João Carlos Martins still performs even while stranded at home during a pandemic. Dressed in a dark shirt and slacks, the 80-year-old Brazilian pianist and conductor sits on the couch at his São Paulo duplex apartment, gesturing while he talks, as if in command of an orchestra. The motioning also showcased an unusual pair of black neoprene half-gloves that Martins, one of the world’s most acclaimed interpreters of Bach, wears at practically every waking hour, and sometimes even to sleep.
Two decades ago, he started replacing the grand piano with the baton, as a series of injuries and chronic diseases slowly compromised the movement of his hands. After a decades-long pursuit for a cure that took him through 24 surgeries and every high-tech medical therapy money could buy, it ended up being those gloves — a simple workaround created by a Brazilian industrial designer with no medical training — that brought his hands back to life.
He quit the piano for good in early 2019, right before he underwent his 24th operation, which made him lose all dexterity in his left hand, ending any possibility of the maestro ever playing again. He observed the occasion with an emotional appearance on Brazilian national television.
Stepping away from the instrument felt like “carrying a corpse” in the chest, Martins said. But ten months later, he was back at his piano bench, tearfully playing the instrument while wearing the neoprene gloves, with full use of his hands for the first time in two decades.
That extraordinary comeback began in July 2019, at a tour stop in Sumaré, upstate São Paulo, when the maestro opened his dressing room door before conducting his orchestra Bachiana Filarmônica to find a local resident carrying a box.
Industrial designer Ubiratan Bizarro watched Martins’ final piano performance months earlier on TV and took it upon himself to find a way to help. He binge-watched videos of Martins’ piano performances, taking screenshots and zooming in to analyze his hand movements.
He then developed a prototype: a pair of neoprene half-gloves with a stiff structure and plastic extensions on each finger tip. That first pair, however, turned out to be something “suitable for boxing, at best,” as Martins chuckled in conversation with Rest of World. “But I kept thinking that this guy had shown a real interest, so I invited him over for lunch and explained what had happened to my hands.”
As a teenager, Martins developed focal dystonia, a neurological condition that causes involuntary body movements. As a result, his fingers tend to twitch: not ideal when tickling the ivories. Over the years, he gradually lost control of his hands. His long hours of practice also cost him a severe repetitive strain injury (RSI), which led to recurrent pain. “Every time my fingers would hit a key, it felt like getting stabbed.”
Other injuries also damaged his nervous system. In 1966, Martins fell to the ground during a soccer game in Central Park, New York, and the injury to a nerve in his arm caused him to lose part of the movements in his right hand.
In the mid-1990s, muggers in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia gave him a concussion that kept him in the hospital for eight months, while the right side of his body remained partially paralyzed. It would be a full year until he could play again.
Martins fought through these health issues. Since the symptoms of his dystonia were less intense right after he woke up, he used to take naps on dressing room floors before every concert. Benefiting from a “great predisposition to sleep wherever I want,” Martins described how he could fall asleep by 3 p.m. and wake 15 minutes before a show. At one point during each concert, the pain from the RSI got so bad that only what he called an “adrenaline rush” kept him going long enough to finish the performance. Thus, when Bizarro knocked on his door last year, Martins figured he had nothing to lose.
The pianist described the parts of his hands that still worked, demonstrating how he could still press down his fingers but could not move them back up. He also showed Bizarro how he lost part of his hand muscles and nerves, cut off during multiple surgeries.
The designer left the maestro’s apartment and dove back into YouTube, where he studied videos about car mechanics and aerodynamics. “I recalled a team at Formula One and the springs in their car suspension, and I thought I could use something similar,” Bizarro told Rest of World.
Using his 3D printer, Bizarro remade the neoprene glove from scratch. It took five months and six prototypes. The final version had flexible steel rods that connected the fingers to the hand’s back; whenever the maestro pressed a key, each rod would bring the finger back to its original place, with a simple spring movement. Instead of attempting to fix the complex neurological condition, the gloves tackled the most elementary mechanics of the maestro’s hands.
When Martins showed his medical team the sixth prototype, it received immediate approval. They were already familiar with the long list of therapies the pianist had undergone — from Botox to a neural stimulating device implanted in Martins’ brain cortex in 2012. “We already knew that gloves could not worsen his condition, whose source is in the cortex,” said Rames Mattar, the orthopedic surgeon who led his last surgery, to Rest of World.
Mattar stressed that the device wasn’t a cure and that his patient was well aware of that. “But who would have thought,” the maestro asked, “that a designer without medical training could create such a thing?”
With the doctors’ stamp of approval and the gloves on his hands, Martins made his first attempt to play the grand piano again in his living room during Christmas 2019. For the first time in 22 years, he hit the keys with all ten fingers, playing a rendition of a Chopin’s nocturne. He shared the first of many videos on Instagram, and Brazilians flooded his profile with emotional comments. His short homemade piano recitals reached new audiences when they were shared by U.S. celebrities Rex Chapman and Viola Davis.
Bizarro now is selling versions of Martins’ “extensor gloves” online for $250. They come in three different sizes and can be shipped to clients in Europe, India, and the United States.
The maestro is now rarely seen without his gloves. His practice sessions go on for so long — four hours daily — that he relies on a silent piano to work on his hand movements so as to not upset the downstairs neighbors, but when he has to rehearse for a concert, the maestro goes full volume. Martins understands that this might not be his definite comeback, since the dystonia has crept back to his hands before. “If in a couple of years, my condition also beats these gloves, I’ll confront it,” he said. “I’ve already had to change the way I play a hundred times.”