Resilience And Creativity Help Guitarist Build A New Talent In Wake Of Stroke
Avrel Seale was a published author and semi-professional musician who — pretty well — had the world on a string until he hit the mid-century mark of his life. Suddenly everything he knew fell apart, and he had to find a way to put it back together.
Seale moved to Austin back in the 1980s studying Radio, Television and Film at the University of Texas. After a stint reporting at a newspaper, he returned to work at UT’s Communications Office where, little did he know, a quarter century later a life-altering event would propel him in a new direction.
In the interim though, he wrote for the Alumni Association, speeches for the UT President and other UT marketing.
“I've had the good fortune of writing my whole life and I've written for a living and I've also had a parallel career writing books,” he said.
Nine of them in fact, and on a wide range of subjects. But if you think Seale’s talents were limited just to the written word, that’s not the case. His love for playing guitar had him create and perform with several bands on Texas stages through the years.
“We had a cover band...we played a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson, you know, Clapton, Hendrix. Classic rock and blues,” Seale said. “In my heart of hearts, I think I wanted to be a guitarist. And I always kept that going.”
But the dreams of our rock-n-roll youth tend to mellow out as we do.
“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,” he said.
Avrel Seale has dozens of videos on YouTube, within which he plays some very impressive acoustic guitar.
One day three years ago though, in an instant, everything changed.
“My 50-year warranty on my upstairs plumbing went out, and I had a huge brain hemorrhage,” he joked.
It was a late Friday afternoon in January at his UT office when he stood up.
“And my hip started to buckle and I couldn't figure out what was going on. 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,” he said.
Co-workers called 9-1-1 and medical help arrived quickly.
“They were asking me questions. Can you move your arm? Can you raise your eyebrows? They all knew it was a stroke,” he remembers.
Seale was in the hands of experts, but that didn’t mean he was out of the woods. Dr. David Paydarfar chairs the Department of Neurology at Austin’s Dell Medical school, and he consulted on Seale’s condition.
“He was critically ill. He had a convulsion, was paralyzed on one side of the body, was unconscious, and he required intubation, which is putting a tube down his throat,” Paydarfar said. “He wasn’t able to breathe safely on his own, so he required a mechanical ventilator. “
After the seizure, Seale couldn’t give permission for the necessary brain surgery, but his wife quickly did. Doctors said time was of the essence.
“It was not clear on the initial day what was going to happen. His life was really on the line,” Dr. Paydarfar said.
The brain surgery was successful after they drained a golf-ball sized hemorrhage from his head.
“And I woke up in ICU, and my hair was orange from the iodine dumped on my scalp, and had all these metal staples in my scalp and I couldn't use my arm for sure and couldn't even sit up at that point,” Seale said.
What lay ahead was a tough road: a week in ICU, five weeks in a rehab hospital and four weeks in a neuro recovery center. As he began to re-learn everything it took to get by, he noticed even the simple things became excruciatingly difficult.
“Just learning how to dress yourself, learning how to brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand, learning how to bathe yourself. I don't take any of that stuff for granted anymore.”
By now you may be wondering about his guitar playing.
“I thought about the guitar almost immediately and I had my wife bring me this guitar to go to the rehab hospital,” he said.
Seale is right-handed, and normally that’s the hand that would pick and strum the strings. Much to his frustration, the stroke made that physically impossible.
“I couldn't even get my arm around the guitar and turn into the position where I could strum it,” he said.
All indications suggested his days of making beautiful music were done, and that was tough to accept.
“I was just lying on my bed, just crying, just weeping openly. Just crying out to God, I just want to play,” he said.
His condition made that next to impossible, but he kept trying different ideas. It occurred to him that one of his guitars might be especially suited for what little playing he could pull off.
“And so at that point, I plugged the electric guitar back in and just started noodling with my left hand,” he said.
That left hand is the one that goes on the fretboard, the neck of the guitar. With his right hand out of commission, it was his left hand which had to make all the sound, and he began doing so by using a couple of techniques guitarists use.
“One of them is called hammering on and the other is called pulling off,” he said.
He picked up his guitar to show how to play hammer on and pull off. A hammer on is a finger from his left hand coming down at a certain point on the guitar neck to get a desired note, and a pull off is the pulling off of that finger, flicking the string as he does, to get a sound.
The electric guitar is amplified, so whatever he does on it is louder than it would be on an acoustic guitar.
“That’s hammering on up here, and pulling off on the open string. So I’ve written a whole song based on that kind of thing,” he said.
Even his one-handed efforts are extremely impressive, and even beautiful. Perhaps no more so than his recreation of Jimi Hendrix’s classic “Little Wing.”
If this whole story sounds like a nearly unbelievable memoir, you won’t be shocked to note that Avrel Seale has written one.
“Within 24 hours of this coming out of the surgery, I knew that I was going to be writing this book,” he said.
This didn’t come as a surprise to Dr. Paydarfar, who said the kind of questions Seale asked even right after surgery were telling.
“He was just intensely curious. ‘How does something like this happen? Why does it happen?’ Almost like somebody,” he chuckled, “…about to write a book about it.”
Seale’s TCU Press book is titled With One Hand Tied Behind My Brain. The tightly-written, highly detailed remembrance of his trauma, and his climb back into his new normal came out this fall. Many of us find writing a book overwhelming with two hands, but he did his pecking away with just one. Seale said that’s his default setting.
“As I tell people who are saying they're thinking about writing something, I write because I can't not write. And if I don't write, I fall into depression and anxiety within about two weeks,” he laughed.
Seale also plans a return with live performance at clubs with his longtime band Moondog once the COVID-19 era has passed. He won’t be the performer he was before, but the music is still in him. And now he’s found a way to let it out.
“I can't play everything I used to play on guitar, but I can still play guitar,” he said.
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