For more than
three decades, world-renowned acoustic guitarist and composer Billy
McLaughlin has dazzled audiences with his virtuosity and unique style,
releasing 17 albums, winning five Minnesota music awards and recently
earning an Emmy. But in 1998, a bizarre accident left him with an
injury that began to affect his performances and ultimately threw
his life into a tailspin: he lost his recording contracts, his agent,
his income, his marriage and his home. McLaughlin would eventually
be diagnosed with the incurable neuromuscular disease focal dystonia
(FD), which causes muscles in the body to contract and spasm involuntarily.
Though doctors urged him to find another career, the Minnesota-native
took matters into his own handsliterally. He did what most musicians
consider unimaginable: he re-learned the guitar, one note at a time,
using his non-dominant hand. Since then, hes staged a successful
comeback as a left-handed guitarist.
At a recent live streaming concert sponsored by the Dystonia Medical
Research Foundation (DMRF) at San Diego State University, McLaughlins
unorthodox technique of placing both hands on the fretboard produced
a unique and surprisingly big sound, as if there were multiple guitarists
on stage. His music was deeply rhythmic and fluid, his new age compositions
intricate and uplifting. Recently, ABILITYs Paula Fitzgerald
spoke with him about his long journey back to center stage.
Paula Fitzgerald: Tell me about the accident that changed your life.
Billy McLaughlin: In 1998, I was on my way to a photo shoot for the
cover of my second album for Narada Records when I fell on an icy
sidewalk. I dislocated the middle finger and ring finger on the hand
I used to play my fretboard. When we finished the shoot, I needed
immediate physical therapy because I was leaving in just a couple
of months to start a back-to-back, 50-city tour to support the release
of my new CD. This tour included a lot of television and radio performances,
as well as interviews. I managed to rehab in time so that I didnt
have to reschedule any of the dates, but I still noticed stiffness
in my fingers that I associated with the injury.
After the second leg of the tour, the swelling had gone down and my
fingers felt normal, but I started to feel something was out of balance.
I was still struggling with a couple of my more virtuosic pieces.
When youre playing solo guitar concerts, its very embarrassing
to have a slip-up here and there. After talking with colleagues and
mentors, everyone said, Gee, Billy, youre the hardest-working
guitar player out there. Take a break. Take a couple months off and
let your hands rest.
Fitzgerald: Did you heed their advice?
McLaughlin: I took two months off, but when I started to play again,
the symptoms were dramatically worse. I started experiencing a curling
of my pinkie and middle fingers, leaving them inoperable and me unable
to perform. I struggled with it. Musicians always depend on one thing
to help them get better, and thats practice. You practice and
practice until you fix the problem.
I went to a hand specialist and also an orthopedic specialist, thinking
it might be carpal tunnel. After the X-rays and MRIs came back, they
said, Theres nothing wrong with you. Maybe you need to
see a psychologist, which I found to be very offensive. I knew
something was wrong with my hand. So I spent the next two-and-half
years going to chiropractors, massage therapists, Rolfers, acupuncturists
Fitzgerald: Were you still playing through this period, or did you
McLaughlin: I continued to play what I could play. I left out the
very difficult pieces. I would tell my audiences, Im sick
of that song; I dont want to play it any more, to their
disappointment. Eventually I started canceling the higher-profile
concertswhere I made the most incometo play club gigs.
I went back to being a singer-songwriter and to performing everything
from Bob Marley to Jimmy Buffett to Peter Gabriel, just to make a
living. Those guitar parts are not as demanding as what I usually
played, but I needed to continue to work, because Ive only ever
made a living as a performing musician.
In 2001, I went to Dr. Jennine Speier at the Sister Kennys Musicians
Clinic [now the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute] in Minneapolis.
Because of her vast experience with orchestral musicians who also
push themselves to the highest level of dexterity, she took one look
at my hand and said, I know just what that is, she told
me. Its called dystonia, and its not in your hand,
its in your brain, and its not going to get better, so
youd better think about what you want to do with the rest of
your life. I had never heard of dystonia, and little did I know
that with all the practicing that I was doing, I was probably intensifying
the onset of the symptoms.
Fitzgerald: For a musician, that must have been a shocking diagnosis.
McLaughlin: Initially I was relieved to have a diagnosis and to know
that I wasnt going crazy. There was so much discussion and whispering,
Whats wrong with Billy? Does he have a drug or alcohol
problem? Thats the first thing you think of with a musician,
Fitzgerald: Thats certainly the stereotype.
McLaughlin: For me to understand that it wasnt in my hand but
the way my brain was feeding messages from my nerves was an important
revelation. I learned that there werent any viable therapies
and that my condition was going to get worse, and it did. It continued
to progress to the point where I couldnt even play club gigs
Fitzgerald: Had you been diagnosed right away, do you think you would
have done anything differently?
McLaughlin: No. Even if it had been diagnosed earlier, I was still
faced with a tough situation, which is, Gee, music is my identity,
my passion, my livelihood. Honestly, I went home from that initial
diagnosis and made up my mind that my neurologist was wrong. I went
into denial, and for about another year I tried to practice my way
out of the problem. I sought a second opinion at the Neurology Department
and Movement Disorder Clinic at the Mayo Clinic, and they confirmed
the dystonia diagnosis. They said, You got an excellent diagnosis.
Dystonia is exactly what we think you have.
