Billy Presents:

Billy Presents:

Billy Presents:


Billy Presents:
McLaughlin will speak at ARRM Annual Conference

On September 26, Billy will open the annual leadership conference of the Association of Residential Resources in Minnesota (ARRM). ARRM is a nonprofit association comprised of community services providers that support people with disabilities with such essentials as housing and daily support.
Billy’s message of reinvention is extremely relevant to ARRM. Changing demographics and spiraling healthcare costs have made the current care-giving system unsustainable in light of declining revenue at both the state and federal levels. It is a challenge that seeks a creative solution. Fortunately, ARRM is taking a proactive approach to reform and rebalance the services its members provide. Recognizing that innovation occurs in the private sector, ARRM is working to facilitate solutions to the problem by removing barriers to innovation and choice. ARRM has designed a “cost-saving plan to deliver the right disability services in the right setting at the right time.” According to Bruce Nelson, chief executive officer of ARRM, “Part of the movement is to recreate services that are self-directed by people with disabilities and their families—to enable greater independence wherever possible.”
Rather than allowing funding cutbacks to define the future, ARRM is presenting the legislature with a “Blueprint for Reform,” a plan to unlock the traditional group home model and help facilitate the movement of people who want a more independent style of living. Meanwhile, the plan would allow for supervised care to continue for those individuals who want and need it. Last spring, 90% of the Blueprint for Reform was adopted by the legislature. Nelson added, “Support was bipartisan and included the governor.”
Now that adoption of the Blueprint is in process, ARRM will soon be positioned to move forward with implementing its plan. Members will be confronted with big changes in their delivery systems. The focus of ARRM’s conference this year will be on opening the door to innovation and invention while addressing questions related to “Why should I do it?” Benefits of affordability, independence and a preferred lifestyle will drive a different business plan for members’ future. The conference will enable upper management and decision makers to collaborate on design opportunities and tools. Billy’s presence will add perspective to the changes ahead for community services providers. “With any big change, we always have a choice to either focus on what’s working or what’s not. This event will be an opportunity for participants to design a better future than simply leaving it to chance. My goal is to inspire the creative thinking needed to make that happen,” he said.
For more information about ARRM and its Blueprint for Reform, as well as home and community-based programs that support Minnesotans with disabilities, visit

What Will You Create Today?

What Will You Create Today?
People ask me, “What kind of music do you make, Billy?” I tell them, “I let the listener decide how to categorize it – I call it Billy music.” It has been a challenge throughout my career because there is no such section in the music store. Sometimes what we create doesn’t fit into the boxes that most people expect. The way I work with music is to play real music for real people in real situations. I share my music as honestly as I can. I love to walk on stage with what is essentially a blank canvas, and make something meaningful and magical happen. I never follow a script because as much as we try to script our day it never goes exactly how we might plan. The best plan is to be fully in the moment with the people and what’s happening around you.
Creation is the process of pulling an idea, an image, a melody, from the abstract world and making it real in the concrete world. Classes in art, dance, drama, creative writing and music expose children to this process every day. Students who gain confidence that they can be successful at this process are not afraid of the blank canvas. Knowing you can make something a reality in this world, that you can pull from the abstract a new creation to be shared with others, is a powerful thing. This confidence-to-create is a key to our future individually and as a planet.
What Will You Create Today?
Aren’t words like freedom, equality, and justice sourced from the world of the abstract? These are essentially abstract concepts. Where do we learn to be confident in our ability to pull these ideas from the abstract and into reality? I suggest that nurturing our confidence-to-create as children through art, music, dance, creative writing and drama has an impact on our global quality of life that goes beyond what any of  us can imagine.
So, it doesn’t matter if what you create is easy to categorize. It doesn’t matter if there’s a section at the store for what you create. I grew up without any Apple stores. Now, look where we have come and how dependent we are on the creative thinking of others. I want us to celebrate the confidence-to-create that everyone can develop and use to reshape our world. Not sure where to start? How about guitar lessons?

Master of Edutainment

Motivational Speaker Billy McLaughlin Transforms Lives and Learning through Music and Storytelling

Picture yourself attending a lecture. It’s early in the morning and you’ve had about half the sleep that you needed the night before. After about sixteen ounces of coffee and a light snack, you feel slightly more alert, but within minutes your attention begins to fade. It’s not that the topic is dull; on the contrary, it captured your interest or you wouldn’t have paid good money to be sitting where you are right now. It’s just that your mind doesn’t seem as receptive as you’d like it to be.
Now picture yourself coming home from a hard day of work and sitting down in front of the television to watch a favorite movie. Although you are tired and your mind is cluttered with remnants of the business you conducted earlier in the day, the movie draws you in. Your imagination takes you on a journey with the characters in the story and soon your distractions disappear. The last thing that you need is caffeine when the adventure begins to unfold.
Given the two scenarios, under which conditions do you think you would have retained more information? Why is it that a personal and entertaining story, especially one that stimulates our aural and visual senses engages us so dramatically? Regardless of any scientific explanation, the movie industry has been capitalizing on storytelling for years. A bigger question is why, now that audiovisual tools are easily accessible, do so many classrooms and seminars continue to rely exclusively on the lecture platform to facilitate learning?

