Emmy-winning Guitarist Billy McLaughlin Shares His Story at Robson Ranch
It could be said that a musician’s worst fear is losing their ability to play. Many musicians struggle with pains in their hands, arms, and jaws as a result of overpracticing – a malady easily fixed with orthopedic help. But for guitarist Billy McLaughlin, the problem lay somewhere between genetics and mystery.
“You would think it was mechanics – something an orthopedist could fix,” McLaughlin explained from his Minneapolis office, over the phone. “I never had headaches or anything that would lead me to think I had something wrong in my head, and then that’s what it turned out to be.” In the early aughts, McLaughlin found his right hand in fits. “It was utterly devastating to have dedicated myself to the craftmanship and the precisions of being able to be a solo guitarist. And for three years my hand just got worse and worse and worse, and none of the doctors could tell me what was up.” When McLAughlin was finally given an answer, he faced the possibility of forfeiting his years of practice and fans, all due to a silent neuro-muscular disorder: focal dystonia.
Dystonia, in the general sense, affects about 250,000 people in the United States. It is categorized as a neurological muscular disorder – think: involuntary muscle spasms and contractions. “Focal” dystonia, or musician’s dystonia, denotes a specific location where frequent and sometimes painful spasms occur – in guitarists and violinists, focal dystonia develops in the hands; for wind players, dystonia can develop in the jaw. This affliction affects only around 1% of musicians, and although treatment options vary – including botox and muscle therapy - recoveries from this debilitating disorder have been documented in professional musicians over long periods of time. As for Billy McLaughlin – well, he flipped his guitar around.
“It was so utterly weird to start that process,” McLaughlin said of his journey to relearn how to play guitar – inverted. Though in his tapping method of playing, all ten fingers are on the fretboard, McLaughlin still needed to find a method that minimized the pain in his affected hand. “It was a stop-and-go process – it felt like climbing Mt. Everest. I would try a little and then get so anxious and frustrated. That little voice inside of me said ‘You gotta try.’” Though the beginning of his journey was slow and arduous, McLaughlin set his mind to succeeding – he set up strict practice schedules in order to maintain consistency. But by the end of these intense four years of preparation, McLaughlin felt he was ready to return to the stage. “At its core, the joy of playing music and sharing it with an audience is so much greater than the challenge to train your body,” McLaughlin said; he insists that the lessons he has learned are applicable to even new, capable musicians. “A lot of young players are talented, but music doesn’t come easily or quickly, and they give up. They miss that chance [to perform]; I always want them to feel that experience of sharing music with an audience.”
As for his musical influences, McLaughlin grew up in what he labeled “the golden age of acoustic guitar” – the 70’s; he remembers his mother having always played contemporary late-impressionistic composers like Ravel and Satie around the house. He studied guitar and jazz at USC, and during that time, he became enthralled in the work of jazz guitarist Steve Tibbetts. “A lot of different rhythmic patterns reveal themselves when you’re not trying to strum,” McLaughlin explained.
Over the years, McLaughlin has become an ambassador for focal dystonia awareness and a popular public speaker. Though he has his own TedX feature, McLaughlin’s favorite speeches to give are for smaller groups or for those with special needs.
“The basic idea is: should I just quit? Essentially, my story is trying to find a new path up a mountain. I always knew I wanted to climb the music mountain, and it completely got destroyed – the bridge got blown up. But then I went back down to reassess. And that reassessment was a complex, psychological drama. It’s life. It’s not a guitar player story – if you’re not a guitar player, I know you can still relate. It’s an ability to quiet the fear and listen to what your soul is telling you.”
McLaughlin tours frequently in short bursts now, regrouping at his home base in Minneapolis – most recently, he played two shows at the Robson Clubhouse Ballroom in Denton as his only Texas appearances in 2018.
“The intuition to not stand still is a pretty powerful thing,” McLaughlin said. His demeanor, even as he exchanged goodbyes over the phone, was kind and positive.
Header image courtesy of Billy McLaughlin
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