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Rolly in Rehab!!! An adventure with neuroplasticity.

No, it’s not what you think…my major addiction is playing the guitar, and I don’t want to be cured. But here’s my tale:

20 years ago, I decided to concentrate on flatpicking. (I love the social aspect of it, and the sound, and the feel!) For two years, I pretty much put fingerstyle guitar aside in order to progress as a flatpicker. Eventually, I decided that it was time to get back to some fingerpicking, but I found, to my dismay, that something had gone wonky with my right hand, and the accuracy that I had taken for granted for so many years had vanished. I couldn’t quite figure it out… I’d been doing a good bit of boxing, and had taken a couple hard shots to the head. Could it be brain damage? Could it be just a function of aging? Did I have an early stage of some kind of neurological problem?

Eventually, I gave up on figuring it out, and made some major adjustments to my technique. I quit using fingerpicks, quit posting my 4th and 5th fingers on the pickguard, and struggled to reinvent my right hand. In time, I found that a lot of the problem seemed to stem from a lack of coordination between my right thumb and index finger. In order to still play with some precision, I started using my middle finger more, and just leaving my index finger out of the mix. It was a dirty fix, but a fix nonetheless.


A few months ago, my wife Janice happened on a book called “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge. It has become a big deal in the neurological science world, because it explores the concept of “neuroplasticity”, the idea that, contrary to previous belief, the brain is capable of reorganizing its map in order to favor activities which are most often emphasized.

One of the issues explored in the book is “learned non-use”. If something doesn’t work well, we quit using it. Then, the “use it or lose it” brain starts assigning that part of the brain to something more current. I realized this was exactly what I’d done with my index finger. By forcing myself to use the thumb-index relationship again, and actually isolating it, the brain should re-map itself to supply more brain power for this process. The “snag”, if you want to call it that, is that it may take at least 3 months of steady practice before you begin to see progress.

So, for the past 6 weeks or so, I’ve been devoting a minimum of 20 minutes every day to just playing “2 finger style”, with thumb and index, and concentrating on going back to the tunes of Merle Travis and Rev. Gary Davis, as well as Doc Watson’s fingerpicking, since all 3 played in the two finger style. So far, I seem to be making a good bit of progress, although there’s still a ways to go. I’ll check back in at the 3 month point, and beyond.

The key seems to be continuing to practice carefully and mindfully, using the damaged connections and making sure to play precisely.

So far, it’s slow going, but it’s going.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a similar problem, and anyone who is dealing with neurological issues or who has friends dealing with neurological issues.

Till next time!

Inside the process: the “Sunday Morning” CD

When I started putting up Sunday Morning Videos on Facebook and Youtube, four years ago, I didn’t realize that a small legion of fans would start clamoring for a CD or DVD to match, but that’s what transpired. The 200 or so videos that I’ve posted were meant to be quick sketches, and, while I often do several takes in order not to totally embarrass myself, they are not perfect little gems. I figure that, while they remain available forever (or what passes for “forever” on the internet), they basically get only their 15 minutes of fame. Not so with the CD, which one hopes will be played time and again.

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Sergio Kurhajec’s photo graces the CD cover.

Therefore, I went into Jay Ansill‘s “Cheesy Road Studios” with the intention of recording a less imperfect collection of some of my favorites of the Sunday morning tunes. Many of these tunes are originals, some of which were composed on the spur of the moment, and later revised into more cohesive arrangements. Others (particularly “Tristano”,  “Angie”,  “Holly”, and “The Gospel According To Steve Mann”) were homages to Steve Mann, Bert Jansch, and Davy Graham, all early and forever heroes of mine. Still others were jazz tunes, traditional folk music, and one lovely little rag written by my old friend Janet Smith.

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Marcy’s foto along with list of album tracks.

Going into the studio, I took along several guitars to try out, but, in the end, most of the tracks were recorded using one of my two “signature model” Mario Proulx guitars, or the ’38 Gibson L-O on which they were based. You can learn more about the Proulx “Rolly Brown model” here.

Jay’s function in this process was twofold: His engineering expertise allowed me the luxury of editing the most listenable version of each tune, and his friendship and musicality created an atmosphere in which I could have a trusted set of ears to help me decide what was good enough, and which tunes needed more work, or total retakes. This ended up working out beautifully, and eventually got us to the “post production” phase. The stars of this part of the project were photographer Sergio Kurhajec, whose beautiful photo graces the front cover, and CD mastering maestro Charlie Pilzer (of Airshow Mastering), whose expertise puts the final polish on the recording, and makes it come more alive. I decided to do the graphic design myself, mostly because I’m a control freak, and included a foto that Janice suggested and snapped, which shows me in my Sunday morning recording mode, and, for the back of the jewel case, a great pic that Marcy Marxer took of me while we were in mid-performance at the Perkasie Patchworks Coffeehouse. Then everything went off to Discmakers, where their efficient and attentive staff did a fine job of proofing and manufacturing the final product.

Janice's brainchild: "Inside the Sunday Morning recording process".

Janice’s brainchild: “Inside the Sunday Morning recording process”.

While the CD is available through CDBaby  (where you can preview tracks) and through iTunes, it’s always nice to cut out the middle men and give the artist his fair share of the profits. You can read the full album notes and order the CD with a couple simple clicks at my website!

Also, check the “gigs, etc.” page here for some CD Release events, at which CD’s will be available at a special discount!