As a beginner musician, should I take grades?

The question: Should I take grades?

Should I Take Grades? – Picture by Ronnie Tucker

It is a question which comes up regularly in my work as a music teacher and lecturer. In the popular music world of guitar, vocals, bass, keyboards and drums, taking grades almost seems irrelevant to many musicians.

The idea of practicing some un-trendy custom-written piece is alien to many musicians just starting out. Until The Rock School grades and curriculum were introduced in 1992, to my knowledge, there was no recognised programme of study for non-classical musicians. For many of these musicians, grades are still a no go area.

Some tutors believe that the only way to keep pupils motivated is to stick to a grades system which has a certain set of pieces, scales and other exercises associated with it. Having taught piano (and guitar for my sins… ) I realised the merits of following a set curriculum. Pupils would lose motivation if there was no longer term plan or goals in mind. Many students arrived to their lessons not wanting to take grades and had an initial burst of enthusiasm at the start of their lessons. They then began to lose focus and momentum as the path became bereft of landmarks and hard work became apparent.

There are many tutors who balance the need for exams and fun content, maintaining motivation and achievement. Often by organising gigs and opportunities to play, teachers such as Richard Perkins and Rachel Kerry

I had many years of piano lessons from various teachers and never studied grades. Then I needed to obtain grade 8 piano to go to university. Having taken only a single piano exam in my life, it made things quite difficult for me when I started to teach piano. I had no in-built DNA to take other students through a series of learning stages. Having these set stages in my earlier years of teaching would have been gold dust. I watched other piano teachers who had traveled dutifully through the grades system, establish an instrumental teaching career very quickly.

I remember on my PGCE music course, George Odam indicated that teachers tended to teach their students in the way that they had learned. Rightly or wrongly, it is a system which can have massive benefits for the journey of a learner.

Piano Lessons George Goodwin Kilburne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I have also seen in my life time, the stifling effect on students of sticking rigidly to a set programme of study. Some accomplished teachers are fearful of treading off the well-beaten path of the grades system into the unknown. Letting a student choose a piece or style which is outside one’s experience as a teacher, can be scary. For me, working with musicians from so many disciplines, I find it exciting when a music student wants to explore something new. It makes life interesting and the journey is fun for both teacher and student. We should never stop learning and lifelong learning is a good example to set our students.

What are your experiences as a student and/or a teacher? Do you stay on the grades path?

There are plenty more tips to help beginners here in the free Top Ten Tips book at and a more comprehensive manual available too

I do tend to answer some questions with more questions but I guess that is the teacher in me! So in short:

  •  What is your goal or intention as a musician?
  • Are you motivated by exams and grades?
  • Will you need them to go and study further?
  • Are you motivated by a much more free approach?
  • Do you like to lead your own learning?
  • Are you good at finding ways to stay motivated?
  • Do you gain a real sense of achievement if you pass exams?
  • Are you around people who need some measure of how good you are?
Posted in beginners, Improving Confidence in others, kennedy violins, Teaching Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

So what is behind the Confident Performer?

Arnie Demonstrates How to be a confident performer.

The Confident Performer – Picture by Ronnie Tucker

A couple of weeks ago, presenter, actor, dancer, director and choreographer, Laura Graham-May interviewed me about the Confident Performer Book and I have had a number of requests for the audio interview to be presented as a written transcript. So here it is! I reveal the inspiration behind the writing of the book and  give some hope to the late starter.

Laura: so Clive Stocker, we’ve known each other as friends for some years now, I know that you are a music lecturer at City of Bath College

Clive: that’s right yeah.

Laura: but you’ve just done something rather exciting and written your own book, could you tell us a little about it?

Clive: well the book is called “How to become a Confident Performer” and it’s been 2 years in the writing or probably 12 years in the writing but 2 years with pen in hand. It all started from working with performance students who exhibit nerves and really the idea of the book is to give you quick fix things that will make a difference. There’s a lot of other books and this one is not really the same, other books tend to have long drawn out approaches and I think when you are working with teenagers it’s a different ball game, they want something that’s going to be quick and instant.

Laura: so when you say teenagers, what age group are you talking about and what sort of qualification are they doing?Pop-gig-(girls)-web

Clive: the people I work with are doing an Extended Diploma which is the equivalent to A levels, they are on a 2 year course and they go from very timid performers to, many of them, professional musicians by the end of the course, so I’ve learned a lot from them over the years definitely.

Laura: wow! So when you say professional musicians, have you had any that have gone on to a big worldwide success?

Clive: yeah we’ve had a number of artists, I mean, obviously the most famous is Gabrielle Aplin who’s doing very well as you’ve probably heard. Laura Doggett has been signed to Sony/ATV Pub UK and we’ve also worked with a guy called Max Goff who’s now playing bass for Tom Odell touring the world as we speak.

Laura: great

Clive: yeah, I think we’ve been blessed, we’ve done a lot of hard work with them as well.

Laura: yeah, I bet you have. Where does this book come in, so you were driven to write it because of your experience of auditioning students, watching students in rehearsals, what was it exactly that made you think this would be a good idea?

A nervous interviewer

People are always nervous when they interview – Picture by Ronnie Tucker

Clive: well initially it was working with students when they are performing but I do most of the auditions for the 16 to 18 year olds and I started to realize that you can make a difference to students doing auditions and I would try out various things to relax people, to get them to perform and get over their initial nerves and I learned many techniques and practiced different things with performers I’ve seen for the first time and I thought if I could make a difference with them then these techniques would work with other people as well, so I am very lucky to be able to be in that position I think.

Laura: sure, and presumably you’ve seen these techniques work on lots of students. What do the majority of them go on to do because there is only going to be a small percentage lucky enough or talented enough to have hits. Where do you see in the majority of students even if they don’t become musicians presumably these techniques can help them?

