Guitar-playing Dad

Rather than reading Catch 22 or the photography book I paid £20-odd quid for this morning to read on the boat, I thought I’d write something that was inspired by Write for your Life episode 101. Creation’s better for the soul than consumption, right? In that episode, host Iain Broome was talking about how he can’t read when he’s tired and can’t stay awake in bed for longer than three minutes. Rather than talk about how I deal with that (answer: audiobooks!), I’m going to talk about what I’ve referred to as my number one passion since I was 21, playing guitar.

When my daughter was born in 2004, I was already obsessed with guitar. I had by then bought and sold a few high-end guitars, was moderator on a couple of guitar forums (remember them?) and even ran one of my own. How good my day was was determined by how much practice time I had managed to fit in that day. We lived in Luxembourg then and it’s a very family oriented country. Parental rights of employees are very generous and so I found myself doing the modern dad thing, working part time or from home. So I was home and able to play a lot while Freya slept or watched CBeebies or Baby Einstein.

In October 2004 I made my first trip to Atlanta to meet a bunch of online friends IRL and it was utterly fantastic. (2007 jam photos) I went every year for the next five years after that, as well as a two-week trip to Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp in Tennessee. These were good times. Something that stood out to me in both places was the large number of 50-something dads with high-end guitars who were just getting back into playing after a long hiatus while their kids were growing up. I remember thinking to myself that I would never let that happen to me. I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. I had a kid and was playing more than ever, right? My son was born in 2006 and, same deal – play, travel, buy, sell, chat, moderate. Guitars were everything.

We left Luxembourg and moved to Arran in 2008 to take on a new business and that’s when things began to change. I started experiencing a lot of what Iain talks about in episode 10. I was too tired at the end of the day to play anything and, for the first six months, I don’t think I played for more than half an hour. But the passion began to come back slowly. I recall one evening sitting by the coal fire, getting out the guitar and playing some of my trickiest material. Much to my surprise, my playing was just about as good as ever, undoubtedly caused by the fact that I was hearing my guitar for the first time in months and in such a romantic and calming atmosphere. It never sounded so sweet.

So, problem solved? Well, kind of. My playing went from strength to strength. I got asked into a bluegrass band and had some of the best musical experiences I’d ever had, playing local village halls and opening for bigger acts like Phil Cunningham & Aly Bain and Lunasa. The Atlanta jams had stopped happening since I moved to Arran, which, selfishly, was kind of good for me as there’s no way I’d have been able to go anyway. But good fortune shone my way and the host jam, Little Brother, decided to have another one in the October when I was to turn 40. So, I gigged hard that summer, playing local hotels three nights a week and putting all the earnings into my plane ticket. And what jam it was! It was one of the best experiences of my life, to have made such good friends and get to see them all again in one of my favourite places for my birthday. And my playing then was probably as good as it’s ever been.

After that I was feeling burned out. I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and the meds were making me tired and depressed. I came off the strong pain killers that had been propping me up for so long and the guitar playing started to suffer. When I was asked about the following summer’s playing schedule, I opted out. If I wasn’t in bed for 10 o’clock, the tiredness became overwhelming and gigging though the week would mean getting home at midnight or later.

Last year I had a few fairly high profile gigs and they didn’t go great. Well, in actual fact they were probably fine, but my fear prevented me from enjoying them. Family life was okay because I was now home most evenings and getting to see the kids and I was happiest staying home at nights. I’ve hardly played my guitar at all this year. I’ve felt the passion stirring when I’m out listening to music on my headphones and walking the dogs, but I’ve been getting increasingly bitter about being in middle age and not having created anything. I was listening to Fatboy Slim of all people, loving it and wondering why the hell I’d never created anything like that. I’m a talented musician, but in terms of creativity, I suck. So I began to look more towards my second hobby, photography. Like music, it is also all consuming, at least for me anyway. But it has the advantage of making me feel that I’m creating something.

And now I’m at a crossroads again. I have family and work commitments, as well as a podcast subscription list that gives me no breathing space at all during the day. My reading list is also long, but I’m struggling to get to any of that now. But why the crossroads? Well, my good friend and fellow musician that I played in the bluegrass band with has asked me to join him in a new band. I didn’t think I wanted it, but as soon as he suggested it, I got a little glow in my tummy. This guy is one of the best fiddle players I’ve ever heard and, without rhetoric, this could be the chance of a lifetime for me. I know I can commit, and stick to it. Ask my masonic brethren. My worry is the fear. I’m feeling all right just now, but I’ve felt all right before and had the fear come back. I think what I’ll have to do is get back on top of my life again. Cutting back on the podcasts would help (not yours of course Iain!). If only Myke bloody Hurley would stop putting out so much good content! I think that getting on and staying on top will keep the fear at bay. I know that because it has worked before. And better attendance of AA meetings will help too. I reached eight years last month and still need the meetings to keep the darkness away.

