    It was pure luck of the draw I picked Joaquin Fabra. Pure freaking luck.

    Fabra ist the only guy I know who can cure this disorder - amusingly, he does not get invited to the meetings of the medical community about focal dystoniaThey want to talk about it all day long and the guy who can fix is, is shunned - the world is just hilarious!

    Here´s a short summary I wrote about Focal Dystonia a while back:

    Supposedly Focal Dystonia is a neurological illness in which brain areas for the affected fingers start to overlap, caused by lots of repetitive movements…that is total BS.

    The strange thing is - If it´s a neurological problem, why was I able to perform the same movements I use on the instrument flawlessly when playing on my forearm, but not when I use the instrument instead? If it was neurological, it should have the movements impossible, regardless where they were performed.
    Why has no marathon runner ever got Focal Dystonia is his legs by performing tons of repetitive movements? You get it, the whole thing doesn´t make any sense, because IT IS NOT A NEUROLOGICAL CONDITION. Anyone can create it, with the right (wrong) mindset. I could write you an outline on how to create it and if you follow it for a long time, you can create dystonia.

    But if it´s not neurological, what is it then?
    The first thing Joaquin Fabra told me was: “Your hand is okay, your brain is okay, but your attitude to the instrument is not okay.”
    So, here´s the definition I´ve created for myself:
    Focal Dystonia is an “information mis-management disease” caused by underlying, unconscious and dysfunctional emotional patterns.

    Remove these dysfunctional emotional patterns (by first developing the awareness to even be conscious of them), learn to not interfere with the natural flow of information from your brain to your fingers and all the movements will correct themselves in time.
    The goal is thus to get out of the way and allow a clean, natural, flow of information (not easy).

    The Vicious Cycle starts like this:

    1. You unconsciously approach the instrument with an
      underlying feeling of anxiety (created by thinking I´m not good enough, I´m not making fast enough progress, fear of making mistakes, forcing your body to perform better…) thereby creating a continuous underlying current of tension and stress in your body
    2. You unconsciously push through that tension with willpower, forcing your body to perform while micro-managing movements in an obsessive way
    3. This leads to a further increase in tension, which in turn creates more anxiety
    4. The two elements form an anxiety-tension loop, with the two elements feeding into each other
    5. A constant build-up of more and more tension leads to the
      total break down of physical movements
      At some point, the level of tension will rise above a tolerable threshold and the first syptoms of Focal Dystonia will appear.
      When they do, your entire playing breaks down in a matter of days and you will likely experience some kind of shock seeing all your hard work and skills fall apart until playing beginner´s open chords become literally impossible.
      You´ll most likely use even more willpower and discipline to make your body behave, but it does not work. When you just reach for your instrument, your affected fingers curl up (or stiffen - there are various manifestations of the same thing) without you being able to do anything about it. It feels as if some invisible puppeteer is controlling your hand, creating the worst distorted movements one can imagine.
      The visible syptoms of the dystonic syndrome (as Fabra calls it) are just a pointer, a signal that your body sends you to tell you that you´ve been treating it badly.
      It´s like treating a dog. If you treat it well, cuddle it and take it for walks it will love you and be your companion for life.
      If you submit it by force, it will get aggressive and bite you at some point. Focal Dystonia is the body´s equivalent of biting.
      So - anxiety causes an unacceptable amount of tension
      and tension starts to function like a screen.
      Everything that passes through that screen comes out distorted, and natural movements cannot occur anymore, hence the distorted movements of Focal Dystonia.
      To have the natural movements re-occur we have to remove the screen, i.e. fixing the underlying dysfunctional patterns.

