updated 9/16/2004 10:15:47 AM ET 2004-09-16T14:15:47

When classical pianist Leon Fleisher was at the height of his musical career at the age of 35, a mysterious paralysis froze his right hand.But today, his fingers roam the keys freely- thanks to an unwavering love of music, and the help of Botox.

It’s a surprising form of therapy now, but unthinkable back in 1964. At that time, Fleisher became aware that his fifth and fourth fingers on his right hand were slowly, uncontrollably curling under bit by bit. There was no warning. “It took an enormous effort to extend them… and I couldn’t use them to play the piano,” recalls Fleisher. To make matters worse, doctors could not agree on a diagnosis.

It was a cruel reality for a former child prodigy, who, at the age of 16, debuted to rave reviews with the New York Philharmonic and continued collecting accolades over the next 20 years.

"By the time he stopped being able to use his right hand, he was already in the high pantheon of pianists," says David Zinman, director of the Aspen Music Festival.As Fleisher puts it, it felt as if the Gods had come to get him, and they knew exactly where to strike.

After a two year depression, Fleisher spent the next three decades seeking a diagnosis and a cure. “I tried everything from A to Z, aromatherapy to Zen Buddhism,” he says.

Eventually, within the search, there came acceptance. "I awoke one morning and had the awareness that there were other ways that I could live out my need for music,” he says. He continued playing with his left hand alone, and began teaching and eventually, conducting.

Remarkably, it was his inability to play with both hands that made Fleisher a virtuoso as an educator. "I could no longer push the student off the chair and demonstrate, ‘This was the way I thihk it should go’ or ‘This is what you have to do.’ I had to suddenly begin thinking in much greater detail and trying to put to words things that are very ephemeral."

In 1994, Leon Fleisher was finally diagnosed with dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that afflicts about 300,000 people in North America alone. Recently, his doctors tried a new therapy— shots of botulinum toxin, or botox, that relax his constricted hand muscles.

It worked.

Playing the piano again, 40 years later, was deeply satisfying for Fleisher. “It was almost as though I thought that the preceeding forty years hadn’t existed!” he says.

His first piece? D minor concerto, by Brahms, a personal favorite.

Botox therapy is by no means a formula. Therapy changes according to the needs of the patient. Initially, Mr. Fleisher was getting shots every 6 months, now he says he's getting to the point where he needs to go more often. How well or long the the injections last is not something the doctors can predict.

"But he’s going to enjoy his final years," says Zinman. "And not only as a teacher, but also as a pianist."

And though he’s had four decades to ask “why,” for Fleisher, regrets are fleeting. “I’ve had so many extraordinary experiences and benefits from this whole adventure, from this whole odyssey, and I’m not so sure I would give that up,” he says.


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