Clive: in every single job that you do, you have to interact with other people, you have to talk with them and many jobs have presentation or require presentation skills, there are many people I’ve met over the years who don’t go for promotion because they are too worried about presenting and standing up in front of a group of people and they would rather earn less and not have promotion because of that, so I think these skills are always relevant. I think if you remind yourself that you’ve stepped outside of your comfort zone, you can achieve anything because that’s the only way you are going to move forward.

Laura: absolutely. Where did you get most of the ideas for the writing of the book, is it something you’ve struggled with in the past with your confidence or did you have to do a lot of research to write it?

Cold hands Photo

Cold Hands brought on by fear

Clive: both. For many years I used to be very nervous about performing and I wanted to be a classical concert pianist and really there was no way I was going to do it because I just used to have problems with circulation in my hands, my fingers would go cold, I couldn’t move my fingers even in the middle of summer, my fingers would freeze up and I just got into such negative cycles of telling myself  I can’t do things, Henry Ford says if you say something isn’t going to happen, you’re right, it won’t and I told myself I wasn’t going to be a performer and I was right. Working with hypnotherapists and learning some techniques from an NLP practitioners and generally finding out from other musicians who had similar problems and just found ways around things really, because I think sometimes people think there is only one way to do things and there aren’t.

Laura: so have you used these techniques on yourself, do you think you’ve become a more confident performer musician as the years have gone on?

Clive: absolutely. I realized that I could step outside my comfort zone much more quickly and have strategies to breach the gap, so if I’m doing a solo performance, which I wouldn’t have done 5 years ago, I would never have done a solo performance with just me on the piano but I would do that now because I know there are ways  that I can cover up the mistakes and there are ways in which I can present things so that it’s not a problem, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to get better, it just means I’m comfortable with not being the best I can be when I performed something for this first time.

Laura: so do you think that performers generally learn these things, or do they start out with the conviction and confidence first?

Clive: Good question, isn’t it? I mean, one of my friends says being a musician is a

Music can be described as a managed mental condition.

Music can be described as a managed mental condition.

‘managed mental condition’, so I think anybody who is a performer has some of that about them. There has got to be something wrong with you that you need to stand up in front of hundreds or thousands of people and do the thing that’s quite nerve racking. They are not necessarily naturally confident, many of the performers I know struggled with that, very few of them are naturally confident, I think they all struggled and sometimes the people who I thought were very confident, if you ask them to do something outside of their normal comfort zone they go red in the face, they shake and everything. Ok, normally they look confident because they always stay within their comfort zones.

Laura: why do you think we are so worried about what other people think of us because that’s a lot of it, isn’t it? Personally I think confidence is a fluctuating state, so it’s not like you were saying I don’t think its static, I don’t think it’s the same in every situation but a lot of it I think has to do with our fear, our fear of how other people judge us, so why do you think we care about that so much?

Clive: I talked about it, it’s in the book really, at some point in our life we lose the ability to play, not in terms of music but in terms of having fun and trying something out, you know, you are an actor and you do improvisation and you know that unless you’re willing to play, you don’t have a show. At some point we unlearn the fact that it’s good to play and I think when you play music, if you lose that, I think sometimes classical musicians lose it because every time you play you have to play exactly the same and that can take some of the spontaneity out of it and the fun out of it and I think if you try and keep everything the same, that’s not human nature I think, I don’t know if I would go and see a performance if it was the same every time I went to see it. It was generally the fun, we lose that ability to try things out and not fail but we lose the ability to be willing to let something go wrong and I think that’s a really sad thing.

Laura: so what’s the next move now, once you’ve written something like this how do you get it out there, how do you tell people it’s there?  Marketing is a tricky thing, even the days of twitter and everything we’ve got available to us, I think getting the word out is tricky, how are you going to do that?

Clive: well that’s the area I haven’t had 15 years experience in, so things like twitter and facebook I’m learning how to use in a promotional sense and I think many people in our age group are. It’s been around for a long time but it seems alien to promote yourself through that way especially as a performer, it doesn’t feel very excited to stand up in front of a computer and press send, that’s the area which is new to me. Also thinking about workshops, book launches, coaching, all of these different areas because it’s not about writing a book and wanting to sell it, it’s about wanting to help people and hopefully to make that even more of my career.

Laura: and finally, because we have to finish, what would you say to other people thinking of maybe taking up and instrument or starting to perform again or learn to perform who have never done it before, what would you get from being a musician or from performing that maybe people are missing out on if they don’t try, if they don’t take that risk?

Starting later in life on an instrument has many benefits.

Starting an instrument later in life has massive benefits

Clive: oh well, where do I start? It’s never too late to start, you’re never too old, there’s people who have arthritis start to play an instrument and their arthritis improves because the body and the mind tends to do what you ask of it, it’s actually good for us socially, it’s really good for you, you get to meet other musicians, you can learn with other people, you can join a choir, so even if you have limited mobility you can sing with other people, you’ve done shows, you know what it’s like. Nothing pulls people together more closely than being in a show or putting on a performance I think. There is nothing better than doing a performance and rehearsing towards a performance. I’ve sung with people who are in their 90s, I’ve sung with kids and everyone all the way through and you always learn something new from people who are just starting out or people who have been doing it 70 years, you know, and everyone should do it, it’s what I think.

Laura: great, well that’s a brilliant message, thank you very much. Good luck with your book, it’s an amazing achievement especially if you are still teaching which I know you are; you have enough on your plate, so congratulations and all the best of luck. Thank you very much.

Clive: thank you.

