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The Will And The Way

In October 2002, some workmates and I agreed to play music for a Halloween party at the non-profit where I worked. I would play keyboards and sing. Two days prior to the event, I got up to get a glass of water and my right ear started ringing. I felt lightheaded and then I noticed my entire left side went a little numb. I thought it was strange but I didn’t worry and went on with my day.

When I got home that evening and told my wife about the numbness, she suggested we visit the emergency room to get it checked out. We ended up spending that night at the hospital and after a bunch of circulatory and neurological tests, the diagnosis was multiple sclerosis. having no family history of it I flat-out rejected the diagnosis. It took three opinions from three neurologists at three different Seattle hospitals before I finally accepted it.

The day after my first diagnosis, I discovered my left arm and hand were too weak to put on my socks. When I tried to play guitar and keyboards and couldn’t, then I got really worried. I had been a musician most of my then 43 years and was now facing the possibility that those days might come to an abrupt end.

Then I thought of my dad. He was born with cerebral palsy (CP), a neurological disorder caused by brain damage before or during birth. CP had left his hands clenched like fists, but he had taught himself to play notes on the family piano using the first knuckle of each thumb. His deep love of music and his will to simply play notes woke a new power in him and one we ALL have access to. It’s called neuroplasticity and all anyone has to do to invoke it is to keep trying. With neuroplasticity, AKA brain plasticity, his hands eventually opened up and he gained full use of his fingers. He ended up playing the organ, bass pedals included, all over the South and at churches in Seattle. My dad gained a skill he previously didn’t have despite of cerebral palsy and it was clear to me that giving up my music was not an option and that I WAS going to get back what I had lost. Here he is in his 60s playing about 2 minutes of organ .

After months of trying and finally playing dead notes and chords, my coordination and strength eventually returned. A little more than a decade later, I am helping other neurologically challenged musicians, thanks to the MS Center at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center and the generous donations of musical equipment by music stores and individuals. I lead a class called Get Back Your Music (GBYM), working one-on-one with people and in group “jam sessions” that focus on reconditioning areas of the body affected by MS. By being persistent, patients can use neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to adapt and change — to recover lost skills.

From the beginning, I chose not to take MS medications. I’ve treated my disease with a healthy diet and exercise and, of course, my music. Music transcends physical limits. It doesn’t matter whether you play instruments or listen to them, the brain responds. And neuroplasticity can work for everyone. I’ve been asked if it’s been hard to get back my musical skills. The answer is yes, but then anything worth doing is hard and where there is a will, there is a way and most of all, you really can do anything you set your mind to do.

The ultimate goal with GBYM: to start a band made up of us neurologically challenged musicians, who have overcome our condition to get back our passions. There are currently three of us, me with RRMS, a longtime drummer and budding guitarist with PPMS and another good drummer and keyboardist with cerebral palsy. Once we have a full band, I hope we can then inspire others to get back their passions, whether, music, skiing painting or whatever it may be. You can learn more about my music class in this KING 5 video report and if you are in the Seattle area, you can learn how to sign up for the class here .

Here are the link and the lyrics from my new bluesy tune called “Brain Plasticity.” I performed everything on the recording.

Went for a walk to see my baby
When I fell down to one knee
My baby thought I was proposing
Dr. said it was disease

Well, I ain’t gonna to give up walking
I’m gonna to do what I please
And as for that disease
I say don’t MS with me
I got brain plasticity

I know a drummer, she played for decades
Man, she could sure lay down a groove
But she had to slow down
For she had found
Her right leg could barely move

Now, she ain’t gonna give up drumming
‘Cause without drums the band ain’t got a beat
Now she tells her legs and feet
She says don’t MS with me
I got brain plasticity

A guitarist was getting in a little practice
So he could work on his technique
But his fingers could barely play it
‘cause the muscles were too weak

Now, he ain’t gonna quit guitar
Said the picking’s gonna come on back to me
And as for this PD
He said don’t you mess with me
I got brain plasticity

So don’t you give up your passions
You’ve gotta do what you please
And tell that traumatic brain injury

You say don’t mess with me
We got brain plasticity
It’s working for CP
We’re talking brain plasticity

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Meagan Heidelberg moderator
    3 years ago

    Hi Phil! It sounds like you’ve definitely kept music close to you through your diagnosis and on. We are so glad that you’ve found it to be so helpful not only for you, but the people you’ve been helping though your GBYM class!
    Thank you so much for sharing and for being a part of our community! I will be listening to your dad playing the organ after this!

    We hope that you fulfill your band soon 🙂
    Meagan, Team Member

  • PS98107 author
    3 years ago

    Thank you so much, Meagan! 🙂

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