I was saddened by the news that Keith Emerson, the amazing prog rock keyboard player of ELP, has apparently ended his own life because a neurological problem was affecting his fingers and making it increasingly difficult to play.
I can empathise with this only too well. I have played the guitar since I was fifteen. I went semi pro, did a Continental tour as a solo singer-songwriter and later formed my own folk-rock band, Izara, which gigged for four years.
When the band broke up, I went solo again. I have written hundreds of songs and now, in the YouTube and SoundCloud era, was looking forward to recording the best and getting them out there so people could actually hear them, instead of my words and music being sung only in my bedroom.
What I didn’t bargain for was disease robbing me of my ability to play the guitar. I don’t know what Keith’s problem was but, in my case, it was osteoarthritis in my fingers. As they gradually stiffened, I found it harder and harder and increasingly more painful to form chords. As the disease progressed to my thumb joints, I couldn’t even strum without wincing. So I have been forced to give up a hobby that gave me great enjoyment and a creative outlet on a daily basis for more than five decades.
To make things even worse, a long bout of laryngitis over December and January has robbed me of my singing voice, too. Once, my soprano could soar to Kate Bush heights, though I could never quite achieve Minnie Riperton’s celestial squeak. My three and a half octave range has shrunk to two at a push and my breath control is all over the place. I am wondering if singing lessons might help.
If I can regain my voice, all is not quite lost as I can still play keyboards after a fashion. I started playing the piano by ear when I was only three, went to lessons from the age of six and had passed my Grade 8 by the time I went to university. I have recently bought a small digital five-octave keyboard and as soon as my tones have grown a bit more dulcet, I shall start practising.
Unlike Keith, I am not a musical colossus with a name and a performance standard to uphold and neither am I a perfectionist. I compose and play purely for enjoyment. But when a musical ability one has taken for granted for most of one’s life (I am the same age as Keith) suddenly begins to fail, it is like a bereavement. Instead of glorious chords and harmonies, all you hear is the percussion of slamming doors.