“No one could explain why all of my technique on the guitar was slipping away from me,” says classical guitar legend Liona Boyd. “My right hand felt so different, I would end up crying every time I picked up the guitar—and it was getting worse.” After months of denial about what was happening, as well as a seemingly endless parade of specialists trying to diagnose why one of classical guitar’s most celebrated exponents couldn’t execute the streams of bounding arpeggios and other wonderful techniques that have made her a global favorite for nearly four decades, Boyd searched for answers herself. “If I had known what was going on, I’d have saved $100,000,” she explains. “I was flying all over the country looking for solutions: hypnotherapy, Rolfing, Botox injections in my arm, witchdoctors [laughs]. I even went to the Church of Scientology for a month. I tried everything.”
Finally, Boyd got the verdict from the National Institute of Health in Washington, D.C.—task specific focal dystonia was the diagnosis, and there is no cure. “When doctors told me I had an incurable neurological condition, well, it was quite a shock,” she says. “Basically, when you’ve done the same small, precise, motion a billion times over— like arpeggios and tremolo on classical guitar—the neurons in the brain that fire the signals to the fingers are fused together and/or worn out. It doesn’t happen for big motions, say, for example, a golf swing. The condition has nothing to do with the muscles or joints in your hands or fingers—I never felt cramping, for example, but my fingers would involuntarily curl up when I played.”
Boyd eventually quit touring in 2003, went on disability insurance from the local musician’s union, and ultimately tried to figure out what to do. “The guitar had given me so much,” she says. “It has taken me around the world and the thought of not being able to play was heartbreaking. I was devastated to think that my career may be over. I’m still sad to think of all the challenging pieces that I can no longer perform. Every day I would sit in front of the mirror trying to change my technique, but the doctors told me to quit beating myself up. Focal dystonia isn’t a disease—it’s a condition. It’s like if you wear out any part of your body, say, a ligament. I basically wore out the neuroreceptors in my brain for a specific task.
“I had a challenging practice regimen, however, I feel I did even more damage, albeit unknowingly,” Boyd continues. “I was doing a lot of mindless practice, particularly when I was married. My ex-husband used to like to watch a lot of television, so I would sit and watch with him, figuring that if I’m going to watch TV, I may as well put a Kleenex under the strings and do my finger exercises, basically being on auto-pilot. That was the worst thing I could have done. I was just burning those neural pathways to my fingers over and over again.”
Although she could no longer play the challenging material that she used to, Boyd did manage to make records in the throes of her condition. Seven Journeys, Music For the Soul and Imagination with guitarist/producer Peter Bond and Liona Boyd Sings Songs of Love With Srdjan Givoje [Universal] are meditative, joyful releases that are an inspiration to musicians everywhere who face similar adversities. With Seven Journeys, Boyd weaves her magic into a new age setting without compromising complex, yet subtle, harmonic movement. Conversely, Sings Songs of Love finds the 61- year old “First Lady of the Guitar,” flaunting her voice as well as her pop side on romantic odes with a classical flair.
“Quite honestly, I didn’t feel I was working with a compromised musician,” offered Bond. “In fact, I believe this is some of the best work of Liona’s career, not only as a writer but in her truly inspired playing. And we both felt that in many ways, the true nature of her tone was captured beautifully on Seven Journeys as never before. I wanted to build a beautiful world for her melodies and playing. No one will ever sound like her.” Boyd’s guitar was recorded using a Neumann M 149 tube microphone running through a Manley Voxbox. A second mic, an AKG C12 paired with an Avalon VT-737sp preamp, was positioned on the neck. Both were recorded directly to Pro Tools via Apogee converters.
“Focal dystonia has actually been a blessing instead of a curse,” says Boyd, who in her formative years studied with Segovia and Julian Bream. “I may never have started singing or pursuing different avenues with the guitar if not for this condition. See, I can still play rest strokes, and I can still use my fingers for certain techniques. The beginning of ‘Little Seabird,’ from Sings Songsof Love is a good example of what I can still do, though I’m obviously in a different place than I was on my early records. I was always a romantic, and I am still a very emotional player, draining every bit of feeling out of the notes. I think a big part of my sound is my feminine sensibility—it’s a very different energy than male energy. Some have said it’s my phrasing and the silence I put between the notes; that is something you can’t teach, it’s innate.
“I’ve always loved melody and the romantic themes of Spanish music,” continues Boyd, whose 2002 album Camino Latino/ Spanish Journey featured dynamic guest performances from Al Di Meola, Steve Morse, and Strunz & Farah. “I was never thrilled by contemporary classical music. It didn’t have the emotional component. I’ve always needed something beautiful and profound that moves my soul.
Boyd realizes she faces an uphill battle with focal dystonia, but she has met the challenge head-on by not only continuing to play within her physical limitations, but by broadening her technical palette. “The doctors told me it would get worse the more I forced it, and they were right, it’s worse. So I’ve had to find a new way of playing the guitar. David Leisner, a wonderful classical guitarist from New York, battled with focal dystonia and he ended up having to quit playing for seven years, before retraining himself with an all new playing motion using the larger muscle groups in his arms. I found his story very inspirational, and about a year ago, a light bulb went off in my head, ‘Why don’t I play with a pick?’ I’d never even picked one up before. My right hand technique with my fingers has always been there from the time I started playing. I never had to think about what it was doing. I only concentrated on the left hand fingerings, while the right hand motions always fell into place pretty effortlessly. I thought the pick would be hard to adapt to, but it wasn’t. After a few minutes, I was ecstatic—I can do this! I’ll never be like Strunz & Farah, but I’m getting much better. It’s surprising how natural a pick feels to me, and it’s nice to not worry about my nails so much. At first I was so afraid of dropping a pick during a concert, though. I haven’t done many performances with it and I have a few concerts coming up so we’ll see. I always have another pick ready to go. I’m actually working on hybrid picking right now. I experimented with lots of different picks, but I ended up sticking with a Fender Medium, because it gave me the best tone. I’m putting in about two hours a day, but I’m not overdoing it.” Boyd is currently playing a guitar from Los Angeles-based luthier German Vazquez Rubio, which is outfitted with a DPA 4099G mic. “I do some scales to develop my facility and I feel really good about my progress,” she says. “I’m not a virtuoso pick player by any means, but I can play all of the pieces from Seven Journeys and Sings Songs of Love.”
As she prepares to tour again for the first time in nearly eight years, Boyd is optimistic about one day regaining her former abilities. “Never say never,” she exclaims. “I’m giving my fingers a rest using the pick, and I have a feeling that my technique will eventually come back. I’m not pushing it now, and in the process, I’m working songs into my program that I never thought I would do because my playing has taken on a more folklike quality. It’s such a thrill to play a Bob Dylan or Joan Baez tune and have the audience sing along with me. If I could find another guitarist who’s also a good singer I just might form a trio.
“Focal dystonia happens to a lot of musicians and it can ruin their lives. I feel that part of my mission in life, my dharma, is to try and educate other musicians about the dangers of this condition. I’m very lucky and I want to show people that you can do the impossible and reinvent yourself, even against the odds, and even if you aren’t in your 20s or 30s. A dream that seems impossible isn’t. If you work hard enough you can do it. I am proof of that. I’ll never forget Chet Atkins telling me after he had a stroke, ‘Liona, life just ain’t worth living if you can’t play guitar,’ and it just broke my heart. So I feel very lucky to still have the guitar in my life.”