Exactly one year ago, in November 2021, I had a severe stroke. This is the story of how I used music to increase my recovery and get myself back.
It is a very gentle thing when a stroke happens. For me, it was gradually increasing heaviness on the right side of my body and increasing difficulty making myself understood. There was no pain, no big flash, and no fear, just confusion as to what was happening to me and overwhelming tiredness. I later came to call it “the gentle assassin” which, in one stroke, took away the old Andrew and left me to rebuild Andrew 2.0.
I learned almost immediately that part of my brain had experienced a factory reset to default settings and my job now was to apply myself to teach it all over again. While I was recovering in the hospital, in those early days post-stroke, my dear friend and music educator, Vicky Thorpe, reminded me to use my clarinet as therapy. That was a big ask, as at that time I had no movement at all in my right arm and a weak right lower half of my face. There was no way then I could even hold a feather, let alone a clarinet and all the fine motor that comes with actually playing it.
Having a stroke is a Lifequake.
Still just four days after the stroke, I had my clarinet brought into the hospital, and my rehab team helped me position my lifeless hand over the keys. The hope was that it would trigger muscle memory and start my arm moving again, or even just one finger. It did not. At least not yet.
Having a stroke is a Lifequake. It can be overwhelming, especially as there are so many parts of you that need rebuilding. Emotionally, you are without filters. You express happiness and joy on your face. Beauty in music and art becomes tears in your eyes. Frustration and anger at your broken body, become a good old foot-stamping tantrum. Your senses would overload very easily. In the early days, I experienced all these and had to build new filters, but this time only the ones I wanted. I love the fact that if I am happy, joy breaks out on my face. I love that music now brings me to tears. I also learned that negativity impairs healing and learning, so I had to develop greater empathy and patience with myself.
Routine was important, and years of practice were a huge part of my recovery. I did my rehab every day and I quickly started to see improvement. I knew that even though my arm was limp if I visualised it moving, I would still be building neurons and connections in my brain. The brain can’t distinguish actual movement from mental imagery and eventually, I was able to lift it a little. Day by day, week by week, I kept on visualising and mentally doing movements to music, like I was conducting, and my arm kept improving.
Improvement from brain injury is not like when you’re practising. You don’t see an immediate gain. Sometimes you can go days with nothing, and then suddenly the movement happens, and just as suddenly as it comes, it goes again and you feel like you’re back at square one. You have to keep practising though and be very patient and kind to yourself. Every time it moves and does what you want, it does it better. If you can move it, you can improve it.
So, with arm movement came wrist and hand. I would take clarinet music and mentally practice it with the actual piece playing. It was at this time I started using a mirror box and my piano keyboard. I set the box in the middle of the keys, place my right hand inside and play the keyboard with my left, all while looking at the mirror. Again, the brain cannot tell the difference between what my eyes were seeing and what was actually happening. My brain believed my right hand was playing the keyboard. Slowly my fingers started moving, from the little finger, back to the thumb. Slowly they moved independently. I could start using my hand again.
The practice is ongoing. Mental imagery to music. Moving to music. Singing improved my speech. Today, one year on and on the eve of my “stroke-versary” I can hold my clarinet again and place my fingers on the keys. There’s still more practice to do. Finger strength and speed are still a work in progress. As is rotating my thumb down so that it fits under the clarinet thumb rest.
My stroke specialist said, way back while I was in the hospital, that I was lucky that I am a musician. Our brains are wired a little differently which makes progress and improvement better than if we weren’t.
Another reason everyone should learn music, wouldn’t you say?