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Who’s the New Kid?

When I moved to Bristol from Exeter I effectively hit the reset button on the amount of work I became asked to do locally for a while. I found that while I was still involved in all the long term projects I was before, (they have always been more spread out geographically anyway), I definitely miss the enjoyment of being a part of the scene where I actually live too. Moving to a different area of the country means I need to work from the ground up to get involved in a new place. Obviously this isn’t something that happens by magic and as this isn’t an uncommon situation I thought I’d share my thoughts on how I would tackle it as if I were giving advice to someone else.. I still find I need a pep talk too from time to time!

So, having moved to a new area, how do you get involved? Quite understandably people probably don’t know, or care, who you are and there are plenty of players already covering the existing scene.

A strategy that ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT WORK (but I’ve come across many players relying on) is to sit at home practicing and waiting for their reputation to make phone to ring. No one owes us a living. There’s a whole real-world social network alongside ability (and experience) that needs attention too.

It’s important to ask yourself some relevant questions :

Do people know you exist? Have they heard you play? Do you get on well with people? Are you getting involved whenever possible? Are you prepared to provide opportunities as well as take them? Have you checked out the other players on your instrument who ARE getting the gigs?

It’s very important to be as objective and honest with yourself as possible about all of this. Consider why strategies have or haven’t worked and persist, adapt or revise as you go along but try not to get caught up in failure. People who focus on providing reasons why things aren’t happening for them tend not to get anywhere.  Concentrate on what you would like to achieve first then “How can I?” rather than “I haven’t/can’t because..”

Go to jam sessions. There are many different factors involved in turning up to these but the immediate benefit is that it’s an opportunity to meet some other musicians in a context where you get to play. Take advantage of the opportunity to hang out and chat. If you disappear as soon as your tunes are over that sends quite a negative message about what you’re after from the situation. While you’re unlikely to meet many of the busiest working musicians in the area (except when they’re in the house band) you will meet a variety of musicians of different standards, attitudes and interests. It’s an obvious point but getting to know as many people as possible is an essential part of fitting in. I’ll discuss more of the pros and cons of this situation in a different article as it’s a really big topic all of its own.

Go to other people’s gigs. If you don’t take an interest in the musicians around you how can you expect them to take an interest in you or even know who you are. It’s a two way street. While attempting to hustle other players’ gigs is not cool, and will get you a bad reputation, deps do come up. I’ve had a lot of work come in over the years by going to gigs I’ve wanted to see anyway and taking the time to get to know and chat to the musicians while I’m there.

Don’t be afraid to suggest getting together for a jam with players you run into. If you enjoyed their playing or have a project you think might interest them then take the opportunity to suggest it. People rarely say no although it might take some chasing on your part to actually get it to happen.

Get a good general grasp of what’s happening on the scene. What’s already going on that you would like to join in with? What do you perceive as missing that you could add? Where you choose to go or not go will slowly be, at least subliminally, noticed and have an effect on the context that people associate you with. If you never turn up to certain situations it’s very unlikely that you are going to get called for a gig in that area.

Although it can, and will, get you down at times try not to slip into a ‘networking to get work’ mindset. Things can start to feel bleak when you do. There’s no guaranteed route or time scale on becoming an accepted and regular part of a scene. What makes musicians fun and exciting to be around is when they are doing the thing they’re into. If you aren’t into it don’t try and fake it. It comes across and you won’t get work anyway. When you are into it people will notice that too and opportunities are more likely to come your way. If the music you want to make isn’t happening then find ways make it yourself. Keep going to events and talking to people until you find kindred spirits to make it with. They are out there somewhere but it will probably take some trial and error to find them. When those things eventually pay off you’ll remember exactly why you put all that effort in.

Remember that social media is a good ‘bonus tool’ to your real world activities. It’s no replacement for showing up in person but it can help you stay in contact with people you meet and organise things remotely. Obviously it’s a great source of information for what and where things are going on but it’s also an opportunity to show what you can contribute. Are there places people can hear recordings or watch videos of you? Are you finding interesting ways to let people know what you’re up to? Do you take part in discussions when they arise? How present are you? You can’t force people to take an interest in you but you can provide regular opportunities for them to do so. Share content and opinions that reflect who you are. This is your digital equivalent of showing up to gigs and jams.

Finally – be patient and persistent. Listen to advice when it’s given, even if you decide not to take it. Use the time you aren’t employed by someone else to maximise your abilities for when opportunities do arise. You’re going to need a thick skin but the only person who will really be in your way in the long run is you. You can do it if you try though.


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Do, Re, Mi, me, Mi

I decided I want to sing more.