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Download the Free 10 Top Tip Guide

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Listen to the original interview here on 

Interview with Laura Graham-May and Clive Stocker

Interview with Laura Graham-May and Clive Stocker

All cartoon artwork by Ronnie Tucker  Ronnie is also the illustrator for both the free E-Book and the  How To Become a Confident Performer Book 

Posted in Confident Singing, Improving Confidence in others, Improving Your Confidence, performance strategies, Thinking in a better way | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Russian New Year Concert in Frome

 Frome has a reputation for delivering hard hitting classical music and on Saturday 18th January, the town’s cultural status was elevated to a whole new level. The all Russian music programme was a delight for the people-packed pews of Christ Church. Featuring a wonderfully Rachmaninoff biased concert, concert goers were treated to some of the finest Russian choral music and piano music ever written. The local charity event featured  belAcappella and members of The Christ Church Singers performing a selection of Rachmaninoff vespers, led by Basira Ward and Paul Dowbekin.

Web pic bw high res 2At the piano, Stephen Marquiss wowed the audience with passionate and elegant interpretations of Preludes by Rachmaninoff and a lesser known, yet equally delightful piece by his class mate, Scriabin. Stephen’s fluent and florid style was captivating and seating ourselves within view of the keyboard, we were able to see and hear Stephen’s mastery of the instrument resulting in exquisite phrasing and dramatic narrative drive. Witnessing a professional  playing from memory is always impressive, removing barriers between musician, composer and audience and provided a continuous, mesmerising experience.

Basira sings Rachmaninoff

Basira sings Rachmaninoff and Conducts in Frome

Basira took to the stage with renditions of solo songs from the most uncompromising solo Russian song repertoire. Accompanied by Stephen at the piano, Basira’s vocal power and control packed a powerful emotional punch and the enviable dynamic control melted the listener with every phrase. The audience-packed church breathed together at the end of each piece with the release of the candle-lit tension.

The choir performed the very challenging choral works with incredible vocal tone and control, under the masterful direction of Basira Ward and Paul Dowbekin. Russian vocal repertoire demands a great deal from singers in terms of pitch range and dynamic control. The choir did not disappoint, delivering each piece with incredibly focused voices, even down to the lowest notes in their range. Many choirs do not have the ability to tackle the repertoire and I had not heard such beautiful low notes since the St Petersberg Rossica Choir sang in Bath Abbey 12 years ago!

The organ solo piece by Glazunov was refreshing and Paul Dowbekin’s interpretation was gentle and moving. A great choice to balance the heavy-weight Rachmaninoff programme.

Other soloists featured within the vespers and were balanced beautifully by the choir. Ed Cotton (Tenor Soloist), Dorothy Forrest (Alto soloist) and Paul Feldwick (Bass Soloist) oozed dynamic control and impressive pitch mastery. Paul’s bass solo with piano accompaniment by Simon Davies was also delightful with rich enviable low notes. Many concert goers may not be aware of the difficulties presented by the extremes of the Russian choral repertoire. Very high and quiet notes test even the most seasoned professional and yet soloists were spot on and the choir always blended and made them shine throughout.

Russian Hospitality

Russian Hospitality

The evening was topped off with vodka, beautiful Russian culinary offerings and a quick lesson for the audience in how to wish each other a happy new year in the Slavic tongue. Anybody who knows Basira, understands that when you buy one of her concert tickets, you get so much more than just a concert. You become a participant in a unique experience, a witness to a drama and a passenger on a musical journey. Concerts like The Russian Evening, keep the town of Frome firmly on the cultural map.

So, it just falls for me to wish you a С новым годом – (Happy New Year)

Clive Stocker

Author of the How to Become a Confident Performer Book

Posted in Confident Singing, Reviews, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How do you beat Writer’s Block as a Musician?

How do get creativity flowing again? (Cartoon by Ronnie Tucker)

How do get the creativity flowing again? (Picture by Ronnie Tucker)

Have you ever had writers block or noticed that you have struggled to create something musical? Over the years I have come to realise that limitations can be liberating when it comes to creativity. Make sure  you leave tips, suggestions and ideas in the reply section below. I will add the best tips to the list. 

After sitting at my keyboard for a whole Saturday and half of Sunday, the realisation that I had no ideas with which I was happy, weighed heavy on my mind. I had spent 10 or 11 hours with manuscript paper and pen in hand and my page was empty apart from scribblings out. My Logic arrange page was empty and I was thoroughly dispirited.

zero ideas...

The Sad Screen of Zero Ideas

Then a call from my friend Martin to say he was going to a concert and he would pick me up en-route in an hour, launched me into action. I worked furiously for that hour, and scribbled idea after idea. The passing of time went into some hyperdrive-like experience, with me sketching ideas for all the different sections of the piece I was writing. A text from my friend announced that he would be 10 minutes late and I was almost ecstatic that I had been granted extra time in an important creative process. I worked furiously and more ideas flowed. Eventually, he arrived and I was so absorbed in what I had been writing that I could hardly speak.

When judgement goes, creativity flows. (Cartoon by Ronnie Tucker)

When Judgement Goes, Creativity Flows. (Cartoon by Ronnie Tucker)

So what happened?
Being creative is quite a pressure on us as our musical ear and skills develop. As I discuss in my book, we need to catch ourselves off-guard, finding that excitement and lack of judgement in what we do. As an educator, I find young song writers becoming so judgemental about their own material that they often end up writing nothing.
How do we turn that judgement or creative blocking off?
In my own experience, I learned that plenty of time does not equal plenty of creativity. So when I have lots of time, I limit it by planning to go out in an hour or inviting an old friend round to introduce an element of value to the time I have.
This seems to turn the quality judgement barrier off and I tell myself that I can refine the composition later. Refining ideas is where real musical skills come in and not in creating the initial ideas themselves.
Other ideas to switch creativity on are to limit the notes I will use or picking a subject at random. Setting myself an arbitrary set of limitations to narrow down the scary vast desert-like expanse of creative possibilities always works for me. I can then widen out the creative field once I have started. Have you always wondered why the best parties happen in the kitchen? There was no expectation that there would be a party happening in the kitchen. Creativity and time are like that party in the kitchen. (Apologies for the random analogy)

After chatting with my drummer friend, Sam Brown, I realised that creative people often use a range of different strategies to get work done. Sam told me tales of being on the island of Skye for 4 days with no TV, phone or internet and it being a most creative and productive time!

