29 03 2008

‘Re-mastering’ his virtuousity

Guitarist overcomes debilitating illness, returns to stage and studio; he’ll play Sunday with Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra in Marshall

Cindy Votruba

March 28, 2008

Independent – Southwestern Minnesota’s Daily Newspaper


Marshall — Six years ago, Twin Cities- based guitarist Billy McLaughlin was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disorder and was told he had to quit music and look for other work.

He decided to go against doctors’ orders and continues to perform music in his style despite the fact that the disorder may eventually affect his remaining good hand.

McLaughlin is the special guest musician who will perform along with the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra at 4 p.m. Sunday in the Schwan Community Center for the Performing Arts at Marshall High School.

When McLaughlin started composing his first CD in 1986, several of his compositions featured a technique in which he held the guitar vertically and used both hands on the fingerboard of the guitar and the notes were tapped in a series of hammer-ons and pull-offs, like a harp. It became his signature style. He toured either as a solo artist or with a nine-piece ensemble.

After putting out several CDs, both on his own label and with Narada/Virgin Records, McLaughlin started developing problems with one of his hands. In 2000, he was unable to perform his own compositions. He was diagnosed with focal dystonia, a neuromuscular disorder in 2001. McLaughlin chose to continue songwriting and returned to his ensemble. The group put out a CD “Finally — Live!” in 2002, but it looked like McLaughlin’s condition ended his career as a virtuoso guitarist.

Determined not to give up, McLaughlin started to teach himself to play his signature style left-handed. He released his latest CD “Into the Light” in 2007.

McLaughlin said he’s part of a medical-based documentary coming out about focal dystonia and musicians.

“No one has looked at what this disorder does to musicians,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said the condition can be devastating to musicians, losing the use of your hands and the ability to play music.

“If you start to lose that, imagine what happens to your personal life, your self-worth?” McLaughlin said.

When he was dealing with his condition, McLaughlin said it was difficult to re-learn.

“It was a challenge to my frustration level,” McLaughlin said.

“You have to accept you’re not going to be a virtuoso in a day,” McLaughlin added. “You have to swallow your pride and sound terrible for a few days.”

McLaughlin said he needed to get connected to the music again, and that he doesn’t wish his condition on anyone.

“I’m still getting better,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said it takes years and years to master an instrument. He’s been “re-mastering” playing with the left hand for just four years.

“I think I can go a lot farther over time,” McLaughlin said.

And it’s been really such a thrill to play music again, McLaughlin said.

“I feel it when I get on stage and perform,” McLaughlin said.

Continuing to play guitar in his style was something McLaughlin feels most comfortable.

“It’s different, but it feels like the most natural way for me to play,” McLaughlin said.

“This style energizes me when I play this way,” McLaughlin added.

McLaughlin said he’s been composing and recording new material and will have a new CD coming out later this year.

The concert Sunday in Marshall will be the fourth time McLaughlin has performed with the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.

“Our last few shows have been such a gorgeous sound,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said one won’t hear a lot of guitar in an orchestra hall.

“The reason is the guitar is a quiet instrument,” McLaughlin said.

“They’re playing music for all the right reasons,” McLaughlin said.

In the second half of the concert, McLaughlin said he and the Orchestra are focusing on his original music that he’s recorded in the last five years.

“I love melody and impressionist music,” McLaughlin said. “It’s like painting colors with sound.”




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