How I became able to perform freely as a guitarist

As a composer, guitarist and singer I used to hate playing solo in front of people for fear of being ridiculed and wanted to smash up my guitar whenever I made mistakes! Despite this, I would often get enthusiastic feedback from my audiences. This went on for a number of years until I realised that something had to change: either I gave up being a musician or worked on feeling free on stage so I could appreciate what I was doing as much or more than my audiences, despite “imperfections”.
In a nutshell: I took a firm decision to become free and 2 weeks later was offered the chance to play with a Bavarian comedian/musician celebrity on state television for whom I had done recording for his CD previously. At first I told him (Willy Astor) that I was busy on that date but after putting the phone down I realised this was an excellent opportunity to achieve my goals. Despite fear I called him back, to confirm that I was actually free, and committed myself.

I forced myself to play much harder solo pieces in front of unofficial audiences as much as I could before the gig where I was to play a simple accompaniment. The concert went really well and all the musicians were likeable and easy-going. I wasn’t nervous and could hardly believe that! This lead on to further gigs at 4 of the most famous venues in Munich and surroundings, including a further TV performance and audiences of between 1500 and 2000. In the middle of all this I had envisioned my final goal of feeling free, playing a challenging solo piece of my own in front of 1000 people, for example in the flamenco style. Just after this and without having mentioned any of the above story to my colleagues, the main guitarist in the band said that I should do some improvisation at the next gig! I knew this was another fantastic opportunity and took it gratefully. It went well I wasn’t nervous!

After this performing solo became a breeze generally speaking but it wasn’t until about 4 years later that I realised I had achieved my goal after having performed 3 fairly challenging solo compositions of my own in front of 1000 people at a church for the funeral of the brother of a girlfriend who tragically died young whilst snowboarding. It was freezing cold and the church and I had to use hand warmers but I was both touched and happy to support the family of the deceased and was completely free in my mind as I performed. This was an unexpected backdrop to my goal but it also taught me yet again that when one focuses on providing value for others, it is perhaps the best way of feeling free as a performer, rather than concentrating on achieving a high standard per se, free from any imperfections!

Hidden potential

I've got a potted climbing plant at home, which is growing from a cutting I took from a much larger plant at my girlfriend's. It has beautiful heart-shaped leaves. I made the “mistake" of not putting the cutting first into water, in order that it could grow roots. That is probably why it isn't is thriving like the parent plant, although it has survived with no visible change for 2 months now. For the first few centimetres above the soil, it looks completely dead: a black stalk and dried out brown leaves. Further along the stem it has a fresh green colour. If that part weren't visible, you would be convinced there was no life in it at all.

This reminded me of my own experiences at times when I thought I my whole being was infiltrated by negativity, like it was written in stone, at least for a while until it dissipated of its own accord. But I then proved to myself I was able to rise above my shadow and accomplish some amazing things with pure resolve. At first glance on the inside, it seemed like death of any hope, but through sheer determination I discovered the reality was that hope is there all the time if it is searched for.

I'm going to see if my plant actually improves. I know it is fighting. If not, I will do a proper cutting of the healthy part and help it on its way to creating strong roots. If we support one another in our efforts to find hope, the world will bloom.

My mistake was actually a blessing in disguise.

Transforming a disability into joy

Every musician has had the experience of playing at a gig to only a handful of listeners, or even to nobody. Trying to live from just performing your own music is practically impossible unless you are very well-known and can get sponsors. Most musicians I know have to teach music as supplementary income, or do some other part-time job. I am currently in the same position: I teach guitar and also a bit of English. Although I enjoy that work, it would obviously be very satisfying to get more well-paid gigs: to perform my own creations. I am working towards this because I know it is possible with the music that I produce. What I have to offer is generally very highly appreciated. I believe my vision is much more realisable now because of an inner development which I want to tell you about here.

Up until almost a year ago, I often used to be very disappointed when hardly anyone turned up at a concert. It didn't seem fair. It also didn't quite make sense. There I was, playing something original and also unusual, which I knew to be of high quality. I had put in months of work to refine and practice my pieces and make them as valuable as possible. It always cost a lot of energy and time to set up and get to bed late, and the pittance I would earn on those evenings was like a slap in the face. Conversely I would get private gigs where I was payed a fixed sum handsomely.

Of all those that did come to any of my gigs, many would thank me and express great enthusiasm, so I knew I must be on the right track at least. I would also sometimes pass a hat around to collect cash, instead of charging for entry. This has become a common sight amongst even very talented musicians, basically because of the undervalued arts these days, and bureaucratic obstacles that make organising concerts with tickets so expensive that it only makes economic sense if you are already well-known.

In short, the odds are heavily stacked against the less-known quality artists. After a few of these hats-passing episodes, I quickly became disillusioned because I noticed that often people in the audience were unaware of the investment required to give a high-class performance. They would give less money for that than the cost of the beer, but still call me a fantastic musician! Whilst I could understand this lack of understanding, it still got me down.

It is very sad to see top-notch musicians walk out of such a gig with as little as €20 each but I can see now how musicians themselves have allowed their art to be culturally downgraded by going along with the process themselves. I for one, decided never again to be in that begging position. I find it preferable to play for entrance fee, if the organiser doesn't pay a lump sum themselves. In that way I can state what I'm worth, and if only a few people turn up, it doesn't matter because I have kept my integrity. This isn't the whole story, because sometimes it is worth playing at unpaid events to guaranteed big crowds, in order to promote oneself. I have also done benefit concerts along the way, which of course is a completely different ball game.

To return to the dissatisfaction I was experiencing – it was getting me down enough to make playing seemed more like a badly paid job, then a creative outlet and passion. This went on for some time until a major event occurred. One day, after moving some heavy furniture around in the flat in a hurry, by myself, my left shoulder became inflamed and immediately put a stop to almost all my guitar playing ability. It didn't go away and imprisoned me physically and mentally in many ways. I was only ever able to practise for 5 min at a time and I only managed to do three gigs over the course of a year. It was a huge undertaking before a concert to balance delivering the goods by practising just enough of the right things, and avoiding absolutely any unnecessary movements with my arm that might cause further inflammation. Fortunately I was able to teach guitar during this period, as I didn't need more than a minimal amount of demonstration with my own playing, to give a good lesson.

I tried various natural-healing remedies to cure my shoulder. I finally came up trumps with an effective combination of laying-on of hands, known as Jin Shin Jyutsu. This is an ancient, holistic Japanese energy-healing tradition which is similar in its principles to acupuncture (more about that here). It had been recommended to me by an experienced practitioner and good friend.

I noticed improvements within 2 weeks. Although the problem has not completely gone and I still have to be careful with some tasks (e.g. typing with a computer keyboard) I am able to live normally and play guitar as I wish! This was such a relief to be freed from an affliction which completely blocked my musical passion and caused significant inconveniences for 12 months. Because of this, I rediscovered my joy in playing, and have since had many unpaid musical sessions just for the sake of living my music. 2 years ago I wasn't motivated much by sessions at all; the question was more about the success of my musical career.

I'm so grateful for this course of events because on the one hand I have learnt to present my self-worth and set limits so that I don't sell myself. On the other hand I can see what an incredible gift it is to be able to play at all. If you are alive and have enough creative outlet, that is a blessing. If you can be successful in your creative career, that is a bonus. All this time I have never had any income problems. You could say that my art has been supported by other means! I still have the bigger vision of reaching many more people with my music, and being able to support myself more from it, but simply being aware that that is a bonus, is liberating in itself. Who knows, I may achieve that dream simply through having all this newfound fun on the way!