What limitations can you impose to get you started?
How can you turn the ominous task of composing into a fun challenge?

There are many more ideas about creative processes in my how to become a confident performer book at

So in short,

  • Limit your creative window by inviting somebody over at a given time
  • Limit the amount of notes you might use in your composing
  • Set yourself a task to write about a very strange subject
  • Find out when you are most creative and schedule such work at this time
  • If an idea seems a bit weak, leave it, start a new idea and come back to it later
  • Note any ideas you have in the day and come back to your notes later
  • Collaborate with other people when you feel stuck
Posted in composition, writer's block | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

From Fear to Fun. Improving your confidence.

Clive taking requests at the piano.

The Author Takes Requests at the Piano

Just recently, many musicians I have met or have worked with have said, “I want to improve my confidence”. This came as a bit of a surprise to me as some of these musicians seem very confident already. We can all suffer from a lack of confidence from time to time and I talked to one guitarist who said that he had always played it safe in formal performances and wanted to branch out a bit. He said that his solos were a bit boring and uncreative. The answer to improving confidence is in almost every case about having more fun whilst performing. This is easier said than done and almost never happens in formal paid gigs or performances. The answer lies in doing different types of performance. Even musicians whose only source of income is from playing live music can suffer from a lack of confidence at times. So where can this confidence improve? I noticed that my confidence improved most from impromptu musical gatherings.

I was reminded of this about a month ago when I went to a party where my friends had a piano. (see picture above) They asked me to play and after a couple of glasses of wine and countless requests, I was in the flow and people were singing. This is what I had signed up for as a musician, to have fun and lose myself in the moment and enjoy making music with my friends. We went from Beatles to Nat King Cole and then finally to some songs from the shows. Some of the requests people made were not well known to me and my renditions were flawed and not without mistakes but people were happy to sing along and seemed to enjoy themselves. The requests came thick and fast and so did the mistakes but they did not matter, the singing had got louder and people were happy. At the end of the evening, people thanked me for playing and some were moved that I had played their favourite song.

What did this party piano playing experience do for my own confidence? It reminded me not to be worried about mistakes and that others’ enjoyment comes from what you play and how they are involved in the music. I played what they wanted to sing and they were totally engrossed in the music and the singing so didn’t notice or care about mistakes in any way at all. The music was fun and I felt fearless. It reinforced the fact that I love playing music and that I like to entertain people. I even worked out a creepy crawly chromatic left hand bassline to Bluemoon which I have used since in other performances. It reinforced the fact that I love playing background music and love the way live music changes the atmosphere at a party. It had nothing to do with some of the expectations of precision and total focus when you play a gig or concert at which people are paying money. This is a really important distinction to make. Unless I get a balance between these impromptu gigs and focused formal performances then music loses its very essence of fun. Our subconscious listens to the feelings we have about what we do, so create more situations where music is fun and your subconscious will listen to you.

Impromptu fun gigs change the feelings we have about performance.

When we have fun performing on a regular basis in these impromptu get together’s, we find that the association we have with performance shifts from fear to fun. If we laugh and have lots of fun, we associate that with all of our performances. So isn’t it a good idea to find the time and places we have fun playing music and do more of these? If we do, our feelings about performance change. We now associate all performance with fun.

Bowled over by the feelings of confidence this impromptu party Piano playing gig gave me, I then booked a gig at my local pub at which I knew I would not be paid and paid some extra musicians to come and Jam with me. I wanted to carry the ethos and feelings I had into another situation. We had such a fun time and we laughed whenever we went wrong. The audience loved it and it was one of my favourite performances to date. I took control of the event and made sure that it would be fun by removing the expectations of a paid performance. I made a fair few mistakes but we just laughed through them because I was trying out some new ideas. The bass player was 30 minutes late due to traffic and I just played the basslines with my left hand until he joined us. I tried out the new BLUEMOON creeping chromatic bassline I had tried at the party from the previous months piano party. It was a bit rough but we smiled and got through it.  Coming out of your comfort zone as often as you can is important and these impromptu free jam sessions/gigs are the way to do it.

So what should you do if you feel you need to improve your confidence?

Find or make events where you can jam, sing, accompany and just have fun. Parties are great for this. I always used to bring my guitar to parties in my teens and no doubt bored people on occasion but we had some laughs along the way which is probably why I tend not to worry about playing rhythm guitar -my association is the guitar is fun. Open mic nights can be useful although I have found these to be more nerve racking sometimes than a full gig because you usually only play one song and if it goes well then it is fine but if it does not go well you can feel a little bit demotivated. People are quite nervous around you to, waiting for the one song they are going to be playing. Open mic nights are great and really lift many performers to the next level but they should be just a part of your performing life – jamming and parties are the very first step for many people.

Why not invite people round to have a music evening? Just print out a few sets of lyrics and chords and go from there. In my experience, some of my friends are desperate to do this kind of thing and many a great voice has been unearthed at such events.