Edutainment is the merger between education and entertainment, such as movies, stories and music. Combining lectures with entertainment enlivens our senses, which makes us more receptive to learning and increases our ability to retain what we’ve experienced. However, edutainment does more than connect with our auditory and visual senses. Edutainment invokes feelings. The next time you find yourself captured by an “ah-ha” moment, ask yourself, “Am I learning with my head or my heart? Our emotions affect how and what we learn.
Nobody knows the art of edutainment better than motivational speaker and musician Billy McLaughlin. As a guitarist and composer, Billy has mastered the art of connecting with people at a deeply emotional and spiritual level through what he calls transformative music. Through a combination of music and stories, Billy transforms people’s assumptions about what is or is not impossible. He portrays his passion for innovation and achievement in a vividly expressive way that reaches the hearts of his audience members. He inspires them to let go of their fear of failure and commit to a larger goal or purpose.

Billy McLaughlin’s performances are living proof that although you may forget the words that a person says, you never forget the way that person made you feel. The experience that Billy provides is both memorable and motivating. In a friendly, down-to-earth style, he puts life’s biggest problems into perspective as he speaks about the power of persistence and determination. Billy’s heart-felt message is sourced in his journey from being one of Billboard’s brightest stars to incurring a devastating physical malady, focal dystonia, which nearly took his musical career. Overcoming seemingly impossible odds, Billy returned back to the stage more brilliantly than ever before. His message of innovation, reinvention and redefining the impossible is strong medicine for today’s businesses. Through music and true- life stories combined with a witty sense of humor, Billy has inspired people throughout the United States, India and China to rethink the impossible as they consider their own potential.
Instead of ending his career, focal dystonia became the catalyst that transformed him from a musician focused on creating an entertainment niche to a global speaker, devoted to inspiring as many people as possible to pursue bigger goals and aspire to a higher purpose. When asked about his experience, Billy McLaughlin said, “I often say that the worst thing that ever happened to me has become, perhaps, the best thing that has ever happened. If it can be true for me, it can be true for anyone. Suddenly, I am being asked to talk and perform for companies all around the world. I did none of those things the first time around.”

Whether in concert or at a keynote address, the impression Billy McLaughlin leaves with his audience is always the same: unforgettable. With Billy, the difference between learning with your heart vs. your head becomes very clear. The value that you receive from a presentation by Billy McLaughlin does not end when he walks off stage. Rather, it’s the edutainment value you take back with you that yields the biggest return.
For information on booking an event with Billy McLaughlin, contact Hannah Day.

Billy McLaughlin Road to Reinvention

Music as a Metaphor

Road to Reinvention

The following excerpt is from the introduction to Billy McLaughlin’s upcoming book, “Road to Reinvention.”

Throughout his book, Billy McLaughlin refers to his life in music. For Billy, life and music are synonymous. Indeed, when you think of Billy, it is hard to imagine his life without music. You may not be a musician, yourself. Perhaps you’ve never even picked up a musical instrument. Nevertheless, it is possible to understand Billy’s passion and drive for this single, all-consuming aspect of his life. In fact, there may be something in your life for which you feel equally passionate. If you know your passion, then you are well ahead of those who are searching for whatever their “music” happens to be. If you are still searching, then consider making your search your passion. If, for any reason, you’ve lost touch with your “music”, then Billy McLaughlin’s book will have particular meaning for you. Within each of the passages is a glimpse of the journey Billy has taken from having to losing to reclaiming his music once again. Through it you will experience a journey that was not without struggle or frustration, never certain, but always worthwhile.
Metaphors are powerful depictions, as they capture not merely the physical quality of an idea, but its emotional essence, as well. Music is an especially powerful metaphor. Without words or pictures, music reaches deep from within the soul to connect at a level through which there is no other access. Music is personal, uplifting and timeless; it feeds us and, in some ways, teaches us more about ourselves than we can learn on our own. Music can be raw and raging as an open wound or subtle as a ripple in a pond. Music is universal; it transcends all barriers and separations. Whatever “music” may be in you, whether you find it in your career, family, loved-one, art, sport or business, it deserves to be expressed. Let Billy’s journey inspire you and strengthen your desire to pursue your own “music”, regardless of what temporarily may be in your way. There is no attempt to sugar-coat the process. Though, at times, it may be necessary to face impossibility, overcome the depths of despair and work harder than you imagined, success is within your reach.
Billy’s music is unique. Although there are many guitarists, several whom use the tapping technique for which Billy is famous, nobody plays in quite the same way. Billy’s challenges are unique, too. Nobody before nor since has traveled along exactly the same path that he has taken. Without Billy, his stern resolve and stubborn determination, much of the world may never have heard his extraordinary music and message. Where has your journey taken you to this point? Are you pursuing your “music”? Can you see it at a distance, even if it isn’t yet within reach? When you find your “music”, live it and make use of every opportunity to play it. As with Billy, there’s “music” inside you that the world longs to experience. There’s a place for your “music” on this planet and, once you find it, the world will be forever changed. It’s up to you to make it happen. Are you willing to take the next step?
Gain strength and guidance from someone who’s triumphed over the impossible.
Despite overwhelming odds, Billy maintains a perspective of love, understanding and even humor as he captures some of the most dramatic moments of his life in words. With an unrelenting spirit and clear sense of self identity, he proves that it is possible to achieve new heights in the face of defeat. Reserve your copy of “Road to Reinvention” today.

