From Bedroom to Broadway (nearly!)

first performance photo

My route to the stage was not an easy one. Unlike my kids, who have grown up in a performing household and are totally comfortable in front of an audience, I hid my talents away for a very long time. In my bedroom mostly. Behind closed doors.

I did, however, sing and play VERY loudly behind those closed doors in the hope that someone would notice how fantastic I was and catapult me to stardom. They didn’t!

My family were not aware that I was writing my own songs. Hardly surprising, because I didn’t actually tell them, or ever ask them to listen.

Over the years a few people did start to encourage me to at least come out from my room and perform in front of people. The first was my form teacher in my final year of high school. On the annual charity Red Nose Day fundraiser, she placed a ten pound dare for me to sing a song to the class. I’m very grateful to her, for although I was incredibly nervous, I got my guitar and gave a heartfelt rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’, and apart from some obligatory howling from a couple of boys, the reaction was pretty positive.

A year later at uni I was persuaded to enter a talent show, just for fun. My college had a resident band, with a real show-off lead singer who was sure he was going to win. My friends were hoping I would get up there and teach him a thing or two, and I’m happy to say that I did. I played Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ (the short version) and got such massive applause that I was asked to sing another. Which I hadn’t prepared. The only other song I could think of was Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin in the Wind’ so I had a go at that. For weeks afterwards strangers would come up to me and congratulate me on my performance.

That experience boosted my confidence when it came to performing cover songs, but I was still very shy about my own material. The following year, after a lot more time spent hiding away playing music in my room, I entered a songwriting competition. When I won and discovered that the prize was to perform in a concert that was being recorded for BBC Radio I nearly freaked. But swept up in the moment, I went ahead and did it. And although it was completely terrifying, it was also a little bit fun and exciting.

That was 25 years ago. Since then I have come to see live performance as a gift, an honour, something beautiful to share with others.

Occasionally I still sing in my bedroom too. But I never close the door.


How to grow your own band

Karen Law and Family photo

I’ve been playing music for many years, first as a solo performer, then with a band. But recently, to my genuine surprise and utter delight, I have also started to perform with my entire family. That is, my partner David and our three kids Murray, Hazel and Roanna who are all still at school. I didn’t plan it, I never expected it, but somehow it has happened.

We were on stage recently and a lovely man came up to chat to us as he was getting himself some CDs at the end of the show. “How did you get your kids to be so into music?”, he asked, “How did you make them want to perform with you?”. He had a young daughter, and he was hoping he could do the same.

I get asked that quite a lot, and my stock answer is “I didn’t do it, it just happened.”

But then I got to thinking – perhaps our family lifestyle has made it possible, even quite likely, for family music to emerge.

So in case it is helpful to other families out there, I am going to share how we approached music within the family from when the kids were born until now. In fact even before that, because I was on a folk festival tour while pregnant with Murray which means he was exposed to my songs in the womb.

While the kids were young I stopped touring and playing live, but I never stopped playing at home. My guitar was always visible in the lounge room of our house, and I would often pick it up to play and sing. The kids would pull themselves up from crawling to standing using my knee – upon which sat a guitar. Their tiny fingers often fiddled with the strings while I was playing, and I let them.

I sang to all three kids constantly, just because that is who I am and that is what I do. I made up little songs about everything – their favourite animals, monsters, funny stories, bedtime songs.

When the kids started school and began to express an interest in learning an instrument, I supported them to do that. And I allowed them to abandon that instrument when they’d had enough. I encouraged, but never forced, them to practice. Still do (and don’t).

Music making always happens in the family area of the house. Away from the television (which is never left on in the background). We don’t have a dedicated ‘Music Room’, the whole house is a music room!

I often sit and write songs in public. Before she had left primary school Hazel had started writing songs too (in her bedroom with the door shut, but I could still hear them).

Everyone is allowed to sing at the dinner table, but not an entire song. Yes, we eat family meals together.

Competition for the family music space has become so great that we have had to make up some rules: if you are playing in the lounge room, everyone is allowed to join in, but they have to join in with what you are doing (you can’t ACDC solo over the top of a folk song).

