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A Musician Saved His Career By Playing a Violin During Brain Surgery

Roger Frisch had to keep playing his instrument while doctors stuck wires inside his brain.
September 5, 2014, 2:29pm

Nightmares take many shapes and forms. They can be real-life problems, like watching Bastille while sober. Or they can be things that happen in your head while you’re asleep.

If you’re lucky, most nightmares only exist inside the brain - never leaving your being or taking place in reality. But for Roger Frisch, a violinist in the Minnesota Orchestra, his worst nightmare came true when he noticed a tremor that prevented him from making a living as a violinist. This was eventually diagnosed as a tumour, causing an essential tremor in his hand, which basically meant his hands were constantly shaking and preventing him from playing violin. The tumour eventually needed surgery - which involved drilling a hole in Roger’s head and placing wires in his brain. This all seems pretty normal procedure, except for the fact that while doctors poked around inside his mind, he had to play the violin. Why? Because the doctors wanted to measure the change between him playing with and without the wires. In doing so, the surgery could potentially cure Roger of a career shattering tremor that could have derailed his passion for music.

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I asked Roger what happened and how he survived a gig weirder than the time Goldie conducted an orchestra.

Noisey: Why did you need the surgery in the first place?

Roger: A couple years ago in a rehearsal for a concerto I noticed that my right arm was shaking while I was playing. Everybody chalked it up to the long international flight I’d just had but it kept playing up. I had two years of going from doctor to doctor, who said it was just overuse syndrome from playing the violin too much. Overuse syndrome is like a baseball player pitching too many fast pitches and blowing out their arm. The tremors continued for two more years until we went to the Mayo clinic and within twenty minutes they diagnosed me as having an essential tremor, which I’d never heard of before.

How did you feel?

It was a definite panic. It would have been the end of my career if I didn’t have it treated. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of fellow musicians I’ve worked with from overworking their hands.

But why did you need to play your violin during the surgery?

Well the tremor was quite mild. The doctor didn’t believe it was severe enough for surgery, but when I played him a piece on the violin he saw instantly the tremor. They needed a concrete way to measure the improvement on my tremor, during the surgery, through my playing.

That must have been quite unorthodox?

Haha yeah, they had to customise the operating theatre to fit in my violin so I could play it. They also put an accelerometer, similar to those used in the Wii games, to measure my playing and the tremors effect on it.

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Were you nervous about playing to a crowd of doctors while they operated on you?

I wasn't nervous about playing, I'm a professional musician! When they offered to drill a hole in my head to fix the tremors and put a wire in my brain to deal with everything, I wasn't too keen on the idea.

But if you didn't have the surgery, would you have been ok?

I thought about it and then I decided I wasn't ready to give up my career. Music was that important to me. So when I went into surgery, I wasn't nervous because I knew that the surgery was essential. I'd also watched enough YouTube surgery videos to be fine with the idea of it.

It must have felt pretty weird.

There was no anaesthetic invoked in the surgery, it's more the noise of a drill going into my brain that stuck with me most. I can't complain too much, pain wise.

Now you're being brave. What music did you serenade the doctors with while they were operating on you?

I'd love to say it was heartwarming renditions of the doctors favourite songs but it was a bit more improvisational than that. I just think everyone needs to picture that I'm lying down and my bow can't move much, let's just say my repertoire was limited. The metal halo screwed onto my skull for the wires didn't help. It was enough for them to see the effect of the tremor on me playing, with and without the wires.

So did they cure you of the tremors?

I said to them beforehand that they should keep going until it was fixed and I'd be able to play violin at a professional level. As long as I have my stimulator that controls the wires, I can play again and I have my life back.

Thanks Roger!

Follow Dan on Twitter: @KeenDang