    Another BS idea (excuse my non-academic language here) is that is genetically pre-determined. It´s not. Like I said, I can write you a manual on how to create it. Anyone who rides a bike into a wall will likely get bruises - same with focal dystonia. You approach the instrument wrong over long periods of time, you will get Focal Dystonia. In that sense nobody is really safe (which is probably even scarier to know…). A great thing is to have had it and gotten out of it, because then you really know what not to do, because hopefully your awareness has grown throughout your rehab process… BUT if one repeats the same approach again, Focal Dystonia will come back. (ride the bike into the wall the second time and you´ll get hurt again).
    Focal Dystonia is completely curable, but it is a journey inside yourself, into your relationship to the instrument and your approach to music. It´s not easy, but doable if you are open to learn.
    All credit for everything I know about this fascinating condition goes to Joaquin Fabra - without him I would have been fucked.

    If you suffer from it go here: http://www.distoniadelmusico.com/en/

    WARNING:
    DO NEVER EVER GET BOTOX INJECTIONS - IT´S MADNESS CREATED BY PEOPLE OF WHO HAVE ZERO CLUE ABOUT CURING THE CONDITION!

    In hindsight I am very thankful to have had the privilege to have it. Sounds crazy, I know, but I have learned so much from this condition and have grown in so many ways. Having it totally changed my entire relationship to the instrument. I practiced a lot before, but I did it because I thought I had to, it´s a necessity. I wanted the sound.
    Now that´s totally different. I enjoy THE MOVEMENTS to such a high degree, how stuff FEELS when I play. The disorder added this joy of movements (like a dancer has I would assume) to my practice. Now there is no “should” - I immensely love practice.
    So, the disorder has changed my perspective from the practice as a means to an end, to a great joy in itself.
    Could that have happened by someone just telling me beforehand: Hey dude, you need to shift your mindset here! No. I needed this experience to change that.

    Quick Recap:

    Is Focal Dystonia is neurological disorder?
    Absolutely not.

    Is Focal Dystonia caused by performing many repetitions?
    A musician´s daily task involves thousands of repetitions, it´s what we do each day, right? Do we need to be scared and constantly worry about making too many reps? Did I play too many scale sequence reps today? How many is too many?
    This is a myth too, so don´t worry about it. When your emotional state and your relationship to the instrument is right, you can do reps all day long. The tricky thing is this: You would not necessarly be aware of how exactly your relationship to the instrument is - a lot might be unconscious.

    Is Focal Dystonia a genetic predisposition?
    No. Anyone can get it. Do you want it? I can tell you how to create it :slightly_smiling_face:

    Is Focal Dystonia incurable?
    No, but I know only one guy who can help with this.

    Is curing it alone possible?
    It can be done, but I´d the say the chance of finding the right things to do by accident is pretty slim. It´s not that the process itself is incredibly difficult, but a lot needs to be tailored
    to the personality, which makes it additionally difficult.

    What causes it?
    The wrong emotional unconscious approach to the instrument over prolonged periods of time.

  2. Years ago I took lessons from a piano teacher who believed that dystonia and similar problems were the result of misuse of the body – problems with technique. The theory involved came from Abby Whiteside and Sophia Rosoff. The basic idea was that smaller levers – the fingers – were attempting to do work that should be done by the larger levers – the upper arm.

    Pianists who tried very hard to make everything legato – making muscular, finger connections between notes – were the ones who tended to have problems. Pianists with superior technique – Art Tatum, for example – have fingers that “never move,” an illusion caused by letting the upper arm be in control of distances.

    On the guitar, David Leisner is an example of someone with similar ideas, who managed to cure his own focal dystonia.

  3. Hey guys, I’d just like to say thanks for watching the video I did with Troy. I had a great time, despite the heavy topic. I appreciate the support and kind words more than I can say! I’d also like to thank Troy, again, for having me. You guys are in good hands, here at this site; Troy is a fantastic player and educator!

    -TS

  4. Great to have you here Terry. I really enjoyed your interview, some fantastic playing. It’s incredible that you’ve overcome your problems in the way you have. Hope you’ll be featuring in future Code material at some point!

  5. Thanks, TheCount! Happy to be around, as I can, and thanks for the kind words.

    And Gtrjunior… thats fantastic, man! Big highfive to you and much respect.

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