One of the things I notice about singing in other countries / cultures is that people just do it. They don’t necessarily worry about the quality of their voices or pitch perfect tuning – the important thing is to sing, to express themselves. The current Western pop machine model we most commonly come into contact with is all about (post) production. Artificial processing techniques such as auto-tune, time-shifting, compression etc are available in any studio – the sonic equivalent of air-brushing. It’s not that the results aren’t pleasing, or shouldn’t be used, but it can become a problem when this approach is held up as a norm and anything outside these parameters is seen as sub-standard and should be disregarded. X-Factor and its ilk compound this problem by tearing people to pieces if they don’t sound identical to this narrow model. We have created, and for the most part accepted, an artificial ideal that requires you to remain silent and hang your head in shame if you don’t match up.

I decided to take a different approach.

To deliberately explore imperfection.

The idea behind the piece Meaning Without Talking was just to record myself singing and see what happened. I’m going to walk through how this came into existence and have included four versions during this article to illustrate parts of my process. Obviously the final version is the one that I’m happy with; the three before are to help illustrate the journey.

My process began with vocal improvisation – just for myself – as I woke up, got dressed and wandered around the house.

By the time the computer was switched on and Cubase loaded up I was ready to record. The melody wasn’t entirely fixed at this point but I knew more or less the shape of it, I had also decided that I wanted an interlude section but I didn’t know what that was going to be yet. I started recording but as I got to the end of the melody I wasn’t convinced that version was good enough, so I kept recording, left a gap and recorded it again. At the end of this I improvised an interlude line and then repeated the melody to finish. Listening back I thought maybe I’d keep all of it and perhaps add an instrumental following the first time through the melody. Although I hadn’t planned a structure for this piece, my own habits from years of listening and playing kicked in, and I ended up with an AABA structure.

My only initial rules were to come up with a melody quickly and be as natural as possible; I hadn’t decided on a harmonic structure but one emerged anyway. I know from past experience that if I start with chords my melodies tend to be a little aimless, I get distracted by jamming over the chords instead of focusing on the repetition necessary for a strong memorable line. Without planning, the melody contained variations and answering phrases based on the first phrase. There aren’t any amazing melodic surprises but I was quite pleased with it anyway. I liked the sound of it and melodically it describes a harmonic progression without needing chordal reinforcement for clarity.

Without giving myself rules to disrupt my habits, ones I didn’t realise I had asserted themselves anyway.

My intial solo vocal sounds like this :


[soundcloud url=”” params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”100″ iframe=”true” /]

I now had one voice, not brilliantly sung, but I decided not to let that bother me. Having been doing some vocal experimentation for the Snow Giants album I’m working on (where I’ve recorded a four part choir, with three voices to each part for reinforcement), I decided to push that idea further and record twenty parts this time. I didn’t want to write down the melody but instead see if I could use the folk tradition of just singing along to pick it up. As I’d already heard this a few times I knew more or less how it went, but it was still not completely fixed in my head.

As I recorded the second and third voices these were a little more uncertain and I made noticeable mistakes as I strained to hear the first voice clearly and remember exactly what I’d sung the first time around. I hadn’t recorded with a click track or any guide note for pitching so that all needed to be judged by ear as I went along. This process is what would naturally happen with a large group learning something new, but because there’s only one of me I was artificially recreating problems that I didn’t really need to have. My thought behind doing it this way was that it should help create a more convincing impression of the ‘real thing’ when I was finished. I’d also made the decision that my interlude section would be a freshly improvised line every time I got to it.

The three voices sound like this :


[soundcloud url=”” params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”100″ iframe=”true” /]

I didn’t want to ‘fix’ my mistakes but instead wait and see what happened if I just kept recording. A couple of coughs had crept in, but I wanted to leave them there for authenticity.

Subsequent voices gradually became more confident as a consensus formed on the phrasing, timing and pitch of the melody. Initial parts of the interlude were very rhythmically simple and harmonically unadventurous. With no chord sequence to work from I then began to try to establish some harmony.

Subsequent interlude parts became more elaborate – first harmonically, then rhythmically – with more moving parts and suspensions. Further into the process the rhythm started becoming less clear again so I returned to long notes. I spent some time taking more risks with register switching. I established two points of ‘harmonic rest’ where the chords simplify and hold. I doubled the bassline to try and add some harmonic strength at the bottom but all other parts were ‘fresh’ each time.

