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Acoustic guitarist Billy McLaughlin has had a successful music career since he was 15 years old, but 10 years ago his performance — and, by extension, his life — began falling apart. In 2001, he was diagnosed with focal dystonia, a mysterious neurological condition that causes muscles to involuntary contract.
For McLaughlin, hardly anything could have been more devastating. Focal dystonia has crippled the careers of a number of notable musicians, including the Peabody Conservatory of Music’s Leon Fleisher; Alex Klein, once the first oboist of the Chicago Symphony and Warren Deck, the former principal tubaist of the New York Philharmonic. It also afflicts Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert.
The disease threatened to halt McLaughlin’s ability to play music, but he fought back. The finger-style guitar player relearned the intricate chords, rhythms and hand positions he was known for with his left hand. Now says he’s playing at the same level — and with more passion — than he did before his disease.
“I didn’t approach my comeback to just become some novelty act,” he said.
He will perform this Thursday at 7 p.m. in The Neurosciences Institute Auditorium as part of the Performing Arts at The Neurosciences Institute series. We’ve written about discussions of the brain and music at The Neurosciences Institute before, including this story where I found out I have less rhythm than a cockatoo.
McLaughlin talked with me by phone from his cold and snowy home in Minnesota a few days before arriving in San Diego. He shared his thoughts on his music, his disease and how the two intertwine.
What was the performance experience like for you before your disease?
The connection with the audience was such a cool thing to experience, and I got addicted to it really fast. I play music that is outside of what people commonly think of as commercial music. A lot of it is purely instrumental, so I have a very intimate style of playing, with one person on stage and one instrument. It creates an intimate connection between the performer and audience, and I really love that experience.
To me, what the term art implies is that connection between what the artist is trying to express and what the audience is trying to receive. I had a real love affair going on with the guitar, so when I started having problems playing, it was just disastrous, emotionally, psychologically, in my personal life, business life. Everything just blew up.
What happened? When did you first start noticing something was wrong?
I really started falling apart in late 1998, early 1999. I was having to leave harder pieces off my set list, and was hiding the fact that I couldn’t physically play them any more.
Even before I heard the word dystonia, what I experienced was a loss of control, basically uncontrollable muscle spasms in my hand. Ultimately it got so bad that every time I put my hand up toward the neck of my guitar, it would cause my pinky finger and ring finger to curl into a tight ball in the palm of my hand.
The most frustrating thing was that I couldn’t get any doctor to tell me what was wrong. They’d all say, “Everything looks fine.” I felt like I was losing my mind from the chaos this created in my life.
Do you see connections between what you know about neurology and your music?
I never thought I’d be so thoughtful about neurology. I thought I’d be thinking about music — I never wanted to be a neurologist, for God’s sake! But I get contacted by musicians, people who put all their passion and heart into their livelihood, who now reach out to me to compare symptoms, get advice, get whatever help they can.
The biggest thing is just feeling unbelievably lucky and blessed to be playing music at as high a level as I’m able to now. I didn’t approach my comeback to just become some novelty act. I’m playing some pieces better than I ever played before, and that took a lot of effort, concentration and perseverance. Not many people have had to say, ‘I learned to play the guitar twice.’
What was it like to learn to play with your left hand?
It’s equivalent to doing all of your writing with your other hand and feeling so anxious any time you have to try to spell, or even just sign your name. I lost my musical signature. We don’t even think when we’re doing our signature, it’s just boom, put the signature on the document, but now you’re using your other hand and have to match that signature identically. That was the challenge I was up against.
What’s different about your music since you came back?
If you ask a lot of audiences, they’ll say nothing’s different. To me, I would say in my compositions, I’m a little more conscious of what is really, really important. When you have more skill than you need, it’s easy to include things aren’t critically important to the piece. When things come so easy, you can just throw extra stuff in. I listen to some guitar players and say, ‘Well, sure, he can play a lot of notes, but not many of those notes mean anything to me.’ I’ve done a good job focusing on what notes are really, really important.
One that gets lost for some virtuoso-level players is melody. I’ve always felt like if the guitar could be as expressive as a single human voice, it would be quite an accomplishment — at any given time achieving that level communication. A lot of the time that means less instead of burying the listener in mountains of notes, I have the sense of when to take away, instead of when to add.
Here’s a video of McLaughlin performing:
Claire Trageser is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact her directly at email@example.com.