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 from the work of 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 is a lot. There are only a hundred and sixty eight hours in a week. We spend, on average, around fifty of those sleeping. If we devote, say, forty hours a week 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 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. 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 hardest things to do. We all know the TV shows that have deluded the masses into thinking that anyone can do it. They can’t.
Michael Armstrong can. This was apparent the first time I saw him perform live, as the warm-up 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 heartfelt, when I heard them after the gig. I confess to having dismissed Michael at first as just another pub singer. I was gossiping with my friends, and didn’t pay attention. But I took the album home, and actually played it.
Michael has devoted his life to music, but hasn’t had the breaks. He grew up on the Beatles, Neil Diamond, the Bee Gees, Led Zeppelin: his parents’ record collection. Didn't we all. He speaks movingly about music having unlocked his soul when he was little, of his youthful yearning to express himself through songs. The odds were against him. His family was not musical. Undeterred, he learned to play the drums, scraped together the cash for guitar lessons, and taught himself piano. He began to write, and started his own band. They pubbed and clubbed, and wound up with some support engagements at the Shepherds Bush Empire. Then reality kicked in. It was time to leave school. His builder father took into the family firm. The work sapped Michael's strength, and also his soul.
Wife, home, family. The dream grew distant. The economic crash took its toll. 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 music media. Michael found himself moving among musicians he had idolised, including Paul McCartney and Mark Knopfler. Working with Lisa to promote the artists on her roster, Michael began performing with 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 recorded his debut album, mostly in the garage, on no money. The harder we work, the luckier we get. Not many could persuade legends Albert Lee, Peter Howarth (current lead singer of the Hollies), Stephen Walters and Elliott Randall to perform on an unknown’s debut. Lisa Davies can.
Chances are you have already seen Michael Armstrong talking about his eponymous offering on television, or heard him on the radio. You may have seen him on the road with Beverley Craven or Howarth, Vonda Shepard or Carol Decker and T’Pau. He’s not over-selling himself.
‘It is an industry in decline,’ he points out. ‘Only a handful of artists 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. Despite all this, we carry on. It’s in our blood, it’s in our hearts, it’s in our dreams.’
Michael put in his ten thousand hours. He’ll put in thousands more. He won't give up. His integrity and dedication are humbling. It’s the musical equivalent of banging your head against a brick wall, he knows. I hope for a time when you'll know him instantly, from those precious first few bars.
Michael Armstrong: The Album is out now.