Do Over

What if something that you knew for a long time, depended upon, built your entire identity and career around, was suddenly and irreversibly stripped away from you? What would you do? For some people, this question is more real than imaginary. In recent years, many people have lost their jobs, businesses, homes, health, marriages, loved ones and even their pets. The lives that they had once taken for granted no longer exist. Wishing won’t bring back the past. Hoping that all this change will settle down soon so that life can resume to “normal” won’t do much good, either. Change is now the new “normal.”
The change that’s happening to people these days is far sweeping and often abrupt. It may begin with a job loss or health problem. It may be a change in business climate or relationship. When the change is big enough, it eventually reaches into other aspects of life, making little difference where, when or why it started in the first place. Sometimes the only solution is to start over.
In more ways than one, life can look like a do-over right now. How many people do you know who are starting over because of some major change or shift that has taken place for them? If you are experiencing extraordinary change in your life, there are probably moments of confusion where nothing seems to make sense. It may comfort you to know that there’s at least part of an explanation for this. Among the reasons why the world is going through such rapid change recently is related to technology. Have you noticed how it, too, has sped up?
Thanks to technology, people are able to connect like never before—immediately and over long distances through voice, text and video. Since it doesn’t take very long (in some cases, no time at all) to reach people, expectations begin to rise with the speed of communication. People do their best to respond more quickly with new ideas and better solutions. This is how change accelerates.
The result is that new ideas start to replace older ideas more rapidly. In some cases, it happens so quickly that the process seems invisible. There is a name for what happens when new ideas replace old ideas, making them obsolete: it’s called creative destruction. At first impression, creative destruction seems like an oxymoron. How can you create and destroy at the same time? However, if you think about it, creative destruction happens all the time in nature. A flower blossoms and fades away so that its seeds can be formed. Little chicks and baby birds have to crack open and destroy their egg shells in order to enter the world. Salmon have to swim upstream and die in order to procreate and form larger pools of fish. Creative destruction is happening all around us.
Perhaps you know of a neighborhood that has gone through a similar process. The street may have been a booming place in the 1920s or 1930s, but then something happened that caused it to lose its appeal. Maybe a factory closed down or a highway was rerouted. Years later, somebody comes along, appreciating the character of the buildings and sees new potential for the old neighborhood. Buildings are restored, new businesses start up and the neighborhood prospers once again.
Wherever you see creative destruction, it’s a sign that something innovative is happening. Something new and more exciting is emerging. The old cliché is true: When one door closes, another door opens. Think about it. When you focus on what isn’t working in your life, you are spending time and energy on the door that is closing. Consider, instead, the door that is opening. Initially, you may feel awkward and a little unsure, but the feeling is only temporary. What waits beyond the door that is opening will stretch you and help you grow. It will show you a side of yourself you may not even know existed. It will exercise your strengths and create new opportunities for you.
In Billy McLaughlin’s case, a door didn’t simply close. It slammed shut at the height of his career. Billy had to find a way to reinvent his purpose, process and profession—he had to open a new door because the old door was locked. Instead of viewing his affliction with dystonia as the end of his career, he approached it as a new beginning. As ambassador for dystonia medical research, the purpose for Billy’s performances has expanded greatly. He is building worldwide awareness of the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation and the work they do to improve treatment and eventually cure dystonia. This neurological disorder afflicts not only musicians like Billy McLaughlin, but people of all ages and in all professions with varying degrees of debilitation.
Because of dystonia, Billy McLaughlin ceased to be a right-handed guitarist. It became utterly impossible for him to perform arrangements that he had composed and played thousands of times before. Regardless of the fact that he lacked the means to play, his music was alive inside of him as much as ever. In order to express it again, Billy had to learn a new process. Instead of lamenting over what he had lost, Billy chose to focus on what was working. He began the arduous task of learning to play guitar with his opposite hand, something no other guitarist has ever attempted. Musically, Billy McLaughlin is accomplishing as much, if not more, as a left-handed guitarist as he had achieved when he was a right-handed guitarist. He has composed new music and performed in concerts that are being televised nationally. PBS is currently airing Billy McLaughlin performing “Starry Night” in concert with Orchestra Nova, conducted by Jung-Ho Pak. He says, “It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.” The schedule for “Starry Night” on PBS is published on Billy’s website.
Professionally, Billy McLaughlin now plays to a different audience than when he was on tour as a recording artist and Billboard top-ten entertainer. Billy is speaking to corporate audiences worldwide, sharing his message that nothing’s impossible, regardless of how overwhelming it may seem. Billy McLaughlin is a walking, talking and music-making example of doing the impossible. Billy’s inspiring life story helps people transform impossible circumstances into achievable results through persistence, innovation, discipline and creativity. He has received accolades and standing ovations for his corporate presentations at Microsoft, Accenture, Mayo Clinic, Securian Financial and Wells Fargo, to name a few. Through music, stories and occasional humor, Billy McLaughlin shows in a very personal way that clarifying your purpose, committing to your mission and celebrating every step along the way enables you to navigate through difficult challenges and circumstances.
There is no crystal ball to guide you through the extreme challenges that come along with creative destruction. There are no guarantees that you’ll find passage through a new door when an old one closes. The next best thing, however, is the reassuring strength and guidance from one who’s faced impossible odds and has overcome them successfully. Billy McLaughlin is living proof that reinvention is not only probable, but preferable in many ways. Billy’s insights, achieved through personal experience, help you see beyond the self-doubt and limiting behaviors that hinder your ability to overcome obstacles.
Watch Billy onstage and you’ll sense the absolute joy he feels while he is performing. His happiness comes in part from the pleasure of doing what he loves. A greater portion of his joy, however, comes from an appreciation he’s gained, after years of struggle, to be sharing his music once more. Had he given in to his illness, Billy’s life would have turned out much differently. His ability to perform would have ceased to exist as the odds of his ever playing again were stacked strongly against him. The fact that Billy’s return almost didn’t happen is the reason why he never takes the experience for granted. Despite impossible challenges, Billy McLaughlin has created a new beginning.


