By Marty Paule
The first thing you notice about musician and motivational speaker George Dennehy is that he has no arms. Spend a few minutes listening to him play his music or speak about his life, and that fact becomes both more and less significant. The astonishing journey that has taken him from an impoverished home in Romania to a musical and speaking career and made him a YouTube sensation is deeply inspirational.
After George recently performed and spoke at Musician’s Friend headquarters, we knew that his story was one we had to share with you. No matter the struggles each of us faces in finding our way through life and through our music, this young man’s attitude and narrative points to a way forward.
The HUB: When did you first realize that music was your calling, and how did you go about becoming a performer?
George Dennehy: It started with my mom; she noticed that I had musical ability when I was about six years old. I would watch a movie and then go over to the piano and play the music from the movie from just having heard it. She knew that it was a gift and signed me up to take cello lessons. So it all started with my mom having me take those lessons, though it wasn’t something that I wanted to do. I was kind of bitter about it and wanted to quit so many times. But having started with classical cello, which is hard, it was later easier to branch off into other instruments.
The HUB: You’ve said that you never felt a close affinity with the cello; is that still the case today?
GD: It’s much better today with the cello and the way I view it. The truth is I haven’t played it in quite a while though. I played it all through high school—I was first chair in my school and was in a regional orchestra. But over the past year I haven’t actually played it being as busy as I am. I’ve been focusing all my efforts on guitar.
The HUB: I think you’ve anticipated my next question: what instrument do you feel closest to today?
GD: Definitely the guitar. Its the instrument I play the most and its the one on which I write my music.
The HUB: I know you play piano and a couple of other instruments, and was curious to know which one was the most challenging for you to develop a technique with?
GD: Besides the cello, which was my first instrument, it was definitely the guitar. After playing the cello, I actually picked up a bass guitar and started playing that for a year or two in middle school and high school as well as in church and in a band.
After bass, I was like, ‘I’ll learn the guitar; how difficult can it be?’ I quickly learned that though there are some similarities, overall its pretty different. There’s a pick, there’s chords. So the guitar was definitely the most challenging instrument after taking up the cello.
The HUB: Were you playing an electric bass?
GD: Yes, I was playing a [Fender] Jazz bass.
The HUB: But as you say, switching to guitar involved new techniques: picking versus plucking and chording. I’m intrigued that you grip the pick with your toes, did that take a lot of cultivation of your muscles?
GD: It did. What also helped was finding one of those picks that has a fabric covering. I’ve tried those picks that clip onto your fingers, putting them onto my toes, but they just don’t work for me. Ever since I started using that felt-type pick I’ve never dropped it—I need to get some more.
The HUB: Most string players consider themselves to be left-handed or right handed. Do you have a predominant foot?
GD: I do have a predominant foot. Ever since I was a baby learning to eat and later to draw, I would always use my right foot; so I’m definitely right-footed. But the way I play my guitar is technically “lefty backwards.” I strum with my left foot and play with the high E string closest to me. I’m not sure why I do it this way, but when I first took up the cello the teacher said ‘Put your feet on the cello whatever way feels natural.’ And that was with my left foot holding the bow and right foot on the strings.
The HUB: What are the sorts of things you look for in the songs you choose to perform and record?
GD: They have to have meaning. I look for songs that talk about life’s experiences, whether they’re good ones or bad ones. All the songs I write are out of my own life experiences—songs that people can relate to. But I also include some songs just for fun—songs that people would know and recognize.
The HUB: What’s your songwriting process typically?
GD: It really varies. Most of the time when I write a song, it’s just me playing my guitar and singing what comes out; whatever comes out of that. As I go along, I’ll say, ‘Oh man, that’s working; let me try this.’ That how it usually works for me.
The HUB: What advice do you have for new musicians who are just getting started and may get frustrated with the learning process?
GD: Being a new musician and learning to play a new instrument—trust me of all people—I understand that it’s hard. There are so many times when feel ready to just give up and quit. And that goes for a lot of things in life—not just music. But coming from someone like me who doesn’t have arms, and has learned to overcome that and play music despite that, the best advice I can give somebody who’s facing frustration, as hard as it is, don’t give up. Keep going and try again, and try until you succeed.
The HUB: You do you think it sometimes makes sense to take a little pause between practice or rehearsal sessions?
GD: Absolutely. I’ve definitely had experiences where I was overworking myself and burning myself out. The more I burned myself out the more I actually got worse. But when I took an hour break or whatever and went back to it, you start fresh. So definitely learn to pace yourself. I feel like our musical ability works like a muscle. You’ve got to work it. You’ve got to train it, but you’ve also got to give it some time and space.
The HUB: Well said. How do you deal with pre-performance jitters; do you have any tricks for staying focused before and during a show?
