The guitar and the blackbird

It was just an average guitar practice. Songs being plucked from the memory cells so strings could be plucked. Entirely average.

Until the blackbird started singing.

I love the song of the blackbird. The most beautiful of all bird songs to my ears. As soon as I heard him singing in the fading light I stopped playing to listen. You don't play over a true virtuoso.

After a few moments, almost involuntarily, my fingers started seeking, seeking, seeking, trying to hit on what key the blackbird was singing in. Not that blackbirds know or care about such things, of course, but after years of pub sessions and listening to music "What key are they in so I can play along?" is sheer instinct.

He's in C, singing in the key of C, or close enough as to make no difference (a great deal of nature is in the key of C, later research tells me). With more than one ear on the feathered soloist, the chords quickly come to hand.

Start at root C, throw in a F sus. Up to G, back to F. Add in a Bb for interest. Delicately. Quietly. Leave him lots of space to carry the tune. Accompany, not overwhelm. Follow his rhythm, so he's singing in the breaks of decaying chords.

It was glorious. Magical. An utter privilege. Reaching out to nature just a few feet outside the window and doing it through music. Touching it and letting it touch me. Being a part of it.

Could he hear that I was playing along, I wonder?

The light faded further as fingerpicked chords rang out until eventually the soloist took his final bow and took to the wing. The adulation of his solo audience-accompanist was absolute. Truly one of the best musical experiences I have ever enjoyed.

You can always become better at it

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That quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson has always resonated with me. Its release and responsibility a the same time.

Too often in schools, when it comes to the creative arts, those who are “good” are effectively separated from the rest. Encouraged and nurtured to develop their “talent”. Perhaps they will blossom into a great artist or musician, if they put in the hours of course. What about the rest, those who haven’t had the encouraging arm around the shoulder, the affirmations and admiration? What have they learned?

That doing anything creative is only worthwhile if you can become great at it.

Leaving aside any attempts at a definition of greatness, entirely subjective as that is, the important point of people learning not to try unless some externally imposed level of skill can be achieved still stands - and its so destructive. Especially if the measure used for greatness is entirely commercial.

Whether the measure used is financial or meritorious greatness, the emphasis placed on only doing something if you can be great at it is to entirely ignore all the pleasure that can be had from learning something and becoming better at it. The laser-focus on the end-goal skips over every little personal achievement on the way to an end-goal of “greatness” that may never be reached.

Now I’m not in any way saying that we don’t need greatness. I’m very glad, for instance, that there are great engineers in the world every time a plane flies successfully over my house and stays in the air! I’m grateful for the great writers, artists, musicians, designers etc who make us thing and see and feel in ways we hadn’t even contemplated.

But I’m more grateful for those who are simply trying to get better at it. The regular at the acoustic night who gets up each week to play. The blogger searching for their voice with each post The watercolour painter sat at their kitchen table. The people simply trying - and enjoying - getting better at it. I’m most grateful for them.

I’ve long since given up any illusions of greatness being in my reach. I’m happy to accept that true greatness requires the sort of singular dedication to a craft that I’m far too creatively promiscuous to be able to do. But whether I’m picking up a pencil or an instrument, I want to get better at it. I want to celebrate all those little moments where I can see I’ve got better at it - and I want to enjoy all the steps along the path.

So if you’re out there trying to get better at it, then thank you, you’re an inspiration to me! Encourage others to do the same, to try something just because its attractive to them and then get better at it.

Perhaps you will achieve greatness, I don’t know. I can promise you one thing though. You’ll definitely enjoy getting better at it.


Pick up the flute. Gently, slowly, almost reverently. Cradle it for a moment. Reflect on what may be about to come.

What you think you may be about to hear may not be what you are about to play.

Put the flute to your lips. This is where it gets important.

Don't blow, just breathe. Don't force it, simply exhale. Breathe.

Exhale your thoughts. Breathe out your emotions. Breathe the very moment. Let the resonance of the sound envelop you. Swirling, echoing sounds. Let go and let the notes move your fingers. Let the music come. Don't force it. Don't blow.

Just breathe. Simply breathe.