From Paralysis to Playing Again.
by Douglas Chapman
Once, and after only a few weeks, I played freely, intuitively and musically. Drawn to guitar on hearing a vinyl recording of Andrés Segovia, performed in master classes, and then on stage.
A gunshot wound destroyed my right shoulder, eventually causing the shriveling of key finger-controlling tendons there and in my elbow. My right hand drew in on itself, becoming a claw. I didn't play for 17 years.
Then, finding myself alone in the home of a friend who collected guitars, I picked up the humblest, a steel-string Gibson, and attempted to find the strings. Gone was the inevitability of the chords reaching up to find my fingers. Uncaring of the pain and awkwardness, I found I had to move my arm to pluck the strings, since none of my fingers would uncurl sufficiently to then pluck, especially the anular and index fingers, the i and the a.
I also had to use my arm and shoulder to move my thumb. I jerked upward to move a finger, then downward to bump the thumb off the bass strings.
The owner of the guitar came home early, and while I was unaware, listened to me for a while. On leaving his home that day, he insisted on giving me the guitar I had played, saying he thought I "might find a use for it."
Over the last 20 years I've stopped many times. Never more than a few hours. It seems that every time it was despair that pushed me to the next breakthrough. For, I couldn't not pick up the guitar again.
In recent years I've come to realize that it is not only the damage to my body that defines my daily struggle, but the ingrained muscle response memory from having practiced badly, incorrectly remembering how a movement felt―plucking upwards in a jerk that carried away with it any possibility of security, instead of pressing downwards, leaning my whole being on the firm ground of the string itself.
That spinal cortex memory, the one we call reflex, has been the curse that initially led me astray, and at the same time, the carrot that led me in ever-tighter circles to the free-moving simplicity of being firm and gentle with both my body and the guitar, so that the notes rise of themselves―not with my voice but with that of the guitar and the unforced ring of the string . . . bringing me pleasure, even if I never perform in public again.
Today, I'm playing, imperfectly but authoritatively and credibly it seems to me. I'll continue.