GD: Since I’ve started performing and speaking regularly, I find myself getting really quiet—in the zone—in my mind. Thinking about the songs, or what I’m going to say, I run through it in my head to be prepared. And just before they introduce me, I say a little prayer, then go onstage and be myself.
The HUB: In middle school you were bullied a great deal, and I wondered if your involvement with music somehow helped in dealing with that.
GD: It definitely did. Being bullied has a huge impact on kids, but being in orchestra was a place where I was able to find happiness. Letting all my emotions out through my music. It was my refuge.
The HUB: Did you find that you had a more respectful relationship with other kids in the music program?
GD: Most of time, yes. I had great friendships with other kids in my orchestra class. But like in every school, it was very competitive. Whoever is first chair, technically they’re the leader and usually the best player, and a lot of the time that was me as the first chair. it got competitive but I think that can be good sometimes.
The HUB: You recently got married—congratulations on that—and now you’re expecting your first child. I wondered how that’s affecting your life, your music, and your career.
GD: For one thing, it’s so exciting. We’re both getting ready—its down to the final weeks. On one side it’s definitely going to be a challenge and something new for me. But I’m always up for challenges and this is going to be the biggest one yet. As far as my career goes, I’m still going to be doing this—traveling and playing music and speaking to people. A lot of the time my wife and baby will come with me.
We’re really blessed having a lot of family living around us. So if it’s a quick little trip, the baby will stay at Grandma and Grandpa’s. But it’s definitely going to take some figuring out how to keep doing this.
The HUB: Will this be your adoptive parents’ first grandchild?
GD: It’ll be their second; my oldest sister, their first biological daughter had a baby a year ago.
The HUB: I noticed looking at you tour schedule that there’s a gap between June and September and wondered if that’s because of the impending baby.
GD: It is. We’ve planned to make the spring months very busy and the summer months much more relaxed. The baby’s due by the end of June. So we’re thinking we’ll do a couple of little things here in town and then in September things start picking up again. So we’ll take a couple of summer months to be new parents.
The HUB: Your wife is a musician too; do you envision regularly performing together as a duo?
GD: We actually do perform together pretty often. Less so since she’s been pregnant. But often towards the end of a gig I’ll bring her up onstage and we’ll play some songs together. People love that.
The HUB: One of your breakthroughs was the appearance you made onstage with the Goo Goo Dolls performing “Iris.” The video of that show went viral getting your remarkable story out. Can you tell us how all that went down?
GD: Oh man, that was amazing. It all started in the summer of 2012. In my town, there’s a summer event called the Strawberry Faire, and that summer I played “Iris” on one of the stages. A friend of mine shot a video of it and said I should put it on YouTube. In a couple of days after putting it on YouTube, it shot up to over 600,000 views. It was all over the Internet: AOL News, Sports Illustrated, Huffington Post, and Buzzfeed. It was crazy! After that happened I got a message on Twitter from Mike Malinin. He messaged me saying ‘I’m the drummer for the Goo Goo Dolls and we saw your video and would love to have you play for us onstage.’
The video that went viral and led to George’s performance with the Goo Goo Dolls.
My first thought was ‘is this fake?’ But after checking it out I saw that it was real. Two months later I went to the Musikfest in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and I got to open for the Goo Goo Dolls in front of 7.000 people. And then I played “Iris” with them, and that was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. The Goo Goo Dolls are one of my most favorite bands ever and “Iris” is definitely my favorite song.
The HUB: When you spoke a few minutes ago about what you look for in song lyrics, I was struck that your answer could have been describing “Iris.” Is that what led to your performing that song in the first place?
GD: Definitely. The song is so honest. Coming from me, showing the world who I am and not being afraid of that—not being scared—that’s what the song is about. I feel some people with disabilities are scared of others seeing them and they kind of hide away. But I think we all need to be proud of who we are and do what we’re supposed to do here on this earth. That’s why I play that song. I’m so glad that video went viral because that song’s so positive and inspirational.
George Dennehy performs “Iris” with the Goo Goo Dolls.
The HUB: After hanging out with the Goo Goo Dolls at Musikfest did you experience any kind of letdown coming back home?
GD: Not at all. Though playing with Goo Goo Dolls then coming back to Ashland, Virginia are definitely two extremes, right after that appearance more things started to pop up for me, more doors started opening. After the Goo Goo Dolls my life changed forever.
The HUB: You’ve traveled back to your country of birth, Romania, a couple of times now and have met your birth family. Can you talk about that experience?
GD: After that Strawberry Faire video went viral, a Romanian TV show contacted me to get the rest of the story after seeing that I was born there. I explained that I had been put into an orphanage because my family couldn’t take care of me. They loved that story because Romania is closed off to adoption right now.
So they brought me back to Romania to be on this TV show for a week. My mom and I were on the show and we spoke about how adoption can be good—looking how it affected my life. Part of that visit involved going back to the house where my biological family lived and I got to meet them.