A Gift Among Many Gifts

A Gift Among Many Gifts

You may have heard that Billy McLaughlin was a phenomenal virtuoso in the guitar world. He was. His unique fret style tapping technique has wowed audiences around the world. Billy’s work has won countless awards and placed him firmly within the firmament of Billboards top talent. That boy could play.
You also may have heard that Billy suffers from a career derailing neurological disorder called focal dystonia. He lost his capacity to play his guitar. The subsequent mental, emotional and spiritual collapse is simply incomprehensible unless you’ve suffered similar debilitation.
You now must know that in spite of all the pain and defeat, Billy McLaughlin has risen from the ashes to reclaim his personal dignity, his craft, his very life. Remarkable as this whole inspiring story reads, there is something else that you probably don’t know. I believe it is truly Billy’s greatest gift: a superlative gift that stands out to me when I reflect on 33 years of friendship.
Guitar enthusiasts relax. Take a break from idolizing this man’s God-given talent for making music. Let’s get beyond the guitar and into the core of Billy’s character. That’s where you will find Billy’s greatest gift. That’s where I found it.
Billy’s greatest gift is what inspires me to love the man. His accolades are indeed spectacular. His touring schedule is legendary. Music introduced us in 1979. He’s one of those friends that you can see every day or once every few years and nothing is lost, nothing contrived, no retrenching necessary, just the same awesome guy regardless of time or distance. And while music preoccupied much of our endeavors together, it was his genuine concern for others that caught my attention. At the very core of his being is a characteristic that places him in a very special category among men. His love for his fellow man is the beacon we all respond to when we encounter Billy.
Guitar stars are famous for getting lost in their own incredibility. Not so with Billy. He is as starkly real today as he was as a teenager, perhaps even more so thanks to the furnace of his immense life experience. Billy is full of positive energy. Hence his first label was named Proton Discs (a proton is the smallest positively charged bit of life, that’s how Billy thought of himself). He has lived the same duplicitous life we all lead (betwixt the darkness and the light) and he has clung to the positive to find his way forward.
Billy’s greatest gift is his undeniable commitment to caring about you. As far-fetched as this notion sounds, I sincerely believe Billy loves you, even though he most likely has not yet made your personal acquaintance. It’s how he sees the world that differentiates him from the average guy. Love illuminates Billy McLaughlin’s entire being.
Wherever that gift came from, it is the basis of our friendship. I believe it is the most sincere expression of the wisdom of the ages. Billy knows how to love. You can certainly hear it in his music. There is much evidence of this love in his inspiring message of overcoming catastrophe. You can vividly see it in his eyes.
Of all the worldly accomplishments a man might treasure, this simple and sincere quality is more precious than gold. It is the force behind his compositions. It is the energy that moved him from doubt to hope, from darkness to light.
Billy McLaughlin was one of the world’s greatest guitar talents. In most respects he still deserves that kind of respect, although he’s very humble about what focal dystonia has taken from him. His disability has rendered him beyond human aid. Only an act of Divine Providence moves men to take on the level of pain and collapse Billy has experienced. Most guys don’t persevere. As time passes and our mortal frames begin to age and wither somewhat, it is only natural to throw in the towel and give up.
I am grateful to my friend Billy for showing me that this moment, right now, is where it’s at. And you can either get busy dying, or get busy living.
Enjoy the music. By all means. The music is what brought us into each other’s lives. If that’s as far as you go I’m sure you will be sufficiently pleased.
But if you dare, take a closer look and a deeper listen. Notice how Billy’s fall and recovery perhaps mirror aspects of your own vicissitudes in life. Give yourself the opportunity to get immersed in the Spirit that has brought Billy back. Open your heart to the love that transforms us from getters and doers into virtuosos in our own right; virtuosos of attitude, love and life.
Drew Emmer is a longtime friend and colleague of Billy McLaughlin.

