Tony Memmel, who has used his music to overcome personal challenges to now use music to influence the world, has been known to break musical bounds.
Memmel, a Waukesha native, has always loved music, which is a physical, emotional, and sometimes worldly experience. He knows music can move you, inspire you, and push you to your limits. That's significant for someone who was born without part of his left arm below his elbow.
He would eventually learn to play musical instruments, but it was his voice that became his first instrument.
'I always have a song in my head — and I sing a lot,' said Memmel.
Then in fifth grade at Lowell Elementary School, he started playing trumpet, which he kept up through his years at Butler Middle School and Waukesha North until graduation in 2004.
At 13, Memmel was drawn to the guitar after watching his friend Max learn to play any song on the guitar by ear.
'I thought that was so cool, and decided that that's exactly what I wanted to be able to do,' said Memmel.
Armed with inspiration
Naturally, that aspiration came with one challenge.
'I was born without a left forearm and hand, so I knew from the get-go that I'd have to learn how to play a bit differently than a traditional guitarist,' he explained.
Memmel thought that if he was able to create a device to secure a guitar pick to his left arm, he could strum and play a left-handed guitar. It took about eight years of trial and error before he found Gorilla Tape, a reinforced form of duct tape that enabled him to build the adaptive cast he uses today.
The cast is made using three pieces of two- to three-inch pieces of tape that adhere the pick to the end of his left arm, which functions similarly to fingers holding a guitar pick. Another piece of tape is used to keep the tape from peeling off during a show.
'I create this cast anew for each concert because the tape adheres directly to my arm, unlike a prosthetic that is removed and re-used.'
Once that challenge was overcome, there was little that could stop Memmel from mastering the guitar.
'It became about commitment to practicing every day, writing songs that I was proud of and that would resonate with other people, booking tours, and connecting with fans and friends all over the world.'
Lessons in music
The entire Memmel family enjoys music and supported Tony's endeavors into the music world. However, they used it as a means to instill other lessons into young Tony.
'My parents wanted me to understand hard work, and often said things like 'money doesn't grow on trees,'' he said. 'So when I first approached them about buying a guitar, their compromise was that I'd have to save up for half, and if I did that, they'd help with the rest. After months of working as a soccer referee, babysitting, and a number of other odd jobs, I saved up my half of the money.'
Beyond that fiscal lesson, the experience helped Tony realize how serious he was about guitar.
'Since I was, I was willing to do what it took to make it a reality,' he said
In the time since, Memmel has also learned to play piano, bass and harmonica.
Breaking into the biz
As he mastered his musical tools, he began to perform professionally.
Memmel's first band, Raul's Wild Kingdom, aka RWK, played their first gig in December 2001 at former Waukesha restaurant The Neighbor's Bistro, which was owned by the family of their trumpet player at the time and current band director at Waukesha North, Greg Redner. The next month, they won the Waukesha Janboree Battle of the Bands, hosted the same competition in 2003, and won it again in 2004.
'That really opened a lot of doors to other local venues, performance opportunities, and helped us to network with other local bands,' Memmel said.
Following his early start in Wisconsin, Memmel and his wife Lesleigh moved to Nashville in 2013, where the songwriting scene feels more critical and competitive to Tony.
'It seems like most everyone who lives here is aiming to break into the music business,' he said. While the competitiveness of the city forces some musicians to leave, 'I think it's pushing me to get better.'
His current band is a folk, rock and Americana music blend with influences from Wilco, Glen Hansard, Counting Crows, and the Avett Brothers. Memmel writes many of the songs, some in collaboration with Lesleigh.
Right now, Memmel is in Brazil as part of the American Music Abroad program, whose mission is to share American music in an attempt to foster communication around the world. He explained that each participating band completes a month-long, multi-country exchange program giving public concerts, interactive performances with locals, lectures, workshops, and more.
'Our band — which consists of myself, my wife Lesleigh, and Benjamin Picker — applied to the program last year,' Memmel explained. 'We were selected to audition for a panel of judges, and out of a large group of applicants, we were chosen as one of 11 bands to represent the United States in 2016.'
The group's tour kicked off in May in Recife, Brazil. The rest of this month will be spent in Uruguay, Paraguay, and Panama.
In addition to performing as a touring musician, Memmel speaks to groups about overcoming adversity and finding one's chosen vocation. He and his wife have toured all over America — through 44 out of the 50 states. He is also an ambassador for The Lucky Fin Project, and has become increasingly involved in adaptive music education through the non-profit organization The Adaptive Music Project.
For more information about Memmel and his music, visit /tonymemmel.com/wp.