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Like a kid again: Frailty took my fingers, so my guitar no longer weeps

by Don McCormick, Special to the Democrat-Gazette | July 27, 2020 at 1:53 a.m.
Don McCormick bought his Yamaha FG-250 in 1973. (Photo courtesy Don McCormick, adapted by Celia Storey)

Last summer my wife and I visited my parents in Birmingham, Ala. Dad's birthday is in July, and before covid-19, I tried to get back about that time every year. None of my friends my age has two parents still alive, so I am lucky. But they are frail, prone to falling asleep in the afternoon and require a lot of help from my sisters and several hardworking household attendants. Still and all, they live in their own home in their 90s in these strange times.

In their basement, I found the guitar I bought in my teens. "Found" isn't exactly the right word; I knew it was there somewhere. I stored it years ago when my future was uncertain. My law practice had failed, I couldn't pay rent. Had my girlfriend not put me up, I would have slept in my car. I moved most of my possessions into a North Carolina storage locker, but a few things I boxed and put in their basement, thinking if I lost everything else, at least a few heirlooms would be safe for my children. I brought down the guitar at the same time.

I bought the guitar, a Yamaha FG-250, in 1973, new for $225 cash, from a pawn shop on Ninth Street in Chattanooga, Tenn., where my family lived at the time. A sign said there was a going-out-of-business sale, but my dad, who drove me down there to buy it on a Saturday in August before the start of my sophomore year of college, told me this pawn shop had been going out of business for 15 years. I plunked down my bills; they threw in a cardboard case for $15.

The new guitar was shiny, smelled of pine and was in the Dreadnought style. It looked like the guitars Arlo Guthrie and James Taylor played. It sounded fine. Paid for with summer job money from the Chattanooga Glass plant, where they made Coke bottles, it was mine.

My musical career began my sophomore year in high school. We had just moved, and I wasn't adjusting too well. Somehow I ended up with a no-name electric guitar and lessons. I wanted to be Hendrix or Clapton, but after learning a little, I grew more interested in the finger-picking styles of Leo Kottke and John Fahey. Maybe because I was never going to be an electric guitar virtuoso. Music is like sports, talent sorts itself out early. I knew at 16 that I wasn't going to be Sandy Koufax or Jimmy Page.

My lessons were taught by a local band member, who basically taught me how to play pop group rhythm guitar. Something happened, I don't remember what, and I stopped my lessons, but I kept playing through high school.

When I went off to college, I didn't take my guitar, but a guy on my dorm floor loaned me one for most of freshman year. A fond memory of that year is picking "Aura Lee" in my room while girls I didn't know listened in the hallway. Sweet, attractive and complimentary, they had obviously been drinking.

Back to the Yamaha. Its action was pretty light but stiffer than my off-brand electric. It went to college with me sophomore year, to parties sometimes. I played in the dorm every day. I'd developed a bit of an ear by that time, but mainly I played memorized things. I wasn't a talented musician, but it was fun to have a guitar at college. Girls I dated mostly seemed to like it.

Guitar is one of those happy things, like golf and tennis, you can stick with as you age. Not all pastimes are. My high school friends who were in band no longer play their instruments for fun. Pianists stick with it if they have access to an instrument, but I don't know any middle-aged amateur tuba players. Everybody I know who played guitar as a kid still plays.

When I pulled the old Yamaha out of its case in my parents' basement, its strings were dead. It smelled of dust and spruce, the neck was thick compared to the guitars of my more prosperous years. Yet it seemed familiar. I tuned it up, finger-picked "Ode to Joy," and it felt like an old friend. Not a smart friend; a good friend without ideas of his own always game for whatever adventure I had in mind.

Its wood had aged into a fuller and warmer tone. Rather than leave it with the heirlooms, I checked it with my luggage for my return flight to Los Angeles.

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If you keep up guitar playing, you change over time, even if you're not very good. In my mid-30s, something happened. If I could "hear" a song in my head, I could play it. It's hard to explain, but I no longer needed to memorize a song, I could play most simple songs with no chord chart. Playing was more fun -- I always played at home, for my kids, my wife, occasionally for friends.

I've been through several marriages and raised two kids. In that time I've received a lot of advice on self-improvement, much of it contradictory. Nobody, though, ever complained about my playing and singing. I have good pitch and a passable, untrained baritone. My playing is not good — certainly not good enough to make a living at it — but not bad. I'm not Paul Simon, but I'm less irritating than MUZAK-ed Nirvana.

After uncrating the Yamaha in Los Angeles, I played "St. James Infirmary Blues," then probably a Jimmy Buffett song called "Coast of Marseilles" (evocative of the end of one of my marriages) and then maybe "San Diego Serenade" (evocative of the beginning of an earlier one). Playing brings you back in touch with yourself. One of the things that's nice about music is you needn't explain your song choices to whoever happens to hear you play.

You can also take pride in it. When my younger daughter was in high school, I was playing a simple blues improvisation in the living room and realized she was standing around the corner in the hall holding her phone so her boyfriend could hear me play.

