January 17, 2007

About Cognitive Changes in M.S.

A month ago my MS specialist and I were pleased that I’m doing well. He personally appreciates my training and abilities in classical music. He suggested that I try to do something with my music.

For the last month I have been wondering why and how I came to terms with not doing much at all in music. Some conversations with my aunt have given me some insight.

Aunt Roberta is 77. I recently moved close to her. We found that we could talk only to each other about certain cognitive changes. Somehow, we were both no longer able to read books, no matter how much we loved them or wanted to read. I guessed that brain atrophy, either from M.S. or from aging, was probably the culprit. We commiserated about missing books.

Then Aunt Roberta discovered that she had a removable brain tumor—the size of a croquet ball, no less! With some trepidation, the operation was accomplished nicely. It has been a month now and Aunt Roberta can read books again. I had not imagined that either one of us would ever be able to regain the ability to read. I’m so thrilled for Aunt Roberta.

Anyway, as we talked yesterday I explained to Aunt Roberta that the same cognitive decline that we had with books has also affected my enjoyment of music. Both books and performances have a substance that is much more dimensional than I am currently discerning. I know this because it was formerly my privilege and pleasure to enjoy music and reading on a daily basis. (I miss that old self but I do not expect such gifts. They are blessings, not rights.)

In fact it was formerly my job to be fully immersed and productive in music because I am a well-trained classical musician. But here is an example of what happened with me after I was diagnosed—but before I quit working as a musician:

A conductor of a university orchestra in Washington, D.C. asked me to join in for a couple of rehearsals and the concert. Bringing in experienced players to bolster the back of sections is a technique that strengthens student performances. I was being paid. I was very comfortable being paid. I had spent many years as a principal cellist which meant it was natural for me to grasp the music and have a leadership role. During the rehearsals the conductor sensed my positive contribution and asked me to support some solo passages too. The repertory was quite familiar to me.

As I was comfortably performing the concert, with some intentional leadership, I suddenly caught an odd look from the conductor. As I wondered about his thoughts, I realized that I was two measures off in comparison to the orchestra.

I cannot explain how impossible that would be. The absolute first lesson for any orchestral work is: listen to what is going on and do not play in the rests. I was deeply shocked. How would it be possible that I am hearing but not hearing? How would it be possible that I could not do the job that I had been so adept at for so many years? How had my getting lost happened? I was deeply, deeply embarrassed. My gaff was so unprofessional.

To know that the body and mind that you have relied upon is profoundly unreliable perturbs a person’s entire sense of existence. (M.S. is an existential problem in my experience.) As I consider some of my cognitive changes, it makes sense that my abilities to teach and listen and create have been very significantly altered.

There is a movie about the cellist Jacqueline Du Pre. She played wonderfully and fiendishly well, in the late 60’s and 70’s, as a soloist with many world class orchestras. Her M.S. hit her strongly. Later in the movie there is a scene where she sits in with an amateur orchestra in order to cameo on the toy drums in a Haydn symphony. She does not sense the moment that she should play. The conductor cues her a few times. Jackie is lost in the cognitive soup. That is how drastically we can change due to the cognitive effects of M.S.

How did I come to terms with not doing much in music? A daily confirmation that previously grasped dimensions no longer exist for me permeates my experiences. I remember with deep appreciation of natural gifts that were once mine. Things have very tangibly changed. I cannot pretend otherwise.

I will try to follow the doctor’s advice. Please tell the conductor to cue me largely.

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