We all LOVE singing and playing music. We all LOVE making up harmonies together. And so it is an easy step to do that in public, on a stage. It’s fun, and that’s all there is to it.


Why guitars make the best wedding rings

guitar picture

I don’t mean to boast, but I honestly think I’ve got the biggest wedding ring in the world. It is HUGE, for a wedding ring, though actually quite small for a guitar, which of course is what it actually is.

The truth is, I don’t like wearing rings. They irritate my fingers. So when David and I decided to get married, getting a guitar instead seemed like the obvious choice. Apart from the size difference of course. But think about it, as a symbol of love, something that is often cradled in my arms, a guitar is perfect – part of my creative being, my past and my future.

Of course, choosing the right one was important. It couldn’t just be any old guitar off the rack. It had to be special.

So just before Easter 1999, with the date set for the wedding the following year, we arrived at the National Folk Festival where I was performing. As always there was a large instrument makers’ exhibition, with luthiers from all over Australia bringing their hand-crafted guitars for people to try out. I already knew one of those luthiers, he was a friend of a friend, so I tried all the other guitars first. After all, what were the chances of liking this guy’s guitars the best? But of course that’s what happened; as soon as I picked up Doug Eaton’s Rapid Creek guitar and started playing I knew it had to be mine. So we ordered a smaller than average version, made with mostly Australian timber, to be delivered in time to go on a UK festival tour and get married afterwards. So I guess it was an engagement ring as well (might have been pushing my luck to get two…)

Actually, Doug made a real ring as well, out of wood, for us to use at the wedding ceremony. It has a tiny guitar carved on the top and although it is a bit clumsy to be worn all the time, it worked a treat on the day.

And the guitar has worked a treat every day since, just like the marriage.


My Dream Band

Karen Law and Family

Karen Law and Family

My husband David often reads leadership self-help books, and because they are quite interesting and left casually around the house, I often read them too. This week I opened one up to find a quote on the first page.

“Remember: to succeed beyond your wildest dreams you need some pretty wild dreams to begin with.”
Rene Friedrich

That really got me thinking. About success, and about dreams.

Sometimes I wonder that I achieve things almost by accident. When I’ve stopped trying and am just getting on with life, some wonderful opportunity falls into my lap.

Take my writing. I had spent a number of years working away as a magazine journalist, trying my hand at blogs and columns and having some success in national publications and minor roles on radio. Then, when I had put it to one side, I ended up co-writing a book (the deal was done in a matter of weeks) which was published by Allen and Unwin. Way beyond my wildest dreams.

And then there’s music. I started out many years ago as a solo folk singer/songwriter. Back in 1999 I could be found at the major Australian festivals, and the following year I did a solo tour of the UK. It was fun, hard work, and quite lonely at times. I dreamed of becoming a headline act, having my songs loved and remembered by folk fans all over the world. Then I stopped to have a family, only I didn’t stop completely, I still sung all the time to my kids at home, and continued writing songs. Ten years later I recorded those songs on a new album and I started slowly working my way round to performing again. I put a band together, playing local gigs at clubs and festivals. It was fun.

And then, one afternoon, I got invited to perform not with my band, but with David and the kids at an open-air house concert. And there it was, the wonderful opportunity, falling straight into my lap. It was like receiving an incredible free gift. Like winning a lottery. Like being sent on a holiday somewhere I’d never dreamed of going, but that looked amazing all the same.

Now we are about to set off to the National Folk Festival in Canberra for our first major booking as a family. Am I excited? Yes. But not in the way that I used to be, with thoughts of fame and recognition always there in the background spurring me on. This time I am excited in a ‘heart glowing’ kind of way. The kind of excitement that can’t be disappointed, because I never expected this to happen in the first place, never planned for it, wasn’t aiming for it, didn’t even know I wanted it.

I am totally in it for the ride, and I hope it is a wild one.


