We recently sat down with Composer and Pianist Haskell Small, who suffered a debilitating stroke that rendered his left hand and foot paralyzed. At the time, Small feared his accomplished professional career would come to an end. Two years later, he is not only playing piano again but has embarked on a nationwide Celebration of Healing tour that recently launched in his hometown of Washington, DC. He will be the subject of a documentary film entitled Small Steps directed by Christopher McGuinness to be released later this fall. We sat down recently to talk with him about the process of regaining his performance abilities.
Did your work become more complex or focused during the time you spent rehabilitating and did it enrich your practice?
HS: “Yes to all! At first I could not use my left hand at all and I focused on writing and playing arrangements for my right hand alone. It kept me active and from getting depressed. I was also practicing with my left hand with help from a physical therapist who specializes in working with musicians with disabilities. Nine months later I started playing again with both hands. The disability is the loss of sensation as well as function — my left hand is not totally reliable and it is hard to control precise timing or to play extra softly. Despite these ongoing challenges, the practice encouraged by the physical therapist to play extra slow has definitely helped me get my left hand almost back to where it was and in some ways better, because I’m very focused on what needs to be done. It has enriched my capabilities in that way. The most profound enrichment though has been having the “privilege” of being able to immerse myself in the Diabelli variations. Parts of it are so beautiful that I can’t keep myself from crying. It’s been a spiritual journey to be inside this sublime music that Beethoven wrote when he was entirely deaf.”
Is it a story about disability as a tragedy to overcome, or more that the experience gave you insight into generating new aesthetic possibilities or something like that?
HS: “The answer is both. It generated a new composition for my right hand alone at first, ‘Diary of a Stroke: the Adventures if Herb and Pete,’ and as I recovered, ‘Etude for 2 Hands’ and ‘Song of a Stroke Survivor.’ But also I had to refocus on what I can and can’t do, rethinking what is important, and what I want to spend my time doing in my ‘autumnal years.’ Right now, I’m at a juncture where I am thinking about what I want to do after the Diabelli variations. I may look at old music or write new music. At this point, I am stepping beyond the stroke but may revisit some things that I did beforehand. May write a full symphony. I would love to do that if there was a possibility of a performance.”
Do you feel you’ve returned to normal? Do you identify as being disabled?
HS: “Walking-wise, my leg has the same lack of sensation as my hand. I’m finding more and more that I can place weight on it, but I don’t think I’ll ever walk normally. In terms of my hand and playing the piano, I would say, functionally, I’m 90-95% back to where I was; in some ways 105% because I have had to practice in a more intense, focused way. The sensation hasn’t returned and I don’t expect it to. But the function wasn’t lost- it was not the hand, but the brain that was damaged. The dead brain cells are lost, but as I understand it, my brain is rerouting the synapses so that I can access parts of the brain that are still functioning and piggyback off of those. By working on this incredibly challenging music, I am both helping my stroke recovery and growing as a pianist and musician.”