Thinking back to what prompted this post, I think what I’ll have to do is start scheduling things in my life again. I did it before for a few months and it was surprisingly effective. I’ll make a weekly schedule of repeating tasks and take care of things in bite-sized chunks. So, rather than reading none of Catch 22 each day because I want a decent sized chunk of time to enjoy it, I’ll allow myself to tick the box after having read only two pages. Rather than practising a song until it’s perfect, I’ll practice for 10 minutes then check the box. Last time I did this, the 10 minutes often turned into 30 or more, but the fact that 10 minutes allowed me to tick the box made me far more likely to pick it up in the first place. What can I say? I’m a box ticker. I think the advice that Iain put into his Room 101 of ‘just write’ or ‘bums on seats’ in this case can work. Schedule 10 minutes of writing time, be sure to do it at a time of day when you know you’re not going to be sleepy (tea time’s the worst for me) and write for 10 minutes. It might become 30 minutes or more, and it might not.

Music gives me hope

I watched When Albums Ruled the World on the BBC last night and it was one of those documentaries that has stayed with me into the next day. It charts the rise of the album from the single and talks about some of the music that was made possible only by the LP. One of the ideas that stood out for me was that LP collections were like the working man’s art collection. It said so much about you.

I came of age around 1980 and, although I did have a few LPs on vinyl, I was much more of the cassette tape generation. I’ve had headphones on pretty much since the early 80s and I was pondering that just recently as I listened to music on my iPhone whilst out with the dogs. I had on my sound-isolation headphones and I felt like I had arrived; things can stop progressing now, because it just doesn’t get any better. No more tape hiss, no more tape jams!

Then came CDs and I bought them and bought them and bought them. I now have hundreds and hundreds of them in the attic, all ripped into a lossless format and filed away as needless physical media. Nobody can come to my house now and see who I am through my music collection unless they sit down at my computer, and that’s pretty unlikely. I pretty much exclusively buy music now on iTunes or the Amazon mp3 store, or I listen on Spotify. That change has come only in the last few years, since iTunes did away with DRM. And now we have iTunes Match, which I absolutely love!

As I watched the documentary, I found myself thinking of my two children and I was filled with such hope for the future. And that is what music has always given me: hope. I don’t know why; I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s the idea that my kids can do anything they choose to do. If they can find something they love and always get to do that, they can be much happier than I. They can consume, but they also need not fear creating. Maybe that’s it.

So I had the idea of sitting my kids down and listening to albums with them, but as I walked the dogs this morning I realised that that just wouldn’t work. I have to let them find their own music, which undoubtedly they will, just as I did, and what I listen to will perhaps influence their tastes a little, but they won’t realise it until they’re much older. What I should do is make sure I play more music in the house that I currently do. I spend so much time listening to podcasts and audiobooks that music seems to take a back seat. I’d like to change that. I’ll stick to shows with Merlin in them, because they’re so helpful, and ditch the rest. Yeah, that makes sense.

My first Tech Tuesday →

> I’m going to have to learn that we are both going to have to be flexible. Snowpea is not going to want to do everything that I want him to want to do. And I’m going to have to do things with him that he wants to do that I don’t particularly want to do, i.e. anything crafty or arty such as building a robot from his Robots book.

> But honestly, at six years of age, I think that whatever we do will be good, even if it’s just messing around with a camera or a Web site. It’s going to be good for us both to spend Tuesdays together and I’m already looking forward to next week!

We’re homeschooling our son. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome earlier in the year, which wasn’t as much of a relief as we’d expected, because we already knew. But the diagnosis is helpful, not least of all because it helped with the process of taking him out of school.

Creativity and Homeschooling

Is it a cop-out to copy? I’ve been thinking about this for a while. This time I’m thinking about it in the context of guitar playing, which is the context in which I think about this more often than any other.

I just heard Hymn 11, by Pierre Bensusan, used as part of a video photo montage showcasing the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968.