The twenty voices sound like this :


[soundcloud url=”” params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”100″ iframe=”true” /]

So having recorded this twenty times, a consensus had gradually formed. A syllabic way of singing the initial scale movement in the first phrase developed over the performance, re-established into a habit after 20 recordings. I found myself singing the same way because ‘everybody else’ does, even though ‘everybody else’ is still me; I wanted to stick with the crowd and enjoyed doing so in this instance

Allowing the coughs to stay on the recordings made me want to cough too when I heard them – so several layers of coughing gradually built up as a response to previous layers. I also became aware at some point that I was watching the screen, where the wave forms of previous voices were providing visual clues to timing.

Voice Wavs
I became aware at some point that I was watching the screen for visual clues

I closed my eyes to record once I noticed what I was doing. I also noticed that one version of me was always rushing the phrases but that’s how it was so I left it in.

To increase the ‘live’ impression of the recording I then panned the 20 versions of ‘me’ 10 degrees at a time across the stereo field to try and exaggerate the effect of being in front of a choir. There was also only the reverb from my living room on the raw recording so I added an artificial one : ‘Church Hall Reverb’. This instantly created a different atmosphere and helped mask ‘early me’.

The coughing seemed pretty manic by this point so I initially tried reducing the volume of particularly loud coughs but it was still overwhelming. I didn’t want to lose it all as it maintains the illusion of being in a live space – people do cough – but to wipe it all seemed too sterile. I ended up taking most of the coughs out, leaving just one or two. I think it helps make sense of the space. We expect a certain level of random ambient noise in day to day life and it can seem strange without it, even if we aren’t consciously aware of its presence.

My final consideration was that the pulse during the improvised interlude was, unsurprisingly, quite loose. I decided to edit it slightly to conform more with my personal taste and removed some of the more uncertain notes. Although I had given myself a remit to be as natural as possible at the beginning of the exercise, this ‘rule’ was less important than ending up with a piece of music with which I was satisfied.

Here’s the final version :


[soundcloud url=”″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

First published on The Aware Musician Sept 25th 2014

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Sophie’s Elbow

Sophie & Al (Shadow Chat)

Today is an ‘After & Before’ day for me.

Two days ago my wife, Sophie, slipped and fell. She broke her ulna and now has a piece of bone floating, unattached, in her elbow. With luck she’ll have an operation today and be pinned back together by this evening. In the meantime I wait. Between accident and starting recovery there is a period of limbo. She’ll probably be fine but until she’s on the other side I worry. I can’t do anything. I just have to leave her at the hospital and wait to find out. I’m uncomfortable with being unable to take responsibility for fixing it. I’m not a surgeon so it would be very unwise for me to try but I still don’t like the feeling of powerlessness.

Music is a cathartic experience for me. One of the things I really respond to in listening and writing instrumental music is that provides a very direct emotional connection for me. I’m not hoping someone else’s words will express what I cannot. I don’t need to have words at all. It is pure mood.

If I connect with the moods in the music I can be free to explore my own story. My own thoughts and feelings are given a context and safe space to express themselves outside the concerns of my immediate environment. I’m briefly free to feel how I need to feel. I have company on that journey without someone else superimposing their own stories over mine.

Next time I need this particular piece of music the details will be different, but it will help me tell that story just as clearly.

Today my story is about waiting to find out that after her accident Sophie is going to be ok. Until then I wait in the before.


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How to learn ‘Groove’

The bad news – Despite what everyone wanting to sell you a book or instructional course may tell you, no one can really teach you. It’s just too subtle a thing.

The good news – What a good one-to-one teacher can help you with is develop a good, reliable process for how YOU can teach you… Once you know how and what to look for all you really have to do is listen to your favourite records!

Active listening is the key.

The only way to ‘get’ groove, feel, attitude or whatever word you want to use to describe it is to listen closely to the music you want to emulate. Over and over and over again.

There is a really obvious difference between the playing of someone who listens for pleasure and someone who has just done some superficial listening because they needed to learn a few songs.

Pay really close attention to what your instrument is doing in the mix. Then start to pay attention to what the other instruments are doing too. Listen to how the instruments interact. Could you sing along with lines from any part? Know the music so well that you could sing any of it without the recording. Do all of that without even picking up an instrument. Once you start playing along you impose your own preconceptions of what you think the music is doing, often instead of what it is actually doing. I see people do that quite often, with their instruments turned up so loud they can’t hear what they are playing along with. Once they start doing, they stop listening.

Listen first.


Then listen some more.

We effectively teach ourselves intuition by doing that. Once you know what you are expecting to hear and feel the groove will take care of itself. Learning what notes to play on particular songs is really the icing on the cake as far as groove goes. If it doesn’t feel right then none of the rest matters.