So in short:

  • Organise musical get togethers- have fun musical evenings
  • Print out some lyric sheets and chord sheets to get you started.
  • Play in places and to people who like what you do.
  • Not every gig has to be paid!
  • Take your guitar/instrument to parties
  • Accompany other singers and just have fun.
  • Laugh at your mistakes and remind yourself WHY you got into music.
  • Have a go at EVERYTHING people suggest to play! See what happens.
  • Use the things that went well in the jams in your formal performances. Transfer fun into your life.
  • Reinforce the times where you feel fun when performing and do more of these.
  • Create a new reality where whenever you perform, it will be fun. Fun is the new normal feeling for you whenever you perform.
Posted in Confident Singing, Improving Your Confidence, performance strategies, Thinking in a better way | 5 Comments

Being nice to people on the way up…

Being nice to the people on the way up is a good idea as you may meet them on the way down.

After reading a post by Amy Wilkinson about top tips for musicians and the great tip about being nice to the sound engineer, it got me thinking. (It is great advice by the way!)

I remembered the phrase, “Being nice to the people on the way up is a good idea as you may meet them on the way down.” (The phrase has been attributed to Walter Winchell, Wilson Mizner, and Jimmy Durante)

I don’t agree with the second part of the statement for two reasons.
1. You should be nice to people anyway.
2. You can take the good people with you when you get to the next step.
Meeting people on the way down means that you have excluded these nice people from your life. Why would anyone want to do that?

I have read this and until recently I have always felt that this was good advice especially if you want to progress to “make it.” Firstly what on earth does “make it” mean? There are many levels of success and all are a bit arbitrary but the people we meet enable us to make it better and enrich our lives.

In my experience, be nice to everyone involved in the gig, not because you might meet them on the way down, but because you will make a better performance atmosphere. You will also receive better treatment from those around you. In my career as a musician, I have not “made it” whatever that is, but the people I work with, I work with again and again and I have good fun and have had many great musical experiences. I have many friends who are very talented musicians and sound engineers and we help each other. Good creative friends are always something I want in my life whether I am playing simple songs in my lounge or playing Wembley stadium. (It may happen!) If there are good friends, there are always exciting opportunities ahead and the people around to make it happen.

“…We may meet them on the way down.” Also thinking about the idea that we should prepare for when we are failing is a strange concept to me. Musicians’ careers are constantly evolving. One day they are on Tv playing music and the next they are delivering workshops, and the day after they might be playing a pub. That is the nature of a musical life. Having more than one string to your bow is a very good idea. It will make your music more interesting and your life more fulfilling.

So, in short, as my elders would say, “Be nice and play nice”


Posted in Justifications, Thinking in a better way | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Wrong is on the road to Right


In my last blog I tackled the idea of comparing ourselves to other musicians and how damaging it can be for our musical progress. Many of my fellow musicians agreed and nodded energetically to this and realised they had been guilty of damaging comparisons. Ideas seem to resonate with many people.

This week, I’ve been taking part in a jazz workshop for players of all abilities and I have encountered a different comparison problem. Students are comparing themselves to themselves.

The familiar chant I have heard this week is, “if the improvisation and music was written down, I’d be able to play it really well” As soon as students on the course came across something that they couldn’t do, they immediately compared it to something they could do VERY well. It’s easy to do this. I was asked to improvise using only notes from the extended chords, ie 7ths 9ths 11ths. I found this very challenging indeed. My initial thought was, “if I was allowed to do this my old simpler way, then this would be easier” the answer to this is yes, obviously it would be! However, I am making the mistake of forgetting I need to grow. I need to allow myself to become the beginner at something new again. Improvisation needs variety and new life injected into our ideas. I need to Allow myself to make mistakes. I need to allow myself to feel a little exposed and outside of my comfort zone, then I will get better.
I used to think that people who stayed within their comfort zones were confident because they never appeared to be challenged. This is not true. Confident Jazz musicians try new things with an open mind and a good sense of humour. The longer we are confident staying within our comfort zones, the less likely we are to allow ourselves to try something new. Also, it is more likely that we will use the idea of being good at something else as a reason not to try something new.

One player spent quite a bit of time and stress away from the class trying to learn a song before the class started. He said he wanted to be able to play it well before the class started. I asked him if he would say the same to a one year old child learning to walk. Would he say the child was forbidden to be there till he or she could walk confidently? He laughed and agreed he needed to give himself a chance and time to learn it.

People also seemed to reinforce existing limiting patterns by saying things like:

Do I need to sing and use my voice if I play a woodwind instrument?
If I am a good reader, do I really need to learn things by ear?

The answer to both of these things is YES. By learning things by ear and using our voices we make improvisation easier and we make the process of memorising much quicker and easier too. By memorising music, we free our eyes from the page. The music is tighter and the musical results are more impressive. I asked one of the visiting piano tutors how he memorised the 7 songs he played that evening and he said that he didn’t learn them from the sheet music. He had learned them from the records. Playing songs by ear, he had improved his musicianship and his ability to improvise. The results were incredible and it has made me want to learn things by listening from now on. I want to get better. George Odam, my tutor and mentor when I learned to teach music instilled the idea of “sound before symbol” and it is a valuable thing to remember. Our inner musical ear is crucial to our musical toolset and singing and listening are excellent ways to develop this.

A few fellow aspiring Jazz musicians.

A few fellow aspiring Jazz musicians.

Some of the other players were playing their second instruments and were also new to jazz. These players spent a lot of time apologising for mistakes. Interesting. If we focus on the job in hand then we will get better results. Nobody is interested in what we do not know or the reasons why we don’t know those things. They are only interested in what we do know and what we can do. We need to let ourselves learn. We can try new ways, try new approaches, let ourselves become the beginner again. Trying new ways will make our lives more fulfilling and more rewarding. It helps us accept that getting things wrong is part of getting things right.

Chris Gumley, the main tutor for the course instilled an idea of fun for new things. Along with everybody else, he allowed himself to make mistakes and have fun along the way. it seems to work for him very well. His consummate and inventive jazz saxophone playing is inspirational.