[Link to YouTube]

Learning

Isn’t copying the best way to learn? Sure it is. But I’m now at the stage in my guitar playing that I am competent enough to create, rather than copy.

If you look through the magazines, you’ll find the pages filled with tablature of popular songs. Look in a music section of a book store and you’ll see books upon books of chord and tab books.

But is that not the case with classical sheet music as well? And don’t symphony orchestras make a lifetime out of performing classical music?

Interpretation

Where symphony orchestras are concerned, it is the conductor who plays the most important role. So, although the musicians are playing the music as it was composed by the composer, there is infinite room for movement, for interpretation.

And with popular songs, some cover versions are preferred over the originals, i.e. Hurt, originally written and recorded by Trent Reznor and then recorded by Johnny Cash. The JC version is invariably the one that people have heard, and, indeed, the one that I play. Incidentally, I was into Nine Inch Nails long before I stared listening to Johnny Cash!

[Me playing Hurt]

Chops

I got my chops from learning songs that I liked. I guess that’s the route to learning any instrument: get inspired enough to want to learn to do what your favourite artists do. But where does that end? When does one stop copying and start creating? Or are copying and creating inextricably intertwined?

Teaching

I often feel so incredibly inspired that I sit down and attempt to create. I’ve done this countless times. I’ve come up with some interesting tunes, but whenever I try to put words to it, they fall apart into embarrassments. I don’t know what it is that prevents me from writing lyrics that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to share.

My autistic 6-year-old son is heavily into a computer game called [Everybody Edits]:(5). He gets excited and shouts me through to hear his ‘new songs’. What he’s done is create music using some sort of building blocks based on well-known classical tunes. At least as far as I can gather. He was raised on the Baby Einstein classical music videos and recognises a lot of it now. It’s his favourite kind of music to listen to as well.

We’re home-schooling him now and it is my plan to teach him Garage Band on the iPad to see what kind of things he can come up with. I want to encourage his creativity before it gets stifled. I don’t think he’ll have the patience for much else. He much prefers doing something, so having him listen to music and explain to him won’t be possible right now.

I’m sure this will be and interesting a project to me as it is to him.

The Opening Ceremony

I’ve never watched an Olympic opening ceremony before. Nor have I ever watched any of the Olympic sports. I’ve always been as anti-sports as one can be. This time, it’s different.

Family

I’m now a father of two. I began thinking about this year’s Olympics when my 7-year-old daughter came home all excited because she’d been learning about it in school. So I bought her a London 1948 T-shirt from Next and she wore it proudly. She would come home from school full of Olympic facts. In fact, last night she asked me if I had a favourite swimmer! In short, she now knows far more than I do about the Olympics, although to be fair, that wouldn’t be hard! Her favourite swimmer by the way is Rebecca Adlington.

I thought I would make a special effort to watch the opening ceremony with the kids. We got into the living room bang on 9 with the dishes washed, kids showered and a cup of coffee for me.

Emotions

I found myself getting emotional right from the very start, and that surprised me. The whole idea of the Olympics, that unifying global experience, suddenly became clear to me. And I’d never felt that before. Music and technology can make me feel that way, but sports never have.

The spectacle was quintessentially British, peppered with history, music and humour. Mr Bean’s appearance was pure genius, bringing to mind Comic Relief. The choice of British TV shows and music to feature was very well made. Sure, some of the music wasn’t to my particular tastes, but it spread a thin layer over all the genres, decades and age-groups without any lumpy bits. And I suppose that playing the Pistols’ Pretty Vacant rather than God Save the Queen was the right choice to make!

Freya (now 8) was mesmerised by the whole thing, and even Hamish (6) was reasonably interested, although he did get bored eventually. Freya stayed up until the Cs in the athletes’ parade and went to bed around Croatia.

But she was straight back into it this morning when she got up and was desperately searching for the Mr Bean bit when I left for work. And that shows just how right that decision was. They could have have chosen to feature any of the great British comedies: Black Adder, Fawlty Towers and Monty Python to name but a few. But the choice of Mr Bean tickles the kids. Even Hamish was laughing away at that. And the international appeal of Mr Bean goes far and beyond that of any other British comedy character. I remember hearing my landlady in Odessa, Ukraine chuckling away at Mr Bean when I spent my gap year there.

JK Rowling

And how about that children’s literature sequence! Absolutely brilliant! Although, as Freya pointed out, wouldn’t Dr Who have been a better choice than Mary Poppins to save the day? I agreed. Imagine the sound of the TARDIS echoing around the stadium. Now THAT would have been something!

