Pianist Leon Fleisher has the most famous right hand in contemporary symphonic music. It is famous because for more than 30 years it has not worked,” says Johns Hopkins Magazine (Nov. ‘95) in an article about Fleisher’s first successful comeback. For the past 30 years Fleisher has continued performing concerts for the left hand, but not until he began working with Tessy Brungardt, a Certified Advanced Rolfer at The Ruscombe Mansion Community Health Center in Baltimore, did his right hand become strong enough for him to confidently return to the stage and the repertoire for two hands.
Music aficionados will know Leon Fleisher from his brilliant 15 year career in the 1950s and early 60s when he was hailed as “the pianistic find of the century.” About his debut with the New York Philharmonic, New York Times critic Olin Downs wrote, “Leon Fleisher at once established himself as one of the most gifted of the younger generation of keyboard artists.” In 1960, Jay S. Harris of the New York Herald-Tribute wrote: “...came a performance, by Leon Fleisher, of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C such as I never expect to hear bettered in my lifetime.” Ten years later, Fleisher could barely write his name, a victim of what has since become known as repetitive stress injury resulting from his obsessive hours of practise.
Fleisher consulted doctor after doctor for a diagnosis of his mysteriously deteriorating hand, but they didn’t seem interested, he says, when they were unable to find something specific to medicate or surgically repair. In March of 1995, Leon Fleisher became one of the the thousands of healing miracles happening at The Ruscombe Mansion. Founded by Zoh Hieronimus in 1984, The Ruscombe Mansion offers 25-plus practitioners of holistic and natural health care options including acupuncture, homeopathy, and the treatment that is healing Fleisher’s crippled right hand, Rolfing, a form of deep tissue massage.
Fleisher’s debilitation began in 1962 starting with his little finger feeling weak. He responded by practicing harder and longer. “The finger seemed to refuse to respond,” says Fleisher, now 67, “in fact it seemed to defend itself involuntarily by curling under.” To the pianist’s horror, the fourth finger soon followed, and over the next 10 months, the rest of his right hand. Fleisher has described it as feeling as if his arm were a rope coming unbraided. Next he felt numbness in his fingers.
When my body, through the mechanism of pain, told me to stop, I didn’t listen,” he says. “I tried to bull my way through it. That is utter nonsense, and dangerous, dangerous, dangerous advice.”
He was 37 years old when he was forced to retire from the stage and for one of the greatest pianists of the time, his whole life seemed to disintegrate. His family fell apart and he considered suicide, before he realized that it was the music in life that he truly loved, more than playing the piano, and the music was still there. So he dedicated himself to his students at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and the Tanglewood Music Center near Boston, where Fleisher is artistic director. “Teaching is where he found his real happiness,” says his son Julian, 29. “He has this kind of weird adoration from students. Someone once called him the Obi-Wan Kenobi of piano teachers.” He learned how to conduct and he learned the left-handed pieces, a slim but rewarding repertoire greatly augmented by compositions by Ravel, Prokofiev and Britten that were commissioned by a wealthy Austrian pianist who had lost this right arm in World War I.
And he never gave up on the idea of playing again with both hands. Over the 30 years since he left the stage in 1965 he tried seemingly every medical and psychiatric treatment that held a glimmer of hope: acupuncture, hypnosis, a deep-tissue massage called myotherapy, est, L-dopa, steroid injections, biofeedback, Tiger Balm, and many others. In 1981 he had surgery to alleviate carpal tunnel syndrome after which he attempted a two-handed comeback only to be disappointed that his hand had not regained the strength to handle Beethoven. After the first concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra which was broadcast live on PBS to much fanfare, Fleisher played the 12 subsequent orchestral concerts in the series with his left hand only.
Over the next dozen years, Fleisher devoted himself again to his teaching and conducting and shied away from the word “comeback”. He issued two new recordings of works for the left hand in 1994, both of which received Grammy nominations. Then in March 1995 his wife introduced him to a Rolfer in Baltimore named Tessy Brungardt.
Rolfing is a form of therapy that structurally changes connective tissues restoring their pliability and range of motion. From injury and habitual patterns of use, tendons, ligaments and the sheaths known as fasciae can become misaligned, fibrous, and rigid and thus interfere with the functioning of the muscles. A Rolfer works out the patterns of strain by using pressure from her fingers, knuckles, even elbows to soften connective tissue and realign the injured areas. The technique also seems to reprogram affected parts of the nervous system.
Fleisher had tried Rolfing before with no luck, but under Brungardt’s care, his hand responded. Within a few weeks he found he could play some of the pieces in the two-handed repertoire well enough to think about performing them again. “Leon’s a highly motivated person,” says Brungardt. “Anything I show him, he take it and goes on.”
Brungardt worked not just on Fleisher’s fingers, hand and forearm, but also his upper arm, shoulder, and neck, and Fleisher applied himself to a series of stretches. The results were remarkable. “When he began,” Brungardt says, “his arm felt like petrified rock, to quote Leon. It's really changed. His arm is much softer, and he has much more rotation and flexion. And I can see his hand changing; I can see the muscles developing in his fingers as he practices.”
After 30 years of trying everything and anything that might allow him to perform again two-handed, last April, mere weeks after beginning to work with Brungardt, he performed a two-handed concert with the Cleveland Orchestra. Unlike the 1982 concert, the 1995 concert was not billed as a “comeback”. There was no PBS broadcast, no special press, no hype as he tested his stamina. Fleisher was pleased at his performance and later in the summer he played two handed Mozart to standing ovations at the Tanglewood Music Center. Richard Dyer wrote in the Boston Globe: “[Fleisher] played with extraordinary suppleness, imagination, finesse and style.” Longtime friend Andre Previn heard Fleisher playing two handed at Tanglewood and the conductor invited him to play at Carnegie Hall which he did on January 13, 1996 to triumphant reviews. The New York Times lauded “his pianism, not just his courage”.
Fleisher’s hand continues to strengthen with the help of Tessy Brungardt at The Ruscombe Mansion, and after his Carnegie Hall triumph he is planning two-handed performances with the San Francisco Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic.
Like many of the thousands of clients who have experienced their own “comeback” as a result of the gifted holistic practitioners at the Ruscombe Mansion, Fleisher realizes he has grown as a result of his setback and subsequent struggle. “Before, I was just a two-handed piano player,” he says. “What happened to me has expanded my life, my awareness, my humanity.”
For more information on Rolfing or The Ruscombe Mansion Community Health Center, call 410-367-7300 and ask for a brochure. Or visit them on the web at http://members.aol.com/ruscombe.