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She’s Shaking Up Classical Music While Confronting Illness

The pianist Alice Sara Ott, barefoot and wearing a silver bracelet, was smiling and singing to herself the other day as she practiced a jazzy passage of Ravel at Steinway Hall in Midtown Manhattan. A Nintendo Switch, which she uses to warm up her hands, was by her side (another favored tool is a Rubik’s Cube). A shot of espresso sat untouched on the floor.

“I feel I have finally found my voice,” Ott said during a break. “I feel I can finally be myself.”

Ott, 35, who makes her New York Philharmonic debut this week, has built a global career, recording more than a dozen albums and appearing with top ensembles. She has become a force for change in classical music, embracing new approaches (playing Chopin on beat-up pianos in Iceland) and railing against stuffy concert culture (she performs without shoes, finding it more comfortable).

And Ott, who lives in Munich and has roots in Germany and Japan, has done so while grappling with illness. In 2019, when she was 30, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She says she has not shown any symptoms since starting treatment, but the disorder has made her reflect on the music industry’s grueling work culture.

“I learned to accept that there is a limit and to not go beyond that,” she said. “Everybody knows how to ignore their body and just go on. But there’s always a payback.”

Ott has used her platform to help dispel myths about multiple sclerosis, a disorder of the central nervous system that can cause a wide range of symptoms, including muscle spasms, numbness and vision problems. She has taken to social media to detail her struggles and to challenge those who have suggested that the illness has affected her playing.

She said she felt she had no choice but to be transparent, saying it was important to show that people with multiple sclerosis could lead full lives.

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