Wieser, Heinz Gregor, and Roland Walter. “Untroubled musical judgement of a performing organist during early epileptic seizure of the right temporal lobe.” Neuropsychologia 35 (1996): 45-51.
This article described the case of a professional organist with right temporal lobe epilepsy who experienced a seizure in the middle of performing an organ recital. He habitually recorded his own performances, and so the resultant tape was compared to both the original score and his own other presentations of the same work. The analysis of the section affected by the seizure showed that early in the event, the right hand continued playing as normal while the left began to deviate from the notated rhythm. As the seizure continued, the material played by both hands increasingly departed from the score but the right hand managed to improvise and cover the errors in the left in a musical way. The tempo remained steady throughout. Once the seizure progressed to a certain point, the organist stopped playing and was unresponsive for 5 minutes but then recovered and continued the performance.
I was absolutely astounded to read this article. This particular case illustrates for me just how resilient the human brain can be and how impressive are its adaptive capabilities. That the organist managed to continue to perform while experiencing the early part of a seizure is incredible. Not only did he carry on, but his brain went a step beyond and improvised solutions to the errors so that his playing remained musically meaningful.
The authors of this article presented a section of the score of the original piece along with a notated copy of the version played during the seizure. It was fascinating to compare the two and see exactly where and how they differed. I must admit, I would have liked to have the opportunity to hear the taped performance, to get a sense of the details that can not be described through notation.
I feel that this case is very useful for its demonstration that musicians can still continue to perform even while suffering with very serious conditions. It seems like it could offer some measure of hope. The clinical history section of the article included the information that the musician, although he had to undergo several surgeries, continued working as an organist and conductor.
This case also points to one important aspect of our musical training, the ability to continue playing no matter what occurs. Even through errors, we must keep our minds moving forward rather than dwelling on what has just happened. My musical education began in a children’s choir where we were taught about the “performance situation”. Our conductor could simply say those words and we knew to stand up straight, smile, and perform with no stopping. It is true that the organist in this situation did eventually end up interrupting the piece, but he clearly continued as far as he possibly could.
It could be said that a great part of his success in playing through the seizure was due to his skill at improvisation. I believe that organists tend to receive a fair amount of this type of training. It makes me wonder whether he would have been as successful in continuing a musically meaningful performance without this degree of knowledge. Would a musician with little experience of improvisation be able to do as well? I assume a non-musicians’ brain would be similarly able to continue doing the activity it was programmed to do through years of training?