If we try things in the same way, we get the same results. We need to allow ourselves to falter occasionally. Would we tell ourselves off if we stumbled like a toddler whilst learning to walk?

So in short,

• Learn a piece by ear.
• Say, “This is different, I am going to try this.”
• Expand your musical comfort zone by trying things that make you feel uncomfortable every now and then.
• Allow yourself to make mistakes.

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Do you Compare yourself to other Musicians?

How often do you compare yourself to other musicians? The question surfaced today in separate conversations with two musicians. One musician is very experienced and the other is just starting out on her journey but the process of unhelpful comparison was causing problems for both. The established guitarist and singer recalled how she would always seek out musicians with whom she could compare herself.  In my life, I had spent much time comparing myself to other musicians. The end result was always the same; I felt inferior and believed I was seriously inadequate as a musician and wasted valuable time I could have been practising. Comparing can become a habit and a very negative pattern. There was a time in my life when I would seek out as many opportunities to compare and judge myself harshly as possible. It was indeed a habit and one which spiralled into even poorer self-esteem and lower self-confidence. I shared my woeful tale with the singer and she nodded, smiled and understood. She had realised it was a bad habit when in her own negative comparing mind, a drunken, out of tune karaoke performer had out-performed her! Her partner reminded her this was ridiculous and the comparing had gotten out of hand! QUIT THE COMPARISONS! Does this sound like an effective strategy?

Photo Courtesy of

The other young musician I encountered today, compared herself to other songwriters on Youtube and told me at length how she was of an inferior standard. I found it fascinating how anyone could compare songwriting skills and reach the conclusion that they were “Not as good”. I reminded her that nobody could do what she does as a songwriter better than she. Her skills are unique and yes, she could get better and make improvements in her own skills but she must always keep writing and performing. We can all do this. I mentioned the idea that comparisons were like playing the children’s card game, Top Trumps. You pick one attribute and compare it to another musician’s attribute. If you lack confidence, you pick your worst attribute and compare it to a musician’s best attribute. For many years I fell into the bad habit of berating myself for being such a poor sight-reader. If I saw pianist who could play even the most difficult piece fluently from sight, I would use it as evidence that I was inadequate. I needed to look at what I did well and focus on what I wanted to achieve.   Now I enjoy listening to the best Jazz pianists and the best singers and songwriters. I listen for enjoyment and know I can learn something from each of them. We are either getting better or we are getting worse and self-judgement is rarely a useful part of the process of getting better. We can only become a poor imitation if we try to copy and aspire to the goals of others. Aspire to be the best version of YOU, that you can be. Do things YOUR way but be open to ideas, learning from the people we admire. There is a real difference between comparison and admiration. Effective happy musicians learn from the people they admire. They are often like Magpies in that they borrow and steal ideas from others. So how do you get better?

2013. Robbie Boyd, Picture by Michael Brydon

The best way I have found to stop myself making comparisons is to ask, “What is unique about me as a musician or songwriter? What do I do particularly well?” Spend time thinking about the musical things you want to do and the message you want to get across. Make your music more about doing than thinking. Plan musical events or performances which will gradually change your mind set. Feeling jealous by somebody else’s abilities and skills can be replaced with, “What can I learn from this person?” Ask yourself what would you like to do musically and HOW do you want to go about making the music your own.   So in short,

  • Turn comparisons into admiration.
  • Remind yourself about your own best musical characteristics.
  • Ask yourself WHAT you want to get across when you sing or play a piece of music. Your message is unique.
  • Make your musical focus more about DOING than thinking.
  • If you catch yourself comparing your own skills with another musician, immediately say, “What can I learn from this musician in my own musical performance?”
  • Be a musical magpie and borrow or steal ideas and make them your own.


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What can we learn from comedians about being a confident performer?

This week, I was talking with Chippenham born and bred, comedian and compère, Wil Hodgson. Alongside performing professional stand-up, Wil also compères Burlesque performances and hosts his own comedy nights, featuring comedians from all over the world.

“What’s the first thing they teach you when you learn to paddle a canoe? They teach you how to capsize!”

Wil Hodgson (C) Isabelle Adam

Wil believes that at the start of your career, dying on stage is only just part of the process of learning to perform. For the performer, a plan of action for when things go seriously wrong makes perfect sense. Keep this in mind and compare it to your own ethos of performing. We will be looking at this a little later on in the article but at this point, you may be wondering, why am I interviewing a comedian about performing when the blog is about being a confident performing musician. My own process of research is drawn from a wide variety of sources. Sometimes, just observing how children learn new skills can give me valuable insights into my own practice. Simply watching the way in which a dancer moves can clearly illustrate key aspects of interpretation and performance. In fact the more we improve as musicians, the more inspiration we are able to draw and interpret from non-musical art forms. My reason for asking Wil Hodgson about performing and nerves was led by my knowledge of the many similarities between performing stand-up comedy and the role of the improvising musician. The extreme “putting yourself on the line” aspect of stand-up is also something from which we can draw inspiration.

My first questions to Wil were about his background and any possible fears he and other comedians have about performing stand-up. He agreed that he can experience fear when facing an audience if the performance has not gone well. Hethen paused and said slowly; “Mmm, Onstage death”

On-stage deaths

He wryly commented that the phenomenon is aptly named given the intense feeling of loss and grief that can occur, akin to experiencing the death of somebody close. Later in the interview I asked Wil how he can salvage a performance when he has had an onstage death. He said quite emphatically that you cannot turn an onstage death around. I was heartened at this point, in the knowledge that as a musician, it is more acceptable to make mistakes and even stop mid performance. It is then possible to start again and still deliver a satisfactory performance, reclaiming the trust of the audience. As a comedian, this is simply not the case, when you fowl up, it is pretty much game over… If you are a musician reading this, count your blessings that you are not a comedian!


