What drives a musician? There are many stereotypical descriptors that come to mind including fame, wealth, notoriety, but at the base of it all is PASSION. Passion is defined as: a strong feeling or emotion; the trait of being intensely emotional; or an irrational but irresistible motive for a belief or action (Webster’s Dictionary, 2017). However, what does this mean to a musician?
As a guitarist with over 30 years’ experience, the passion for me was using music and playing guitar as a form of therapy, but that is a topic for another article. However, to describe PASSION as an actively gigging musician I’m going to take you on a journey, a most recent facet of my journey. Let’s go back a few months…
I awoke late November to a searing pain in my upper left shoulder. The pain eventually went into my left arm and caused total numbness in my wrist and about 80% numbness in my thumb and index finger as well as the back of my hand. All this occurred in just a few days and the pain was about an 8 or 9 out 10. After a few doctor visits and special imaging, it was discovered that two of the disks in my neck were bulging into two nerve clusters in my spinal column. I was extremely concerned about my ability to play, especially with the ferocious pain and numbness. My surgeon started me on PT as it had a 40% chance of resolving the issue, but scheduled a surgery date a little over a month away. He also gave me strong meds, put me on weight and movement restrictions, and said I couldn’t drive.
My world was rocked and not in a good way. I had to rethink how I did everything daily. For example, even though I was on pain meds, my pain level rarely went below a 3 or 4. I had started building guitars and was hoping to turn it into a job. However, that thought ended as not only could I not feel what I was doing, but had no strength in my wrist to be able to file or sand. I tried driving my automatic vehicle, but just backing it into the driveway was very difficult. The one thing I found I could do other than walk, breath, eat, and sleep was play guitar.
My band, Chained To Insanity, an original classic metal band from Rhode Island, had a few gigs lined up and I was very concerned about being able to perform at these shows. My band has 27 songs to pull from for our shows and I practice ALL of them once a week. Set lists I normally practice a few times a week, more often the week of the show. I’m a right- handed guitarist and I thought for sure the numbness in my left arm and hand would have an impact on my playing ability.
The first thing I noticed when playing was that the callouses on my fingers were so large I could barely feel the strings anyway. Feel wasn’t too much of problem, but the pressure when fretting was an issue. As I was playing through our set list I noticed that muscle memory had a huge impact when it came to the fretting issue in that I didn’t have to think when playing most of the songs and the fingers would do what they were supposed to at the appropriate time. Band practice would be the real test.
I arrived at band practice the following week feeling pretty good. I’m always happy to jam with my band family. My wife had become not only my driver, but my roadie, and nurse as well. I could not have done any of this had I not had her support. I refuse to sit when I play as I feel it changes the dynamics of the fretting and pick hands. There I stood with one of my lighter guitars strapped around me waiting for the cymbal count to the first song. The thunder that precedes our opening song envelopes the body and senses.
As we kick into the opening riff, it takes all my energy not to start head banging, more energy than actually playing. My wife, sitting on a piano bench next to me, is playing on her phone, but has one eye on me, making sure I don’t break my movement rules. Our lead guitarist, Dave, is standing nearby. He looks at me with an evil glint in his eye and starts banging head and swinging guitar to the beat, I follow suite. As I start, I look beside me and my wife has MORE of an evil eye; she wins and I go back to standing semi still. Dave shrugs, laughs a little and goes to his normal stance. After two hours of rehearsal, I’m sweating and hurting, but my soul is flying high. Practice went perfectly for me, not missing a note even with my disabilities. Tomorrow night is the show, game on.
Most local musicians know the gig routine: pack up all your gear; get to the venue at least an hour or more before doors; load your gear in; and wait for your time to set up and play; then load out. My wife, Christy, not only does merchandise for the band, but is also our photo and videographer. However, because of my disability, she is also my driver and roadie. I offer to use my combo amp rather than half stack and she asks, “Does that have the sound you want?”. I say, “No, but it will work.” Her reply, “Then we use the half stack.” I LOVE this woman.
As we’re driving to the venue, I take a Percocet to numb the tingling and pain in my arm, as it’ll be a few hours before we hit the stage. We get to the venue, load in, and hang out with the other bands, good friends. We’re playing with a few great local bands at a fun venue and it should be a good night. A crowd starts forming as the first band hits the stage. I take another Percocet, hoping that it kicks in before we start our set. The adrenaline starts pumping as we start setting up our gear on stage. Watching Christy bring my heavy equipment to the stage because I can’t lift any of it is very difficult for me as I hate being idle during set up. However, everything gets set up, sound check is done, and it’s time crank!
Being on stage is one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had since joining this band nearly two years ago, and it never changes. It is one moment a couple times a month I look forward to the most. It doesn’t matter how far away it is, whether I’m sick, or in a terrible state of mind. When I’m on stage and the band hits its groove, I’m transformed into a different entity. I become a channel for the music flowing through my guitar and my bandmates around me.
The crowd starts pumping fists and head banging which feeds me and I push myself even harder; head banging, guitar swinging, the raw emotion of the music written on my face and body. The leash of normality has been taken off and I am free. And just like that, 40 minutes is over. Breathing heavily, I take the sweat soaked bandana off my head and load out with my wife for the next band. I take another Percocet for the pain which I know will be forthcoming. We hang out for the rest of the show, pack up, drive home, and the night is done. I awake the next day very sore, but extremely satisfied. Back to normalcy.
Over the next week or so after the gig, musician friends and non-musician friends are just amazed with my resolve to play no matter what. In my mind, unless my arms are broken or I’m deathly ill, I will play our music. Some might call it insanity, stupidity, or even reckless. This to me is the definition of music as a PASSION.
I’ve even been told I was inspiring by some people. Being called inspiring is humbling, but my actions are core feelings for the music that I play and what I have learned from others. For example, there are musicians I know personally who have extremely difficult physical conditions, one is even confined to a wheelchair, and yet they get up on that stage and let it loose. That’s PASSION.
Thanks for reading and look for Part II coming at you very soon! In the next article, I’ll talk more about my story, especially the gig before surgery; the surgery itself; and post-surgery outcome.
Please let me know what you think of this article in the comments below and feel free to share if you’re so inclined!!
-Scott Duncan – MU Columnist
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