After a debilitating stroke, a pianist finds his way back to music

Michel Andor Brodeur

THE WASHINGTON POST — If you want to prepare for the worst that can happen, learn to play the piano.

At least that’s one of my takeaways from talking to Haskell Small, a DC-based pianist, composer, and educator for whom the piano has taken on a new meaning. Once the anchor of his musical life, his instrument is now more like a sail, pulling him forward through one of the stormiest passages of his life.

In February 2021, while at home with his wife, Betsy, Small was suddenly unable to get up or move. He remembered feeling extreme stress just before, he remembered Betsy calling 911, and he remembered the doctors taking him to intensive care. Small had suffered a severe hemorrhagic stroke.

“I consider myself very lucky,” Small, 73, said in a phone conversation last week. “My mind and speech remained intact, but at first I could barely move my left side.”

Small spent several grueling months in an acute rehabilitation center, where he learned to walk again and slowly regained partial mobility in his arm and leg.

Haskell Small is practical at home. PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

“One thing my (physiotherapist) told me when I first saw him was that one of the best therapies for recovering from a stroke is playing the piano,” Small said. . “Musicians and athletes have the best chance of recovering from a stroke because they’ve learned the value of practice, relentless repetition, working towards a common goal, and really trying to understand the problem and make a difference. exercise and to use listening. It comes down to the mind rather than the matter.

Small’s physiotherapist, Bethesda PhysioCare president and owner Jan Dommerholt, grew up playing the clarinet and saxophone, which extended through his time in the Dutch military. When Dommerholt began practicing physiotherapy, he became particularly interested in the problems faced by musicians. He even keeps a piano in his office. (“It’s hard to bring your own piano to therapy sessions,” he tells me).

Dommerholt said the deep-seated muscle and musical memories that musicians rely on to perform can actually be a hindrance rather than an asset to their recovery.

“When one part of the brain is knocked out by a stroke, then the challenge is to activate other parts of the brain. Parts of the motor pattern may have become embedded in the part of the brain that no longer functions. So Haskell’s challenge is to activate other parts of his brain that can support this function.His old motor patterns aren’t necessarily useful because he doesn’t have access to them.He has to create new ones.

The imitative relationship between life and art is central to Small’s recovery, albeit in a more literal way. Dommerholt said one of the key exercises he uses is “mirror therapy”, in which patients focus on a mirror image of the functioning hand while trying to move the impaired hand – an exercise that essentially prompts the brain to create new pathways.

They also used “lateralizing” therapies to reinforce the distinctions between left and right that Small’s brain has to relearn.

When they first started working together, Small had to use his right arm to lift his left on the keyboard. Dommerholt has been amazed by Small’s recovery rate and expects him to return to the game as a two within six months to a year.

Small, meanwhile, is operating on a more optimistic schedule. Both as a party and as fuel for his ongoing recovery, he has planned a series of recitals built around one-handed repertoire. Titled A Celebration of Healing, a pair of Maryland recitals — at Springfield Presbyterian Church in Sykesville on April 10 and Friendship Heights Community Center in Chevy Chase on April 27 — found Small performing his own arrangements of works, including Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonata in C major (K 159, Longo 104), Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat (Op 90, No. 3), and a transcription of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6, inspired by the “tiny piece of cello” Small pieces.

Small said the musical conversation in Scarlatti’s room was something he could handle with one hand, preserving his virtuosity while necessarily excising certain notes. He described Schubert’s learning process on the one hand as “revealing” for the reintroduction he gave him to the architecture of the Impromptu – a guided tour of the composer’s mind.

He also performed a new composition, Diary of a stroke: The Adventures of Grass and Pete, titled after the animal names Small assigned to his left leg and hand, respectively. It should be mentioned here that the pianist’s approach to rehabilitation owes as much to his sense of humor as to his natural disposition to discipline.

The 17 minute arc of Diary flourishes from an angular, heavily pedaled seven-note figure that seems to be trying to remember itself. It searches and branches out, sometimes distracting with a nostalgic melody that passes like the outline of an unrelated memory. Small said he was trying to recreate the mood and fatigue that immediately followed the stroke. Indeed, its form seems neural.