Having JK Rowling reading was another well-made choice. She is responsible for getting so many people—yes, people, not just kids—interested in reading books.

Twitter

It took me a long time to get the power of Twitter, but if I hadn’t grokked it before, I certainly did last night. Following the stream of Tweets made the whole thing feel more global. I follow a lot of tech nerds in the USA and when they came on-stream it was a lot of fun. And whereas I’m usually following some Apple event or other US-centric thing, it was nice to be following a UK-based event.

Haters

I was surprised on Twitter to see so many haters. I suppose experience should tell me that the Internet is full of haters—just take a look at YouTube comments to see that in full force—but to see it when I’m in such an emotionally good place, well, it just surprised me, that’s all.

Unity

So now I get the Olympics. It brings together the world in a way that predates technology. Differences are put aside as the world’s athletes come together to compete in a global event. And the Internet is just the icing on the cake, bringing us all together for a shared experience.

The whole event made me feel proud to be British! And to spend the ceremony cuddled up on the sofa with Freya, and mum and Hamish on the other sofa made this a moment that I shall never forget.

Hamish takes 1st prize!

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Hamish took first prize as the Highway (Code) Man at the fancy dress parade last week as part of the Heather Queen event. Lorraine outdid herself this year with her creativity. Freya’s standing behind dressed as Rapunzel. I’m proud of you all!

Fraser Speirs on Mac Power Users

I just listened to Episode 93 of Mac Power Users with Fraser Spiers and it was one of the most interesting podcast episodes I have ever listened to.

Fraser is a teacher at a school in Greenock, Scotland. I had heard of him before, but I’d never heard him interviewed.

He started a scheme where every child in his school got an iPad – lucky kids, eh? He talks in the podcast about the philosophy behind this idea and the benefits that he has seen since starting the project.

It’s not so much the technical implementation of the scheme that was so interesting to me, but rather the philosophy behind it. I’m a 40-something dad of two under 10s and am quite disenchanted with the school system that my kids are in. So much so in fact that we’ve taken our 5-year-old out of school completely and are now homeschooling him. That got me thinking about educational activities I could do with him. He’s already very comfortable on the iPad and desktop computer. But that’s another post!

Fraser talked about how he things of the future where his pupils are concerned. The ones starting now will not be entering the working world until around 2025 and, strangely, Fraser doesn’t think that Microsoft Word skills will be much in demand then!

He talks about the different philosophy behind the way kids type; grown-ups are concerned about accuracy, a legacy from the days of typewriters and paper, whereas kids type first and proofread later.

He also talks about how today’s 40-somethings should have been the first digital generation, but the system was so far behind that it just couldn’t happen.

The one thing that stood out for me was the notion that parents will not stand for the current system as it stands. Hearing him say that got me thinking about joining the local school board and putting my voice forward. The school system on my little island seems rather too stuck in the past for my liking. But, having read a couple of books on homeschooling, I’ve learned about the brick walls that are the education system and stupidly-named ‘curriculum for excellence’, PR speak if ever I heard it!

Fraser’s website

Fraser’s weblog

Future Shock article mentioned by D. Sparks

Conversation

Hamish: Mum, do you know the difference between laptops and computers?

Mum (pretending): No

Hamish: Laptops can move, they have lids and you can put them on your lap.

Lorraine

Lorraine Campbell

Lorraine grew up in Cornwall. She graduated from Keele university in 1998 with a BA in modern languages and from Bradford university in 1999 with an MA in Interpreting and Translation. The more astute reader will have noticed that this is the same university and year that Cams graduated. Yep, that’s where they met! It was love at first sight, across the conference room. Since graduating, Lorraine has worked in France and Luxembourg as a translator. She is now a freelance translator working from home on the Isle of Arran.

Cams

Cams

Picture taken by Hamish on 2 October 2012. This is me in my dog-walking gear!


Cams is from Prestwick in Ayrshire and was born in 1971. He graduated from the University of St Andrews in 1998 with an MA in Russian Language and Literature and from the University of Bradford in 1999 with an postgrad MA in Interpreting and Translation. He lived in Odessa, Ukraine for one year, Sochi, Russia for a few months, Almaty, Kazakhstan for two years and Luxembourg for seven years. He now lives on the Isle of Arran in Scotland with Lorraine and his two children where he runs the main post office on the island Brodick Post Office and fixes computers