TORONTO — To say that renowned classical guitarist Liona Boyd has a lot riding on the success of her new album would be something of an understatement.
In 2003, the 60-year-old Canadian was diagnosed with task specific focal dystonia, an incurable neurological disease that effectively rendered Boyd’s trademark fretboard feats a thing of the past.
But Boyd has endured, reinventing herself as a singer/songwriter on her new disc, Liona Boyd Sings Songs of Love, which came out Tuesday and features 16 tunes written — and, for the first time, sung — by Boyd herself.
The record took years to make and, Boyd says, brought about the dissolution of her marriage. But she says she now feels revitalized.
“I spent basically four years of my life getting this album together,” she said. “Getting the pieces, getting the duet partner, moving house four times, getting divorced — oh my goodness, it’s been a process. I’ve never put so much effort, ever, into a record. It’s taken me on a journey, it really has.”
That journey began in the mid-90s, when she realized she was struggling with guitar techniques she had long ago mastered. Even though she already practised incessantly, she figured that she must play more, that her skills were slipping.
Meanwhile, she looked for answers. She estimates that she spent $100,000 and nine years searching for what the problem was with her playing, until she visited the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., where she was diagnosed with focal dystonia.
The condition occurs when a person over-trains specific muscle movements, causing those muscles to contract or twist — with focal hand dystonia, for instance, the fingers will either curl into the palm or extend outward without control.
It was Boyd’s fierce work ethic, then, that was causing the problem.
“I was an obsessive-compulsive workaholic, as my husband used to say,” Boyd said. “I had to watch a lot of TV shows with him that I didn’t really want to watch, so I’d sit there and do my right-hand guitar fingerings.”
“Little did I know that it was wearing out my neural receptors in the brain. I had no clue. I thought more was better.”
Initially, the diagnosis was devastating.
“There was no physical pain at all in my hands, it was just a lot of mental anguish, because if I can’t play guitar, my life is over,” she said. “I was a guitar addict my whole life.”