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!

How I became a singer through a fighting spirit

Back in the days where I wrote my first songs, I hated my voice. I saw myself as songwriter and guitarist but never a singer! I tried working together with a male singer for a short period in Scotland before moving to Germany. I had to record my voice with my song-arrangements, so as to give him an idea of the vocals I was looking for. It ended up as an embarrassingly thin, unconfident and out of tune sound to my ears. He told me I should stick to playing the guitar and I agreed promptly.  Any singing career was seemingly buried for ever in that moment!

Once in Germany, I continued to write songs and embarked upon an endless search for the perfect singer. I heard many styles and levels of accomplishment along the way, from both female and male voices, but I was never satisfied. I knew what I wanted –  a clear, highish pop voice –  but nothing fitted the bill entirely and sometimes there was a chemistry problem.

After a few years I did discover a singer with a voice that came about as close to my expectations as was acceptable. She was easy to get on with, too, and we seemed to have a large amount of common musical ground. So we started a project together which began with a covers programme (she believed in that strategy of slowly introducing original material into the repertoire in order to be able to get gigs – I didn't agree particularly but saw no other option than to follow this plan).

We did a few concerts and put a lot of work into it, both being perfectionist, and I had a lot of optimism for the future regarding our project. She forced me to sing some songs at gigs myself, which in turn showed me how with practice I actually could produce a reasonable sound, at least for a few numbers! I began to think I might be able to pull off singing one or 2 of my own pieces myself, so I started going to an open mic to practice these songs even though I was pretty nervous about it. This was my first, small breakthrough.

Then one day we were due to rehearse for a gig the next week at the same bar that also held the open mic. Quite a number of friends were enthusiastic about coming. She came round to my flat and informed me that she could no longer work with me due to a number of reasons including not having enough time for her own band. Also, she said that the bar owner at the open mic venue had replaced us at short notice because some New York jazz star happened to be in town and available on that evening to perform himself. The first bit of news made me very sad and disappointed. I saw the loss of a great opportunity and waste of hard effort committed to our duo. The other news angered me greatly: Even if we were an “unknown" act it was totally disrespectful to simply discard us and so late in the day.

However, that same evening the open mic was happening, and with as much determination as I could muster, I resolved to play 3 new songs there as I had planned before the bad news. I felt abysmal: severely let down, disrespected with that selfish business practice, low in energy and still hyper-nervous about singing on stage! But I dragged myself down to the bar and sang those pieces! I amazed myself like never before, I don't think I had ever felt so liberated. I can't remember if I sang particularly well, technically, but I didn't care about that aspect. At night, in bed, I couldn't get to sleep for ages. I was simply astounded, hardly believing that I was that person who acted so courageously. It felt completely alien to me. It took me about a day to come to terms with my new-found strength. And then I had a realisation in the typical fashion of a light being switched on: I was able to sing all of my songs myself and that's exactly what I do now with joy and a great amount of satisfaction!

I have often since encouraged others to adopt a similar approach when they feel imprisoned by a fear of embarking upon a dream, or aren’t able to see their own potential. One example was an amateur fiddler who went to a celtic session almost weekly but put herself down amongst the "much better" professionals so much that she barely lifted her instrument to play herself. I forced her to ignore her voice of fear, and simply get on with it. Only 1-2 years later she was already a passionate, happy performer in front of any crowd!

Once you start the ball rolling in yourself you can inspire those around you to break free.