Happy listening!


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The Art of Conversation

What kind of conversationalist are you?

Ever thought about how you take part in a conversation?

Or how the people you talk to behave when you are in a conversation with them?

How does that change if there’s just two of you or if you’re in a group?


The simple version that we tend to think happens is that one person talks while the other listens and that you take turns with that process.

A less desirable version, which we can observe fairly regularly, is that one person talks while the other waits for their turn to speak without listening. We can be quick to accuse our conversational partner of doing this while not always being willing to admit that we do it ourselves. It often happens quite sneakily without us realising. How regularly we behave like that will make us more or less fun to talk to inevitably. Of course, some people are able to spend vast amounts of time apparently deep in conservation without ever considering that they have never bothered to listen to the other.

Beneath the broad sweeps there the more subtle signals and noises. A certain amount of eye contact, affirmative nods, grunts and syllables to maintain the flow and at least create the illusion of attentive listening are considered polite and normal in most cases. The absence of any of these could be interpreted as disinterest or deliberate rudeness. A common side effect for speakers confronted with this is to meet the discomfort with rambling. Talking past the point where meaning still needs to be conveyed, words erupt simply to fill the perceived awkward silence. No surprise that this is a common interview technique…

Mouth 2Mouth 3

…A less welcome variation still is that of repeating parts of the other person’s sentence. Or, worse even, interrupting to fill in words or finish sentences by talking over the top. Superimposing your own thoughts at the expense of someone else’s will always bring a negative responsive, whether apparent or not. Strategies you may use or encounter in those circumstances might be a raised voice, continuing the original thought; waiting for the interruption to subside; or simply abandoning speaking altogether in deference to the new speaker. When I find myself doing this I try to hand the conversation back as quickly as possible with an ‘I’m sorry, I interrupted, what were you saying?’. Sometimes this can jumpstart their side of the conversation again or at the very least hopefully minimise their annoyance at having been hi-jacked mid-thought.

 Mouth 1 Mouth 6

In a one-on-one conversation this kind of etiquette is much easier to adhere to and can happen naturally. As the numbers of people increase the rules of conversation can become much less diplomatic. Often people will attempt to dominate the proceedings by steering the conversation in terms of their favourite topics. (or sometimes just talking very loudly and authoritatively about subjects they know very little about. Volume and confidence are an inadequate but bizarrely effective substitute for genuine knowledge). They may maintain this course by talking across people, speaking at greater volume so they are hard to ignore, or taking advantage of brief gaps in the flow to change the subject matter back if it has drifted away from their preferred areas. If this is successful they can ‘hold court’. If not the conversations will perhaps fragment into smaller units. This is far more likely once the group size reaches four or more.

Depending on the type of conversational style and how we feel about our role as contributors to it we may react in a variety of ways. A genuine back and forth where the words of one speaker lead directly to a considered, topical and relevant response from another are immensely satisfying and can actively increase our feelings of self-esteem. We feel respected and valued. The degree of speaking and listening expected from either party is going to vary from time to time. So long as it evens out in the long run then there is no harm in one party dominating on occasion. If it happens regularly, and is always the same party dominating, then the desire for conversation between those people is going to wear thin after a while. Likewise, if we are constantly interrupted or corrected it’s going to be hard to want to keep talking to those people.

In contrast to the personality type that tries to dominate or ‘win’ in a group conversational situation there are those that will retreat. If the subject matter is engaging but they have nothing to contribute they may be content to listen but add nothing of their own. If they have nothing to contribute and don’t find the subject matter interesting they may withdraw altogether. Either mentally or sometimes physically.

Mouth 7 Mouth 5

Next time you watch a band, or take part in one yourself, try imagining it as a group conversation. Look out for how people take part. Do they dominate or contribute sympathetically? Do they always behave in the same way or do they change depending on the type of conversation taking place?

The best place to watch this happening is in ensembles where people improvise. Their personalities will be quite clearly on display if you know what to look out for.

At any given moment you will probably have :

A principal speaker – either delivering a melody or soloing –

and the listeners – ideally accompanying sympathetically.

A soloist is most engaging to listen to when they know their subject well. They speak flowingly, with authority, about things dear to their hearts.

The accompanists will seem most sympathetic when you are less aware of their contributions. Affirmative nods and grunts may take the form of fills or simply the natural punctuation of a groove.  These are valuable and important parts of making the musical conversation seem natural and ‘easy’.

If the fills become too explicit, regular or drawn out however they can start to have an adverse effect by interrupting the thought processes of the main voice or even sabotaging it altogether.