Choosing to Change

As early as I can remember I have loved music and wanted to play music. I struggled in my first attempts like we all do. Piano, trumpet, drums….all proved too difficult or maybe I lacked enough grit at that age. One of the great benefits of music education and learning an instrument is that it teaches us to control our bodies. From how we sit to how we stand, from how we use our breath to how we use our fingers, music is the display-case for the wonder of the human brain controlling the body, connecting soul and emotion, and to ultimately share the miracle of human potential through the vehicle of sound. And the deeper a student gets into their craft the more amazing this ability becomes. Virtuoso players don’t have to think about their bodies when they play. They have transcended the need to consciously control their movements and effortlessly perform physical tasks of immensely complex and intricate muscle movements and here’s the real kicker – they can manipulate the slightest movements to create endless variations of expression that give life to the music in very noticeable ways. Much of the joy I gather from music is the joy of celebrating this amazing body that we as a human family often under-appreciate.
So, I finally found a good fit when I picked up a guitar the summer after 7th grade. What felt awkward about other instruments fell to the wayside and I began learning on my own, from other kids, from watching music specials on PBS and playing 45’s over and over while trying to copy the sounds with my own fingers. I can’t tell you how many times my mom stormed up the stairs and yelled “Put down that guitar and come to dinner – we’re all waiting!” Music just brought me happiness…. and playing the guitar gave me purpose. It came at a perfect time in my life during those uneasy teen years and I don’t know what my life would have been like without it. Our schools did a great job of showcasing music and every talent show became the next focus. By great fortune I was surrounded by some very talented classmates and we formed a band that was soon being booked professionally. If we weren’t playing a show you count on one thing – we were busy practicing…..unless of course we were in school or sleeping!!!

I share this because we all have things we love to do, things that bring us great joy which our bodies must function properly in order for us to perform. Music is just one of them – but it was the biggest part of my life for decades. I went on to earn a degree in guitar performance at the University of Southern California during which time I increased the “mind-body” or “brain-body” connection with each increasingly difficult piece of music they demanded. I veered off into my own experimentation after graduating and built a career around playing the guitar in a way that most people thought impossible by putting both hands up on the neck of the guitar and hammering out the notes with each finger. I stayed focused and true to my dream of sharing music with anyone who would listen. By 1989 I was touring the country performing over 200 concerts a year. My dream lasted almost a decade.
In 1998 while on my way to shoot the cover of my 2nd international release for Narada Records, I stopped by my parent’s house to drop off my 2 year old. The streets and sidewalks were slick with ice and I was in my photo-shoot wardrobe with a pair of dress boots on. As I lifted my son Blaise out of his car seat his boot caught on the strap and as I lifted him higher trying to free him I lost my footing. I lurched to keep his little head from crashing six feet down to the rock hard cement. We tumbled…my left arm flailing out as the only thing to break our fall. As we hit the ground together pain seared through my hand. Blaise was not hurt but something was definitely wrong with my hand. I looked and saw both my middle and ring-fingers had dislocated and were grotesquely out of joint. Without even thinking I grabbed them both and with one jerk re-set them and shoved them into the snowbank where we lay. After a trip to the ER for x-rays which came back negative for any fractures, I hustled over to the photo-shoot. Close inspection of that CD cover-shot reveals a terribly swollen set of knuckles!
Over the next six weeks I rehabbed with help of physical therapy and managed to play well enough to begin my 100-city tour in support of the new CD release. I remember my hand feeling somewhat out of balance and just attributed it to the stiffness that lingered in my two knuckles. But as the tour wore on a couple of my better known pieces began giving me trouble. That automatic “no need to think about it” state of mind was suddenly replaced by moments of sheer panic.
These were solo performances. No one else on stage. Nowhere to hide when the wrong notes come out. I always shoot for making a performance memorable as opposed to perfect which means I’ll give it my all every night. I’ve learned how to let go of my mistakes as quickly as they happen. This is something I wish I was better at in other areas of my life but it is particularly important on stage or the pressure becomes unbearable and creates more problems. So for me to panic would take something quite shocking. Not like missing an unrehearsed spontaneous attempt at the extraordinary. If I miss a note in a moment of inspiration I let go of it immediately and move on. What was shocking to me was missing notes and phrases I’d played perfectly THOUSANDS of times without thinking.  Losing control of my body, of my music, of the beauty of the moment, of the simplest series of notes, was not only shocking and humiliating – it was utterly unexplainable!!!

