Born in San Francisco in 1928, Fleisher began playing piano at 4, and at the young age of 16, he debuted with the New York Philharmonic. A brilliant career seemed assured. But at the age of 36, at the height of his career, Fleisher lost the use of two fingers on his right hand due to a neurological condition called focal dystonia, which ended his performing career.
You can imagine the depression he went through. Losing the use of his right hand was tantamount to a great athlete losing a leg.
In his 2010 memoir, My Nine Lives, he describes the emotional roller-coaster he went through when he lost the ability to play with his right hand:
It was hard to find words for the dark cloud that hovered over me: of anguish, of dejection, of rage. I fell into a deep depression. At my lowest point, I seriously considered killing myself. But I didn't kill myself. I stayed alive. And, just as I was stuck with being alive, I was stuck with my love of music. Something about it was still sustaining, and still worthwhile. So I embarked on a quest to make a life in music, in any way I could.So he dedicated himself to teaching. He focused on his students at the Peabody Institute, Johns Hopkins University's School of Music, and on the Tanglewood Music Center near Boston where he was artistic director. He channeled his frustration into a productive life as a music teacher and mentor, overcoming the depression that had threatened to engulf him and sink his entire life.
He also learned how to conduct and he learned left-handed pieces, playing some famous compositions for the left-hand only by Ravel, Prokofiev and Britten that were commissioned by a wealthy Austrian pianist who had lost his right arm in World War I. But it was mainly teaching where he found his calling, as his son Julian says, "Teaching is where he found his real happiness."
Fleisher never gave up on the idea of playing again with two hands. He had tried therapy after therapy, but to no avail. He kept believing, and continued searching for a remedy. Then, in 1995, after endless attempts at therapies, he miraculously found a cure through Botox injections and rolfing - a form of therapy that structurally changes connective tissues restoring their pliability and range of motion.
Fleisher gave his first two-handed recital at Carnegie Hall in 2003, and the following year, Vanguard Classics released Two Hands, Fleisher's first two-handed recording since the 1960s, to great critical acclaim.
His perseverance is a testament to our power to overcome challenges and prevail over setbacks. When God closes one door, he opens another door for us. We just have to learn to find that other door.
Here is Leon Fleisher, the teacher: