From Heavy Metal to Harps: Paraplegic George Flores Rocks as He Rolls

Editor’s Note: George Flores of Chicago, Illinois, was a popular heavy metal musician and played all the instruments in a band, but he was primarily a singer. When the record company his band was working with canceled its contract, George decided, “I’d better grow up and get a real job.” That’s how Flores went from the world of heavy metal to the sophisticated and prestigious classical harp community. Today, he’s an international harp technician for classically-trained harpists worldwide. Flores is the only professional pedal harp technician in the world with a spinal cord injury. His injury is at T5 and T6, and he’s a complete paraplegic.

1 George Flores Works on the Instruments Angels Play

How George Flores Learned About Classical Pedal Harps

When I decided to grow up and get a real job, I walked into the largest harp company in the world based here in Chicago, not really believing I had a chance to get a job there. However, I found out later that I was exactly the type person they were looking for when they advertised the job. So, Lyon & Healy Harps hired me and taught me the skills I needed to know to become a harp technician. I’ve also been associated with Venus Harps.

George fronted more than one heavy metal band back in the day, never once imagining he would switch over to a classical field.
George fronted more than one heavy metal band back in the day, never once imagining he would switch over to a classical field.

I read an ad in the paper that said Lyon & Healy Harps was interested in an individual with mechanical and woodworking skills plus all-around musical skills. Apparently, I fit the profile for the type of person they wanted to hire.

In skilled professions, a person who works with wood is a carpenter. A person who works with metal is often a machinist, and those two crafts rarely cross paths. When you consider my third skill – a musical background – I guess I was a rare find.

When I walked into Lyon & Healy Harps to interview, I felt like a duck out of water. I was wearing heavy metal clothes, and the people at the harp company were dressed to the nines. I thought to myself, “There’s no way I’ll be able to get a job here.”

I filled out the application as fast as I could to leave as quickly as possible.

As a headbanger, George didn’t exactly fit in to the refined world of harpists, but he had the talent and brains to succeed!

I knew that classical music and heavy metal were at the total opposite ends of the music community. As soon as I finished the application, one of the secretaries took the application to a manager, and he interviewed and hired me on the spot!

In those days, heavy metal musicians were primarily self-taught – certainly not classically trained like harpists. When I learned the company wanted to hire me, I was very excited, because I was out of work without much prospect of finding work.

Before my injury, back when I was a heavy metal musician, two of the bands I had played with were Nocturnal and Demented Ted, as well as others. To go from that kind of musical community to being an apprentice to a master harp technician like Peter Wiley, who was and is the best in the world, was a major life change for me.

Today, there are only about 10 or 15 harp technicians in the whole world, including me.

As a harp technician, I not only have learned how to tune and work on harps, but I’ve also learned how to build a harp. I’ve built harps to help raise money for people like me who have spinal cord injuries. In my current condition with paralysis, building a harp from scratch is very difficult, but I can still do it.

Why George Flores Loves Working on Harps

I’ve been asked what it is about the harp that fascinates me. I love the tone of a harp. I love the craftsmanship required to build, carve and maintain the harp. I also love learning what the harp can teach a person.

The amount of discipline and ability required to play the harp at the highest level is almost unbelievable. I can work on any type harp, but my specialty is the pedal harp and I prefer to work with it for many reasons.

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On a pedal harp, which is primarily a classical harp, a harpist can change from a natural to a sharp to a flat. You can change the tone of the instrument while pressing the pedals on the harp with your feet. This gives you more control over the range of music you can play, and how you can express that music on the instrument.

A lever harp, often used in Celtic songs, can go only from a sharp to a natural, from a flat to a natural or a flat to a sharp, depending on the tuning and the adjusting of the instrument. On the lever harp, you only have two levels of adjustment. But on the pedal harp, you have three levels of adjustment.

When George Flores’ Life Went into a Tailspin

My mother passed away when I was 33 years old, and my life became difficult. I was going through some really tough times. I pulled away from the harp industry for a while and started living off my savings. I still worked on harps part-time, but my mind and heart just weren’t in my work.

Emotionally and psychologically, I was having a hard time. My mother was my best friend, so when she died, I suffered a major setback.

George still jams with his musician friends! Here he is on stage performing with Chris Medina, a Chicago native who competed on American Idol in 2010.

georgeharptonEven when I started my career as a harp technician, I still jammed with my friends in the heavy metal community. Every now and then they’d let me get on stage with them.

From 1998 to 2004 though, I had been learning my craft and working as a harp technician. I had reached the level of being considered one of the best harp technicians in the world. But on September 11, 2004, I had to make a hard decision.

Two weeks earlier, I’d tried out for a heavy metal band and was asked to join it and go back on the road. The band members told me, “George, you’ve still got the looks; you’ve still got the music; and you’ve still got the chops. Come on, join us.”

I told the leader of the band, “I don’t know if I can do this again. I have a life and a career as a harp technician, and I don’t know if I want to go back to living on the road and living the band life. Give me a couple of weeks to think about this.”

The guys told me they were doing a show on September 11th and asked me to come, see them play and be a part of the crowd. They thought I might change my mind and join the band if I was there. I agreed to go to the show. On September 11, 2004, I parked my motorcycle, went in to the show and connected with some people in both positive and negative ways. But, I decided I didn’t want to return to the heavy metal scene and give up my profession as a harp technician.

