A passion for music at a young age drove University of Wisconsin Oshkosh alumnus Tony Memmel ’08, of Nashville, Tenn., to become a successful musician and to use his musical talents as an inspiration for others with disabilities.
Memmel, who grew up in Waukesha, developed a love for music as a child. “As a teenager my love for music really grew,” Memmel said. “I loved listening to the radio and rock ‘n’ roll.”
He decided that he wanted to teach himself how to play guitar, a difficult feat for any self-taught musician. However, for Memmel, the challenge was heightened. He was born without his left forearm.
To give people a look into the world of those with disabilities–like Memmel, UW Oshkosh celebrates Disabilities Awareness Week with events on campus this week.
On Wednesday, the film Miss You Can Do It will be shown at 6 p.m. in Sage Hall, Room 1214. The film highlights the extraordinary work of Abbey Curran who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 2 and has never accepted her physical limitations. On Thursday, comedian Drew Lynch will perform “Stand Up With a St-St-Stutter,” in Reeve Memorial Union’s Titan Underground at 7 p.m.
As it turns out, Memmel didn’t accept his physical limitations, either.
“Where an ordinary student of music may have been able to pick up a guitar and go with it, I had to pick up a guitar and spend hundreds of hours trying things,” Memmel said.
Without a way to maneuver the strings with his left hand, Memmel had to figure out a new, innovative method of playing and discovered a left-handed guitar.
“I thought, if I could figure out a way to secure a pick to my arm I could figure out how to play,” Memmel said.
In order to find the best way to fix the guitar pick to his arm, Memmel experimented with different types of glues and tapes until he discovered Gorilla Tape, which had the right stiffness to keep the pick stabilized.
In the process of learning how to personalize his playing method, Memmel also was learning chords and theory.
“Once I got the pick method down, I was ready to go,” Memmel said.
As a senior in high school, Memmel’s choir director encouraged him to pursue his musical dreams at UW Oshkosh by helping him get an audition with the music program. He was offered a scholarship and his UWO musical adventure began.
Memmel immersed himself in many of UWO’s musical opportunities, including the Chamber Choir, the University opera, Open Mic and Live at Lunch.
“UWO ended up being a place where I really grew as a musician,” Memmel said.
Memmel teamed up with friends who also were studying music and recorded his first album. He graduated with a degree in music business and his passion took off. Memmel went on tour for the first time in 2009.
Now, Memmel performs professionally around the country in a group with his band, playing duets with his wife and performing solo. He has acquired a large following across the globe.
In 2010, Memmel was contacted by the founder of the Lucky Fin project, a nonprofit organization that celebrates and raises awareness of people born with limb differences named after Finding Nemo’s “lucky fin.”
The founder asked Memmel to wear a bracelet she had made to support the program, but Memmel took it to a whole new level. Lucky Fin became one of Memmel’s touring co-sponsors.
While on the road, Memmel connected with Lucky Fin families to meet for dinner, talk and teach them how to play guitar. Memmel’s success as a musician is an inspiration for children with similar disabilities.
Memmel has had the opportunity to form special relationships with his Lucky Fin fans.
“We’ve received letters and invitations to stay with people across the country,” Memmel said. “You wouldn’t ordinarily stay with your fans, but it’s more special and family-oriented.”
His involvement in the Lucky Fin project also led him to compose the organization’s theme song and release a music video for the project.
Memmel turned his passion into a way to inspire others to pursue their dreams and to celebrate their differences. He attributes much of his success to the lessons he learned at UWO that he carries with him today as a professional.
“I really loved learning so much about music and business and being around people who loved music and business,” Memmel said.