How to Avoid Being a Famous Musician
I'm not really a musician, or rather I am a musician, just not a famous one. Which is just as well since I never really wanted to be a famous one. Or rather, I did, but it didn't work out.
Nevertheless, I have been a musician - I've sung in choirs, written and performed music for several shows, strolled around at fish festivals singing sea shanties, and I've even pitched up, guitar in hand, on board a ferry on the River Tyne. But I haven't been in anything you'll have seen. Or heard of. Probably.
So if you want to be a famous musician, or even a not-very-famous musician, here's my 1-7 (slightly tongue-in-cheek), non-famous musician tips on how not to do it:
1: Learn an Instrument
I started learning to play the guitar when I was a mere seven years old. My mum had a couple of old guitars around the house and my uncle, Tom Jones (no, not the Tom Jones), was a folk singer and performed at church do's and such like. He sang songs by Ralph McTell, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. Since those were the sorts of songs I'd been brought up on, they were the sort of songs I wanted to sing. Or rather, I didn't want to sing, I just want to strum along and hum quietly to myself.
Uncle Tom showed by lots of chords and right-hand fingerstyle patterns so I could make simple three-chord songs sound really good. And I was keen - I practised every day, bought lots of songbooks, chord chart dictionaries, in fact, anything I could lay my hands on. But pretty soon Uncle Tom had run out of things to show me. He reckoned I was way better than he was and that I needed a new challenge.
I tried to teach myself to read music. I learned how to pick out melody lines from sheet music, but it was hard, and there were lots of things I didn't understand - like dotted crotchets, triplets and 6/8 time signatures. What I really wanted was to play like John Williams, but I didn't know how to make the jump from my plink-plink plonk technique, to the complicated fingering and chord shapes he could do. (By the way, when I say John Williams, I'm not talking about the guy behind the music for 'Star Wars'. I mean the Australian classical guitarist who had hits in the Seventies and Eighties with pieces like 'Cavatina').
2: Find a Good Teacher
I first heard of Williams when I was 10 or 11. I've worn glasses since the age of seven and every year I went to an optician - a very talkative Irishman who knew of my passion for the guitar. Every time we met, he'd tell me about this amazing piece of music called 'Recuerdos de la Alhambra' that John Williams played and that if I wanted to be a great guitarist, I simply must learn it.
Out shopping with my folks one day, I saw an LP - John Williams' Greatest Hits - including the magical piece of music I'd heard about. I bought it. I listened to it. It was the most beautiful music I'd ever heard. Still is, actually.
Growing up, I didn't know many people who played instruments, but when a new family moved near us, their three daughters were all musicians, and they were really good. They passed exams, they gave concerts, they knew about music theory. I realised if I wanted to play the music I'd heard on my John Williams record, I'd have to get proper lessons and understand music theory. There was only one thing for it - well, two things, actually: I changed my school timetable, giving up History to study Music 'O' Level, and I got myself a proper, professional guitar teacher. By the time I was 16, it was time to take the exams.
There were two exams relating to what I judged as being important to my career as a famous musician, and they were very different: in the practical guitar examination, I passed Grade V with Distinction! In the Music 'O' Level, I failed miserably. The problem, I soon realised, was that I didn't really have much interest in music theory - all I wanted was to play the guitar, and since I already could, the theory didn't matter.
And at that point I got into Heavy Metal.
3: Join a Band
The first time I heard 'Black Sabbath' I knew I wanted to play music like that. I listened to Deep Purple, Motorhead and Led Zeppelin. I bought an electric guitar, an amplifier, a couple of effects pedals and I was all set. On Sunday evenings when my folks were at church, I'd turn my amp up full blast and belt out stuff like 'Smoke on the Water', 'Fairies Wear Boots' and 'Overkill'.
And so I joined a band. Trouble was, they weren't very good and all they wanted to play was stuff by Elvis Presley (no disrespect to Presley fans, but I was looking for something more invigorating). So I started auditioning for bands. Trouble was, my tiny 25 watt amplifier wasn't much good against the Marshall 100 watt stacks that most of the bands were using at that time. I didn't have the money for any more equipment, so after a couple of auditions, I gave up.
4: Write Your Own Songs
Being a guitarist, I naturally wanted to write songs. However, my early attempts were terrible and never seemed to sound the way they sounded in my head. When I did manage to come up with something that amounted to more than a few lines, I realised it was full of clichés and phrases I'd heard on the radio.
Many years later, after I'd long since swapped my electrical gear for two new acoustic guitars, I got into drama. Part of my first drama course included writing a show, so I decided to have another go at writing a song. This time I succeeded:
Every day passes much like the next, I suppose,
Of my generation there's not many left, and it shows,
I remember the past like it happened just yesterday
Clear as a bell in my head,
But I can't for the life of me think what I've done
With me false teeth I left in a cup by the bed...
(From: The Fist at My Door)
I wrote this for a show about a man looking back on his life. Trouble was, because it was an actual song, someone would have to sing it. Me.
At that time, I'd never sung in public before, so I decided to record myself and play it at the start of the show. And that's what I did. However, a couple of years after that I was commissioned to write a play for children ('Shadowsong') and I knew I wouldn't get away with recording it this time.
Luckily I didn't have to sing on my own - I had two other performers to keep me company. The songs were quite good (I thought) and were easy to learn, and since our audiences were mostly children and one or two adults, the challenge wasn't too much to bear.
After that, I became more confident and would occasionally get my guitar out at parties and knock out whatever Ralph McTell or Bob Dylan song I'd learned that month. And d'you know what? It was okay. It felt good. Even though I was always nervous and still wasn't ready to get out in front of a proper audience on my own, I liked performing and began volunteering myself for other singing-type roles.
While working with Headway Theatre, one of the regular festivals we did was Amble Fish Festival. I got together with two colleagues and rehearsed a few sea-shanties and other water-related songs and we'd wander around the field treating the crowds to our version of a band of 'travelling players'.
5: Get Someone Else to Sing Your Songs
Being a writer of novels, stories and plays, it was probably only a matter of time before I wrote a stage play that needed a few songs to lift the mood. My Play 'The Body in the Bag' was full of death, murder and dastardly deeds, so I reckoned if some of the characters had songs it would not only give the actors an opportunity to show their characters in a different light, but the change of pace would be good for the audience, too.
The songs were very easy to write and whilst I didn't quite achieve the jazzy Bert Brecht/Kurt Weill flavour I was aiming for, I'm pretty pleased with the results. I wrote six songs, some of which are included on a rehearsal video of the show.
6: Get a Few Gigs
All musicians have to play gigs - it's part of the job. Playing in public helps to build confidence, self esteem and professionalism, as well as being a good solid base to build a reputation on. In my case, the 'gigs' I did mainly revolved around singing with the university choir and performing pirate songs with the Family Learning team during creative workshops for kids.
At various points in my life, I've thought it would be great to be a folk singer like my uncle Tom, but somehow I've just never had enough confidence to get out there on my own. Even now, though I'll happily sing in front of loved ones, I'm not keen on doing a 'party piece' if there are more than three of four people present. After all, being a musician should be about enjoying what you do, and I know in my heart that the stress of performing on a regular basis would be too much.
7: Get a Record Deal and Make Loads of Money
Strangely, getting paid for performing is not something I have much experience of. While it's true I was paid for being a singing pirate (it was part of my job) and also as a strolling player at festivals (it was part of my job), no-one ever gave me money to hear my sing and play, so I guess, from that point of view, I'm not really a professional musician. And I definitely don't have a record deal.
Maybe that's why I'm not a famous musician...