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 hands—literally. He did what most musicians consider unimaginable: he re-learned the guitar, one note at a time, using his non-dominant hand. Since then, he’s 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, McLaughlin’s 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, ABILITY’s 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 didn’t 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 you’re playing solo guitar concerts, it’s very embarrassing to have a slip-up here and there. After talking with colleagues and mentors, everyone said, “Gee, Billy, you’re 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 that’s 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, “There’s 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 and acupressurists.
Fitzgerald: Were you still playing through this period, or did you stop altogether?
McLaughlin: I continued to play what I could play. I left out the very difficult pieces. I would tell my audiences, “I’m sick of that song; I don’t want to play it any more,” to their disappointment. Eventually I started canceling the higher-profile concerts—where I made the most income—to 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 I’ve only ever made a living as a performing musician.
In 2001, I went to Dr. Jennine Speier at the Sister Kenny’s 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. “It’s called dystonia, and it’s not in your hand, it’s in your brain, and it’s not going to get better, so you’d 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 wasn’t going crazy. There was so much discussion and whispering, “What’s wrong with Billy? Does he have a drug or alcohol problem?” That’s the first thing you think of with a musician, right?
Fitzgerald: That’s certainly the stereotype.
McLaughlin: For me to understand that it wasn’t in my hand but the way my brain was feeding messages from my nerves was an important revelation. I learned that there weren’t any viable therapies and that my condition was going to get worse, and it did. It continued to progress to the point where I couldn’t even play club gigs anymore.
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 it’s 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 he’s got what you have. You should call him.” I said, “What’s your uncle’s name?” and he said, “Leon Fleisher,” who I’d read about in the DMRF’s Dystonia Dialogue newsletter!