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20th Anniversary Christmas Tour Dates Announced!

It all started as a quartet in 2003. Carin Vagle, Jeni-Lyn Starr, Billy O and Billy McLaughin played concerts in Milwaukee, Duluth and a handful of shows around the Twin Cities that year. 20 years and 300 shows later, SimpleGifts with Billy McLaughlin is still ringing in the holidays with Carin Vagle, Karen Paurus, Amy Courts on vocals, Laura MacKenzie on assorted Celtic wind-powered instruments, Billy O on ornamental percussion, Enrique Toussaint on bass, Nathan Wilson on violin and mandolin, and Lisa Z on piano.

As one of the larger MN holiday ensembles still standing, SimpleGifts continues to grow a multi-generational fanbase through touring and streaming via online platforms that did not even exist in 2003. You can stream SimpleGifts on all streaming platforms, buy CDs at all 20th Anniversary shows along with new merch, and rumor has it there may be vinyl in the future for the 21st SimpleGifts Christmas Tour.

Special shows include the return of Jeni-Lyn Starr and Heather Garborg Moen at the Parkway only on Dec 17 and an extended-play show driven by fan requests dubbed “SimplePaLooza”only on Dec 22.
















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.

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.

The Gift of Reinvention

To know the gift of reinvention is to know the pain of loss. For me, reinvention hasn’t always been a pleasant experience. It meant something in my life that I depended on was no longer working and I needed to find a way to fill the emptiness that it left behind. My experience with reinvention was born out of necessity and not desire. Over the course of a few years, I’ve had to reinvent the personal, professional, financial and even physical aspects of my life. A little-known neurological condition called focal dystonia took away everything that I thought defined my life when it impaired the use of the fingers on my fret-playing hand to the point where I could no longer play even the simplest melody.
For more than twenty years, I had made it my purpose to be the best acoustic guitarist and composer I could possibly be. I was getting along pretty well—having made it onto Billboard’s top-10 list with my first solo album. I had built my career, reputation and record deals around my unique style and sound. Over the years, as my profession grew, a lot of people came to depend on me including my family, band, booking agent, clients and fans. If you told me at the time that something could come along and wipe all of it away in a matter of months, I would not have believed you. However, that is exactly what happened. As a result of my sudden affliction with dystonia, my ability to play, my record deal, my gigs, my fans, my career, reputation, income, home and family life all disappeared in less than a year.

Having every comfort I had ever known stripped away from me so suddenly and permanently was a harsh reality. The experience, however, taught me something very revealing: There was a distinction between who I was versus what I had. I learned that sometimes the things we accomplish in the past get in the way of who we are and where we are headed. I believe this is true for individuals as well as for businesses. For me, it meant that I needed to let go of what no longer worked in my life. By letting go, I found my strengths and, in fact, I found my voice. I learned that not only was there music inside of me to share; there also was a story. Without the experience, I would never have known how much more deeply people would grow appreciate my music now that they were able to understand the story behind it. I would never have known how much the lessons in my life could inspire others to follow their dreams and overcome what they perceived to be impossible. That is why I often say, “The worst thing that ever happened to me has also turned out to be the best thing that had ever happened.”
In my case, I had no choice but to learn how to let go of the past and reinvent the future. The same is true for lots of people. The loss of a business, a marriage or a family member can happen unexpectedly and permanently change the course of people’s lives. For others, letting go of what’s broken is not so crystal clear because a choice still lingers. Business may drop off, but not disappear altogether. A person may have a valuable skill, but lose the desire to use it. The remnants of a relationship may remain intact, but the connection may have weakened. Memories overshadow what is yet to become and old habits occupy the time and space where new action is needed. Instead of rebuilding systems that no longer work, people often look for ways to repair and preserve them. In the process, they miss the beauty of what will happen next.
This is one of the reasons why I am an advocate of arts education. Artists are familiar with the idea of reinvention. In fact, they live it every day. When artists create, regardless of whether they’re creating music, a play or a painting, they follow the creative process from beginning to end. Since artists live to create, they are driven to reinvent over and over again. Each new creation presents a new challenge that involves seeing whether or not their vision will come to life. Learning the art of reinvention is something that can improve life on many levels. It keeps us from clinging too tightly to past accomplishments and comforts, which can get in the way of unfinished dreams and desires. It also helps us to adapt to changing circumstances around us. Even today, my dystonia is as bad as ever. Had I not learned how to adapt, and play guitar left-handed, my musical career may have disappeared completely.

