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Austin Guitarist Sees His Music In A 'New Way' After Suffering Stroke

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to Austin, Texas, now to tell the story of a semiprofessional musician and author. Life was going well for him until at the age of 50, a devastating stroke changed everything. But that didn't stop him from finding a way to put his life and his music back together. From Texas Public Radio, Jack Morgan has this story.

JACK MORGAN, BYLINE: Avrel Seale is a guitar nut.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORGAN: That's him in his early 20s in a three-piece band wailing away on guitar.

AVREL SEALE: I started playing in high school, and I played for about 35 years in, you know, various bands. We had a cover band that - you know, we played a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson that - you know, Clapton, Hendrix.

MORGAN: All the easy stuff.

SEALE: Yeah (laughter) - classic rock and blues. In my heart of hearts, I think I wanted to be a guitarist.

MORGAN: But as many musicians do, he covered his bases by graduating from college. His career work has been in writing for decades now at the University of Texas communications office.

SEALE: I've had the good fortune of writing my whole life. I've written for a living, and I've also had a parallel career writing books.

MORGAN: Nine of them, on a wide range of subjects. He also kept on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK'N ME")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) Well, I've been looking real hard, and I'm trying to find a job, but it just keeps getting tougher every day.

MORGAN: But the dreams of our rock 'n' roll youth tend to mellow out as we do.

SEALE: As I got older, I got more into acoustic guitar. And the more recent years I spent really trying to master that kind of playing.

MORGAN: Seale's got a YouTube channel with dozens of acoustic guitar videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORGAN: One day, though, three years ago, in an instant, everything changed.

SEALE: My 50-year warranty on my upstairs plumbing went out and (laughter) - and I had a huge brain hemorrhage.

MORGAN: One late afternoon, when he stood up, his hip buckled, and down he went.

SEALE: Then I kind of realized what was happening because I looked at my right arm and tried to move it, and it wouldn't move.

MORGAN: Co-workers dialed 911 when they realized it was a stroke. His condition was further complicated by convulsions, and he ended up in the ICU. His life was on the line. Brain surgery drained a golf ball-sized hemorrhage. Ten weeks in specialty hospitals taught him that even doing the simple things was incredibly difficult.

SEALE: Just learning how to dress yourself, learning how to brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand - I don't take any of that stuff for granted anymore.

MORGAN: By now, you may be wondering about his guitar playing. His wife, Kirsten, brought him his guitar in recovery, but his attempts to play didn't go well. Seale is right-handed, and normally, that's the hand that would pick and strum the strings. His stroke made that physically impossible.

SEALE: And I was just lying on my bed, just crying, just weeping openly, you know - just crying out to God, you know? I just want to play. I just want to play.

MORGAN: While his condition made that nearly hopeless, he kept trying, but had to adapt using his left hand - the one he'd normally use to press on the neck of the guitar. The only sounds he could make were by using a pair of techniques guitarists use.

SEALE: One of them's called hammering on, and the other is called pulling off.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORGAN: Rather than just pressing on the frets, his finger hammers down to make an acoustic sound. And the pull-off is an actual pluck.

SEALE: That's hammering on up here (playing guitar) and pulling off (playing guitar) to an open string. So I've written a whole song based on that kind of thing. That's (playing guitar)...

MORGAN: His version of Jimi Hendrix's classic "Little Wing" is pretty amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVREL SEALE PERFORMANCE OF JIMI HENDRIX'S "LITTLE WING")

MORGAN: If this whole story sounds like a nearly unbelievable memoir, you won't be shocked to note that, well, he's written one.

SEALE: Within 24 hours of coming out of the surgery, I knew that I was going to be writing this book.

MORGAN: The book "With One Hand Tied Behind My Brain" is the remembrance of his trauma and the climb back into his new normal. The stroke was a staggering setback, but it wasn't the end of his dreams. Once the COVID-19 era passes, he plans to return to live performance at clubs with his longtime band, Moondog.

SEALE: With a stroke, there will be some things that you won't be able to do again in the old way. That doesn't mean you can't do anything. It doesn't mean you can't do the things you used to do or love to do. You just have to patiently think about them in a new way, look at them differently. And that's - I think that's what I've been able to do with guitar.

MORGAN: The music is still in it. And now he's found a way to let it out.

For NPR News, I'm Jack Morgan in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEARS IN HEAVEN")

SEALE: (Singing) Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven? Would it be the same if I saw you in heaven? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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