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Guitar Player Turns Disability Around

  • Published: 2009-07-08 (Revised/Updated 2016-05-25) : Author: Disabled World : Contact: Disabled World
  • Synopsis: Billy McLaughlin had reached the top ten years ago he was a finger-style player who was noted for his technique of tapping on the strings of his guitar.

Quote: " Fleisher became a left-handed pianist because of his disability. Billy decided to learn how to play his guitar with his other hand..."

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Billy McLaughlin had reached the top ten years ago; he was a finger-style player who was noted for his technique of tapping on the strings of his guitar.

He began experiencing problems with controlling his left hand though, missing notes and he had no idea why. His audiences thought that he had been drinking. What neither Billy or his audiences knew was that Billy had, 'Focal Dystonia,' an ailment that affects approximately ten-thousand musicians from around the world.

What this meant for Billy is that the pinkie and ring fingers on his left hand curled inward. These were the very fingers that he used to form chords and run scales. He spent a couple of years playing so badly that he couldn't perform his songs. He wondered what was wrong. Finally, he received a diagnosis of focal dystonia.

One day, Billy slipped on some ice on the way to a photo shoot for an album and dislocated two fingers on his left hand. He pursued therapy, getting past the injury, but felt that there was something that wasn't quite right with his hand. He couldn't reach notes with his pinkie and had to re-finger even pieces that had been easy before. He tried deep tissue massage, acupuncture, as well as a chiropractor. When he finally went to the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute at Abbot Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis he received his diagnosis. He didn't accept the diagnosis and went on trying to practice until the Mayo Clinic confirmed the diagnosis. Focal dystonia is an incurable neuromuscular disease.

Focal dystonia is a localized movement disorder which is a part of a family of neurological disorders. One form of the disorder may cause a person's eyelids to close involuntarily; another form presents as, 'writer's cramp.' Generalized dystonia can contort the entirety of a person's body. Dystonia affects approximately three-hundred thousand people in North America and might be genetic in origin. Dystonia can be treated with anticonvulsants or surgery, although there is no cure for it at this time. Persons with focal dystonia have muscles that do not act together, instead working against each other.

Billy stated, "When this first started happening, I thought I had done something wrong, I had committed some sort of musician's sin or something." He didn't give up playing the guitar though; instead he called concert pianist Leon Fleisher, who also has focal dystonia. Fleisher became a left-handed pianist because of his disability. Billy decided to learn how to play his guitar with his other hand. Leo Kottke of Minneapolis stated that this was a task similar to, "trying to breathe through your feet. It's exactly that hard."

With his guitars refitted and restrung for use with his other hand, Billy went to work practicing. Of his attempts he says this:

"What allowed me to do what I'm doing now is making a mental break from 'What's wrong with me' to 'What do I have that still works''

Billy McLaughlin made a comeback in grand style, rounding up his band-mates and playing a mix of both old and new music with an accompanying string orchestra through a CD titled, 'Into the Light.' When a disability happens in life it is not the end of life; Billy has shown this quite clearly. Billy; way to go.


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