Every time I step onto the stage, I thank God for the gift of reinvention and my ability to perform once again. I know better than to let myself get too comfortable with the idea, however. My doctors have told me that dystonia could also attack my “good” hand some day. If that day ever comes, I will be better prepared to deal with the situation, as reinvention has become a way of life for me. With it, there will always be the promise of a new beginning.

Moving Hearts and Minds through Music

My relationship with music is an ever-changing adventure. There are times when I am so connected to what I am playing that the music simply flows through me—as if the music and I are one. There are other times when I can’t even bring myself to pick up my guitar. If my experiences with music have taught me anything, it is that my performance depends substantially if not entirely on my state of mind. When I play, my mind is in harmony with my surroundings, my thoughts, feelings and sense of presence. Over time, I’ve become pretty adept at bringing myself into a place where I perform my best. However, this hasn’t always been the case. There was a long time when I had lost touch with my ability. Dystonia and the debilitating effect it had on my hand affected me in many more ways than mechanical. It had a chain reaction on my emotions, my outlook and my concentration. It took a long time to overcome my emotional and psychological reaction to dystonia. Thankfully, I succeeded. When I did, my outlook about what was going on had changed; dystonia lost its power over me. I adapted and the music found its way through me once again. In retrospect, the physical damage that dystonia had caused was not as severe as what it had done to my attitude.
I feel fortunate that my work in music has heightened my awareness of my attitude and emotional state of mind. Having achieved a sense of “flow” when I play my music, I am able to recreate it for myself and my audience. I believe that having been in touch with this amazing sensation, and wanting desperately to have it back again, was the reason why I was able to persist with relearning how to play the guitar left-handed, regardless of the time and struggle that it took. My experience with dystonia was an exercise in the power of mindset. I learned that I had a choice between creating new vision and finding myself stuck in despair without the ability to even try. It was the music I had nearly lost that taught me this. The interesting thing about music is how it transcends words and intellect and operates on another level of consciousness entirely. Because music doesn’t deal with words or thought, you don’t argue with it. Music simply flows through you and carries you wherever you let it. I have devoted my career to exploring how music melds with people’s minds and emotions. It is an experience I share with my audience when I play. I want them to experience their own sensation of “flow” so that they, too, will be inspired and moved through music.

Inspiration is crucial to the creation of anything. Like music, inspiration doesn’t happen on an intellectual level, but on a higher plane. It, too, transcends thoughts and words. I believe that inspiration is love, whether it comes in the form of music or a business idea. Once you have learned to tap into your inspiration and allowed it to flow through your imagination and attach to your dreams, anything is possible. Because inspiration is sourced in love, it gives you the strength to persevere. Unfortunately, we don’t learn much about inspiration in school. At least, I never did. I had to find it for myself. For years it evaded me, until I discovered what I loved to do. Thankfully, I built my career around it. If you’re lucky, you’ll have landed on inspiration, either accidentally or through persistence, and discovered what you love to do. You know when you’ve been inspired, because it changes everything. It will serve you in ways that no amount of knowledge can. In a culture like ours that places a high value on things that can be counted and seen, inspiration can sometimes seem out of touch and unreal. However, when you find yourself in a difficult situation, such as I did, inspiration is the source of strength that will see you through.
The next time you find yourself stuck in gridlock, when reasoning and rationalizing are getting you nowhere, stop for a moment and take inventory of your senses. You’re probably arguing with your own intellect—or somebody else’s. Get out of your head space and into your heart. Find a quiet place, go for a walk or listen to your favorite music and let it be the vehicle that takes you to a higher plane. You’ll know when you arrive because your frustrations will settle down and your inspiration will begin to flow. When it does, pay attention. Listen to the music that your inspiration plays for you. Let your distractions and doubt fade away and the direction you’ve been seeking will become clear.

