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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 (www.billymclaughlin.com) 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.”