When this situation arises you may find the soloist :

              1)  Raises their voice to try and continue to be heard by increasing their volume

              2)  Start rambling by playing more notes than they otherwise would if they weren’t being interrupted.

              3) Lose their train of thought and become disjointed and confused in their phrasing.

              4) Become angry / frustrated and deliberately start talking / playing  in a weirder, angular and more aggressive way that might seem out of character.

If you look back through the earlier part of the article I’m sure you’ll have no trouble translating other conversational habits into musical interactions too. You’ll probably have several of your own to add that I haven’t mentioned.

What kind of conversationalist are you?



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How to Get Results

The other day I moved my bag from the floor, onto a pile of blankets, which were on a chair.

I did this so that I would have room to lie on the floor as part of my daily Alexander technique.


I lay down and thought no more about the bag I had placed on the chair.

My routine involves a lengthy period of lying still without external distractions.

Occasionally I move limbs into different positions to allow gravity to perform different stretches.


Having done this for about eight years now my awareness is quite finely tuned to register all the subtle changes that occur in my body while I’m doing this.

It’s very absorbing as a result.


At some point my bag fell forward slightly.

It seemed stable when I put it down but after a while it had fallen forward for no apparent reason.

Nothing I could easily discern had changed and yet it had moved.

Seemingly on its own.


Then it didn’t do anything else…


for ages..


then it did it again…

…but not as much.

Seemingly on it’s own.

Erosion. from a great height

The reality is that a huge number of things had been going on.

Cause and effect had been taking place.

The weight of the bag, the angle I had put it down at, the properties of the surface it was resting on and so on were all slaves to gravity.

The fact that all these elements were interacting beyond my perception did not mean that they weren’t taking place.

Having happened once I was the attuned to the possibility of it happening again. I EXPECTED it to happen again. Eventually it did. Not at a time I was able to predict or as much as the first time though. I had witnessed a result but had no comprehension of the factors operating that caused the result. As such it was a kind of mindless if briefly stimulating blip to me. I enjoyed seeing the result but was not involved in the processes leading up to it. I couldn’t personally replicate it.

It seems to me a lot of people approach education like this. Some surprising or pleasing result appears, seemingly out of nowhere, everyone gets excited and says “Do it again, do it again”. But little attention is paid to how the result was arrived at. Then when either it doesn’t happen again, or does but isn’t bigger and better, there’s a feeling of disappointment and interest wanes.

I think of those people that can balance stones. That looks like magic to me. I understand vaguely that it’s probably something to do with centre of gravity but I can’t do it. That doesn’t mean I think I couldn’t learn to do it, or that I think it genuinely is magic, but I’m aware that I’m not motivated and won’t learn to do it. It will remain looking like magic to me.

When I started studying Alexander I didn’t have any comprehension of what I was getting into.

I had RSI. I was in pain. I wanted it to stop.

At first I made progress during lessons. Being shown directly by someone else what the likely causes of my pain were and what to consider to relieve them helped. The relief would last for a while and then the pains would gradually return – apparently for no reason. I’d need to go back after about three weeks to repeat and gradually expand my understanding of the process.

The real reason my pains returned was because all my existing habits would reassert themselves and the new information would fade from my mind.

Learning to focus on that process meant that gradually I could learn to control it. The results would become more predictable and therefore manageable. In this instance I’m glad it doesn’t seem like magic to me.


As a musician I’m flattered to be praised on my playing ability or compositions from time to time. Usually it’s along the lines of :


“That’s amazing, you have a natural talent”.

“Well, I’ve worked hard at it for a long time. Hopefully I keep getting better”

“Yes, but you have to be talented to start with”

“Well, there’s patterns to everything – it’s never too late to learn”

“No, I could never do what you do”


I usually give in around then.

A habit of believing you will be unable to learn is a hard thing to beat.

On the other hand…

Deciding that you are happy to stop enquiring before you see past the magic is an ok position too.


Ideally you should be aware that it’s a choice you can make between the two


If you really want to learn something you need to accept that results happen. Results can be desirable or undesirable depending on your point of view. Understanding why and how to achieve or avoid them can be much more important than what eventually happens.

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Hotel California (7 reasons you need a holiday as a self-employed musician & 7 ways to make the most of it when you get there)

It’s been a few months since my last article. I had set myself the task of writing one a month but in the end I just couldn’t keep it up. The trouble is that once you stop, it can be hard to get going again – whether that’s writing articles, going to the gym, practicing or whatever.