My Personal Challenge to You

My longtime fans have heard me say numerous times from the stage that the world needs more people who love what they do. This is not just my advice to young musicians whom I teach and mentor. It is my personal challenge to infuse the power of love into everything I do.
It astounds me when I read about the number of people who go to work every morning hating their jobs. Depending on the reports you read from publishers like CBS and Forbes, somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of people are overworked, overstressed and would rather be doing something else with their lives. That means that most of the people you encounter every day, from the person who works on your car to the person who fixes your teeth, do not enjoy what they do.
What about you? Does that news report describe how you feel about your job, your work? What about the people you live and work with? Is it true for them, too? Not only is it hard for you to put up with doing work that you don’t enjoy, it’s hard for everyone else, too. We are all sharing one another’s stress. At the same time, there probably are all sorts of good reasons why we cannot abandon the work we have in front of us. There are people who depend on us. We have financial commitments to maintain. It may be hard to find another job in a certain profession or income range.

What if you could have both: work that you love and a living that you can maintain? You can, and it’s entirely within your reach. Like I’ve said before, “Nothing is impossible.” I’m not saying that it’s always going to be easy. Easy and possible are not the same thing. However, you need to ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” Is there a longing within you to do something that you have been putting off, to express something that you haven’t fully expressed? The yearning that you feel for something that you’ve not yet pursued or experienced is there for a reason. I call it love. Every time you take something you love, box it up and suppress it, you deny it to yourself and everyone else around you. Is there any wonder as to why there is so much unhappiness in the world?
I’m not asking you to do something drastic like sacrificing everything you have to pursue your unrealized dream (although history is filled with people who have done exactly that). The pursuit and mastery of the gifts within us are not always achieved in one swift action, but through a series of small, disciplined and organized activities that lead to something bigger and better overall. I am asking you to begin by answering the call. Take a stand and make a commitment to yourself to achieve your greater desire.
Music has taught me the value of practice and of making space in my life to do it. The compositions that come easy for me today were at one time out of my reach. If you know my story, then you know that most of what I have achieved today was beyond my grasp not once, but twice before. My affliction with dystonia erased years of practice from my life. Virtually overnight it removed my means of making a living for my family. However, it did not erase the love for what I do. The music inside of me that I had yet to share is what eventually helped me to find a new direction with an even better destination.

The same is true for you, whatever your “music” happens to be. If you love it and allow time and space for it to flow, then you cannot help but create more of it in your life. All too often, we are quick to make judgments that prevent us from even attempting this. Our fast-paced culture tends to demand immediate and tangible results from what we do. In the process, if we are not careful, we short-change ourselves from those things that are most precious to us. Nature does not create its beauty in a day. When the seeds are deep in the soil, it is hard for us to imagine the fruits that will someday emerge. Through patience, faith and persistent vigilance, new life will sprout from the seeds you have planted, which you can then cultivate (through practice) and eventually harvest.
The choice to pursue what you love doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. You don’t have to choose either the life you love or the job you hate. It isn’t necessary to abandon all other conventions in your life including your job, whether you hate it right now or not. For the moment, all you need to do is ask yourself, “Is what I love to do important enough to me to make space for it in my life?” If your answer to that question is “Yes,” then take out your calendar and build in some time for practice. Have faith in the process and know that what you are pursuing is worthwhile. The seed you have planted through this beginning with start to grow. The skills you acquire will spill into your work life and the love you experience from it will stay with you throughout your day. Eventually, the fruits of your labor will attract the attention of others around you and the work that you love will occupy a bigger part of your life. When I accepted the challenge to infuse love into everything I did, it made all the difference in the world to me. When you decide to make it your challenge, you will see the difference in your life, too.

