Ode to Brain Surgery: This Musician Plays His Guitar on the Operating Table

The Chinese musician cradled a guitar, the callused fingers of his left hand flying across frets, and the fingers of his right hand plucking and strumming.

But on this Tuesday in January, Mr. Li played to an audience he never could’ve anticipated in a performance only seven people in the world have given.

The stage? An operating table. The audience? A team of surgeons.

The stakes were high as doctors operated on Mr. Li’s brain in an effort to remedy his musician’s dystonia, accompanied by guitar strums bouncing off the walls of the operating room. Mr. Li was conscious the entire time.

I don’t know about you, but I think that sounds like one heck of a performance.

I grew up playing piano, and a lot of the time, I’d get nervous just playing in front of fellow students. I can’t even imagine playing as surgeons operate on my brain.

But, knowing how to play an instrument and loving to make music, I also can’t imagine losing the ability to play.

This is what Mr. Li might’ve faced.

Dystonia is a movement disorder causing different muscles to spasm, depending on the type. Musician’s dystonia affects the hands, and the Dystonia Society estimates it affects 1-2% of professional musicians.

Here are a few potential triggers:

  • Significant change in technique
  • Sudden increase in playing
  • Changing instruments
  • Playing after a long break
  • Trauma
  • Past nerve injury

Mr. Li’s operating-room performance resulted in a standing ovation for the doctors, it turns out. As he played, doctors monitored his brain and implemented electrodes to correct what was wrong. He’s expected to make a full recovery.

So here’s homework for all you musicians out there: read up on musician’s dystonia.

Know what to look out for.

If anything, read more about Mr. Li’s once-in-a-lifetime performance and the equally impressive performance from his surgeons. You can even see pictures from the operation.


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