Guitarist Donald Lajiness, a sophomore at Eastern Michigan University, steps to the front of the Alexander Music Building’s auditorium to a burst of ecstatic applause. He sits down in the proper classical guitar position— foot up, fretboard raised —and begins to strum the opening chord of the mysterious-sounding “Koyunbaba,” a modern piece with Turkish influences composed by Carlo Domeniconi. After a nearly flawless recital, the musician basks in the glow of his fellow music majors’ collective cheering and praise.
Had you closed your eyes through the thrilling performance, you would not have known that Lajiness, 31, was born with only one arm.
As a 14-year-old living in Pinckney, Mich., Lajiness, whose left arm ends just below his elbow, wondered how he could manage to become a guitarist. Around that time, he watched a man playing guitar with his feet on TV.
“He was actually really great at it,” Lajiness said. “And I figured if he could do it, I could do it.”
Over the next few years, Lajiness developed his own unique approach for playing guitar by taping a guitar pick to his left arm, his strumming and picking arm. Since then, he has learned several
techniques and styles and now studies classical guitar with EMU professor Nelson Amos.
“Don has an infectious enthusiasm for making music,” Amos said. “I regard him as being an inspiration for all my guitar students.”
Previously, Lajiness performed as the lead guitarist of a metal outfit called The Second System, hailing from Saginaw. The band shared a stage with a number of national acts, including former members of Pantera and has toured across the United States. According to Lajiness, the band broke up due to various personal reasons.
“I was getting really tired of it because music’s my life and that’s what I wanted to do. I want to perform,” Lajiness said, noting that he left the group to begin working toward his music performance degree. “It just took me as far as I could go and I wasn’t getting much out of it so I quit the band for school pretty much. But I’m still best friends with them.”
When he’s not practicing or performing, Lajiness loves telling the story of how he and his fiancée Nicole, who he plans to marry early next year, got together. The couple knew each other as teenagers and reconnected over Facebook years later.
“I was actually obsessed with her but never wanted to talk to her because I was too shy,” Lajiness
said, admitting he’d had a huge crush on her since middle school.
Through his formative years, Lajiness acknowledged that his disability didn’t make the difficult task of growing up among sometimes-cruel kids any easier.
“The biggest challenge was pretty much fitting in,” Lajiness said. “Kids don’t understand when they see something different, when you are different from other people. I would have to say the toughest was being teased a lot.”
Now, as part of the music program at EMU, Lajiness feels an overwhelming sense of belonging.
“The people in the music department are really great,” Lajiness said. “They’re definitely not judgmental. When I first came here to EMU, I’m sure there was a lot of questions but [that] didn’t really get me down and everybody said ‘hi’ to me. They didn’t really treat me as different.”
The other music majors were intrigued by Lajiness’ one-of-a-kind approach towards playing guitar.
“They were very interested to actually hear me play because they’ve never seen it before so I just played and they loved it. I’m just as good as somebody with two hands so I was accepted pretty much as an equal.”
Both Amos and EMU violin professor Daniel Foster were floored by Lajiness’ audition in November 2012, leaving quite the first impression.
“Don played a remarkable audition on applying to EMU last semester,” Amos said. “Both professor Foster and I were bowled over by his expressive playing, accuracy and confidence. He has continued to display these traits in other performances given in the weekly seminar and the student recitals.”
Lajiness has now found a home within Amos’ classical guitar studio, which has provided a supportive and lively community.
“Being a part of the guitar studio is a very great experience for me because I’ve never been with so many great guitar players,” Lajiness said, describing a bit of the camaraderie that has grown up among the guitarists of EMU. “You hold the door for each other and you help each other out, and that’s what builds friendships. All the guitar players are really great players and they have really great personalities so I’m glad to be in it.”
Lajiness has come a long way in both his musicianship and personal struggles. His strength shines in both his playing and in his life.
“We need more people to be strong and to not just lay down every time they get kicked down. We need to keep on going,” Lajiness said. “And that applies to my life—every time I’ve gotten kicked down I could have gave up right away. But what kind of person would that make me in this world and what kind of contribution would I be making toward the human race? And that’s what everyone should be actually thinking about—‘What kind of contribution can I make to this planet?’”