I asked Wil how he coped with the event of an onstage death, one, which results in a premature offstage exit. He emphatic advice was to leave the stage as soon as you can. You don’t want to ruin the atmosphere for other comics on the bill. Some booking agents and venues and managers have different views on this so it is quite a difficult area. He said it is often a process of looking at the situation and then thinking was this situation right for comedy? A stag night or a hen night for instance often give incredibly bad performance opportunities to a stand-up comedian and in his eyes, the two types of event should never be mixed. He admits that an audience cannot sit still after a few drinks and yet alcohol and comedy regularly appear on the same bill. Holding the audience responsible for an early exit or stage death is an interesting idea. Wil stated that there does tend to be a certain amount of audience blame in these situations, but it is not always the case and it is important to have a degree of balanced self-perception to draw upon. He does know some “bad” comedians who will only play open mic nights. These performers often have little or utterly warped self-perception, and fail to critique their poor performances in a rational way, in spite of many years experience. The same may well be true of some musical performers. I have observed certain musicians at open mic nights, playing the same tired songs with no positive response from the audience either now or when I first saw them, 5 years ago. A healthy self-perception is good.

Wil Hodgson (C) Isabelle Adam

I then raised the subject of playing it safe in terms of material and delivery, deliberately aiming from the outset to please a specific audience. Wil immediately put me straight on this point. His opinion is that comedy is reinforced by the quote:

“Working through Laughter rather than working for Laughter.”

(A quote from Eddie Waters, comedian and writer.) Wil went on to reinforce that there are countless comics who supply, “chicken in a basket” comedy, with well-trodden jokes carefully crafted and delivered to please a certain audience. Wil’s brand of humour is anything but predictable, nor is it “formulaic crowd pleasing” in any way. He referred to performers who employed these tactics as HACKS and indicated that such individuals are usually hated by other comedians. I began to sense the much higher levels of exposure and personal vulnerability the stand-up endured compared to the average musician. In contrast, much work by musicians is by nature background music and there is a slight difference in the approach taken here. There is a similarity in aiming to be truthful to your music though. Always aim to keep it alive by exploring it in new ways. It is of interest to note that while there is competitive behaviour amongst professional musicians, in my experience they are almost always supportive of each other. This is a really positive distinction between the world of stand-up comedy and that of music performance. As Wil described the cut and thrust of the stand-up circuit it appeared to me that comedy audiences and other comedians have a gladiatorial instinct, wanting to see blood and some dangerous hand-to-hand combat. If so, whose blood do the audience want to see?

Wil Hodgson (C) Isabelle Adam

Gladiators and Bloodthirsty Audiences.

Generally today’s audience, as in the days of the Coliseum, initially want to see a gladiator (comedian) do well, however, they also wanted to see an underdog, newcomer (a heckler) do well OR be put down brutally. Audiences have a group dynamic and understanding this as a performer is really useful in any type of performance. This does seem to foster a rather unfortunate character trait in comedians, a kind of gallows’ humour as Wil put it where no comedian wants to hear about another comedian doing well and they only want to hear stories from other comedians about how badly something went. News of a 1 star review travels faster than wildfire and even attracts a plethora of comedians to the next show, presumably to see just how bad it really was! Stories of onstage deaths go particularly well in greenrooms. I noticed that there was a difference there between comics and music performers in that most well-rounded professional musicians (I use the term reservedly!) refer to a good gig as, “The audience were great” “It was a great venue” “They really looked after us” It seems in comedy, its pretty much everyman for himself! If it went well, nobody wants to hear about it. I guess it is like somebody saying how great they were at a party and how they were the life and soul. Again the differences between Musician and Comedian are clear, and the positive culture and experiences are more likely to be experienced by the musician. Audiences are usually more willing to support a performer and other musicians are usually more supportive of each other than comedians.

Wil Hodgson (C) Isabelle Adam

Preparing for your performance is really important in the few hours leading up to gig and I asked Wil to describe his pre-performance ritual. I was expecting that he would tell tales of meditation or reveal some miraculously deep and inspiring process. On the contrary, He watches TV and has a bit of food! One thing he was absolutely emphatic about was his need to have adrenalin pumping prior to getting up on stage. Without it, he wouldn’t have stand-up comedy. As a musician, there is an obviously similarity there, an adrenalin fuelled sense of hyper-reality is essential for me. Wil then compared the career of stunt man and comedian in that both professions attract the attention of females. I asked him why he thought this was the case and he said that both appear to cheat death, and for most people, we have an obsession and curiosity for the morbid. I asked Wil what he meant by morbid, he was quite clear in his analogies: Stuntmen cheat death literally and comedians cheat on-stage death and deal with matters of psychological devastation. He pointed out that Peter Sutcliffe (The Yorkshire Ripper) had received a great many inquisitive letters from women. I was really puzzled by this and Wil pointed out that morbid curiosity and interest for psychological maiming meant that comedians receive a lot of adoration from women. I asked myself were there any similarities here for musicians? There is certainly a willing fan base for musicians and plenty of adoration. (At the time of writing this article I am sitting overlooking a few shops in a Cretan high street where at least 4 different Justin Bieber T Shirts on sale.) An understanding of the nature of the audience and of their motivation for coming to see you is useful in planning the setlist, the build and structure of songs, the dynamic of the whole evening and the role of the support band. There seemed to be some tension for Wil about the audience and the material he was planning to deliver. He was still adamant that comedy should be your own thoughts and feelings and the audience don’t need to be pandered too and yet he viewed them with equal amounts of respect and disdain. So much of what makes an audience arrive to your gig may NOT be what you originally thought. One lady came to all of my charity jazz gigs. I asked her what she liked about Jazz, she said, “Oh I don’t, I only come for the stories you tell in-between”

What mistakes can a stand-up comedian make?

