Almost every night afore bed, Alex Klein, one of the world’s best acclaimed oboe players and a arch in the Chicago Symphony Orra, goes through the aforementioned routine. He begins by aptitude his larboard ancillary adjoin a active allowance bank in his Riverside condo, his larboard arm connected out abaft him. He stays like this for 30 abnormal afore axis about and repeating the aforementioned movement with his appropriate arm. Aback finished, he alcove both accoutrements in advanced of him. With his appropriate hand, he pulls bottomward on his larboard fingers as a group, afresh works them one at a time, tugging hard, as admitting he were aggravating to draw them from their joints.
After that, Klein moves to the kitchen for appearance two. He gathers ice cubes from the freezer and neatly folds a baby accumulation into a washcloth. Sitting at a table chaotic with affidavit and mail, he apparel the washcloth over his larboard wrist and keeps it there for about bristles minutes.
On decidedly backbreaking days, Klein additionally performs a affectionate of do-it-yourself electrotherapy. He spreads a gel on his larboard arm, afresh attaches two aboveboard white pads. These pads affix to a baby atramentous box, about the admeasurement of a tinderbox, ominously alleged a transcutaneous electrical acceptance dispatch device. It shoots electrical pulses to agitate the fretfulness and actuate the muscles. Klein about sets the apparatus for 30 minutes, during which he relaxes—often to the point of sleeping—as his fingers beat relentlessly from the pulses.
This is Klein’s absoluteness now, the absoluteness of active with a attenuate acoustic and movement ataxia accustomed as focal dystonia. The action banned his ascendancy over his larboard hand, abrogation two of his fingers misshapen, a decidedly atrocious aberration for addition who makes his active with those fingers. It additionally leaves him in chronic, acute pain—a ancillary aftereffect of disturbing his anatomy to get it to accomplish the way he needs it to.
The ambition of his nightly accustomed isn’t to annihilate the pain—pain is a abiding allotment of his activity now. He’s abstruse to acquire that. His ambition is aloof to abstinent it abundant to get through alarm the aing day.
There was a time, a little added than 15 years ago, aback Klein would deathwatch up anniversary morning acquisitive to get to work. As an oboist, he was special. His beauteous abstruse accomplishment pushed accomplished what others had anytime done with the instrument. His accent was so altered and admirable that musicians from about the apple would army to Symphony Centermost to apprehend him play. An oboe would advertise at a exceptional artlessly because he had played it. He wasn’t aloof the CSO’s arch oboist. He was Alex Klein.
But that was afore the focal dystonia. Afore he was afflicted to leave the orra for 12 years, beneath the acceptance his career was finished. Afore he gave up the oboe about entirely. Afore he coiled into a abasement so abysmal he advised suicide. And before, in the best hasty development of all, he clawed his way aback to the CSO aloof aftermost summer.
He’s a altered actuality than he was the aboriginal time around—no best a assured adolescent virtuoso, but rather a twice-married 52-year-old aching by his abatement from classical music’s greatest heights and summoning the backbone to date a additional act.
To acquire what accepting the oboe taken from him meant to Alex Klein, you acquire to acquire his adolescence in Curitiba, Brazil. Growing up in the 1970s, Klein struggled in school. He was bright—he could apprehend books by age 4—but suffered from astringent absorption arrears disorder. He was so confusing in chic that in third brand the arch threatened to belch him.
Klein’s father, a civilian engineer, had a altered idea: He enrolled his son in music classes, addition they adeptness advice centermost him. The boy already knew the apparatus he capital to learn. His ancestor had already taken him to an orra concert, and he was bugged by the oboe players—the way they could assignment such a loud, brittle complete from such a baby instrument.
Finding an oboe, however, wasn’t easy. Brazil was beneath a aggressive absolutism at the time, which fabricated it difficult to acceptation items from Europe. But Klein’s ancestor adored three months of his bacon and gave it to a music abecedary he knew who generally catholic aback to his built-in Germany. It was on one of those trips that the abecedary hid an oboe for the 9-year-old in a amalgamation he mailed to the Goethe-Institut’s Brazil outpost.
The boy’s aptitude was anon obvious. By 11, he was called for a able alcove orra in Curitiba. At 13, he began touring Brazil as a accompanist with internationally acclaimed conductors, including Olivier Toni and Eleazar de Carvalho. Alike his achievement in academy improved. “Oboe was my savior,” Klein says. “Everything started alive bigger in life.”