Sound Advice

I’ve just written my first press release for the new Sunday Folk concert series. It might have been a bit ordinary, but luckily I was at the Turn Up conference in Nambour on Wednesday night, and of course I attended the session on preparing PR for media. Times have changed since I was a journalist myself, and anyway I was more used to reading press releases than writing them. So I’m very glad to have had that stark reminder of what to aim for – short, relevant sentences, a heading that captures the essence of the piece, a photo of a usable size – that is a 2:3 dimension ratio, usually landscape and sent as a small JPEG file.

Turn Up is a wonderful event, and as a Nambour-based musician I am grateful that it was right on my doorstep, though I’d be happy to travel for it. It was great to see musicians of all ages and stages of their careers connecting over the six hours, all gaining insights from the industry experts. Keynote speaker Dennis Dunstan brought a glimpse of the high life to the event with stories from his 17 years of being the manager for Fleetwood Mac. His advice for emerging musicians was pretty straight forward though; write good songs (or if you can’t, realise that and find them from somewhere else), get really good at playing live, and build a following in your home town before you try to take on the world. Dennis was cautionary of the TV show route to stardom, not least because those who are crowned ‘winners’ at the end of the series then have to get on and entertain large crowds for up to two hours. That’s what being a succesful musician is all about. And if your route to stardom is singing a couple of cover songs really well, then that’s probably not the best preparation.

With the information from Turn Up still going round my head, and my newly written press release ready to send out, I checked my inbox and found an offer of a gig that I had been chasing for my band for quite a while. We’d been given a date, informed of payment, it could have been a done deal. Except…some warning bells went off in my head because of something I’d learned at the last Turn Up event. Someone on the panel advised bands to be careful which shows they promote heavily to their fans. Basically, you need to spread out your marketing, and put more effort into the shows that are going to bring you the best rewards. Not necessarily the best paid gigs, but certainly the highest profile ones, and the ones that will see you move on to bigger and better venues if you can be successful there. Sound advice, and when I noticed the date of the gig we’d been offered, and saw that it was just a couple of days before the first ever Sunday Folk concert, I knew I couldn’t give it my full marketing attention. So, we have negotiated a new date and everyone is happy.

So thanks Turn Up, for providing this platform for Sunshine Coast musicians. It’s great to feel part of such a vibrant working musicians’ network, and these nuggets of information I’m taking home are like gold!


Open Mic Marathon

A few weeks ago Murray and I were asked to showcase at the launch of JamNet – a facebook page and website aimed at connecting all the open mic and jam sessions on the Sunshine Coast. We’ve often played at these sessions, partly for the fun of it, sometimes for the practice, always for the opportunity to hang out with other musos and listen to the variety of music on offer.
But there’s a limit to the number of sessions we can get to, because Murray’s still at school and things get busy in term time. But the holidays are different, so these winter school holidays we decided to go on an “open mic marathon” and attend as many of these events as possible. Here’s what happened…

1) UpFront Club, Maleny – Monday
An old favourite of ours because of the sheer talent that you get rocking up to play at this venue on a Monday night. We weren’t disappointed, with world class drumming and saxophone playing on display, great songwriting, wonderful singing…and us!! We played there with the full band, which means Rob on bass and Jenny on harmony vocals as well as Murray and me. Danny Rose always runs this event to a very tight schedule, but by some fluke of circumstance the act before us pulled out, so we got a very rare 5 songs in a row! And the free meal for performers happened to be vegan casserole – so I could enjoy it too. A great night.

2) Nook & Cranny, Nambour – Wednesday
Our home town, and nice to support this top venue for a bit of mid-week open mic fun. Nice to meet up with JamNet founder Jon Brown as well (by chance) who had brought Bob Abbott along with him for some blues tunes. We took the opportunity to ask Bob to play harmonica for us on the only real blues song I’ve written. That’s what open mic sessions are all about – collaborating, trying something new, having fun! Some good talent on display, and the organiser was taking details for gigs in the future. And…Murray really enjoyed his free pizza.