The HUB: You said that Romania is closed to adoption. Why is that?
GD: As I understand it, they closed off adoptions because a lot of people adopted for the wrong reasons. Especially in the world of trafficking and abuse. I think Romania experienced a fair amount of that. But as we know, not all adoption is bad, there are many people who genuinely want to help orphans like myself. I think with more secure adoption processes and background checks, adoption could be put back on its feet in Romania.
The HUB: You’re a great example of how adoption can be a huge advantage to both the adoptive parents and the child when those safeguards are in place.
GD: Absolutely. That TV show is the second most popular show in the whole country, and my segment produced the best feedback the producers have ever gotten.
The HUB: You were originally on your way to college when your life blew up with the virality of your videos and your experience with the Goo Goo Dolls. Do you plan to continue to put that on hold?
GD In 2012 when I graduated from high school, I was just a normal kid, looking at colleges and thinking, ‘what am I going to do with my life?’ I got accepted into Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia and I was going to study music and worship to be a pastor of music. Then my career kind of exploded, and right now I don’t see myself going back to looking at colleges because I’ve been able to make a full-time career of doing this.
The HUB: Clearly your music has played an important role in your career as a motivational speaker, and you mentioned you wanted to do pastoral work involving music. How do you see those two threads playing out as you go forward?
GD: There are tons of motivational speakers in the world, and there are tons of musicians as we both know. But there aren’t many who do motivational speaking and music together, and there’s only one person who does it with his feet! I think it’s that uniqueness which has made it so successful. Connecting the two in my performances—playing a song, telling my story, playing some more music—it’s two different worlds coming together, and I think people love that.
The HUB: What have been some of your more memorable engagements?
GD: In May of 2013 I spoke at the Christian Alliance for Orphans; it was called Summit 9 and it’s a huge Christian adoption conference. I got to speak for about 10 minutes, and told an “elevator pitch” version of my story. Hearing the feedback from that on Twitter and Facebook, it was amazing to see the impact I had with so many well-known pastors and parents who have adopted many children. Definitely my presentation at Musician's Friend was another one—I’m still in awe and shock that I got to do that.
The HUB: The feeling is mutual. A lot of the people who saw your presentation were extremely moved by what they saw and heard. Your adoptive family is a big one with a lot of younger kids. Do you see that as a help or a hindrance in growing up and pursuing your music?
GD: Growing up in a big family came with its positives and negatives. But the cool thing about my family is that there are so many adopted kids, and they’re younger than me; I’m the oldest, I was the first adopted child. Seeing my parents live out their purpose and show love to all these children, that’s what drove me to want to pursue my gift. I believe we all have an obligation to pursue our gifts and talents—we owe the world that—figuring out how to use them. I see my parents doing that with adopting these kids, and that’s what inspired me to do that with my music. Growing up in a big family there is always that craziness, and there’s never a dull moment, but all in all, it drove me to be the person that I am.
The HUB: You mentioned a moment ago that you’ve developed an elevator pitch in order to concisely explain who you are and what you’re about. I wonder if you could run that out, since I imagine that’s something you’ve thought a lot about.
GD: In a nutshell, it comes down to this: I was born in Romania in a very small, poor village to a very poor family. My family realized they couldn’t take care of me since I was born without arms. They just wanted me to have a better life and put me in an orphanage. At one and half years old I weighed nine pounds because I wasn’t taken care of by the nurses. Everyone saw my disability as curse, so they didn’t want to touch me at all. I was almost on the brink of dying when I was adopted. I came to America where I learned to use my feet. But I went through a time in my life when seeing that I didn’t have any arms struck me hard. It impacted me really badly; I felt I was different from everyone else. I wanted to have arms so badly; I wanted to be like everyone else—to be normal. That brought me to a really low point of depression and anger and thoughts of suicide.
Then I realized that in life we all face hardships, and that we go through them for a reason. I believe that they are a part of us and they can help form us into who we are supposed to be. In the end it’s all worth it—I wrote a song called “Worth It” expressing that idea. I believe that we’re all here on purpose, and we’re all here for a purpose, and we all have different talents and gifts that we’re born to use. To be a positive light in the world.
The HUB: In the book, Ship of Fools, there is a hunchback dwarf character who says in speaking to his fellow passengers something along the lines of ‘You all have your deformities too and you struggle to keep them hidden. My deformities are out front where everyone can see them; I don’t have to pretend.’ I suspect you can empathize with that idea.
GD: Definitely. I always say we all have handicaps. You can’t exactly see yours, but you can see mine. But we all have them, and we just have to learn how to be the best we can. I want anyone who happens to read this article to know that I believe in them, and I believe they can accomplish whatever they set out to do, because nothing is impossible. No matter how hard life is sometimes, we’ve just got to keep going and keep fighting.
You can learn more about George by visiting his website and connecting with him on Facebook.