Positive Edition

Back to the basics

Teaching Artist embraces being a beginner
By Dagney C. Ernest | May 18, 2018
Courtesy of: MCMA Musician and educator Tom Luther works with young Danny Forcillo at Midcoast Music Academy in Rockland.

Composer, multimedia artist, pianist and Midcoast Music Academy teacher Tom Luther sits in the MCMA piano studio on an early spring day, waiting for a scheduled student to arrive. When not in teaching mode, he’s working on a new multimedia piece, a jazz improvisation that has musicians interacting with an electronic soundscape such that it grows and evolves. Not bad for six months after not one, but two strokes — both in the same spot in his brainstem.

“If you look really closely, you can still see my right hand is a little slower than my left. But before, it was almost half,” he said.

The pontine strokes a little more than two weeks apart didn’t just affect his dominant hand. His whole right side was weakened. Although he had done a five-mile run the day of the first stroke — Labor Day — he has yet to move from walking back to running, because of its effect on his right hip flexor.

“And I still feel it in that arm when I'm throwing; one of our dogs is just a fiend for Frisbees,” he said.

After a relaxing holiday at home in Union, Luther had turned in early on Labor Day, then woke up not long before midnight, feeling very thirsty.

“So I went downstairs to get a drink and the first thing I notice is, picking the glass up, my right arm was really heavy, to the point where I had to take my left hand and support the glass with it,” he said.

He began to feel lightheaded, sat down on the floor and felt himself going in and out of consciousness. Apparently he was yelling, because his wife, Bethany Oprie, who is a physician's assistant at Togus, came downstairs. Eventually, he “came out of it.” And neither of them was terribly alarmed, chalking it up to his vasovagal syncope.

“It’s the doctor's fancy word for "fainting spells"; I have a history of it, there are some specific triggers. So that's what we thought had happened, initially,” he said.

His exhaustion the following day was enough to warrant canceling his MCMA lessons and getting an EKG at Seaport Community Health Center in Belfast. The results had no significant findings and he felt pretty good when they got home, … although he did terribly misspell something he was posting via his phone.

“I just thought that was really funny, so I was like, whatever, that's funny,” he said.

It wasn’t so funny the next day, when he sat down to his electric keyboard to practice and found his right hand “was shot.”

“It was like someone flipped the switch. I just tried to slow things down but, no, this hand was not working,” he recalled.

He taught a morning lesson at MCMA and then he and Oprie headed not to his scheduled primary care provider follow-up visit in Belfast, but to the Pen Bay Medical Center emergency department.

“And Bethany said the magic word — ‘I need him evaluated for a stroke’ — and they were on it. They were awesome! They did every test in the world and came back and said, ‘Yeah, you had a stroke,’” he said.

While he was at Pen Bay, he got a call from Argy Nestor, director of arts education at the Maine Arts Commission, expecting him to Skype into a meeting. Earlier in the summer, Luther had been named to the MAC’s Teaching Artist Roster. Like many things last fall, that had to go on the back burner for a while (in February, MAC re-announced his appointment) — especially after he had a second stroke.

“They're still not entirely sure what happened; they described it as a ‘stuttering event.’ The theory is, in a small blood vessel in my brain, there was either a kink in it or plaque buildup, which broke loose for the first stroke. There was still a little bit in there, kind of flip-flopping around. Two weeks later, the second one breaks loose and caused the second stroke,” he said.

Given his relatively young age and the twice-in-one-spot scenario, his case was unusual enough to warrant seeing a neurologist in Boston, recommended by Dr. Robert Stein at Pen Bay.

“He was great. I mean, everybody I saw was fantastic. Robert Stein at Pen Bay was fantastic, but this guy, Dr. Louis Caplan, he knew Robert Stein and he described it as a constellation of events — hypertension, high triglycerides and I wasn't sleeping as well as I should, which is a huge deal,” he said.

Sleep has turned out to be a huge part of Luther’s ongoing recovery. He recorded his conversations in the early weeks, just for documentation, and recently has been listening to them, with the thought they may become part of a multimedia work. They reveal that at first, he “sounded like a drunk person most of the time,” especially when he was tired. He still has to be conscious of speed and diction, but did not need speech therapy. In one of the recordings, he asks in frustration, “How many naps can a person take every day?!”

After the second stroke, Luther went to Maine Medical Center for testing. One of the people there told him that the reason infants sleep as much as they do is that their brains are busy forming pathways so babies can do more things. He was in the same situation, reforming pathways, and would need to sleep — a lot.

“You know, as much as everybody told me that, I was really unprepared for the level of fatigue. It's crazy! Still is; I run out of steam around 7 o'clock. But it's getting better,” he said.

On the scale of strokes, he added, his wasn't the mildest … or the worst.

“I mean, when they ask you ‘How's your swallowing?’ then you realize what good shape you're in,” he said.

As a pianist, he was not in good shape at all, but that was less a concern for him than the “chicken scratch” his handwriting had become.