This article seemed like a good way to break the ice and start again for the new year. It contains some reasons why I wasn’t able to keep going and, by recognising them, why I’m ok with not beating myself up about it. Sometimes things get too much and a break is necessary. As long as we don’t lose focus in the long run and start again when we can, it’s fine. If we don’t start again, that’s also fine – as long as we don’t persist with the guilty delusion that we SHOULD start again. The only person who really decides whether something is worth doing is you.

7 Reasons

7 reasons you need a holiday

  1. No regular office hours. As a self employed musician you’re used to being at work 24 hours a day. You’re not actually “at work” of course, but in a perpetual state of readiness. The phone might ring at any hour and need an immediate response – the same being true of email, facebook messages, twitter etc. You know that if you wait too long to respond you might lose a gig, a new pupil or a workshop. You also know that if you don’t take that opportunity, somebody else will. And if that person does a good job they will probably be offered the next gig too. Now you’re in a position where by not responding fast enough, you’ll lose two gigs, or two referrals… So you daren’t ever switch off, just in case.
  2. You’re your own agent. If you’re not actively dealing with an enquiry (or doing your tax return) then you’re spending time trying to generate work. This can mean lots of time on social media, going to gigs or jam sessions, organising rehearsals, contacting other musicians to discuss future projects, organising recordings and/or tours and so on. This can be hard to judge. Do too little and you may not generate enough work to pay the bills, but beyond a certain point you can over commit or start to annoy people as an ‘over-hustler’. The regularlity of keeping this up, following up phone calls and messages, can provide a constant low level drain on your energy levels while you try to juggle all the other essential areas.
  3. You’re your own publicist. Very closely related to being your own agent but where that one is about generating work, the publicist role is about showing that you are worth working with. It’s not possible to gig all the time, you can’t always have just put out an album or a new book – the easiest way of demonstrating your wares – so you need ways of keep yourself visible in between these more obvious moments. On the whole this is the fun bit of making sure that the phone continues to ring – writing articles, composing, meeting up with friends for a jam – and will inevitably lessen once the next tour starts, the next album actually comes out and so on. But now you’ve spent all your time between the more obvious parts of your job too and you find you forgot to rest.
  4. You’re your own roadie. Travelling can be really exhausting, whether you’re the one driving or not. Postural options are limited leading to aches and pains. There’s loading your gear in and out of cars, theatres, pubs, hotels while negotiating kitchens, flights of stairs, narrow lifts, crowds of people standing in the way… And finally hanging around at airports, hotels or theatres which is often draining too as you hold your body and mind in a state of readiness for the next thing. Although it might seem like just the opposite you really get very little time to genuinely unwind.
  5. Gigs! Although your actual playing time is probably somewhere between one and three hours you can usually add at least three hours to that once you factor in setup time, hanging about, interval and breakdown time. The interval is not really time off of course as there’s often no green room. Having no where else to go you could either wait in the packed bar, where you might spend the entire duration queuing for a drink, wait on the bandstand or go outside with the smokers. Whichever option you go for you are essentially waiting to start playing again, which means you get no mental or physical downtime in this situation either.
  6. Practice. Although being the best isn’t everything it’s still a factor. Periodically someone new will appear in your area and you will probably lose some gigs to the novelty of the new arrival. If gigs are the only time you practice then you might lose them permanently if you don’t continue to put at least some time in here. If you aren’t finding ways to reinforce or explore good posture / movement during this time this is also going to contribute to the reasons you will need to take some time off. Your awareness of your own habits is going to play a big part in how beneficial your practice is to you. If your practice time tends to involve pushing you to the physical limit you might want to reconsider the way you are approaching it.
  7. Poor dietary habits. Late at night it’s virtually impossible to buy anything healthy and you’re usually exhausted from the combination of travelling and gigging. This can have the knock on effect of missing breakfast in the event of an early rehearsal, recording or departure the following day, because your need for sleep is more immediate. This is bound to have an effect on your general health and energy levels over a long period.


7 ways to make the most of your holiday when you get there

7 Reasons 2Now you know you need a holiday – what sort of holiday do you need?

Ideally you need to get away from home. If you stay in your familiar environment then you are likely to do much the same things as every day. Staying away from home is great, leaving the country even better.

Be on holiday long enough for the automatic stresses to cease – take as long as you realistically can. It takes a while for the Pavlovian responses to ease (checking the time, social media, your phone, responding immediately to every enquiry) for me this is about 5 or 6 days so I’m not really starting to unwind properly until the 7th day. Be aware of them and aim to gradually wean yourself off them entirely for the duration of your holiday. Our minds need to learn to rest as much as our bodies. How can you do that?

