“It was the only thing I could be.”
That’s what my long-time friend and sometimes collaborator Russ Ferrara said, when I asked him, “How did you come to know you were a musician?”
When we were students at college, Russ explained, “I could go for days without sleeping – just playing guitar. I never got tired of doing it. And I didn’t want to do anything else.”
Smiling, he said, “I actually did very poorly in my Introduction to Music class, because I was more interested in playing music than being introduced to it.”
As he continued to hone his craft, Russ eventually switched schools, attending Temple University on a scholarship. “I got a great education, and the contacts to take me to the next level, which was the concert stage.”
Combining his love of playing guitar with a knack for the business side of music, he was elected president of the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society. Then performances lead to offers for college-level teaching positons. He was one of the founding members of the Philadelphia Guitar Ensemble, and helped open doors for them to release an album. They were getting grants and commissioning pieces.
“I was one of the busiest guitarists in Philadelphia,” he said.
Then he started to lose the feeling in his hands.
“I started to have symptoms, so I sought treatment,” he shared, with a voice that was softer and much slower than his usually excited, rapid pace.
“Then things deteriorated. Rapidly.” Pausing, he added, “It was in August of 2001 that I lost all the feeling in my hands.”
He was teaching at Drexel University, had performance commitments for a year out, and, all at once, he could not play.
“My left hand had become a block of wood,” he explained. “My fingers could no longer press down hard enough to play the sounds I had been creating all my life.” Shaking his head, he said, “I could not play anymore.”
He added, “Pain is one thing. We can deal with quite a bit of it, as musicians. But without sensation, the connection between my mind, my heart, and my fingers was gone.”
“It was over,” he said. “It was a crisis. I had nothing.”
The only thing he had ever done professionally was to be a musician.
But he had two young children, a mortgage, bills that appeared in his mailbox every month, and no time to spare.
So, he took any job he could get, including managing a McDonalds.
He just tried not to think about music – which was the opposite of what he had been doing every minute until that time.
He pulled away from the musicians who he had always been the center of his social circle. “I just withdrew,” he said. “Seeing them was too painful. It reminded me. And I could not be reminded. I had to move forward.”
So, he kept busy. He went to McDonalds every day, came home smelling like a cheeseburger and fries, then showered, and changed. “My life was entirely about my kids,” he said. “My feelings for what I wanted to provide for them were positive enough to distract me from what I was missing. But I had to make a conscious effort to maintain that focus.” His son and daughter, who grew up hearing their dad practice and attending his concerts, could feel that something was missing. “Still, while I had lost my ability to play the guitar,” he said, “I knew that my love for my children would carry me through,” he said.
Eventually, he got a better job, which lead to several promotions. Then, when the economy hit the skids in what became known as The Great Recession, Russ was laid off.
“In the midst of this economic calamity,” he said, “I found out I needed a spinal cord operation.”
And, to his wonder, after recovering, he was able to play guitar again.
“So, here I am. Back to what I loved, and love now, even more,” he said, adding, “And it’s been full speed ahead ever since.”
“Now,” he said, “I have complete sensation in my hands. And I am playing at a level that, in many ways, is beyond where I was before.”
Russ’s journey of rising again provides a glimpse into what it is like to have a passion, lose it, and regain it.
“While I am now in my 60’s,” he said, with a wry smile, “I feel like I am going on 20 – because there are so many things I want to do now.”
Among those many things is a new album he is working on with Kim Robson on flute. They call themselves Gray Dog Down. Here is The Laurel Line, dedicated to a commuter rail line which ran along the Lackawanna and Susquehanna Rivers in the hard coal region of Northeastern Pennsylvania: https://soundcloud.com/graydogdown/the-laurel-line/s-onaQJ?in=graydogdown/sets/album/s-LCYpO
“For a long time,” Russ said, “I had a narrative. It was a story of a guy who was a professional musician for 26 years…then lost it all.”
He paused, then added, “Now, I have the opening for a new narrative. What will it be?”
His voice echoed: What will it be?
Russ’s question to himself is wonderfully open, honest, and brave.
It is a question he asks for all of us.
What will your story be?