From there, I reached out to [classical pianist and conductor] Leon
Fleisher. I had of course immediately gone on the Internet and found
the Dystonia Medical Research Foundtion (DMRF) and realized that there
was a community of people who understood what I had, who lived with
it. Many of them suffer more than I do, but its certainly affected
my life to the core. But interestingly enough, one of my guitar students
came to me and said, My uncle is a piano player, and hes
got what you have. You should call him. I said, Whats
your uncles name? and he said, Leon Fleisher,
who Id read about in the DMRFs Dystonia Dialogue newsletter!
Fitzgerald: (laughs) Oh, my!
McLaughlin: I said, Id love to call him. And he
said, Let me call him today and make sure hes home,
and he called back and said, Yeah, Leon wants to talk to you.
Call him tonight after dinner. Leon Fleisher is a very kind-hearted,
generous person. I only spoke with him once, but he talked at length
about what to expect. He described the treatments that helped him
play again, and I took up the same course of therapy, which involved
attending the National Institutes of Healths Botox clinic. Dr.
Barbara Karp, who also treats Leon, treated me. I went through three
rounds of Botox treatments, which is supposed to reduce the symptoms.
But over the course of 18 months, I never noticed any change.
At that point, I was just burnt out on therapy and tired of being
disappointed. Thats when I decided to go the adaptive route.
My story doesnt include any kind of cure for dystonia. My symptoms
are as bad today as theyve ever been, but because the skill
set is so different from one hand to the next on the guitar, Ive
been able to recaptureat a very high levela certain percentage
of my compositions, which is enough for me to resume my career. And
Ive been writing music again, using the skill set that I do
have. So Im living with my dystonia in the most positive way
that I can, until maybe some new therapy comes along that leads to
Fitzgerald: I was recently on the Musicians with Dystonia bulletin
board, and a few people wrote about having some success with slow-down
exercises, which is practicing movements that are below the threshold
at which dystonia first starts. Did you try anything like that?
McLaughlin: I did, and it didnt work for me. I am aware of one
or two musicians who had some positive results from that but not many.
And the main person Im thinking of is very, very clear in describing
that he can still feel that the dystonia is there, and he has to be
very careful in how aggressively he plays.
Fitzgerald: What else did Leon Fleisher say to you?
McLaughlin: He said, Billy, with Botox and Rolfing, you can
regain some of your skills, but its never going to feel the
same. In his experience, he echoes what this violinist friend
of mine says, which is, he can tell its always there, and hes
compensating for it. He was encouraging me to look at other ways to
stay involved in music, if it turned out that I didnt have success
with my conversion to playing with my left hand. He said, Music
is still there to be enjoyed, whether youre performing or not.
He got into conducting for years, of course, and was very successful
at that and enjoyed it. That was the gist of our conversation.
Fitzgerald: So when did you make up your mind to relearn everything
using your other hand?
McLaughlin: Before the diagnosis, the idea popped into my head that
I might have to learn to play left handed, and I just dismissed it
because its a mortifying prospect. In fact, I would love to
approach different musicians or professional athletes, such as Tiger
Woods, and ask: What do you think it would be like to have to re-learn
your sport as a left-handed player, stay competitive enough to support
your family and achieve your dreams? Id love to hear their answers.
Tiger is so passionate about his sport that his experience of trying
to relearn golf would be similar to what Ive been through. You
start practicing with the other hand, and its just so frustrating;
I quit many, many times because I was overwhelmed by the challenge.
Fitzgerald: Im fascinated by the fact that you successfully
re-learned all your music. You had your right-handed guitar adapted
for left-hand use, right?
McLaughlin: Yes. Now my healthy hand is up on the fretboard doing
all the movement across the strings, and I play in an unusual style
that Ive developed. But I still havent re-learned all
my music. Theres a good 65 percent of my compositions that I
still cannot play properly. Theres a certain body of my work
that involves an unorthodox technique, and luckily I had developed
that as a healthy right-handed player, and those are the pieces that
I feature in my work now.
Fitzgerald: How did you support yourself through years of not performing?
McLaughlin: I was passionate about being a small-business person and
realized early on that I was responsible for my own future. I was
lucky enough to pay attention to accounting and to know how revenue
came in and went out. I built up great credit prior to the onset of
my dystonia, and I subsequently went into a deep hole with credit
thereafter. I directed music programs at churches, which was a great
opportunity for me to teach experiential music to students from preschool
through 4th grade at a Montessori school, where my son was going to
school. It didnt pay a lot of money, but it kept the lights
on. I was also a consultant and manager for another artist here in
Minneapolis, but quite honestly, I amassed a tremendous revolving
credit debt that I continue to work out today.
I wasnt willing to declare bankruptcy as my accountant suggested,
and Ive never been on government assistance. Im self-employed,
and I dont know whats going to happen next. Its
very much like pro sports; thats part of the reason I enjoy
the distraction of watching professional athletes, because theyre
in the same boat that I have been in, where youre only as good
as you were in your last game. I had to invest in myself, and I continue
to believe theres a better tomorrow ahead. I have to believe
2014 is going to be the best year Ive ever had, but I have to
show up, do the work and uphold a standard of excellence in everything
Fitzgerald: Does it feel completely different or awkward to play on
the opposite side, so to speak?
McLaughlin: Not anymore! It feels so comfortable. But it took a long
time. I found myself having to practice what I preached as a teacher
and go through the steps, because nobody can practice for you. Nobody
can make you a better musician. A lot of hard work goes into it. It
was a long, lonely road there for a while.
You can read
the complete article and the full magazine, including all of the photos
in our Digi issue, by clicking "Like"
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