Sunday, 10 April 2016

TEN THOUSAND HOURS: MICHAEL ARMSTRONG



It boils down to the ten thousand hours: the time it is said to take to become good at our chosen pursuit. This theory arose out of ground-breaking work undertaken by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson at the Florida State University. You’ve got to put the hours in, and that’s that.

It got me thinking. Ten thousand hours equals four hundred and seventeen days. It may not sound like much, but it sure is a lot. There are only a hundred and sixty eight hours in a week. We spend, on average, around fifty of those merely sleeping. If we devote, say, forty hours a week just trying to get good at something, that’s a little over two thousand hours per year. At that rate, it takes a good five years to become passable at your craft. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practise.

But there’s more to it than that. Anyone at all can spend the time. What makes the difference is talent. It’s not just practise that makes perfect. It’s perfect practise. Kids who get a guitar for Christmas, hone a few tunes, give it their best shot, can be as good as anyone who has been doing it all their life, is the 21st Century message. But it’s not true. Most of us are better off fantasising, singing ‘I Will Survive’ or ‘The Power of Love’ into a hairbrush in the bedroom after a hard day’s wine.
It takes guts to get up in front of a roomful of strangers, open your mouth and sing. It’s one of the very hardest things to do. We all know the shows that have deluded the masses into thinking that anyone can do it. They can’t.

Michael Armstrong can. This was apparent after the first time I saw him perform live, as the warm-up act for Leo Sayer at London’s Hippodrome last autumn. Some of the songs were familiar, especially the Billy Joel numbers. Others were new and unique and seemed truly heartfelt, when I heard them after the gig. Eh? I confess to having dismissed Michael at first as any other pub singer - I was gossiping with my friends David Stark and Anita Maguire at the time, and didn’t pay too much attention. But then I took the album home, and actually listened to him.

What comes across with brutal clarity is that here is a man who has devoted his life to music, but who simply hasn’t had the breaks. He grew up on a diet of the Beatles, Neil Diamond, the Bee Gees, even a smattering of Led Zeppelin when his Mum wasn’t looking. His parents’ record collection, effectively, just like the rest of us. He speaks movingly about music having unlocked his soul when he was still a small child, of his youthful yearning to express himself through songs. But the odds were against him. His family was not musical. Undeterred, he learned to play the drums, scraped together the wherewithal for guitar lessons, and taught himself piano. He began to write, and started his own band. They pubbed and clubbed and rocked around the clock, and wound up eventually with some support engagements at the historic Shepherds Bush Empire, no mean one. Then reality kicked in. It was time to leave school, and to start earning a living. His builder father enticed him into the family firm. Michael pulled his weight, but felt himself beginning to wane. The work sapped not only his strength, but his soul.

A wife, a home, a family. All the usual. The dream grew distant. The economic crash took its toll on his father’s business, as well as on his health. Then, out of the blue, an introduction to music PR Lisa Davies led to the recording of a three-track EP, which meandered, in turn, to positive attention from the been-there, seen-that music media. Michael suddenly found himself moving among musicians he had once idolised, including Paul McCartney and Mark Knopfler. Working closely with Lisa to promote the great artists and acts on her roster, Michael even began performing with the likes of Cliff Richard and Chris de Burgh. With Lisa’s help and encouragement, and with input from Keith Bessey, famed for his work with the Ramones, 10CC and Elton John, Michael set about recording his debut album, mostly in the garage, with less than no money. But then the magic set in. The harder we work, the luckier we get. Not many could persuade musicbiz legends such as Albert Lee, Peter Howarth - current lead singer of the Hollies - Stephen Walters and Elliott Randall to perform on an unknown’s debut. But Lisa Davies can.

Chances are you have already seen Michael Armstrong talking about his eponymous offering on the television, or heard him on the radio. You may have seen him out on the road, with Beverley Craven or the aforementioned Howarth, Vonda Shepard or Carol Decker and T’Pau. But he’s not over-selling himself. He’s not a rich or famous rock star, by any means - and by his own admission is a yellow brick road away from becoming one.

‘It is an industry in decline,’ he points out. ‘Only a handful of artists actually sell records these days. There is no investment in new music. There is no development of  new artists. It is all about instant gratification, reality TV, and here today, gone tomorrow. And yet, despite all this, we carry on. It’s in our blood, it’s in our hearts, and it’s in our dreams.’

Michael put in his ten thousand hours. He’ll put in another ten thousand, and ten thousand more, if he has to. He’s not inclined to give up, he’s not that kind. His integrity and dedication are humbling. It’s the musical equivalent of banging your head against a brick wall, and he knows it. I predict that there will come a time when you'll recognise him instantly, from those precious first few bars. I’ll be there with a bottle of Bollinger, cheering from my front row seat. In the meantime, catch him and the exuberant Peter Howarth. Let them throttle you with their talent. It’s what they do.

Michael Armstrong: The Album is out now.
www.peterhowarth.com

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