I’m someone who still feels relatively new to the world of being a musician, so when it comes to writing a piece for a forum like this it can seem a little overwhelming. I can relate to many of the things that have been written about on here – feeling like an imposter; learning how to juggle different aspects of work; working out how best to define success. My route towards working in music full-time has been a roundabout one, and I’m definitely still learning the ropes. Basically, I find that most days involve me having to push myself to do new things, which I’m often reluctant to do (at least initially). There’s a resistance that has to be worked against, whether internal or external. So I thought I’d share some thoughts around that, in hopes that it might prove helpful to somebody reading.
I’ve got a stammer, and it’s one of the main reasons it’s taken me the best part of thirty years to end up working in the area I think I’m best suited to. When I was in primary school I would enter competitions such as the Mòd for singing and playing the fiddle; the problem was, before I even got to singing or playing my piece, I was told I had to introduce myself and say what I was going to play first. I think this is somewhat standard practice for competitions – but I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t done any since! By the time I got my words out, I was in no state to perform, either shaking uncontrollably or having forgotten most of what I’d practised. I enjoyed the music, but I just couldn’t do the talking part.
It seems like such a small thing to affect my life significantly, but I think I learned (incorrectly) that in order to succeed in playing music, I needed to be able to speak. Fast forward to the end of high school, trying to work out what to do upon leaving. I remember one teacher saying they thought I should do something musical, but I’d pretty much given up on the idea by then. I remember really liking the look of the Musical Theatre course at RCS, or Applied Music at Strathclyde, but I just couldn’t see it going well. So I chose physiotherapy. In hindsight, it wasn’t the best alternative choice for someone with communication problems, but it was another passion of mine and I went for it. I’ll cut the next bit short for brevity…physio was good but I couldn’t speak to patients. So I worked in a cafe, a pub, a charity, as well as the work of being unemployed and enduring countless interviews.
I’m 30 now, studying Applied Music at the University of the Highlands & Islands; I’ve also got a ceilidh band, and a duo with my wife Grace. I think the musical theatre dream might have passed, but never say never. The stammer remains, although I’ve had a lot of help along the way – intriguingly, it’s sometimes still there when I sing, and it’s worse when I speak Gaelic (my first language). Even on a good day it lingers – a lot of stammerers describe it like an iceberg, where what is seen is only a small part of the story.
A recent challenge that I’ve come across is networking; an important part of building connections in an industry where that’s often how you get the work. This was initially discouraging, because it means being proactive and initiating conversations, when I know that even the simplest question can throw me off – and then it feels like whatever that opportunity was has been lost forever, because I’ve successfully weirded the person out. I’ve been asked if I’m having a seizure, I’ve had folk just wander off… And I sometimes think it’s fair enough, because if I was in their shoes, I’d just want to be out of the awkward situation as well.
But it’s not all bad, and it can even be fun – I’ve made a number of friends and started some positive working relationships via these kinds of meet-ups. Much though it loathes me to say it, it’s a genuinely good way to meet people in the music community. So it’s one area where I’m trying to push past the resistance, battling it with an eagerness to connect with others and learn from them. It still goes horribly sometimes, but that’s fine – I recently approached my fiddle hero Duncan Chisholm at an event, and consequently wasn’t able to say anything, nothing at all…hugely embarrassing (sorry Duncan!).
Another area where I’ve been pushing myself to learn is songwriting. I’d written bits and bobs for years, but never something I would call a song. I think it was my mum who suggested going to one of Mairi Campbell’s songwriting retreats in Lismore, and it took me a year or two to pluck up the courage. Quite apart from the challenge of meeting new people, I just had no idea how I would fare at the whole writing thing. Fear of the unknown, I guess. In any case, I got to the familiar point of saying to myself “Well, it’s either give it a go or stay at home doing nothing very much”. I went for it, and Mairi and others were incredibly encouraging. I learned a lot, and found that I already knew more than I realised. The Glasgow Songsmiths group has also been a great place to develop in this area. It’s still a slow process, but I have a number of songs under my belt now. My wife and I recorded a few of them last year, and we plan to release an EP this summer.
All that to say, I’m thankful to have many around me who encourage me to push past the resistance, even when it seems insurmountable. It’s worth it, and like any resistance training, it improves your strength. There, I learned something from the physio training!