Klein larboard Brazil for the United States in 1984 to appear Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. As a senior, he took aboriginal award-winning in an all-embracing oboe antagonism in New York, assault out some of the world’s best acclaimed oboists. Over the aing decade, he catholic about the apple arena competitions (he won three more), landed teaching gigs at Oberlin and the University of Washington, and appear his aboriginal album, a recording of Vivaldi’s oboe concertos. Then, at 30, in a star-making turn, Klein was assassin as arch oboist of the Chicago Symphony Orra—one of the best celebrated agreeable jobs in the world.
By 2001, six years into his administration there, his career was peaking. He had recorded a Strauss arrangement with the CSO that would afterwards win a Grammy, and his performances were actuality heralded for their Dionysian beauty. “He had an activity and alacrity and a assertive joie de vivre,” recalls Bill Buchman, the CSO’s abettor arch bassoonist and a longtime acquaintance of Klein. “He was at the complete top of his artistry.”
That March, Klein catholic to Brazil to accomplish Mozart’s oboe concerto, a buoyant, blithe piece, with the São Paulo Symphony Orra. But a few canicule afore the concert, as he began rehearsing, he activate it difficult to move the fingers on his larboard hand. It took all his absorption and activity to comedy the appropriate notes.
“I aloof acquainted incapable. It was like I didn’t acquire who I was anymore.”
When Klein alternate to Chicago, he mentioned this to the CSO’s doctor, who was concerned. Klein underwent tests at Rush University Medical Centermost to see if a academician bump was to blame. That disqualified out, he saw a physician who specialized in alive with achievement artists: Alice Brandfonbrener at Northwestern. She diagnosed the focal dystonia. At first, Klein was relieved: “When she didn’t acknowledgment tendinitis, I thought, Whatever it is, I can accord with it. At atomic I don’t acquire to stop playing.”
But Brandfonbrener corrective a sobering account for Klein: She told him that the action was irreversible—that, in fact, astriction in his anatomy would alone build—and predicted that aural three years he would abdicate the orra out of frustration.
In the medical field, dystonia is article of a mystery. For added than bisected a century, it was advised a cerebral ataxia rather than a acoustic and concrete one. Neurologists now apperceive that dystonia involves the basal ganglia, a tiny breadth central the academician that controls movement. Misfiring neurons there accelerate the anatomy adverse messages, consistent in a array of problems, including tremors, angled muscles, and the affliction to ascendancy assertive muscles. In the case of focal dystonia, the aperture and fingers are mostly affected, which for a artist can accomplish assuming a accustomed task, such as arena the oboe, abundantly backbreaking and painful.
There are a few hypotheses for what causes dystonia. One is that it is genetic. Addition is that simple overuse is to blame, which would advice explain why dystonia afflicts musicians in disproportionately aerial numbers. “They alternation and alternation and corruption their anatomy and their brain,” says Jan Teller, arch accurate administrator at the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation in Chicago. Klein estimates that he was practicing and assuming as abundant as 50 hours a week. Paradoxically, though, professionals in assertive added fields that crave repetitive movement—such as barbers or tennis players—rarely advance dystonia. Which is what makes the action so perplexing.
Unlike Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases and added movement disorders, dystonia is not degenerative, so aboriginal action can acquiesce patients to absolutely balance their mobility. “It’s added like a radio receiver out of tune,” explains Teller. “You aloof acquire to readjust, and sometimes you don’t apperceive what on to press. Maybe you move a little to the larboard and airing by the window and extend the antenna.” The botheration for musicians is, they generally don’t admit dystonia aback it aboriginal hits. Looking back, Klein recalls a moment in 1998 aback he acquainted a afire affliction in his sternum, a awareness he now believes was the aftereffect of his anatomy alpha to tighten. But that accessible admonishing sign, added than two years afore his diagnosis, went unrecognized.
When Klein talks about the past, he doesn’t shy abroad from darkness, but he is not morose. He swings berserk from quiet, black reflections to belief told with such abundant coercion and action that every book seems to end with an assertion point.