  1. Allocate a specific time to check your phone for texts. This is hard because we tend to carry our phones with us all the time. If you can cope try turning it off or leaving it behind when you go out for the day.
  2. Don’t answer the phone directly – set up voicemail to ask people to text or email.
  3. Let go of the day to day annoyances, tell people that you are away and will be back on the case when you return unless it’s genuinely urgent.
  4. Stop participating in social media with a view to stop using it altogether while you are away. None of those conversations ultimately matter, no one will miss you for a couple of weeks. It’s a great networking tool and it’s good to maintain relationships but it’s also part of your day to day life which is preventing you from really relaxing.
  5. When you do need to respond to people while away, keep your answers simple. Use closed answers that don’t invite further conversation. Try to limit yourself to diary checks if possible. None of this is to be rude but it’s too easy to get drawn into dialogue that could easily wait until you get back. This may be your only chance to properly unwind for a long time.
  6. Eat when you are hungry. You are on holiday, no longer confined to mid afternoons and post midnight feeds so take advantage of it, go for the healthier options when they appeal.
  7. Practice Alexander Technique, Yoga, Pilates or anything else that works for you to make the most of your physical relaxation. It’s hard to recognise physical tension until you experience your body without it and that is not something that can be swiftly achieved.

Last thing I remember, I was running for the door. I had to find the passage back to the place I was before.

“Relax, ” said the night man, “We are programmed to receive. You can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave! “

– Henley / Frey / Felder (Hotel California)

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The Value of Restriction (part 2)

Before I had access to a video recorder of my own, back when there were only three and then four TV channels, I had to watch what was on or do something else. I’m a TV addict, and have been since an early age, so I watched what was on. I watched black and white films, plays, subtitled foreign films, cartoons, quizzes, sitcoms, pages from Ceefax and adverts – whatever was going. I didn’t feel deprived I just devoured whatever was there (except the sport – never could get on with sport). I didn’t necessarily get the benefit of repetition but I did learn to enjoy variety well beyond the level of experience I would have chosen if I had had the option to watch purely cartoons and sitcoms. It’s still a form of restriction but applied from a different angle.

So (if you read part 1 first) now I seem to be directly contradicting myself.  Didn’t I say (or at least heavily encourage you to infer) that repetition was better? Well. Up to a point. In terms of developing pattern recognition through constant repetition then yes. That’s something you’re just not going to get by being constantly bombarded with new things. If you want a deeper relationship with or fuller understanding of a specific thing repetition is the only way to go. You also have to make a choice at some point as to when you have got enough from it. It doesn’t have to be a full stop. You can always go back and re-evaluate.

So if sometimes repetition is good and sometimes it isn’t how are you supposed to know which is which?

That’s basically up to you.

Some restrictions are essential of course. Don’t drink bleach, throw yourself off a cliff etc. Where a restriction places your life in danger or would have an adverse effect on your health or of those around you it is wise to avoid it.

The Beacons

Many restrictions are simply habit or convention however.

Social perceptions create all kinds of invisible restrictions which we unthinkingly obey. In extreme circumstances choosing to ignore those restrictions might place our lives in danger but often they don’t matter nearly as much as we think.

In the UK It’s expected that we should wear black at funerals. That we shouldn’t just lie down on the floor in public spaces. In some people’s houses we’re expected to take our shoes off, in others it may be considered out of place if we make that decision on our own without the request of the owners.

It can be tremendously liberating, exciting and joyful to decide to free ourselves from day to day restrictions. Perception is all that holds many of these things in place. We expect children to obey less restrictions than adults on the whole. If a child wants to skip, play or sing we generally let them get on with it. When we try to stop them they can put up a fight. It takes a while to learn which restrictions apply in which situations and to agree to comply with them. Put adults in a situation where restrictions are outside their expectations and they will quickly become uncomfortable and either try to exit the situation or discredit it. Freedom comes through learning which restrictions are there for reasons of personal safety and which are purely social.  Once we understand the difference we can have more choice over how we behave. We can also have a lot more fun.

Leaving to one side our ‘essential restrictions’, the ones that stop us coming to harm in some way or harming others, our ‘chosen restrictions’ can be very valuable. So long as they are varied and serve some purpose for us. Don’t necessarily always place the same restrictions on yourself. It’s good to review our restrictions to check that we have good reasons for them from time to time. No one likes to feel ‘stuck in a rut’. Not everyone understands how they got there when it happens. Not everyone understands that they can change it if they wish.

Take a mental step back now and again and think about which things you do out of habit and which are genuinely out of necessity.

Reach (In or Out)?