When asked this question, the answers were many and forthcoming.Using a wrong word when another one was intended. The choice of words is very important in the delivery of comedy. The revealing of a clue before the punchline, an unintentional spoonerism, misjudging the mood of a room. There are many mistakes one can make as a comedian but the one main one is succumbing to the fear of an on stage death. I can only liken this to forgetting your music/notes onstage, grinding to a halt and having to leave the stage. I think for the same reasons comedy should be

“Working through Laughter rather than working for Laughter.”

Tackling subjects, which you believe in and about which you have something to say is the best way forward. I would adapt the saying for music,

“Working for the music rather than working for music”

This will probably result in more accurate and passionate results and will ultimately have the potential to stimulate an audience. I think it is a delicate balance of a number of unstable elements, and a topic that I am keen to discuss further with Wil.

Promotion and the death of the promoter?

The area where there was the most similarity between music and comedy was the role of the Internet and promoters. Wil described how some promoters will put together a collection of comedians on a bill who have absolutely nothing in common with each other. He said that this sort of thing doesn’t really happen in music, a death metal band would rarely be on the same bill as a country and western act. Wil thinks that the days are numbered for promoters because of the widespread use of social media to self-promote. Even whilst in interview, Wil was communicating to his fans and his prospective audience feeding them information on up and coming shows and generally tending to the fan base garden. Through social media, he is able to target and attract the most receptive audience to his material. This is certainly something we are seeing in the musical world more and more. Facebook is a powerful tool, but its pervasive impact does mean a serious disadvantage for acts/individuals who have not come to terms with it, or learned to harness and use it to promote their work. Interesting times we live in.

So, in Short:

  • Remember what to do if it all goes wrong – Capsize drill in a Canoe
  • It is reassuring that there are no real onstage deaths in music. It is ok to start again or stop on occasion.
  • Choose your material from your heart – your audience will thank you for it in the end.
  • Self-belief is really important and will bring you through even the most painful of mistakes.
  • Never blame an audience – well only occasionally!
  • Remember that a long and healthy career is a balance of self-belief and self-awareness.
  • Understand that an audience generally wants you to do well.
  • Also remember that an audience has Gladiatorial instincts but less so for musicians!
  • Adrenalin and energy is important for every performance
  • Understanding your audience is a good thing
  • Mistakes be mindful of the things you need to get across with a piece of music or performance.

Special thanks to Wil Hodgson for giving up his time to give such a full interview. Also thanks to Mary Murphy for proof reading and making some excellent suggestions. 🙂

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The Beauty of Simplicity

This week, I had the privilege of meeting a pianist who had a few issues with nerves associated with performing. She said she felt that the audience would be critical of her if she made a mistake. That was quite the wrong place to be coming from as a performer. If you are clear about what you are playing or saying and your message is clear and your interpretation is one you feel in your heart, then mistakes are less likely and the audience dont even notice them. Have ever heard somebody speaking passionately about their subject? Do we feel annoyed when they stumble or repeat a word? That is another story altogether! However the focus on this day was simplicity. We talked about some of the issues that held her back from performing and one of the main ones was the assumption that the music we perform in public must always be complex and have a level of difficulty we find challenging. This is an interesting notion and maybe comes from our experiences and values system we learned through childhood. I learned that anything good required a lot of effort. This did not serve me well in later life! Not everything needs to be difficult!

With my interviewee, we talked about different performances in our lives that we viewed as being successful and the audience loving them and many of these performances were NOT particularly difficult at all. She recalled a piano duet with great excitement that she played which was quite simple and she performed it with great energy and gusto, wowing the audience in the process. How different was that to the energy taken from a current grade 8 piece? Quite different. I pointed out that the audience are never going to say, “Well – I was so emotionally moved by her playing and the piece was so beautiful and played with such passion and we loved it BUT it was too simple…” In my experience, quite often the simpler pieces are the ones the audience love and if you engage with the music and the audience then the whole experience is a musically hypnotic experience free from ego or fear. I remember performing Bach prelude no1 in a concert once and I felt it might be a bit simple and not show off my skills as a pianist. What does that emotion have to do with the music? NOTHING. In fact, audiences are often offended when you will not play the simple piece they requested.

There is no doubt that one should aim to push ourselves in terms of difficulty to get better at all aspects of music but playing a whole set of pieces, whole programmes which push us for a whole hour is not going to be something any audience wants to see or sit through! It is nice to have those moments in a performance where you show your “Chops” but people get tired of “too many notes” (to quote the emperor in Amadeus) and a balanced programme of music which is in some places, simple, expressive, occasionally pushing the performer, seeking to challenge the audience, furthering the journey of musical discovery is all a good starting point for a programme. If your programme fills you with fear, it is NOT the right programme! Our job as musicians is to communicate music and to entertain and hopefully move our audience.

The Grotto and secret tunnel at Bowood House

Do we get bored by playing simple pieces again? Well – it was interesting that the other day whilst out walking with my cousin and her three children, we walked through a grotto 5 times. It was a simple thing to do but why did they want to go through it so many times? They wanted to experience it in different ways. First time they went through with one person holding the torch and then another person then they wanted to go through the grotto the other way. So, we need to remember that simple experiences just need to be viewed in different ways and experienced from different perspectives. It is hard to play a very difficult piece in different ways but a simple piece has so many options and needs for making it exciting. Make the normal exciting and you have conquered the way forward in music and indeed life.

Does the music need to be difficult for us to play in order to do this well? What pieces do you love? What pieces do your audience love to hear?

Making it simple, keeps it beautiful.

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