I had never ever heard of a condition like what was happening to me. I had graduated from a highly respected university school of music and never heard of any such threat to a musician’s career. I was convinced it was something mechanical, something orthopedic, related to my knuckles or maybe carpal tunnel. After the tour I talked to many of my musician friends and they all said I was playing too many shows especially with my unusually athletic and physically aggressive style of guitar playing. My mentor, John Stropes at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee, agreed and recommended I take some time off which I did.
After resting my hands for almost two months I began rehearsing and was devastated to find that things had gotten worse. It felt as if some evil force had entered my wrist and fingers and was randomly pulling on my muscles and tendons. My ring finger wouldn’t lift away from the strings unless I put all my mental powers to make it do so. This was utterly unbelievable to me and I immediately made an appointment at a hand clinic in St. Paul. After being thoroughly evaluated by the hand specialist he shook his head and said, “I find absolutely nothing wrong with your hand. It is just fine. Are you sure you don’t want to see a psychologist?” I drove home thinking I must be losing my mind.  Everything I loved about my life as a musician was being torn away from me and I was certain there was something wrong – I could feel something wrong in my hand….So how can it all be in my head???
I heard the word “dystonia” for the first time about six months later when visiting with my college friend Andrew York, one of the world’s finest guitarists, after one of his shows. Another guitarist was with us. He listened to us catching up on things the way old friends do. As I shared my concern about my hands this other guitarist said, “It sounds like dystonia to me….focal dystonia. It’s neurological – not in your hands.” Maybe I didn’t want to hear it especially from someone I didn’t know. Maybe the word “neurological” simply caused me to tune him out. I was just so sure it must be mechanical since it was my “mechanics” of playing that were off. Besides, I had already decided I did not need a psychologist – whatever the case, I found myself driving home yet again telling myself, “It’s not in my head!!!”

And that’s how I spent the next year – searching for anything that could help fix this “mechanical” problem that was devastating my career and personal life. I tried every therapy you can imagine: endless hours of practicing, deep tissue massage, rolfing, acupuncture, shiatsu, yoga, meditation, chiropractors, diet restrictions….still the problem was getting worse. I was starting to hear rumors that my fans thought I was possibly abusing drugs or alcohol. They were disappointed that I no longer played my most acrobatic pieces, the ones they really wanted to hear. I lost my record deal, distribution deal, publishing deal, booking agent, manager, and none of that mattered to me as much as the fact that I couldn’t play my own music…..the music I had composed and shared all over the world…..the music that I always turned to for relief in times of trouble…..the music that gave me a sense of meaning and purpose……the music that supported my family and should have provided for our future…..all for no reason.
Finally, the words “focal dystonia” and “neurological” started reverberating in my mind. I actually thought it must be a golf-ball sized tumor in my head the way my fingers were twisting so drastically by this point. I made an appointment to be seen by Dr. Jeanine Speier, a neurologist at the Sister Kenny Institute Musician’s Clinic in Minneapolis. Dr. Speier had a lot of experience with orchestral musicians in the Twin Cities and it took her less than five minutes to give me a diagnosis of focal dystonia. My symptoms were classic in every way she said. “I’m not losing my mind?”, I asked. She answered that I wasn’t losing my mind but that it was more like my brain was “losing” my fingers….it couldn’t communicate with them clearly anymore and that it would most likely get worse. Other than taking a significant period of time off (2 years or more) without touching my guitar that there wasn’t a whole lot else she could recommend.
When we are faced with such bleak assessments of our reality, it is natural to go into denial and I certainly became the King of Denial. I left her office relieved on one hand that I hadn’t been going crazy, that there really was something wrong, but to hear that there wasn’t much of anything I could do to fix it was almost as bad as not knowing what the heck was truly wrong in the first place! I spent another 9 months repeating those desperate attempts at alternative therapies and endless practice while my livelihood dwindled to nothing. Then the golf-ball tumor idea sounded good to me again, sounded like a better thing to discover and I went to Mayo clinic for an MRI and complete neurological work-up. Their diagnosis was the same as Dr. Speier – focal dystonia minus any golf-ball sized tumor.