Impossible Redefined – Podcast

Impossible Redefined

Impossible Redefined

A podcast from Billy McLaughlin – Impossible Redefined

How many of you have expectations from your boss or from your board members, shareholders that this year you’re going to have to achieve what’s simply impossible in today’s business climate. If it’s not at work, maybe you’re faced with the impossible task of fixing relationships or mending fences or guiding a teenager or facing a personal change, a health crisis, in your personal life away from work. These are all places that we face this feeling of having to achieve something that’s impossible. There are so many different ways that I have faced those feelings of having to do something that had never been done before, at least that I had never done before. Listen to the podcast here…

A Creative Way to Deal with Change

A Creative Way to Deal with Change
One of our greatest birthrights as human beings is our capacity to adapt. Each of us can change—and we can change by choice more quickly than any other species on the planet. When we choose to adapt, we stop thinking about what we’ve lost and begin to make new discoveries. What typically results is a paradigm shift—a change in focus, mindset and behavior. As a musician, I have learned that there are two ways of coping with change: one is to accept it; the other is to create it.
Creating change of any kind, whether it’s a new musical arrangement or a new product or service, begins with a four-step process:
1) Visioning makes whatever you are thinking of creating possible.
2) Taking action makes whatever you have chosen to create accessible.
3) Practicing makes the results of your creation perfect.
4) Celebrating makes the efforts that you put into creating significant.
A Creative Way to Deal with Change
As you encounter change in your life, whether it’s by chance or by choice, follow these simple four-steps and you’ll find the process easier and the outcome more certain.

The Power of Music to Motivate Change

Music makes things happen. It can strike a chord in people’s hearts, unite them, awaken their feelings and stir them into action. History is filled with songs, ballads and drum beats that inspired a new vision—such as the making of a new republic, recognizing civil rights, and feeding the world (which Live Aid pursued in the 1980s).
Think of the ways in which music moves large groups of people in your world: a band proudly performing a John Philip Sousa march in an Independence Day parade, a high-school jazz ensemble rousing fans at a homecoming game or a lonely trumpet playing taps at a Memorial Day observance. Music has been part of humanity since the beginning of time. It is so integral to our culture that it becomes easy to take it for granted. Yet the power of music to organize, persuade and enliven the spirits of people is irrefutable.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose works inspired artists George Lucas and the Grateful Dead, saw music as something that can turn on life’s energy. He hadn’t given much thought to rock music until he had been invited by Bob Weir to attend a Grateful Dead concert along with 8000 young fans. Amazed by the exuberance he observed, he described the rapture as a “wonderful fervent loss of self in the larger self of a homogeneous community.”
You don’t have to organize a concert or showcase a world-famous rock band to leverage the power of music to inspire your group or heighten the awareness of a special cause. There are many ways in which music can enlighten, entwine and invigorate the people on your team. For example, you can use music as part of a ritual for your gathering. Have you ever attended a seminar, play or pep rally that was preceded by a musical recording? Music sets the tone of the event; it helps people to prepare emotionally and energetically.

Consider designating a theme song to represent the work that you and your team are gathering together to perform. It will symbolize the feelings and energies that the team generates as a group. It is something that each member of the team can take back with them as a reminder of the work they are doing and the goals they are striving to achieve. When they sing or listen to the theme song in the car or while working independently, it immediately triggers the same sensations as the group experience.
More importantly, music allows for moments of celebration that breaks up the stress and strain of work. Through ritual, rhythm and ceremony, music adds the essential element of celebration to the process of creation, whether that creation has to do with a job or personal aspiration. As with the ritual of opening meetings or events with a particular type of music, the rhythm of the music also sets an energetic tone. There is also rhythm to the celebration itself. Like taking in a deep breath of inspiration, celebrating with music gives people a chance to reflect upon what they’ve achieved together, realign their purpose, refresh and restore their energies to carry on with what they’ve begun.
When you attend a presentation by Billy McLaughlin, you will recognize immediately the homogeneous community that Joseph Campbell described. When hearts are joined the mind opens up as one and new shared insights begin to form. At moments such as these, inspiration opens the gridlock caused by indecision, confusion or fears. From Billy’s perspective, nothing is impossible. Celebrate with him through his message and music and you will understand his sincerity when he says “Make every day the best day you possibly can!”
The next time that you encounter a new project or become saddled with a difficult task, explore the rhythms of the mood that takes you to a place beyond struggle and doubt. Find a musical arrangement—lyrics or melody—that represents not the condition that challenges you, but the destination you hope to reach. It’s a technique as old as time; it has moved others to achieve great things throughout history and it will work for you, too.

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?