As he talks, his accoutrements are in abiding motion. It’s alone aback he takes a animation and lets them bead to his abandon that his concrete aberration becomes clear. With his easily relaxed, his appropriate fingers adhere normally, like branches of a willow tree. His larboard hand, though, curves into the appearance you adeptness use for a balderdash in a adumbration play—his arena and average fingers coil inward, about affecting his palm. These are their new comatose positions. The aberration is maybe an inch, but abundant to echo beyond Klein’s life.
The changes in his arena started out small. He’d authority a agenda aloof a atom too connected or addled a abstruse access a bit. But the baby changes grew added noticeable, acceptable a absolute crisis. Every time he played, he would acquire to force his fingers into place. As a result, the larboard ancillary of his anatomy would aing up. Eventually, the tendons in his larboard wrist and arm got so bloated that Klein developed tendinitis, which acquired him disturbing affliction and bound breakable his playing.
He began demography approved breach from the orra to affluence the ache on his body. “I would appear aback for a anniversary or two at a time and afresh abandon for a few months,” he recalls. Alike aback he was appointed for a concert, Klein would wind up abandoning added than bisected the time because he didn’t feel he could perform.
The dystonia didn’t arrest his advancement in any added allotment of his life. He had no agitation attached his shoes, accounting an email, or alike arena the English horn. It alone afflicted his adeptness with the oboe. “I aloof acquainted incapable,” he says. “It was like I didn’t acquire who I was anymore.”
Consumed with award a cure, Klein visited added than 30 doctors, aggravating altered therapies. He went to a chiropractor. Afresh an acupuncturist. He took acquaint in the Alexander technique—a acclimation meant to allay affliction and ache by realigning posture—and approved a few circuit of duke massage. “The masseuse would dig into every finger, every little beef and knuckle, and afresh I’d comedy oboe in his appointment while they dug into altered parts,” recalls Klein. Annihilation seemed to help.
This went on for added than six months, and Klein’s chase became added manic. “Every two to three weeks, I would see a doctor with all my best hopes,” he says. “When annihilation changed, the doctor would either accredit me to addition abroad or acquaint me that the action was incurable. I would go home depressed for a few days, activity apologetic for myself until a new abstraction came out and I would alpha analytic again. I was accommodating to try anything.”
Klein had a new oboe made, one congenital from violetwood, abundant lighter than the acceptable ebony, cerebration the change would accomplish arena beneath strenuous. It didn’t. He approved Botox injections in his fingers. Novocain too. He took a few doses of levodopa, a biologic assigned to Parkinson’s patients. He approved feel weights. One doctor said his action adeptness be the aftereffect of mercury in Klein’s fillings. (A dentist bound dispelled that notion.) A nutritionist appropriate he change his diet, so Klein cut carbs. He approved walking with bigger aspect and not accustomed his wallet in his aback abridged anymore.He alike underwent activity healing. “I would sit in a allowance and the doctor would be 10 anxiety abroad from me, affective his duke about and allurement me if I could feel a blockage,” says Klein. “I anticipate he was aloof aggravating to argue me that I acquainted something.”
His bouts with tendinitis got worse, and by November 2001, Klein couldn’t comedy a note. He absitively to booty a three-month medical leave from the CSO to recuperate. By then, his claimed activity was additionally in turmoil. Three canicule afterwards his leave began, his wife filed for divorce. Klein afterwards absent aegis of his two adolescent accouchement and began sliding into an alike added depression.
In the morning of July 3, 2003, Klein sat bottomward at his computer to address a suicide note. Killing himself, he felt, was the alone way out of his despair. “I was accepting agitation compassionate what I was actuality to do. Area would I go? I was dangling in a actual ambiguous circumstance.”
Just as he was finishing the note, Klein got a buzz alarm from a acquaintance in the orra. She had noticed that he seemed out of sorts in alarm the day before, and aback she asked Klein about it, he began agreeable and crying. His aide knew addition who had formed in a crisis centermost and had that actuality alarm Klein immediately. They spent the aing two hours calm on the buzz until Klein assuredly backed off from his suicide plan. “I acquainted afraid for about a week,” he says. “It was as if a allotment of me died.”
He connected to try to accomplish with the CSO for addition year. But ultimately, it accustomed too difficult. In the summer of 2004, about three years afterwards he was diagnosed with dystonia, Klein resigned.
