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South Bend drummer teaches self to drum again after brain injury

Everyday People, Everyday Stories: Billy Canty

March 01, 2011|By Ashley Henderson (ahenderson@wsbt.com)

SOUTH BEND -- Billy Canty takes a seat on the throne of his basement studio drumset.  After tightening a loose hi-hat cymbal and shaking out his hands: he plays. He plays something he “made up” – a sort of jazzy, punchy beat as a smile creeps from the corners of his pursed lips. A framed picture of Billy and his wife, Kasey, sits on a nearby table as he plays – but he doesn’t remember the picture being taken, or the day at all for that matter. Billy plays because it’s all he feels he can do, the only thing that keeps him sane, and one of the few things left he has to hold on to.

It didn’t take long for Billy to reach a professional drumming status, he recalls, tipping back in a chair parked in front of a computer screen filled with homemade beats and grooves.  At 17 years old, a music producer in Ft. Myers, Fla. discovered Billy and he was soon making a living out of drumming by recording for various bands and teaching drum clinics.

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“Right out of high school, I had just decided that all I wanted to do was play drums for a living,” Billy says. “I could have went off to college to become a teacher but I decided to take it real serious and started playing locally and professionally.”

Billy belonged to a variety of different bands in Florida with gigs almost nightly and kept himself busy during the day by writing music and helping area high school drumlines with their routines.  Billy remembers the time in his life as “sitting pretty.”  He had achieved a status in his life where he felt like his music was being well-received by the Florida music scene and he couldn’t get enough of it.

The Night of the accident

In August of 2005, Billy was drumming with his band at a Florida bar. Little did he know that this was the last night he would be able to associate with any sense of normalcy.

“You wouldn’t believe the story,” Billy says. “It’s like something out of a movie.”

A personal problem between the bar owner and lead singer of Billy’s band had escalated and Billy could tell that something wasn’t quite right.

“At the time I was working part-time for JcPenney as a loss prevention officer so I was really good at reading body language and people’s eyes,” Billy says. “I could tell something was up with these two guys [in the crowd.] I knew something was going to happen. Right after we finished playing the last song, I jumped up and told the singer to stay on the stage, not to go out into the crowd. But he brushed it off.”

Soon after, a fight broke out between the band’s lead singer and the two men in the crowd. Billy jumped up to try to break up the fight, and as a result, was hit on the back of the head and pushed down a flight of stairs.

“I immediately didn’t feel it. I landed on my face and tore my nose a little bit. My jaw was shifted and it broke all my teeth. I had instant brain damage,” he said. “I woke up a couple days later with tubes coming out of me. I didn’t know anything.”

Recovery

Due to the excessive force of Billy’s head injury, he suffered extensive brain damage and had to be re-taught all of the things he had spent his life learning. He went through occupational, speech and physical therapy. He couldn’t recognize the town he lived in, the woman he loved, and the music with which he had made his living.

“I didn’t know how to use the left side of my body that well,” he said. “I had to learn how to pick up keys…I had to learn how to take a step correctly. I would take one step on the stairs and forget what to do next.”

His days of drumming came to a screeching halt.

“For a year, I didn’t know what a drum was. I didn’t know I was a drummer. I didn’t even know what a drumstick was called,” he said.

Through therapy, Billy was only able to reach a fifth-grade learning level so his chances at seeking employment other than drumming were slim.

“I can’t get a job working at Wal-Mart because I freak out because I get dizzy from the lights and from the people. I walk into the mall and get panic attacks. I just shut down mentally,” he said. “I can’t count money so I can’t run a register for a gas station. What am I supposed to do?”

In the midst of his recovery, Billy got on his computer and came across videos he had made of himself drumming before the incident. Suddenly something clicked and he realized that this is something he could do.

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