Leisner won competitions at Toronto (1975) and at the Geneva International Guitar Competition (1981). The Boston Globe called him a "serious, exploratory and imaginative musician." In 1984, he noticed a loss in speed during the last two months of the concert season. As he practiced he found that his hand was responding less and less well.
Next season, giving a concert in Oregon that included the Villa-Lobos Etudes, he found that he could not get the two outer fingers of his right hand to respond. He got through the difficult music by improvising new right hand fingering on the spot, in what he calls a "harrowing experience." After that he began canceling upcoming concerts and finally dropped out of performing altogether. Ultimately, his outer two fingers would curl up uselessly into the palm when he played. The most common diagnosis was focal dystopia.
While seeking a cure, he began composing. Among his works are Dances in the Madhouse, for violin and guitar (also available with orchestral accompaniment), Embrace of Peace for orchestra, and Battlefield Requiem, for cello and percussion. As a composer, he won grants from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, the American Music Center, the Alice M. Ditson Fund, the New England Foundation for the Arts, and Meet the Composer.
Many specialists in Western and Eastern medical techniques said they could cure his hand. These included chiropractic, Shiatsu, myotherapy, and a deep muscle type of therapy called Hoshino. None of them helped and, he says, the Hoshino actually damaged his hand further. After the Hoshino, he decided to seek the answer within himself, beginning with clearing his mind and becoming more aware of the mind-body link. He noticed that his right hand was turning clockwise to the palm up more than normal. Consciously turning his arm in the opposite direction began to improve the affected fingers.
He began to feel more confident about the three fingers that were operational. Finding, he could arrange much music avoiding the two disabled fingers and began in 1991 playing public recitals again.
To avoid overstressing the muscles of the usable fingers, he began to rely more on the larger muscles of the forearm and less on the hand muscles and knuckles. He would accomplish finger strokes by pulling the weight of the arm upward towards the face and let the weight fall back on downward thumb strokes. Experts said this resulted into much hand movement, but it eliminated tension from the wrist and hand and resulted in a much louder, richer tone. And it began freeing the affected fingers.
By 1996, the dystopia was gone and has not returned. Leisner advocates that all musicians should try to base their technique on large muscle groups. (See the website http://www.davidleisner.com for a fuller explanation and advice to musicians on this topic.)
In 1998, he signed a contract with the Azica Records label and has also recorded with Koch, Etcetera, and Telarc. With the later label he premiered the first recording of the original 1928 version of the Villa-Lobos Etudes. He appears regularly around the world with many major orchestras and noted festivals. He teaches at the New England Conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music, and often gives master classes.