3) Palmwoods Hotel Jam Night – Thursday
Well, wasn’t I in for a shock at this one? No originals!!! Murray wasn’t daunted at all, he took to the stage with a bunch of other musos who had all been placed in a band, and solo’d away to songs he’d never heard before, let alone played. I put my name on the roster too, and ended up fronting a 6-piece rock band and picking a few songs that I thought I could remember how to sing. These guys have done an awesome job of organizing the charts – around 300 songs with multiple copies in colour-coded folders, so that everyone can play along. Only trouble is – for a female – the keys tend to suit male voices better. Which is fair enough, since most of the musos at this event are men. A fun night, and Murray caught up with a kid he’d enjoyed performing with a few years ago.

4) Currimundi Hotel – Friday
We went along to this new open mic session with Rob our bass player. Unusually, for an open mic, everyone was given a half hour set, and we had fun entertaining the pub crowd in this big room. A good mix of musicians, lots of them we knew plus a few we didn’t. On the back of our performance here, we were booked to play at Kings Beach Tavern, which was certainly welcome!

5) Duporth Tavern, Maroochydore – Monday
For a couple of months now all three of my kids have been going along to Debby Parson’s under 17 years open mic sessions. They are amazing, a great opportunity to get experience in front of a supportive audience, play through top sound gear with a dedicated sound engineer. Each week one young performer is featured at the start, and this week it was Murray’s turn. Next up Hazel took to the stage with her newly formed band The Hallucinations. There is real talent on display at these events, with no pressure to ‘measure up’ to anyone else. Free meals for kids too – whether or not they are performing. Another top night.

6) Rick’s Diner, Palmwoods – Thursday
Well, we had heard so much about this place that we just had to include it in our marathon. We had to plan carefully though, because the blackboard gets booked up a couple of weeks in advance sometimes. The room is special – filled with memorabilia, guitars, posters, car stuff, just a cool place to be. So that might be part of the attraction. Plus it’s a nice stage in the corner, and it’s always good to play to a packed out room full of people. So Murray and I had fun and managed to fit four songs into our tightly run 15 minute spot. Yeah – it was a fun place to play, with plenty of good musos to keep us entertained.

7) Glo’s Kitchen, Beerburrum – Saturday
Well, we were wondering that six might be enough, but we couldn’t really call it an open-mic marathon without including at least one of Michael Whiticker’s events. Michael has been running a collection of sessions on the coast for the past few years, and his trademark is an amazing sound system and himself behind the desk. He is not one to just get you going and then walk away while you play. He stays at the desk throughout, tweaking the sound for each song, or each section within a song. So for this last open mic gig of our marathon we decided to thoroughly test his skills by turning up en famille, and including two guitars, a trumpet, a didgeridoo and three singers in our short set. Michael didn’t let us down, and we didn’t let ourselves down either, coming up with what felt like a rather magical family rendition of quite a new song.

So that’s it. Seven open mic and jam sessions in two weeks. The challenge is set – who’s going to try to beat it?


Musical Chairs

I have been playing musical instruments for as long as I can remember – over 35 years of learning notes, training my fingers to do exactly what I want them to do. Sometimes it has been surprisingly easy, other times frustratingly hard, but for most of that time I’ve had the luxury of being able to trust my body, of knowing that as long as I put the effort in, I would be rewarded. Improvement was guaranteed.

That all changed in 2010 when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. All too quickly, the fingers that had run up and down keyboards, trilled flutes and plucked guitar strings started to lose sensation. My voice wasn’t affected, but I didn’t feel much like singing.

I was studying flute, enhancing the techniques I had learned as a teenager to further my teaching career. At first it was my legs that were the problem; I had always played standing up and I was finding it too tiring. After sharing the news of my diagnosis with my teacher I arrived at her studio to see a chair helpfully placed in the middle of the room. It may as well have been a wheelchair for the effect it had on me.

I found solace in my guitar, but then my fingers started going numb and I was unable to play the subtle finger-picking style that I loved. To be honest some people might not have noticed the difference, but to me it felt like I was playing the guitar with mittens on.

