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Interview with ABILITY Magazine

Interview with ABILITY Magazine

ABILITY Magazine

“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.
Read this article in its entirety at ABILITY Magazine.

When Conditions Change

For the most part, leaders are poised to respond to challenges that confront them, but the problem lately has become how to deal with a moving target. While some prefer to wait for the dust to settle before adjusting their plans, others see today’s climate as being in a state of rapid, perpetual change. Considering the rate at which information, products and services are now disseminated, there’s a convincing argument to expect more change, not less.  What is the process for navigating change? One solution, offered by virtuoso guitarist Billy McLaughlin is to learn the art of reinvention.
McLaughlin is an Emmy Award-winning musician, speaker and author of soon-to-be-released, “Road to Reinvention.” In his book, McLaughlin chronicles what could easily be described as a hero’s journey that took him from success in the highly competitive music industry to sudden failure and humiliation in front of thousands when he was stricken with focal dystonia, a little-known neuromuscular disorder that destroyed the use of his fret-playing hand. His astounding return to stage as a world-class speaker and musical icon resulted from his ability to reinvent himself by changing hands to reclaim his music. “None of us get to do any day over, so every choice we make steers the path toward our ultimate success or failure,” says McLaughlin. The lessons McLaughlin learned through his unprecedented musical comeback demanded that he make progress everyday, no matter how big or small. His overriding message: “Stop worrying about what is broken and start paying attention to what works.”

McLaughlin continues to live with focal dystonia, which is currently incurable and could destroy the use of his other hand just as quickly at any time. He has chosen to make the most of his musical capability each day, knowing that the process of reinvention that he has discovered through his experience will enable him to adapt and make the most of whatever situation may arise. Since his comeback, organizations from around the world have asked McLaughlin to share his story about overcoming seemingly impossible challenges. Through an innovative mix of music, storytelling and disarming humor, McLaughlin offers a new perspective on business and life. He inspires audiences to action as he demonstrates the ability to move forward even when dealing with extraordinary change.


Billy Helps Make “Sound” Connections with Customers



Event Planner Maria Cabrera, CMP, comments on Billy’s presentation to Unitron’s customers in May.
At Unitron, our customers are hearing healthcare professionals who care deeply about making a difference in the lives of people with hearing loss. We meet with our customers several times a year, speaking on subjects related to audiology, as well as introducing new products and technologies we have developed. In our latest series of meetings we wanted to do something beyond the basic PowerPoint and technical presentation. We were seeking a way to make a connection with our customers on another level—a means through which we could move and touch them emotionally. We felt that Billy’s presentation was something to which they could all relate, especially since it had everything to do with [musical] sound.
Billy’s message is about not giving up. He encourages people to take the first steps, to realize and overcome their disconnection with the world. The people that Unitron’s customers serve are struggling with hearing loss. Billy’s gave our customers information they can use time and again in their service to them.
We wanted to start and finish our meeting on a strong note. We asked Billy to speak at the end of the day, closing out a series of business presentations with the idea that people would leave feeling much more relaxed and refreshed. Billy is very charming and fun. He has a way of loosening people up after a long day of lectures—he is not your ordinary speaker; he is unique and inspiring.
Receiving responses like “This is the best event we’ve ever attended!” tells me how much our customers enjoyed Billy’s presentation. In a very saturated and competitive market like ours, this is a huge compliment. We look forward to having him back again next month.

The Hero in Your Own Story

As a kid I remember reading stories where the hero would be faced with an impossible challenge and, somehow through strength and determination, win the day. I still like those stories, but have always wondered what went on with the hero in the days that followed. What was their “happily ever after” actually like?
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a number of great people during my travels. They are people whom I consider real-life heroes. Some of them you’d probably recognize by name. Others you have never heard of before. One of the reasons I think they are great is because they set out to accomplish things they believed in and then made them happen. They won their day.  Unlike the heroes in the storybook, I have had the chance to see these people in the days that followed their big wins. In most cases, I cannot say that “happily ever after” looked the way I would have expected. Actually, it wasn’t all that different from the days leading up to it; at least that’s how it looked from the outside.
Some of big “wins” in my life, I must admit, felt pretty good. I’ll never forget the first time I received a standing ovation as a left-handed guitarist. It was proof that there was life for me as a performer after being diagnosed with dystonia; the audience was telling me so. The reason why that day had special meaning to me has everything to do with in the days leading up to it. There were so many times when it was all I could do to keep going. Looking back it’s easy to say that the struggle was worth it. It’s not such an easy thing to say, however, when you’re at the beginning of a journey that has no timeframe, no guarantees and no end in sight. There were many days when I thought seriously about calling it “quits”.

The most famous of these pivotal days is a story I share with many of my audiences. It was a day when the pain of starting over was especially hard for me. The fingering, the sound—all the things that had come fluidly after years of practice—eluded me. I had nothing to show for the days of hard work I had been putting in. In frustration I threw my guitar into its case and shoved it into the closet. Had it not been for a few well-placed words in a fortune cookie, that guitar might still be in the closet collecting dust. Instead, I read “Many people fail because they quit too soon.” I am eternally grateful for that fortune cookie because my guitar has never been back in the closet since.
The deeper meaning in that cookie didn’t come from the words at all. It came from a lesson I had learned about challenges as a result of what happened that day.  Picking up my guitar and resuming the work I had started did not change the challenges that were confronting me.  It didn’t instantly change the sound I was making and my fingering skills didn’t magically improve. The change that took place was inside me. I had made the decision that failure was not an option—and neither was quitting. The challenge was still there, but I met it in a different way. I learned that it did not help to resist or avoid the challenge. The only thing that was left for me to do, if I wanted to move ahead, was to accept it. In the process, I also learned to accept myself.

I gained a new respect for the work I was doing, which allowed me the patience that I hadn’t permitted earlier. Through experiences like this I have gained a glimpse into what “happily ever after” probably looks like. The heroes I have encountered in my life haven’t gotten past having challenges; they just deal with them differently. I think that a better way to translate “happily ever after” is to say “happy whatever happens after.” The true gain in dealing with tough circumstances is in knowing that you can and will get through them. It relieves the pressure and puts wasted energy to better use.
When I made my comeback after dystonia, we posted banners everywhere saying “Billy Mac is Back.” The banners were only partly correct. The left-handed guitarist that returned to stage was pretty different than the one who stood there before all of the recent adventures. To this day, there is still music in my repertoire that I cannot play, lots of it, in fact. I’d be kidding if I told you that I didn’t miss having the ability to play it. However, the capabilities that I lost have been replaced by a quality that could have come only from the transformation that took place in me. To say that Billy Mac is back after decades of playing guitar on stage is only half of a bigger story. Speaking out to inspire others on their journey is the other half. I have discovered that my music can be expressed in an entirely new way.