Right Now Gary Graffman Will Settle for Being the World's Ranking One-Handed Piano Maestro

updated 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

Throughout his warmly acclaimed concert career, pianist Gary Graffman dazzled audiences with his astonishing keyboard precision. He also compiled a remarkable record for dependability: In his 33 years of 100-plus performances annually, the tireless virtuoso had missed only two U.S. engagements because of illness. Then late in 1979, while he was savoring his biggest commercial success (an LP of Gershwin songs used as the sound track for Woody Allen's Manhattan), he suddenly stopped performing. "It wasn't as if I'd taken a bad fall or suffered a concussion in a car crash," Graffman explains. "I didn't go crazy and throw things, but I had the feeling this was the end of the line."

Inexplicably, Graffman had found himself, at 51, losing control of his right hand during difficult passages requiring octave stretches or arpeggios. "I'd play a couple of right notes in a chord and then my fourth and fifth fingers would drop and hit wrong notes," he recalls. The cramping caused no pain or numbness, and, in fact, few suspected anything was amiss. "When I casually mentioned it to colleagues like Rudolf Serkin or Eugene Istomin," says Graffman, "they'd tell me, 'Gary, you should be so lucky that you mess up only a few seconds in an hour-and-a-half concert.' " But as the lapses became more frequent, Graffman knew the problem was grave. For some time he kept it even from his wife, Naomi, who heard the mistakes and chided him at one point: "You really should be practicing."

This week Graffman's memoirs, sardonically titled I Really Should Be Practicing, will be published by Double-day—without, alas, an altogether happy ending. After finally admitting the problem to himself and his wife, he embarked on a frustrating search for help that took them to 18 physicians "with 18 different diagnoses," recalls Naomi bitterly. "They examined everything except his hand. Not one of them felt the problem could have been induced or aggravated by playing the piano."

Then last winter they consulted Boston specialists Fred Hochberg and Robert Leffert at Massachusetts General Hospital, who were at least familiar with the pattern. "I've treated five top pianists for the same illness," says Hochberg. "They were all prodigies, and they all play the large pieces of Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Rachmaninoff, and they all follow rigorous schedules." (One of them is Leon Fleisher, a friend of Graffman's since boyhood.) The neurologist describes the malady as a kind of "battle fatigue" to which pianists trained in the rigorously physical Russian school seem especially vulnerable.

In one sense Graffman has been courting his unusual occupational hazard from the day his violinist father introduced him to a piano at age 4. At 7, Gary was accepted by Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music as a pupil of the famously tyrannical coach Mme. Isabelle Vengerova; later he became a protégé of the equally demanding Vladimir Horowitz. Fulfilling his high promise, Gary won a Rachmaninoff competition in 1947 and the coveted Leventritt Award two years later. Graffman has since performed or recorded with most of the major orchestras on tours that kept him and Naomi on the road as much as 10 months a year. "It's my life, the only thing I know how to do," he says. After his incapacity struck, he continued his piano practice with the aid of a stick-and-rubber-band splint devised by his doctors to strengthen his right hand—and worried. "I had to face the fact," he says, "that I might never play again."

Then last fall Graffman was invited to Birmingham, Ala. to perform Ravel' Concerto for Left Hand, which, as the name suggests, requires the gainful employment of only his fully functioning hand. "I was wondering if I would feel peculiar walking out on a stage with an orchestra again," he recalls. "It had been almost a year. But the moment I put on my tails I sort of went back a year. This is what I was living for." In Birmingham and later in San Diego, Calgary and Mexico City, critics and audiences raved—and, emboldened by that therapy, Graffman says he is confident of a full recovery. "My right hand heard some of the applause for the left," he says with a smile. "And that will speed up the healing."

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