One frustrating thing is that as I've aged, my fingernails have grown thinner and more brittle. To play in the finger-picking style I like (think if Mark Knopfler had less talent and played acoustic) you need nails. For a while in high school, I played with fingerpicks, but they're clumsy and harsh-sounding. Rather than re-learning to play with them, which would involve a loss of speed and subtlety, I waited until each broken nail grew back. This caused weeks-long gaps in my playing.

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For the last several years, my right hand has also been weakening. I had back surgery in the mid-2000s, a two-level fusion. My surgeon saw a problem on the MRIs, but he couldn't get at it from the incision he'd made. It would have to wait for a later day. "But you do have another surgery in your future," he said. "Keep in touch."

Don McCormick makes himself play scales daily, on the advice of his occupational therapist. (Photo courtesy Don McCormick, adapted by Celia Storey)
Don McCormick makes himself play scales daily, on the advice of his occupational therapist. (Photo courtesy Don McCormick, adapted by Celia Storey)

Nothing dramatic happened, but my right hand seemed to be slowly withering. When I took out the Yamaha last summer, my right hand had clearly less muscle mass than my left. It was prone to cramping. It was starting to have a tingling sensation in its ring and pinkie fingers. But I could still play.

When I saw my doctor last summer, he said the likely cause was impingement or pressure on the ulnar nerve where it runs through the elbow. He said to buy an elbow pad and come back in six weeks. I did, but just before the six-week follow-up, an enormous searing pain between my shoulder blades almost incapacitated me. My doctor said, more or less, so much for the elbow pad, let's get a CT scan.

As the pain subsided over the next few days, I lost my sense of urgency. Then two weeks before Thanksgiving, the pain shot back up. My hand went numb. Novocain numb. I hadn't tried to play in months, but now I couldn't unlock a door with my right hand, type accurately, hold hands with my wife, or pick up coins from the floor.

It took a while to sort through CAT scans and MRIs, and which doctors cost how much on-network and off-, but in April I had a hemilaminectomy to remove some disc tissue that had been extruded from its source so long it had calcified, and to enlarge an outlet to make more room for the nerve. Calcification impinging on the nerve is what my surgeon thinks caused the ulnar nerve damage.

It turns out the ulnar nerve gathers sensation from your little finger and ring finger, and provides motor control for the thumb on that same hand. Why my loss of strength and the use of my right hand happened seems clear, although why it was hard for the doctors to figure out is less so. My occupational therapist explained it on my first visit.

But, and here's the point, I can no longer play guitar.

Mediocre though I was, the last nine months have been the first time in 50 years I couldn't sit down and play.

Of all the discouragements of aging — balding, weight gain, loss of stamina, loss of libido — this is the worst. It never occurred to me I could lose it. As Joni Mitchell said, you don't know what you got 'til it's gone. And it's gone.

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After surgery, my surgeon sent me to the aforementioned occupational therapist — for some reason you go to an occupational therapist for physical therapy for your hands — and she set me to all kinds of tasks that should be easy: squeezing Silly Putty between my fingers, putting tiny little pegs in holes, fiddling with metal objects I am convinced to a fare-thee-well are ben-wah balls. All of these tasks were maddeningly difficult.

She also said the guitar would not come back on its own. She insists I play.

She is confident my fine motor control, strength, dexterity and sensory feedback would be improved by playing. Since she doesn't play, she can't coach me, but she says I have to do it. So I do. I went straight home, picked up the newer, prettier guitar and tried to pick "Ode to Joy" like I'd done every year since 1990.

It wasn't there. At any level. I couldn't begin to do the intricate interlocking picking pattern I'd developed for that melody, I couldn't do the simplified version that launched me down the path toward the complicated version. I couldn't strum Beethoven's simple 1-4-5 in the key of C chords in a way that stressed the melody line. I had a hard time even playing chords.

I kept dropping the pick. And it wasn't just my largely inert right hand, my left hand had forgotten what to do. When I picked the guitar up, it was in May and the last time I'd played was probably August. That's a long time to go without doing something and then try to pick it back up.

An analogy that comes up a lot is "it's like riding a bicycle." It's not. Not at all. It's like riding a skateboard. Try it.

In grammar school I spent a part of every summer on a skateboard. It was as easy as walking barefoot. Then, five years ago, I came across a skateboard on the sidewalk. "This looks fun," I thought, planted my foot on it, and in my lawyer's suit and carrying a briefcase, expected to scoot down the street like I had in sixth grade. The board shot out. I was on my backside on the sidewalk, in pain.

Not like riding a bike at all. I can ride a bicycle just fine.

So, I am learning to play again. Sadly I think I will never fingerpick again — not enough sensation in my right hand to find the strings. So I'm learning to play with a flat-pick. There are good models — Jonathan Colton is really smooth — but it's not how I want to play. It's not how I played before I got old and waited too long to have surgery.

I try to make myself play scales every day. It's hard. It's frustrating. I remember three different scale forms from when I was 15, I play them all repetitively from the third fret up to the 12th, and then back down. I remember some blues triplet scales my guitar teacher taught me when I was 16, I do those repetitively up and down the neck. I only dropped the pick six or seven times last night.

In my 66th year I feel like a kid. A kid who doesn't know what he's doing. And it's terrible.


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