Musician regains his gift through brain surgery

Jan 2, 2014

Reid Merley and Sherry Parmater.
Credit Katrin Frye

Reid Merley has been playing the oboe since he was 11 years old.

“Except for two years when I didn’t play, I’ve been playing for 46 years,” Merley said.

To save you the math, that makes him 57 years old. The two years he didn’t really play was 2007 through 2009.

Merley first noticed a tremor in 2005. His arms would just shake, but only when he picked up his instrument to play.

He was able to hide it for a while.

“I had to change my reed style so the reeds were really easy to blow because, using my vibrato would sometimes set it off even more. So, I had to rethink doing everything, and so I did,” Merley said.

Merley’s partner Sherry Parmater is also a musician, playing the oboe and the English horn.

“We were practicing with an accompanist and he was playing the English horn, and I looked over and his hand was shaking dramatically, and I had never seen that, and I was really surprised, shocked and didn’t know what it was. And then the next day we were preforming, he was playing on the flute and it… he couldn’t control the flute, he couldn’t even keep it at his mouth, his arms were going up and down,” Parmater said.

Merley said he hit the point where he couldn’t play anymore in August of 2010 for a Mozart oboe quartet.

“The day of the concert we were rehearsing it, and I couldn’t control anything. So, that was the first time I had to actually just cancel out. And… that was bad,” Merley said.

Parmater said the doctors thought it was an “essential tremor”.

She thought differently.

Parmater had read a book by Oliver sacks called Musicophilia which talked about Musicians Dystonia. Merley says the difference is that an essential tremor is a more general diagnosis while dystonia happens in specific parts of the brain. Parmater said they tried different anti-tremor medications, and botox injections in his arms.

“Reid went to extreme lengths to try to play; he put on the wrist things that people have if they have carpal tunnel, and he would strap himself down to a music stand and he wore straps to try and hold his arms still. He tried everything he could,” Parmater said.

Merley had played in the 6th Army band, and his medical is taken care of through the Veterans Administration.

A neurologist at the Helena VA believed the tremor was related to neck issues and nerve damage, and he was referred to a Kalispell neurosurgeon in late 2010.

“But once we got to see the neurosurgeon here in Kalispell, he said; ‘that problem’s in his brain,’ and I said YES! Yes, that’s right it’s in his brain,” Parmater said.

Merley was sent to the VA in Portland, Oregon.

“They finally decided that deep brain stimulation was probably the way to go. And they had never done that before for my condition, so I was sort of a guinea pig,” Merley said.

Basically, the surgeons look at Merley’s brain, pinpoint where the trouble is, and insert an electrical charge into the spot.

It’s a treatment that’s used for the tremor that Parkinson’s patients have.

How did they pinpoint the location; they had a grid-like metal helmet put on Merley’s head, his brain was exposed, and he played scales on the oboe.

“While they’re cutting into your head you’re awake, and then, I think, they place some of the little probes or something, and figure out if it’s in the right place, and you have to try to play, and then when they hit in the right area, then the tremors stopped,” Merley said.

Now, Merley has a little remote that turns the electrodes on and off in his brain. For Parkinson’s patients the charges is on all the time, Merley only switches his on when it’s time to play.    That’s the only time he has the tremor, and the only time he needs it.

Merley still shakes a bit while playing.

He said it’s a bit of a tradeoff; the charge needed to completely eradicate the tremor dulls his dexterity. The surgery took place in March of 2012, he was playing again by that summer.

Parmater stepped in as principal oboist for the Glacier Symphony and Chorale while Merley was unable to play. She said it was a hard role to take, and welcome one to give up.

“When you see someone who is as wonderful playing an instrument with the kind of musicality and feeling that Reid has, and you play the same instrument, and you see them falling apart. It’s, it’s really difficult to watch, and it was very difficult for me, sitting next to him, wondering if he was going to make it through the concert as he was… having more and more tremors, and now, seeing him get stronger and stronger every month is just amazing. And so, I was crying at a lot of concerts as he was falling apart, and now, I cry at the concerts because he’s getting so good.”

Merley, Parmater and the entire Glacier Symphony and Chorale will be preforming The Carnival of the Animals on January 18th and 19th in Whitefish and Kalispell.