I am an enthusiastic, if very limited, musician. I don’t even think of myself as a musician – and neither does anyone else! I’ve never been able to read music properly, I’ve never had a lesson and I am certainly no virtuoso on any instrument. But music means a lot to me, and not just something to listen to when I’m driving.

As I said in a previous post, a lot of the fun is playing with other people, being part of a team. This summer Frank and I (we had met three or four times before) got together after a few hours’ practice to play some songs for a friend’s 60th birthday in France. Various people, such as Robyn here, joined us, as and when they felt moved to do so.

Remember Peter, Paul and Mary?

Of course, it would be great to be able to play better and to have a stronger singing voice, but to be able to play anything is better than nothing. And with arthritis kicking in, no amount of practice is going to turn me into a great guitarist now.

A lot better

If you can play even a few songs, you have something to offer.

My grandparents, like so many grandparents, possessed an upright piano that stood forlorn in the freezing Glasgow front room they kept for best, waiting for someone to turn up and play it. I don’t think either of them ever played it – at least I never heard them do so. It must have been purchased for my father.

I recall, and Dad reminded me of it last weekend, a summer holiday when all the guests were sitting in the lounge of a small hotel (not Fawlty Towers, though I believe it was in Torquay) looking at the “old joanna” and waiting for someone with the guts to play it. Dad said, perhaps reluctantly, that he’d have a go. He couldn’t remember many songs without the music but he could sight-read well enough. He leafed through a couple of books and found some things he could play. He’d be the first to say that he was never a great musician (so we have something in common, after all), but no-one else was prepared to step up, and it made a dull evening a lot more entertaining.

There are plenty of talentless, or almost talentless, people who’ve done OK. One that leaps, literally, to mind is John Otway, whom I remember paying to see on several occasions in the early 1980s, including at the legendary Eric’s Club in Liverpool. The fact that he couldn’t sing, wasn’t much of a guitarist, and wrote songs of – how shall we put it? – a variable quality, did not prevent him from building a cult following which survives today. As does he.

John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett perform at Toronto’s Hotel Isabella on 2 September 1981: credit Jeremy Gilbert

At least you were in for a memorable night

On the other hand, there are many people, and I have known one or two, who are quite talented but too shy to perform in public. It is something worth persevering with, because you can get over it in time.


A huge amount has been written about the psychological power of music, whether as therapy, or as a way of turning people’s lives around. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks is full of fascinating, incredible stories, and I thoroughly recommend it.

I don’t have any knowledge of neurology. I am making a more modest claim: namely, that playing music – even at the most basic level – is a creative process where enjoyment can come from something as simple as strumming the same guitar chord over and over again with all the strings in tune, just as artists may adore the colour and consistency of a particular paint. Add to that the elements of learning and collaboration, and I find it strange that not everyone wants to have a go.

Strumming away in the garden with Andy, Jo and Bern

As for making a living from music – that’s something I’m (even) less qualified to talk about. But I suspect – as with everything you have to do for a living – it’s rarely as much fun.

Since you’ve read this far, here’s a new One For The Wall recording that we are pretty happy with. It’s called “Cowboys and Astronauts”.

2 thoughts on “Keep on strumming

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