Without an income—the CSO’s allowance aggregation had denied his affirmation for affliction allowances because he could still comedy to a degree—Klein acquainted he had boilerplate to go but aback to Brazil. He confused in with his parents in Curitiba, appearance the alpha of what Klein calls his “exile years.”
It wasn’t an accessible adjustment. The aboriginal few months in Brazil, Klein would generally blow alive at 4 or 5 in the morning and jump out of bed to attending for his oboe, cerebration he was backward for rehearsal. In reality, he had all but accustomed up the instrument. “Every now and then, I would convenance a little, and it acquainted good. Afresh I’d do a bit more. By the weekend I had tendinitis, and I’d aing the case again.” No best performing, he toured the country anticipation music competitions and alike approved conducting.
He additionally spent a lot of time reading, decidedly about Beethoven. “It was analytical to me how he could acquire been depressed, disabled, rejected, and still maintained a faculty of humor,” says Klein. “Even at the end of his life, Beethoven comes up with article like the Ninth Symphony, which talks about adulation in the world. So I asked myself, What do I acquire that’s still good? What are added dreams I’ve had that do not depend on these two fingers?” That’s aback Klein absitively to actualize music festivals.
In 2004, he formed a bifold reed anniversary to be captivated annually in Panama City. At the countdown event, Klein met Catalina Guevara, a bassoonist from Costa Rica. “I bethink aback I aboriginal heard him play, it was like magic,” says Guevara. “You cannot brainstorm that this actuality is sick.” They were affiliated two years afterwards and eventually had two children.
In 2006, Klein started the anniversary Anniversary de Música de Santa Catarina, or FEMUSC, a chargeless two-week acquisition of South American music students. The acceptance accomplish calm and are accomplished by aptitude from about the globe, including several of Klein’s aloft colleagues from the CSO. The adventure helped him alpha to alleviate emotionally: “I acquainted I was accomplishing article worthwhile.”
Over the aing few years, Klein connected to aggrandize FEMUSC. (Last year, some 800 musicians performed, and about 60,000 bodies attended.) He additionally landed a job with the Brazilian government allowance to anatomy adolescence orras in some of the best afflicted areas in the accompaniment of Paraíba.
But alike with such aerial points, Klein pined for a bigger stage. “I saw him already arrant in the night,” says Guevara. “He woke up addition time and said, ‘I acclimated to tune the orra. I was the baton of that orra.’ ” Admitting he had confused on with his life, he clung to the achievement that he adeptness one day acknowledgment to the CSO. “I accomplished myself to acquire that the folio was turned, but I did consistently wonder.”
Klein’s bound arena had a argent lining: The best he went afterwards acrimonious up the oboe, the added his anatomy relaxed. And the beneath astriction in his muscles, the best he could play. But whenever he acquainted a cast in his larboard arm—a assurance of tendinitis—he had to stop.
Over the aing few years, he gradually added his playing, assuming at a few festivals, and anniversary time he’d booty on a added aggressive abandoned repertoire. Aftermost February, Klein played with Mexico’s National Symphony Orra, and at a March account in Colorado, he performed some of the best technically arduous music he’d tackled in years. “I’ve consistently activated area my banned are,” he says. “And I try to breach as aing as accessible to them.”
That aforementioned month, Klein got an abrupt alarm from the CSO’s administrator of agreeable personnel, John Deverman, agreeable him to comedy with the orra for two weeks in April. Klein anon accepted.
When he accustomed in Chicago, Klein got added news: His successor, Eugene Izotov, had larboard for San Francisco, and the arch oboe armchair was vacant. Klein debated whether to audition. “I wasn’t abiding I capital to jump aback in, alone to be ashore with issues of dystonia one or two years in.”
Then, on the additional day of rehearsals, Riccardo Muti himself, the CSO’s acclaimed music director, pulled Klein a and encouraged him to try out. “It was like he could apprehend into my affection and see how afflicted I was,” says Klein.
So, for the aboriginal time in added than two decades, Alex Klein started advancing for an audition.
In June, two canicule afore he was due onstage for one of the hardest job interviews on the planet—auditioning for Muti—Klein couldn’t aggregation a note. “I would activate to comedy article and anon feel fatigued.” Standing in the bedfellow allowance of a friend’s Oak Park home, Klein stared at his area music, bewildered. “I knew it was psychological. The centralized burden was so big. I thought, Maybe I aloof shouldn’t do this—not betrayal myself to ridicule. Maybe I had my chance. What if my affection appear back? What if I’m not able to comedy with the aforementioned sound, aforementioned interpretation, aforementioned address and control?”
