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2020 has been a good year for the dead hand pianist

Bionic gloves restore the ability to play an 80-year-old pianist.

The ten fingers of the hands are precious to anyone, but when you depend on each of them to reproduce with the precise tonality of a Bach fragment, the limbs are even more so. At 80, the Brazilian pianist and conductor João Carlos Martin has been able to verify this after many years without being able to use his right hand well due to various health problems. Just a few days ago, perfectly adapted bionic gloves allowed him to play one of his favorite sonatas by the great German master.

Gloves are the work of an industrial designer, Ubiratã Bizarro Costa, And they have temples that make the fingers jump up just after the keys are pressed. That simple mechanism has given Martins back his fingering ability. “When he showed me the gloves, I joked that they were for boxing, not for playing the piano,” says the interpreter who thought when he saw them. They are black in color and have been made of neoprene with a 3D printer. “Being able to use all ten fingers again more than 20 years later is a miracle for me at the age of 80,” he said.

Just a few weeks ago, American pianist Keith Jarrett, 75, announced that he would not play again after suffering two strokes that have limited the mobility of his left hand. He had already suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome: his piano mastery suffered as a result in the 1990s.

Martins’ health problems date back to 1965. His is a story of overcoming, of slow but steady recovery after several setbacks. That year he damaged the nerves in his arm at a soccer game in New York, and then, in addition, an assailant hit him on the head with a metal tube while on tour in Bulgaria. After his last surgery, his friends expected him to sit back fully on the piano bench, something that only bionic gloves have finally done.

Martins prepared a special occasion to debut his gloves. A few days before last Christmas, he gathered his friends in a bar in his city to show them the gift, probably the best of his life: gloves.

“I did not say a single word, just a tear fell,” he said last January. Enduring suffering ended. “After losing my tools, my hands, and not being able to play the piano, I felt as if a corpse inhabited my chest,” he said. The ten fingers, driven by the small springs of the gloves, have now allowed him to interpret Bach again. Since the beginning of the year, he had already dazzled his neighbors with his music in the Jardins neighborhood, in the heart of São Paulo, where he has lived for more than 40 years.

In his day, Martins performed with some of the leading orchestras in the United States and Europe and recorded the complete keyboard works of Bach, but injuries ended his career. For many years he played only with one hand and thumb or sometimes the index finger, but in practice he ended up losing the musical use of his left hand due to focal dystonia, a neurological condition that affects the muscles, which was added to the problems he suffered after the robbery in Bulgaria. After more than 24 surgeries, in February 2019 it was completely withdrawn. His physical limitations had already forced him to give up playing almost entirely and he worked mostly as a conductor.

“I made the first models based on images of his hands, but they were far from ideal,” says the engineer, who it was inspired by something far removed from musical performance: formula one technology. “I approached the teacher at the end of a concert in my city of Sumaré, in the field of Stoor Paulo. He quickly realized that they wouldn’t work, but then he invited me to his house to develop the project. ”

More than 100 failed ideas

Martins said he had received more than 100 devices in the last 50 years, many presented as miracle solutions to his hand problems, but none worked well. The engineer who has come up with the best solution didn’t get it right the first time either. He spent months testing various prototypes with his first user, and came up with the perfect match in December 2019. The product has only cost around R $ 500 (about € 78), and will now be exporting it to Europe under the Bionic Extender Gloves brand (” bionic extension gloves “).

Martins says that gloves may not be the panacea: “I may not regain the speed of the past. I don’t know what result I will get. I’m starting over as if I were eight years old, “he said in January, accompanied by his poodle. Sebastian. Another tribute to his beloved Bach.

“[Esto] It could take one, two years. I will continue to maintain the pressure until that happens ”, said the pianist. “I will not give up”. At his age, he is convinced that he can continue to set hope and example. Ensures that it is never too late to chase dreams and make them come true. Chopin, Mozart and of course Bach once again fill his attic in the great Brazilian metropolis. And gloves stay with you all day, even when you go to sleep.