Thankfully, amid the musical sadness, I discovered a healing program that offered great hope for recovery. I changed my diet to a plant-based whole food one with seafood, raised my vitamin D levels, started to exercise when I could, and learned to meditate.

I regained sensation in my fingers while on holiday in the north of Scotland visiting family. I had borrowed a guitar from a friend and was travelling with it, just in case. Each day I would play, then put it away in frustration when my fingers struggled to find the right strings. One morning I picked it up to play and it worked, just like it always had. I sung to the family that night, and cried with relief.

As I regained health, my inner journey inspired many new songs. I started performing again, trusting my body as I abandoned the chair and stood up on stage to share my musical message with the world. I also started two music groups, and watched my students grow in numbers and flourish. I recorded a new CD featuring both the guitar and flute.

People say that I am very patient, and perhaps that has always been one of my strengths, but as a music teacher I have learned a lot from the challenges of the last five years. In particular, I have learned to appreciate every small improvement in my students’ playing, particularly the ones who have to work hard at the finger techniques needed to be a musician.

And as a performer I am grateful every time I step onto a stage. Grateful for the opportunity to share my music with the world, to do the thing that I love to do. And sometimes, if I’m honest, I’m grateful to have a chair to sit down on at the end of it too.


The Wonder of Woodford

Although I didn’t know it at the time, my 2014 Woodford experience was beginning many hours before I arrived at the folk festival site. Early on Boxing Day morning, a dad and his 9-year-old daughter drove through the festival gates to set up their camp. The previous year they had been part of a big group of friends; this year they happened to be alone. “Don’t worry,” said dad to daughter, “I’ll make sure you have some kids to camp with.” And he spread out a large, flat camp in a prime position and went out searching. He was being quite picky – looking for families with girls who were roughly the same age as his daughter, and of course who were not already part of a group. It was harder than he expected, but by midday he had found his first festival friends, and they happily set up their campervan in the shady spot that had been saved for them. But he needed more, so dad and daughter set off once more on the trail of new arrivals who by now were having to drive further and further into the massive campground to find a space. By 4pm he was getting tired and a little worried. Then he spotted us. We were getting tired and a little worried too. Although we are music festival veterans, we’d never been to Woodford before and had totally underestimated the size of the place, the need to arrive really early to get a half decent site, and the inevitability of rain. Our car was parked a little desperately next to a viciously sloping patch of grass that we weren’t even sure we were allowed to camp on. Our three kids (two of them girls) were getting restless and anxious in the back of the car. And that’s when he appeared – our festival angel – to rescue us from certain discomfort and lead us to a promised land of flat grass and proximity to toilets and the festival entrance. It seemed like a miracle!
From this relatively calm base (which still turned to mud within 24 hours) we were introduced to the incredible event that is Woodford Folk Festival. We wandered open-mouthed through the festival streets on that first night before it all began. We hadn’t been expecting festival streets! We walked slowly, taking it all in, becoming part of the event by osmosis, so that when the rain arrived and our feet and legs started to blend in with the earth it seemed quite natural.
And then there was the music. Some of my favourites like Kate Miller-Heidke, Mama Kin, Fred Smith and Medicine for the People, and new discoveries like Matt Anderson, John Smith, Del Barber. And workshops too, on slide guitar and blues harmonica. And even the chance to perform some of my own songs on a few stages. An afternoon chalkboard in the Small Hall where I was joined by most of my family, followed by an impromptu session in the Chai Tent with my good friend Forte and his mandolin. And the next morning we were up early for a quick spot in the Blues Tent. And then it was back to being an audience member again, listening to Mary-Lou Stephens’ talk (in which her invisible husband was the undoubted star), laughing with Mario Queen of the Circus, and meeting up with our festival angels from time to time, who would text us to let us know they had saved us an awesome spot for a band, or were heading down to the waterhole for a swim when the temperatures soared. The kids got along beautifully, as I knew they would.
On the last night we were sitting up on the hill in the amphitheatre, candles in hands, watching the amazing spectacle of the Fire Event together. The festival was coming to an end, but I knew we’d be back sometime for another year of music and miracles.


