Violinist carries on playing during conscious brain surgery

22 November 2019, 12:57

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

This is the extraordinary journey of a violinist in the Minnesota Orchestra, who played his instrument during conscious brain surgery to heal a tremor disorder.

Roger Frisch has been playing violin with the Minnesota Orchestra for over 40 years and is currently their associate concertmaster.

But in 2009, he was diagnosed with a tremor disorder that halted his career.

The disorder, called an ‘essential tremor’, caused Frisch to lose control of muscle movements in his hands. As a string player, this meant he was unable to bow without shaking.

In March 2010, Frisch made the decision to undergo deep brain stimulation (DBS), a process involving the implantation of an electrode in the brain to normalise the signals the brain sends to movement centres.

Read more: Opera singer performs Schubert while undergoing brain surgery >

Roger Frisch carries on playing violin during brain surgery
Roger Frisch carries on playing violin during brain surgery. Picture: Mayo Clinic

During the procedure, surgeons at the Mayo Clinic used DBS to stimulate parts of Frisch’s brain while he played his violin (side-note: doctors often prefer to keep patients awake during brain surgery, to check they’re not disrupting normal brain functions).

Surgeons designed a special bow with a three-axis accelerometer (an electromagnetic tracking device), so that they could monitor the tremor on a screen as they worked to eliminate it.

Read more: These musicians keep on making music… in the middle of major surgery >

After the surgery, Frisch made the news by returning to the stage within three weeks of his DBS treatment.

Frisch was playing professionally again three weeks after surgery
Frisch was playing professionally again three weeks after surgery. Picture: Mayo Clinic

Now back performing with the Minnesota Orchestra, Roger can turn his electrodes on and off at the touch of a button. Skip to 03:26 in the video above to see the difference.

Frisch now says his tremor is ‘non-existent’.

This isn’t the first time a musician has performed during brain surgery. Naomi Elishuv, a violinist in the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, played Mozart throughout surgery for an essential tremor.

Plus, Slovenian tenor Ambrož Bajec-Lapajne sang Schubert while undergoing surgery for a brain tumour at the University Medical Center in Utrecht.

The brain of a musician is a wonderful thing...