“I constantly struggle with playing the piano anyway, so it was not a big deal to shove back to more struggling. I was kind of used to that,” he said.

In fact, Luther said, he was forced to truly get back to basics — to reconstruct his keyboard technique, going as slowly as he could.

“My idea is, the brain is going to figure out how to best economize those pathways way faster than I will. So trying to force it is only sending it inaccurate information,” he said. “It's a nice opportunity to change the way I play, which would be much harder if I had full technique, because the temptation would be just to go too far.”

Or too fast. Saying he has become the poster child for neuroplasticity, Luther urges his piano students to go as slowly as they can, “because you want to form the pathways correctly.” As for himself, he spent much of the fall relearning how to play evenly and everything else that had become second nature to him over the years when at the keyboard … and understanding that it's possible.

“The big thing now if I have a student who's struggling with something, I can say, 'Look, I'm an example of how this stuff works,'" he said.

A few days earlier, he had explained proprioception — the sense of where one’s body is in space, independent of vision — to a piano student who was frustrated because sometimes her fingers just fell off the keys.

“I'm like, that's normal! Because your brain needs to understand that hand's relationship to the piano, to the keyboard, to the individual keys, and you're slowly teaching it,” he said.

Whether learning or relearning a skill, it takes time. Luther explained that it's naturally going to “fall off the path every now and then. You put it back on and keep going.”

This approach to learning was something Luther was exploring prior to his strokes, having been introduced to Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” during the Maine Arts Learning Initiative seminar that was part of his interrupted training for the MAC roster.

“It's not about stroke recovery, it's just about learning. And her notion is, we don't think about talent and ability the right way. We look at them as fixed positions,” he said, as the sound of a student’s piano playing floated into the studio.

“We say, ‘Abby can play the piano; therefore, she's talented.’ But the reality is, Abby can play the piano because she's worked at it and she's put effort into it,” he said.

Dweck’s book is about something she calls the growth mindset as opposed to the fixed mindset. The fixed mindset is expressed by “I can” or "I can’t,” while the growth mindset asks, “How do I?” Luther said we tend to look at someone such as Indonesian jazz pianist Joey Alexander as a sensation who “just has it,” but mastery always involves a lot of hard work.

“I guarantee you, nobody's come out of the chute and, pop, they can do it,” he said.

So when a student tells him “I can't do this because I'm not talented,” that's a problem, Luther said. In his lessons, he aims at changing that to “I don't know how to do this yet because I haven't learned.”

Those who want to see the slow, hard work it takes to learn, and relearn, piano can watch the series of videos Luther made and posted over the last seven months on YouTube. As focused as he has been at relearning his keyboard skills — so much so, his neurologist told him to pull back a bit at one point — he sometimes has to nudge himself in other areas.

“I'm also the poster child for being my own worst enemy in terms of saying, well maybe I can't do that,” he said. “But I'm just like, no, you keep walking!”

Luther took the fall semester off from Midcoast Music Academy, but by late in 2017, he was beginning to drive by himself again — and feeling a little useless (although he said his dogs were thrilled with all the napping).

“Somehow [MCMA director] Tom Ulichny and I hooked up towards the end of last semester and he said, is there any chance that you would want to help this one student get ready for the recital? I was like, oh my god, yes,” Luther said.

That led to another student, so Luther had two to shepherd in the recital.

“And it just felt so good that I was able to get back and do something. It was hard at first, but I got back into it. And here we are,” he said.

Where Luther is this spring is a very different place than last fall; yet reflecting back on that past informs his present and future. He said he thinks he perpetually pushed himself a little too hard.

“So I needed to take the three months and just not do anything and learn how to cope with that. That was an amazing learning experience,” he said.

And helping him process that experience, at the time and now, is art — his is primarily music, although drawing a comic book at the suggestion of his occupational therapist became another way to work on fine motor control … and more.

“I think a benefit of studying the arts is that it helps you process the things that happen to you … Being a creative person strengthens your brain, it makes your brain much more plastic. Because it's used to all those changes and those challenges,” he said. “I feel so badly for someone who’s gone through something like this without some kind of an outlet for it.”

Luther began thinking about sharing what he was going through with his students while he was still in the hospital, deciding the video series — titled “Practicing My Way Back” — was a great opportunity.

“For me to be put back in the position of one of my students, just trying to figure out rudiments … it will be good for them to see me struggle. It brings me a ton of stuff that I can share with them,” he said.

Another project that came to him in the hospital was posted to YouTube last month. The sounds of the MRI machine — and the scans that resulted — are elements in a sound-and-video installation called “A Stroke of Luck,” the title cheekily purloined from Stooge Larry Fein’s autobiography.

“You know, the whole thing has been a fantastic learning experience — not that I'm going to go out and recommend it to anyone! But what a learning opportunity,” he said.

For more information about Luther’s work, visit tomlutherpiano.com. His YouTube channel is spheremusik.

See the first “Practicing My Way Back” video
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