TBI – Survivors, Caregivers, Family, and Friends

Playing a Mandolin


 Richard Johnson

(presented by Donna O’Donnell Figurski)


mandolin-for-gloggtserMy traumatic brain injury took place in October 2003. I did survive (fortunately), but one of the main side effects from my injury is short-term memory loss.

Years ago, I was in a local coffee shop drinking a cup of coffee and thinking – not “Why me? Why me?” but “What can I do to help my short-term memory loss?” The coffee shop had two people playing guitars. One person put down his guitar and picked up a mandolin. They then played three of my favorite songs. What they triggered was like a bolt of lightning had gone through me! I knew right away that learning how to play an instrument, how to read sheet music, and, most importantly, remembering what I just practiced would be the best memory therapy in the world.

When the musicians took a break, I asked about the mandolin. I told the mandolin-player that I had never played any instrument before. I asked if I could chord with less than four fingers (I only have about two-and-a-half usable fingers), and on and on we talked. He showed me a couple of mandolin chords and said to search on Google for two-finger mandolin chords. He told me to buy a beginner’s mandolin to start and to have fun. And that’s exactly what I did. I bought a good-enough beginner’s mandolin from a friend of a friend, found a great local music store that gives mandolin lessons, bought a couple of books and DVD’s, and started playing.

Well, it’s been a few years now, and I play at least one hour every day. It seems to take a month to learn a song. I’m taking the old “practice, practice, practice” route. I’m able to remember and play (most of) those songs without reading the sheet music. If I haven’t played one of those songs in a couple of weeks, I may need to read the sheet music to remember a measure or two.

I wake up in the morning thinking about the songs I practiced and played the day before. I think about the songs I will practice and play that day by “singing” the songs in my head (not the lyrics, but how they’re fretted and picked). When I’m playing, I’m in a whole different world, and the daily toils just slide away.  I’m sure I could refer to my playing-time as “therapy,” but, for me, it’s pure bliss.

In short, playing a musical instrument is one of the main keys I have gained for rewiring my brain. I truly think that beginning and learning a new hobby or new skill is very important, as it makes us think, think, and think. I also believe that playing music, any type of music, all the time helps my brain find those broken nodes and, with its neuroplasticity, “fixes” them. And most importantly, my short-term memory problem is less and less pronounced. Sure, I can still forget what I had for lunch an hour after eating it, but I can bring that memory back a few seconds later. I can still forget who called me earlier today or why, but again it’s easier to make that connection again.

I would like to continue talking, but my mandolin is calling me.

(Richard Johnson’s experience is an excellent example of something I thought might be true – using the playing of a musical instrument to stimulate the brain and thereby help heal an injured brain.)


RJohnson-PortraitThank you, Richard, for sharing your story in TBI Tales. I hope that your experience will offer inspiration to my readers.

(Disclaimer: The views or opinions in this post are solely that of the author.)


If you have a story to share and would like to be a part of the SPEAK OUT! project, please submit your TBI Tale to me at donnaodonnellfigurski@gmail.com. I will publish as many stories as I can.

(Pictures compliments of Richard.)

(Clip Art compliments of Bing.)


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Comments on: "TBI Tales: Can Music Rewire Brain?" (2)

  1. Marie G. Cooney said:

    Thanks Ric! You are an inspiration! I am honored to count you among my friends!


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