Music competitions – who really wins?

When my son started high school and entered a musical excellence class he said to me, “Mum, I hope there are lots of kids better than me in the class.” I was impressed by his musical confidence and maturity that he should want such a thing – I’m not sure I would have done at his age. But he was right. In order to grow as musicians it is helpful to surround ourselves with role models, people who are ‘better than us’ at some things and can inspire us. A bit of healthy competition never hurt anyone!

Or did it?

What about those music competitions where children are lined up to play one after the other, and a ‘judge’ attributes points to their performances and declares one person to be the winner?

I was never a huge fan of these events, feeling that music is a creative pursuit that should be enjoyed rather than judged, but over the years the Sunshine Coast Junior Eisteddfod has changed my mind.

The event itself is incredible and, as many of the adjudicators point out during the fortnight, we are very lucky to have it. First and foremost it is a celebration of music and drama where well over 5000 children cross the stage to sing, play, act, speak, compose and sight-read in solo spots, duos, trios, quartets, small ensembles, concert bands and full orchestras. The event provides three key opportunities for every young musician on the coast. Firstly the opportunity to take part, to prepare a piece of music well enough to walk on stage and perform it to a rather important audience. Secondly, the opportunity to hear all the other competitors and be inspired by what others are achieving. And thirdly, the chance to feel part of a very big and very wonderful musical community. The adjudicator’s hand-written comments on each and every performance can be illuminating too!

This year I was involved as both a parent and a teacher – sometimes both together – and throughout the fortnight I was in awe of the talent, enthusiasm, creativity and love of music that was displayed by everyone involved. Some of the bands, and individual students, are incredibly advanced. Some are consolidating their learning and others are just starting out. Everyone is supporting each other and enjoying what they do.

It takes years to nurture musical greatness, but joy and love for music can be nurtured in just a couple of weeks.

Here are some of my favourite quotes from kids who took part in the 2014 Music Eisteddfod…

“Guess what? My favourite thing in the whole world is MUSIC.”

“I didn’t feel nervous, but when I got on stage I discovered that my fingers were nervous and they forgot what to do!”

“I don’t care whether I get a place – that was my best performance ever so I’m happy.”

“Oh!” (looking very surprised) “Is this a competition?”


Hey metronome – thanks for the good time(s)

I’m really enjoying using my beautiful old metronome. It’s a lovely piece of work, an antique wooden wind-up job made in France. But that’s not the main reason I love it. You see it came from my dad – my first and greatest musical influence whose piano playing formed the soundtrack to my early childhood. And then, when I started to take an interest in music, whose help and guidance got me through the boring technical bits and onto the pure joy of playing. And all the while there was the metronome, tick-tocking away on top of the piano, with my dad calling out cheerfully, “count, girl, count”, whenever I missed a hemi-demi-semiquaver.

Our piano sat right in the middle of the living room, at the top of the stairs. You couldn’t miss it. I used to think that was a sign of its importance in our lives, but now I realise that since it was a Baby Grand, and we had quite a small house, there was actually nowhere else for it to go. Still, having pride of place did afford music a pretty high status within the home.

Over the years my choice of instrument changed from piano to flute and then to guitar. The latter are quite portable and could have been played anywhere, but it never occurred to me to hide away in my bedroom to practice, nor did anyone ever ask me to. When I was 15, I vividly remember sitting on the landing (where the stairwell created the best acoustics in the house) and treating everyone to endless renditions of Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ in full voice.

I am now a musician, a music teacher, and the mother of three very musical children. Our home is full of instruments; guitars, trumpets, flutes, didgeridoos, violins. We play anywhere and everywhere in the house, and yes we are allowed to sing at the dinner table, especially if it’s in harmony. Living this way brings me great joy. Home-made music continues to be the soundtrack to my life, and I have my dad to thank for that.

And although timing in music is still not my greatest strength, I can honestly say that I am counting, Dad, I am counting.

I am counting my blessings.


Date →
Jun 20
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