Disabilities and guitar playing
Updated: Jul 3, 2020
When is it right to say 'No you won't be able to do it?'
In this post I’m going to talk about teaching guitar players with disabilities and the difficulties that surround that.
One of the most common questions I get asked when I mention that I’m a guitar teacher is people’s stories about their hands. People have all sorts of problems with their hands, arthritis, fat fingers, stiff tendons, weak fingers, lack of grip strength, lack of fingers, fingers fused together from birth. However, what I particularly want to talk about is that old question.
‘Is it worth me picking up the guitar and trying to learn if I have this problem?’
To me, this is a genuinely really difficult answer to answer. There are basically two answers.
’Yes, it will be more difficult for you than other people, but you will get results eventually if you work hard at it and commit to targeted practice consistently over a long period of time to overcome those issues’
‘No, really you’ve got no chance’
I hate answer two. Absolutely hate it. Though you have to ask the question, when does answer two become the answer you give? I personally consider finding work arounds or effective practice strategies to be a major part of my job, in a sense, if I give answer two, I feel that I’ve kind of admitted that I can’t do my job.
But there are other issues at play here which make me hate answer two, for one, people tend to consider guitar teachers to be quite knowledgeable in their field and to have taught a wide variety of pupils, which I have, and I have taught many guitar players who thought that their fingers rendered them incapable of playing the guitar, who then have gone on to succeed in their playing.
Therefore, if any one guitar tutor were to say to you ‘No, really you’ve got no chance’ then you can instantly become the single excuse that that person uses for not trying to play the guitar. ‘Well I did ask a guitar tutor if he thought I could learn and he said my disability was too bad, so I’ve never bothered trying’ would be the standard response for the rest of their lives when ever somebody asks them about playing an instrument.
Also there’s the fact that in my opinion, pretty much everyone has a disability when they start to play the guitar. They have a lack of ability to play the guitar, and the only cure is practice! Answer two basically kills the only cure for that disability.
I also think that there are therapeutic and physiotherapy benefits to playing the guitar for some disabilities, which only come from practice. Improved motor skills, finger strength, tendon flexibility, thumb muscle strength and endurance are all benefits which happen to your hands as a result of guitar playing. Even with painful conditions such as arthritis, moving your fingers around while playing the guitar can help delay or mitigate the onset of the condition. (Though I’m by no means saying that this a cure).
There’s also the standard ‘Well Django Reinhardt could do it and he only had two fingers that worked’, and really, his example is the most extremely positive result of a finger disability that you could imagine. I can’t imagine someone having just two functioning fingers and then becoming a capable guitar play, never mind a player to the standard of Reinhardt, but somehow he found a work around for his disability and became one of the best gypsy guitar players in history.
I have to ask myself when I see a finger disability of any kind ‘what would I have said to Django when he escaped that fire with only two fingers left working? Would I have given answer two? I certainly would have been tempted to, having only two functioning fingers is an incredible disability which would mean completely reworking your guitar technique. Would it be responsible of me to suggest that he could persevere through that disability?’
And yet, imagine now, if somebody had said that to Django, and he had listened. He would have been sat in the pub, staring longingly at guitar players while saying to other people and himself ‘there was a time I used to play guitar, then there was a fire in my caravan, and I lost the use of two of my fingers. I asked a guitar tutor if I could carry on playing and he said I didn’t stand a chance with that disability, and I haven’t picked it up since, now it just sits on my wall’
It could have been such a sad ending for Django. But instead he took up answer one and completely re worked his technique and became one of the best guitar players in the world.
What if you could too?
Feel free to comment about your experiences in learning the guitar.