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Brazilian piano legend plays again thanks to 'magic' gloves

Days before Christmas, acclaimed pianist João Carlos Martins ran to a Sao Paulo bar to show off his new gloves to friends. They were seemingly magical, enabling the 79-year-old to play songs on his Petrof piano with both hands functioning for the first time in 21 years.

It sounds too good to be true, but the proof is in the playing. Sitting at his piano in his Sao Paulo penthouse, Martins reels off Frédéric Chopin's nocturnes with aplomb. Before the gloves, he could only play songs slowly with his thumbs.

The Brazilian classical pianist and conductor, one of the great interpreters of Johann Sebastian Bach's music, announced his retirement last March to undergo his 24th surgery — the final one on his left hand — in order to stop pains from a degenerative disease and a series of accidents. Doctors have operated on his brain, arms and fingers over the years. Limited hand movement left him working mostly as a conductor since the early 2000s.

Brazilian pianist Joao Carlos Martins plays the piano wearing bionic gloves at his home in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. Martins, 79, was for decades Brazil's most acclaimed pianist, but an accident an a degenerative disease forced him to stop playing with both hands since 1998. That changed a few months ago when a new friend came to him with a pair bionic gloves that suit him perfectly. He can now play again with nine out of ten fingers. (AP PhotoAndre Penner)

“After I lost my tools, my hands, and couldn't play the piano, it was if there was a corpse inside my chest,” Martins told The Associated Press.

Martins' health problems date back to 1965. He famously rebounded after every setback — nerve damage in his arm inflicted during a soccer match in New York, a mugger hitting him over the head with a metal pipe while he toured in Bulgaria, and more. But even friends expected the latest surgery to mark the end of his days on the piano bench.

That might have been his fate, were it not for a designer who believed the pianist's retirement had come too early. Ubiratã Bizarro Costa created neoprene-covered bionic gloves that bump Martins' fingers upward after they depress the keys, and which are held together by a carbon fiber board.

Brazilian pianist Joao Carlos Martins plays the piano wearing bionic gloves at his home in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. Martins, 79, was for decades Brazil's most acclaimed pianist, but an accident an a degenerative disease forced him to stop playing with both hands since 1998. That changed a few months ago when a new friend came to him with a pair bionic gloves that suit him perfectly. He can now play again with nine out of ten fingers. (AP PhotoAndre Penner)

“I did the first models based on images of his hands, but those were far from ideal,” Costa said. “I approached the maestro at the end of a concert in my city of Sumare, in the Sao Paulo countryside. He quickly noticed they wouldn't work, but then he invited me to his house to develop the project.”

Costa and Martins spent the subsequent months testing several prototypes. The perfect match came in December, and cost only about 500 Brazilians reals ($125) to build. Now Martins never takes off his new gloves, even when going to bed.

“I might not recover the speed of the past. I don't know what result I will get. I'm starting over as though I were an 8-year-old learning,” he said, joined by his poodle Sebastian. His dog's name, of course, is a tribute to Bach.

Brazilian pianist Joao Carlos Martins poses for pictures wearing bionic gloves, at his home in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. Martins, 79, was for decades Brazil's most acclaimed pianist, but an accident an a degenerative disease forced him to stop playing with both hands since 1998. That changed a few months ago when a new friend came to him with a pair bionic gloves that suit him perfectly. He can now play again with nine out of ten fingers. (AP PhotoAndre Penner)

The pianist's return was first reported by the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo. Reporter Ricardo Kotscho said Martins hurried to the bar near his home before Christmas “like a boy who got a new toy.”

Martins said he has received more than 100 gadgets in the last 50 years as miraculous solutions to his hand problems. None worked well or long enough.

“But these gloves do. I can even tune them accordingly,” he said, showing how he can rearrange the glove's internal pads to play at a faster or slower tempo. “That doesn't mean it's all sorted. The muscle atrophy plays a role. Sometimes I try to play a speedy one and get depressed because it just doesn't happen yet.”

The “extender gloves,” as their inventor calls them, gave Martins a goal: Play the piano again at New York's Carnegie Hall in October, when he is scheduled to conduct a concert celebrating the 60th anniversary of his first appearance there.

Martins, meantime, is practicing early in the morning and late at night, to the delight of his neighbors, until he can interpret an entire Bach concert perfectly.

“It could take one, two years. I will keep pushing until that happens," he said. "I won't give up.”