But Klein knew this adeptness be his alone shot, so he apprenticed on. Every time he froze, he’d booty a breach and cream the internet or alarm his wife or booty a airing to calm his thoughts. And aback he alternate to the music stand, he would alpha off slowly. “I would convenance article not too difficult so that I could arena myself. I knew I could comedy the repertoire, but I bare to comedy the easier things as advance of the beauty.”
The day of the audition, Klein showed up at Symphony Centermost promptly at 9 a.m., the aboriginal of the candidates to arrive. “I acquainted a little bit like a zombie,” he recalls. “I knew what I had to do, and I bare to quiet bottomward all of the self-doubt.”
He played twice, the aboriginal time for about 10 account and the additional for 20. He anticipation he had performed well, but he wasn’t sure. He aloof to the basement lounge to delay for word. About two hours went by as the added candidates auditioned. Then, about noon, Deverman descended the stairs to advertise the decision. He offered Klein the spot. “I didn’t jump up and down,” recalls Klein, but he was affluence excited. “It was adamantine to believe. My activity had been disconnected and now I got to do it again.”
Klein may acquire gotten the additional adventitious he yearned for, but endings don’t consistently appear altogether captivated up. He is still bedeviled by self-doubt and baleful thoughts, and he is now accepting to accord circadian with acute affliction and to acclimatize to a backbreaking schedule.
But Klein has appear up with a few tricks to advice him cope. Aback aback he was aboriginal ambidextrous with the dystonia, he apparent that if he alert a baby Brazilian bread on top of the G key, he could comedy his oboe hardly to the left. That baby adjustment, Klein believes, is abundant to ambush his academician into cerebration he plays the saxophone rather than the oboe, and that offers some relief.
He’s additionally afflicted his technique. While best oboists tend to comedy an according cardinal of addendum with anniversary hand, Klein now relies on his appropriate as abundant as possible. Aback he does use his left, instead of extending his fingers absolutely to ability the keys, he rotates his absolute arm. That aberration “actually gives a little accelerate amid the notes, like a cord amateur alteration position,” says Klein. “It’s about a signature of abundance now.”
It’s 10 o’clock on a Friday morning in November, and Klein is still alive through the affliction in his fingers from the antecedent night’s CSO achievement of Ein Deutsches Chant by Brahms. He has to comedy it afresh in aloof a few hours. It’s a decidedly connected piece, one that is both physically and emotionally demanding, but it’s a admired of his. Klein performed the chant with the CSO in 1999, and a recording of addition CSO achievement of it was one of the few he would accept to afterwards abiding to Brazil. “All requiems tend to be black and macabre, because it is a accumulation for the dead,” says Klein, comatose his easily on his kitchen table. “But Brahms, he had the abstraction that dying should not be article bad, it should be a achievement for the abiding life. And he did it in such a way that glorifies activity instead of aloof dematerialization from the face of the earth. It’s so admirable and poetic—it’s a chase for accuracy and answers.”
We access at Symphony Centermost an hour afore the concert, but the antechamber is already crowded. Klein active to the musicians’ lounge, and I booty my bench in the balcony. As Klein settles into his armchair onstage, I anamnesis a catechism I airish to him earlier: What will appear if he can’t accomplish it to the end of the season? “That’s frightening,” he had said. “It’s so alarming that I would rather not go there. I aloof acquire to accomplish it to June. If I can accomplish it to June, I’ll apperceive I can do this job.”
When the chant begins, Klein straightens his aback and dips his amateur as he sways aback and forth. His adapted curve are affluent and heavy, both aggregate with the orra’s massive black complete and ablaze aloft it. I watch, almost alive my boring for the abounding hour. Aloof a few account afore the end of the piece, as the choir and orra quiet to a peaceful resolution, Klein takes a abysmal breath. He relaxes his anatomy and leans aback in his chair, as admitting to durably basis himself in the accumulation for the living.
He performs with the CSO best weeks through June. From March 16 to 18 and on March 21, the orra will accomplish Rossini’s La Scala di Seta, one of the best arduous pieces for the oboe. Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., $34 to $220, cso.org
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