When trouble strikes I realize now that all my life I had tried to keep it at arms length, pushing it away as far as it can be. What I have learned from dystonia is that when we encounter trouble it is best to embrace it, to pull it in as close as it can be, to learn what it is and how we can either overcome it or learn to live with it. I’d been running from it and trying to fix what was broken, constantly focused on what I’d lost, what didn’t work anymore. The shift came when I decided to consider what I still had that worked both in body and spirit, what I could still be grateful for in my life, what I could begin to build on in a constructive fashion that didn’t deny the fact of my new shortcomings.
This is our greatest in-born human ability, expressed in the very history of our species, and our biggest hope as individuals and as a planet for our future…..we are born with the capacity to adapt. Adaptation is our single greatest tool as humans for success over the history of time. Each of us can do it – it is in our DNA! And we can do it more quickly by choice than any other species which must rely on time and environmental conditions to slowly evolve or become extinct. When we choose to adapt and stop thinking about what we’ve lost we can begin to discover all the new things that there are to find. It is not always easy to maintain hope and dystonia pushed me to the edge of my faith but in the end we get to choose – to live and prosper as best we can or to be destroyed by hopelessness and despair.
What I did once I experienced this paradigm shift, this change in focus and mindset, is very well chronicled on my website ( and in a documentary film called Changing Keys – Billy McLaughlin and the Mysteries of Dystonia. In a nutshell after 25 years of playing guitar right-handed I decided I would attempt to become a virtuoso for the second time LEFT-HANDED. After years of hard-work and many ups and downs, many of my fans would tell you I’m even better than before. I can’t do everything I used to – about 60% of my compositions remain beyond my current ability and it hurts emotionally not being able to play them – but what I can do, I do to the very best of my ability which surpasses what I did with those skills before.

Somehow the worst thing that ever happened to me has become one of the best things that ever happened to me. I’m not sure exactly how that can be true for anyone else but if it can be true for me than anything is possible for you. Go make this the best day you possibly can – with everything you’ve got that still works – knowing you’ve got new things to discover and that you are built to adapt for anything that comes your way.

Follow Your Dream and Do The Hard Work

Billy McLaughlin’s story of reinvention inspires new audiences as he returns to the stage.
Musician Billy McLaughlin is making inroads into the motivational speaking business with his story of personal revelation and the reinvention of his famed musical career. His insights—born of loss, grief, passion and determination—redefine the meaning of the word “luck” as he encourages people to put the story of his “music” in the context of their own dreams and challenges. Having recently launched his speaking career, Billy already has spoken to audiences internationally. His clients include corporations such as Microsoft, Accenture, Wells Fargo, Securian Financial and Keller Williams Realty. In response to his presentation, Chance Garrity, general manager of Microsoft’s north central district, commented, “Billy was absolutely amazing. The feedback has been off the charts …it was pure magic.” In addition, Billy has spoken to arts and health organizations including TED, Mayo Clinic and the American Academy of Neurology.
Coming to Grips:
At an early age, Billy McLaughlin achieved recognition as an international recording star. The five-time award-winning composer had been listed among Billboard’s Top 10. His signature style of playing with both hands on the fretboard of the guitar achieved a distinctive harp-like sound that attracted fans from around the world.  In 1999, after fifteen years of constant touring, often performing twice-a-day, Billy started experiencing problems with his left hand. In 2001, he was diagnosed with an incurable illness called focal dystonia, a neuromuscular disorder marked by uncontrollable spasms and erratic movements. Ironically, after months of searching, the diagnosis came as welcome news. Finally, there was an explanation as to what had been happening to him.
Practically overnight, the musical techniques that worked so beautifully for him in the past no longer worked at all. Stunned and humiliated onstage in front of hundreds of people, Billy had lost the ability to play the music he had written and performed thousands of times before. The former world-class musician had to wrestle with the truth that he could no longer produce even a beginner’s chord. In addition, having been known throughout the world as a solo artist, Billy was confronted with another startling fact: He was losing his identity. This revelation forced him to reconnect with the reason why he did music in the first place. A new question surfaced in his mind: “Are you still you when you can’t do what you are known for?”