For example :

I always catch a ball with my right hand. I’m not good at catching a ball with my left hand. I have a negative restriction (based on my perception) in place that stops me using my left hand. If I choose to reverse it by always catching a ball with my left hand then my ability with that hand will improve over time. If I persist with that restriction for long enough the positive effects of restricting myself to my left hand will start to be outweighed by a loss of ability with my right hand. Before I get to that point I would want to review the restrictions I have put in place. By consciously reviewing and adjusting my restrictions I could gradually become ambidextrous. If I leave it to chance and habit then I’m very unlikely to do so.

Once we start to look at restriction in that way it becomes apparent that it can a very positive thing too. It’s usually framed as ‘things not to do’ but restriction is really about choosing parameters. The  value of restriction is in choosing which things to do when.

Learning when to be consistent and when to adapt is a very key survival instinct. Try asking yourself these questions :


Could you change the way you go about things to make things seem fresh?

Would your life improve if you chose to make some changes?


Be prepared to say yes or no to those questions and feel comfortable with your answers.

Ask yourself those questions about any aspect of your life whenever they occur to you.

Feel comfortable when the answers change from time to time.


The value of restriction is in choosing the parameters that work best for you.

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The Value of Restriction (part 1)

It’s become accepted wisdom that more is better, and where more isn’t appropriate then new is better. Advertising depends heavily on it. The less restrictions we have in our lives the more choice we have and that’s a good thing. But is that really true?


I’ve just cancelled a subscription to Sky. Leaving aside the arguments as to who profits from it and their moral dubiousness the service was good. Lots of channels, live pause, the ability to record a huge amount of stuff and even download more stuff that I might have forgotten to record and store.

I not only had access to Sky but Netflix too and all the DVDs I’ve bought over the years. I should be spectacularly entertained and well informed 24/7.

Awesome Pencilcase

The reality is that I usually only watch things once, possibly not at all. It takes advantage of my constant craving for novelty – to which I’m a willing and enthusiastic victim. Why watch things again when there’s probably something better around the corner that I haven’t yet seen? If I don’t have time to watch it now then I can store it and abate the worry that I might miss out on the greatest thing I’ll ever watch. Once I’ve done that though the novelty craving kicks in again and I’m onto new things. Which I may or may not get around to…

Victims of More

Admittedly, as I get older I’m better at spotting patterns and digesting things quickly. I don’t necessarily need to watch series or films over and over again to enjoy them.  But in part that is down to having had restrictions in the past. Before the whole multi-channel, infinite storage capabilities became the norm I used to watch the videos and DVDs that I’d bought. I couldn’t afford as many and so I would watch and re-watch them because I had less facility to endlessly obtain new things. As a result I know the setup and punch line to pretty much every joke on Friends & Seinfeld. I know every nerdy film and TV reference from Spaced and can sing along with the scores from Excalibur, Brazil & Jesus Christ Superstar.

Now that I can fast forward to the action in everything I’ve recorded I never need to watch another advert. But I also don’t know the theme tunes, any of the character’s names or the names of the actors that play them. In the past I could have told you all of that and sung along quite happily. I’m saving relatively little time but losing a lot of information in the wake of convenience too. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe I’m able to make people laugh because I learned something from watching the same jokes being set up over and again. Maybe I learned something about dramatic potential and emotional effect from hearing the same pieces of music over and again that feeds into my own compositions…

My friend Kimwei recently posted a vlog on the value of restricting herself to just one guitar. She made a deliberate choice to avoid ‘aquisition syndrome’ as she refers to it. Too much variety too quickly interfered with what she really wanted to focus on.

My own experience was similar, although not a conscious decision, and I appreciate it in retrospect.

I had the same electric 4-string for about 25 years before I started getting other types of bass (fretless and more recently a 6-string). I’m never as comfortable playing other people’s instruments because the dimensions are not the same. Neck width, depth, string distance, pickup placement, string gauge, string type etc all make a subtle but enormous difference. Familiarity or lack of it are a really important consideration in our ability to be able to totally focus on the music or risk being taken out of it by mechanical considerations. As I’ve added new instruments (including double bass) I’ve had to approach each one as a ‘new’ instrument. Learning afresh all the mechanical elements to be able to interact with them fluidly. The upside is that I have a lot more tonal versatility as a result. Because of the clear aural differences I’ve also been encouraged to spend long periods of time with them. This is probably easier because it’s a form of adapting from a really strong initial place though rather than creating confusion by trying to learn several different but similar instruments simultaneously.

So what I’m saying is that it’s best not to have too much variety all at once and focus on a small number of things to get the most out of them…? Well, sort of…

See you for part 2!