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!

When to let go and when to use a fighting spirit

Letting go of a problem and fighting against a problem are 2 entirely different approaches which can be used in order to reach a desirable outcome. I have applied both and have found each to have its merits and pitfalls. In my experience there seems to be a tendency in various spiritual traditions, but also even on some personal development sites, to focus too much on one or the other as being the “right" way. Certainly a huge amount of emphasis is put on only one of the methods, which can lead to a lot of frustration on the part of the person looking for help.

It may be that letting go works 90% of the time for a particular type of mentality (e.g. overdoers), while the fighting method is great for another (e.g. apathetic types), but I certainly sense a danger of buying into just one of them without questioning the value of the other at all. This can happen when somebody has any noteworthy, positive experiences at all with one of them and assumes it can therefore be applied to all situations. Maybe this is because it is more comfortable to do so. In any case, a lack of awareness as to the integral role of each in life can lead to much frustration and eventually even a personal crisis. It is important to be open to healthy experimentation in order to find an optimal balance and try to listen to your intuition which tries to inform you when you are on the wrong track.

I have discussed the usefulness of making goals with determination then letting them go to come back to the present in  "When Goals Become Obstacles" . Here I would like to look at some other issues.

One of the dangers of the fighting spirit is that it can often mean underlying arrogance. It must be understood that it is more often than not about an inner resolve to transform the self, not an attempt to change others. It should certainly be fed by compassion or determination to maintain respect for others. Let me illustrate: when a child cheerfully helps his parents with the clearing up after breakfast, then spills orange juice all over the floor in a moment of clumsiness, if his parents are loving and understanding they will try to let go of any anger they might initially feel like throwing at him, because they know that his intention was pure, i.e. to help everyone. It was simply an accident.

Similarly if you are a perfectionist at cooking and despite your efforts, the rice ends up burnt so that you are ashamed with yourself, thinking that your guests deserve better, you won't get far if you try to change the situation with anger. You need to accept that your intention was pure, and it was a completely normal part of life: you are only human. That means letting go.

Suppose you are a workaholic who gets ill through overload because you place more value in high output than in good physical health. If you try to fight the illness you will most likely make it worse with stress. Your body normally needs to rest so relaxing and letting go are essential. However, if you get angry that your tendency has expressed itself yet again, you can channel that energy into determination to find the root of that imbalance in your life and then change it. You could focus as much energy and concentration as possible on recognising that workaholic tendency as it arises, so that you can become master of it, and not it of you. You can decide that your negative voice should under no circumstances dominate you. This is the fighting spirit. It can be quite stressful when you call up your resolve, because of this inner conflict. Nonetheless, this is precisely the time to transform bad habits. Stress has a useful function as well as a destructive one: it can show you precisely what has to be done and retrospectively that you had the strength to overwhelm your weaker side.

If you tend to be lazy and apathetic, you will probably find the correctly-used fighting method surprisingly productive. It is obviously closely connected with forming discipline and getting “on top" of things. Procrastination, timidness and depression can all be appropriate candidates for this technique. It sometimes requires a surge of energy to overcome lack of action, incessant negative chatter of the mind or an absence of courage.

On the other hand, we are not designed to endure us stress continually. If you can't change a situation, let it go. Put all your quiet attention into letting go. Visualize being happy and calm and let the subconscious help find ways of becoming that state. Become the attitude and process of letting go using wakefulness.

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.