A Shift in Consciousness:
What otherwise might have been an unhappy ending to Billy’s once astounding career was, instead, the beginning of a new chapter in his life’s story. At first, he couldn’t even use his music to lift himself emotionally from the tough circumstances—something he had been in the habit of doing ever since he was a teen. For the following two years, Billy searched for ways to fix what had been broken in his life. Finally, he decided that if reclaiming his music wasn’t possible, he would pursue the impossible.
The turning point for Billy happened when he realized that he had to stop thinking about what was broken and, instead, focus on what still worked. Despite numerous attempts by specialists at treating his disorder, Billy’s right hand did not improve. Consequently, he turned his attention to his left hand and started his musical life over as a left-handed guitar player.  Looking past the denial and disappointment of his current situation, Billy had a new vision. “I opened up my mind and my heart, and I found that what was impossible yesterday became possible today,” he said.

Deciding on a New Dream:
At some point everyone has to decide what they want, who they want to be and whether or not they are willing to do what is necessary, large or small, to move themselves in the direction of their desire. According to Billy, the difference between proactively choosing a path and giving up altogether can be as dramatic as night and day. “I found myself on the right road only after I asked myself the toughest question, ‘So…what’s it going to be?’” Billy realized at an early age that music could be a force for harmonizing people, “for harmonizing souls,” on a global level.  He decided that he wanted to participate in that mysterious power— to play, write and live music, in whatever capacity possible.
“I didn’t want to be broken, I didn’t choose to be broken, but I found myself unable to do what I love to do,” Billy acknowledged. His inspiration was simple: If he learned to do it once, maybe he could learn to do it again. Billy decided to start over. “I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say I gave up a few times,” he admitted. On one such occasion, after hours of struggling unsuccessfully, he finally slammed his guitar into its case and escaped to his favorite Chinese restaurant. At the end of his meal, the waiter handed Billy a fortune cookie. He cracked it open and read, “Many people fail because they quit too soon.” The message was opportune.

Doing the Work
As one who’s achieved numerous accolades, Billy is quick to say that persistence is the only thing that will get you to your dreams. “Talent, alone, is not enough; the world is full of unsuccessful geniuses.  Determination and persistence are the only keys to the door of your future,” he explains. Only through persistence has Billy defied the experts and his own self-doubt, becoming a virtuoso for a second time.Billy’s miraculous comeback did not involve technology, only the strength of mind and character, which allowed him to overcome his physical limitations and to deliver music that is distinctly his own.
In light of his return, Billy is ever conscious of the fact that there is nothing guaranteeing that any of it will last. All that he’s rebuilt could be gone if the dystonia migrates to his healthy hand. Should that day ever come, he is resolute in his decision to never give up. He will not permit the risk of failure to overshadow his desire to achieve. “The challenge for me and for every artist is to get out of the way of their music,” says Billy. “For the sake of our audience, that’s what we all need to do.”
In many ways, the worst thing that ever happened to Billy ended up being the best thing that ever happened to him. Left handed, Billy continues to express and evolve his artistry. The music is still in him. In releasing it, he opens up your heart and mind to the possibilities that exist for you. This begs the question, “What big dream keeps you going?” For more information, or to inquire about Billy’s schedule, contact Hannah Day.

Breathing Through My Feet: Gaining Mastery of the Impossible

While reading this story, think of what your “IT” is. Think of what you really want that you don’t have. Whatever “IT” is for you – a happy marriage, a better body, a career you’d rather have or a dream you wish you hadn’t given up on. This story is about how I am “finding IT” again and how I am reclaiming the “IT” I struggled so hard to find only to have it taken from me. The search is ongoing – for each of us as individuals, as communities, as nations and as a planet. And of course there is and should be more than one “IT” we must be striving for at any given moment.
My story is personal …the one I know the best. I believe there are “lessons” but they won’t be told classroom style and it will be up to you to understand them in your own context and how they might apply to your “IT.” The goal of this book is to share insights born of loss and grief, of optimism and passion, of hard work and determination, and of positive thinking and making our own “luck”.
“IT” is what you love. “IT” is what you are passionate about. “IT” is what you know would be best for you. “IT” is what you are already capable of having once you stop thinking about what is broken and lost in your life and begin working with everything you have that still works that you should be thankful for.
At some point we have to decide what we want, who we want to be and whether or not we will do the necessary things, large or small, that move us in the direction of our “IT”. The difference between choosing your path with proactive participation and giving up on yourself are as dramatic as death and life, as night and day. I recently found myself on the right road only after I asked myself the toughest question, “So…what’s it going to be Billy?”
After 25 years of being a dedicated and passionate professional right-handed acoustic guitarist, my “IT” was lost to symptoms that went undiagnosed for three horrible years that left my outer life in ruin and my inner-state shattered. When the Associated Press interviewed world-reknowned guitarist Leo Kottke and asked him what he thought of my attempt to relearn my complex and physically demanding guitar music left-handed, his only response quoted in the article was, “Well, that would be like having to learn to breathe through your feet.”

JL Rocks out to Bow and Arrow

Thanks to Billy-fan Davin for sharing his youngster John’s Jam Session with Billy.