Condition causes problems for musicians

September 20, 2009 9:19:41 AM PDT
He is recognized as an innovative performer and composer who plays acoustic guitar. Billy McLaughlin's lifelong career could have ended after he was told he has a devastating medical disorder called focal dystonia, a condition that causes problems with fingers and hands. Billy McLaughlin's focal dystonia affects his several fingers which made it extremely painful to play guitar. But, with a lot of determination, Billy made a comeback by teaching himself to play his guitar like a violin using his left hand.

McLaughlin has been playing since he was 13 years old.

"When I was growing up, everything on the radio was guitar music, it was Santana, it was James Taylor, it was Crosby Steels Nash and Young," McLaughlin said. "I was playing in bands and getting paid as a 15-year-old to play in bands that were performing around the Twin Cities, and it sure beat working."

"I started producing my own records and I produced seven or eight, about eight of them on my own," said McLaughlin, "Then I was signed to an international recording contract. It was like my dream was coming true finally. The first CD made it into the top ten on the Billboard charts for acoustic music, or new age music."

While preparing to release his second CD, Billy started experiencing some strange problems with his fingers.

"I had it for two years and I had no idea what it was. I knew what it felt like to me," said McLaughlin.

After being diagnosed with focal dystonia, McLaughlin was relieved to know what was wrong and started making a comeback.

"I have a very limited set of skills, and it's a peculiar way of playing on the neck of the guitar, " said McLaughlin. "There's no strumming, it's all up on the neck, and it's a style that I had developed."

McLaughlin's struggles with focal dystonia are documented in "Changing Keys."

"The documentary is really an exploration of this disorder and what it is. Dystonia, it's an incurable neuromuscular movement disorder," McLaughlin said. "I'm not the only musician in the documentary, there are other musicians who are sharing their story, but the documentaries followed me through a period where I committed myself to a goal that one day I would get to walk out on stage and perform at that high level that I was."

And he is, along with an string orchestra, which is featured on his most recent CD called Into The Light.

McLaughlin is living the moment and knows this could be short term.

"They told me that I was at a high risk to develop it in my good hand, and the doctor said, 'Billy, if there's anything you wanna do with your music that you haven't tried yet, do it now,' " said McLaughlin.

McLaughlin is hoping to perform in the Chicago area this fall. You can learn more his documentary, CDs and dystonia by going to www.billymacmusic.com and www.dystoniafoundation.org.

McLaughlin will be playing November 7 at The Space in Evanston, www.evanstonspace.com.


Load Comments