steve150I got really worried about myself today. It appeared momentarily that I had changed for the worse. That I had become radically different.

It all started when I was watching an episode of the X Factor (Please don’t tell anyone!). Suddenly, I noticed that I had started really feeling bad for the contestants who sucked. I had empathy for them. WTF???

This is not like me at all. I’m the one who laughs at people falling. Heck, sometimes I even trip them. I was the one that suggested that my grandmother’s coffin should have been rigged like a jack-in-the-box, which would pop her up and scare the neighbourhood kids that she didn’t like. Nothing is off limits. Taboo is fun. But today it seemed that I somehow I had accidentally developed………..a conscience.



This is horrible.

How could it have happened? Did I do something wrong? Was I being punished for tripping Robert Monette in grade 3? And, what the hell does this have to do with playing the guitar?

(I’ll get to that)

Fortunately, I was close to a computer, and was able to go online and watch videos of people falling down. (Thank you YouTube!). Lots of people fell. Some got knocked down – but unlike Chumbawumba, they didn’t get up again. Some of them even got hurt. My verdict: hilarious. Phew! Thank goodness that it wasn’t a permanent change.

Then I started asking myself why I had been affected by that show. Clearly it wasn’t because I was becoming a sensitive or introspective person (thankfully). It had something to do with the fact that these were musicians who were laying it all out for the world to see and were often given criticism that was so harsh that you could see their dreams dying on live TV. Suddenly I was brought back to my youth.

I haven’t told many people this story, but years ago I headed into the recording studio to do a 4 song demo as part of a college application. So, with my trusty (and partially out of tune) 12 string, I set out to record my 4 ‘fabulous’ originals.

I know that I’ve mentioned in the past how ‘fabulous’ my originals were back then. By this I mean incredibly self-important drivel that barely qualified as music. But they were my own, and at the time I was quite proud of them.

I was also known to wear parachute pants around that time, so I admit that my decision-making skills had not quite fully developed yet. My songwriting skills were about on par with my fashion sense. But I knew that I was going to be a star!

I went into the studio like any other 20-year-old kid. Excited, nervous, and willing to take direction. So, when I finished my session, I went to ask the guy behind the board for his opinion and advice, he said the following.

“Don’t sing. Ever. It’s not your thing. Your writing is ok; your guitar playing is adequate. But, really, don’t sing.”

I’m not sure if this next part really happened, but in my head I remember him then sticking a sharp pencil in each of his ears to prevent him from accidentally hearing me sing again.

OK – I’m quite sure that the last part didn’t happen, but that’s how his criticism felt to me.

I listened to his advice, and from that moment, I stopped singing. I kept playing, but my writing slowed down a lot because there was no point to writing lyrics. I wasn’t going to sing them, so why bother?

Not that I’m bitter or anything.

(And with this, the songwriting community lost a lousy contributor to cheesy lyrics and stanzas that ended with the word “ubiquitous”. Boy I really wish that I were exaggerating now.)

It took well over a decade, and the influence of many different people to convince me to try to sing again, and that my voice isn’t entirely awful. And maybe it’s not. Or maybe it is. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that over the last number of years I’ve done a lot of work on it, and I’m getting more comfortable with how I sound and the progress that I’ve made. I would have made this progress a lot sooner had it not been for a jerk of an engineer at a recording studio in Kitchener.  The funny thing is that he probably doesn’t even remember saying what he did, but his comments effectively made me press pause on my development for over 10 years.

Not that I’m bitter or anything.

Which (finally!) brings me to my point. And yes, it’s about playing the guitar.

When we’re learning to play, there is a tightrope walk that we need to learn. It’s the balance between humility and confidence. It’s the ability to say ‘thank you’ when someone offers you constructive criticism, and ‘screw you’ when people tell you that you can’t do something; when they tell you that you’re awful.

The truth is that maybe you ARE awful, but trying anything means that you’ll be awful for a while until you get better. Then, you’ll be a little less awful.

In this post-Olympic time, we should remember that Michael Phelps was once a kid who couldn’t swim. Similarly, Joe Satriani was once a kid who couldn’t play the guitar. But they both did 2 things: they listened to the people who encouraged them, and they practiced all the time.

One of the keys to improving at the guitar is to play often. Not only in your room, but whenever you get the chance to hit a stage. Open mics are a great venue for that. Jam nights, playing with friends, all of these things are really important. And we need to remember that when people yell “You suck!” as they often do when I play (Thanks Mom!) it’s up to you to ignore that – or even better, make it work for you. Play more, practice harder, enjoy the process, because before you know it, you’ll end up being one of those players that others look up to.

And remember, as you go along that journey, support and encourage other players. The ones around you who aren’t as skilled as you are. The ones who are starting. That way, one day they’ll be writing their own column about how you helped bring them out of their shell, instead of writing a column about some jackass engineer named Lance who tried to crush a dream of an awful young songwriter who eventually grew up to be a mediocre talent.

Bottom line: just be kind to your fellow musicians. Especially when they’re struggling.

In fact, let’s just try that in life. Always be kind, and have empathy for everyone.

Except Lance.

He’s a dick.

(Ok, maybe I’m a little bitter.)


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