Last week I had the opportunity to interview Tony Memmel, a singer/songwriter and guitarist from Nashville. Tony has performed all over the world and has received many awards for his music. He recently co-wrote a song that was selected as one of the Top 40 Songs of the Quarter by Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI)! Oh yeah, and Tony was born without a left forearm and hand. I asked him a few questions about his career and how he plays adaptively.
VP: When did you start playing guitar? Why?
TM: I started when I was 13 years old. I had a friend from school, Max, who could hear a song on the radio and by the time it was done playing, he could play it on guitar. I was so inspired by that. We spent a lot of time hanging out and listening to rock and punk rock music. Soon I wanted to try playing myself. Max and I played in a band, and we were booked to play at local venues, talent shows, battle of the bands, and that kind of thing.
VP: You use a homemade pick adaptation made with Gorilla tape. (Learn how Tony makes it!) How did you come to this solution? What else did you try?
TM: I tried a lot of things. My idea was to be resourceful with what was in my immediate possession. It didn’t occur to me to seek a more professionally-made device. I tried wrapping the pick with Scotch tape. (That worked about as well as you’d expect it to work.) Then I progressed to duct tape. Gorilla tape worked the best. Through experimentation, I learned the length of tape I needed, what tension was right, and how to stick it to my arm.
VP: Did anyone ever doubt that you would be able to play?
TM: Well, this was one of the reasons I didn’t have a teacher. I went to local music store and asked about guitars. They said, “Go ahead and try it, but we don’t know if we can teach you. You might be on your own.”
I thought that might be the response; I was in uncharted territory. As someone who teaches now, I think I can use what I learned by having to go through it on my own to help other people.
VP: What are some of your favorite memories as a performer?
TM: I played at the Superdome in New Orleans for 35,000 people. I’ve also worked with a full symphony orchestra and chorus to perform one of my compositions. That was a totally different experience. I have really enjoyed working with children and youth choirs. I taught them some of my songs and we put on concerts together.
VP: What are you working on at the moment?
TM: This year was an exciting year. I did an international tour in South and Central America, and maybe I’ll do that again in 2017. I’m always writing new material. And I’ll keep performing in Nashville.
VP: In the past few years, you have written a song for the Lucky Fin Project, worked at the Cincinnati Adaptive Music Camp, and been a guest speaker at the Helping Hands Foundation Winter Outing, and other events. What have you taken away from these experiences?
TM: They have further cemented my opinion that you can do anything you set your mind to. We all have differences, and whatever they are, there are ways around challenges. Having to work in those communities has broadened my understanding and my abilities as a teacher and a speaker. It is nice to know I can give back in ways that have some lasting impact.
VP: What advice do you have for young musicians with limb differences?
TM: I’d give them the same advice that I’d give anyone. Work on the things that aren’t easy. Chip away at them until they get easier. As a person with a limb difference, I had to apply that concept maybe even more than usual. It took me a long time to build skills, and I had to be patient, sit down with my instrument and keep working. I am a lifelong student. Be patient with the instrument and yourself. Sit down with it every day.
There you have it! Time to practice!
You can learn more about Tony and listen to his music at his website.