5 George Flores Works on the Instruments Angels Play
September 11th is a significant date in George’s life, but for a very different reason than most.

I went outside, cranked up my motorcycle and headed out on the highway. I turned onto an approach ramp to get on the highway. After that, all I remembered was seeing a green car and becoming airborne. My motorcycle went on one side of the approach ramp, and I landed on the other side in 4 feet of tall, wet grass.

George recalls his musical roots and influences in heavy metal fondly.
George recalls his musical roots and influences in heavy metal fondly.

After a while, two brothers who were picking up scrap metal on the side of the highway, came up the approach ramp to the highway. The brothers happened to see the flash from my chrome exhaust system on my motorcycle and thought it might be some scrap metal they could collect. They pulled off the road to get the metal.

The older brother said, “The guy riding this bike might still be here, because this motorcycle looks almost brand new, except for the damage from an accident. We better push the grass around and see if we can find him.”

Actually, I had been laying on the side of the road paralyzed, hidden in the grass for 12-1/2 hours while drifting in and out of consciousness.

For about 20 minutes after my accident, I was unconscious. I didn’t know how I hit the ground or what happened that caused my spinal cord injury. When I found my cell phone, I called my best friend, Shawn, and told him I was in the grass. Of course no one had a clue about where I was laying in the grass. Friends looked around their yards and my yard and couldn’t find me. Shawn tried to call me back, but I had lost my phone in the grass and couldn’t answer.

I heard cars passing by and getting on the highway, and I could hear the cars roaring down the highway. I couldn’t scream for help, because I had a punctured lung, broken ribs and a spinal cord injury. I was bleeding internally and externally. Later, I learned that I almost bled out.

After the first hour that I was laying there conscious, I felt pretty sure I would die, because no one could see me. While I was lying on the side of the road, I was thinking about the name of the band I was asked to join – NDX – which stood for near death experience.  Just before the first responders arrived, I felt I was right on the edge of death.

I felt very peaceful, calm and the most relaxed I ever had been in my life. I felt like an electric car with batteries about to go dead. I felt as though I was barely in this world, and that soon I would be out of it, just like an electric car would stop when the battery went dead. Finally, I heard the man who found me ask, “Are you okay?” The only word I could get out was, “No.” Then, I passed out. I woke up a week later in the Good Samaritan Hospital and was told I never would walk again.

georgevenus
George uses a standing frame to work on harps today.

How George Flores Found a New Meaning in Life

7 George Flores Works on the Instruments Angels Play
Although building a harp from scratch is very difficult, and even more difficult when paralyzed, George can still do it.

I had weeks of operations, and then physical therapy and occupational therapy. While I was going through recovery, I was convinced that if I couldn’t return to my job as a harp technician that my life would be over.

I felt if I could get back to work, there was a lot of good I could do for the harp community. As long as I had the use of my hands and my brain, I thought I might have a chance to return to the craft I had learned and loved – being a harp technician.

Since then I’ve had quite a few people ask me, “George, did you ever think of suicide?” I’ll laugh and say, “When you’re in my condition, if you don’t think of suicide, you’re probably not normal.”

But once I decided that I had something bigger and better to do with my life, I just had to decide what that was, and how I could do it.

Ultimately, I made the decision to live – and not only live, but to live life to the fullest.

6 George Flores Works on the Instruments Angels Play
George began to use stand up chairs like Permobil’s Lifestand, an ultralight stand up wheelchair, to help carry out his specialized work.

At the time of my injury, people weren’t as open-minded about hiring people with disabilities as they are now. Don’t forget, I was a heavy metal guy in the classical music industry, which was strange, in addition to using a wheelchair. But fortunately for me, the people who owned Venus Harps really supported me both physically and psychologically.

The owner’s wife, Denise Krasicki, and I became very close. She told me, “George, if you can find a way to continue to work on harps, my husband, Walter, and I still have a place for you. We’ll do everything we can to help you out.” So, instead of just sitting in therapy for several hours, I also went to Venus Harps as often as I could and practiced my trade.

Once I began to use stand up chairs like Permobil’s Lifestand, an ultralight stand up wheelchair and the Superstand wheelchair that’s custom manufactured by the Standing Company in Michigan, I was again able to resume working on harps. I feel very fortunate that these kinds of standing chairs are available and I’m thrilled to still be able to practice my craft.

Connect with George on his International Friends page via Facebook here.

Additional Resources From Wheel:Life on Relationships 

Reconnecting-CoverLowRes240x240Within Reconnecting: Relationship Advice from Wheelchair Users, readers will hear from people who use wheelchairs as they share their perspective on friends, family and relationships including dating, marriage and parenting.

Author Lisa Wells shares real-life examples and success stories throughout the book based on her lengthy career that includes ongoing interactions with disability advocates, non-profit supporters and peer support group members.

Reconnecting: Relationship Advice from Wheelchair Users features interviews with:

  • Graduate student & quadriplegic Ather Sharif about connecting on a college campus
  • Amputee Thomas Morris on connecting through his unique appearance and personality
  • NSCIA [Buffalo, NY chapter] President Natalie Barnhard who connects Wheels with Wings
  • Paraplegic Todd Robinson who explains his family connection through the joy of adoption
  • Quadriplegic Ashleigh Justice who connects on the quad rugby field and as a young mother

GET RECONNECTING HERE  

About the Author:John-E_-Phillips
John E. Phillips For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.

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