Hopeful Heart by Helen Sanderson White (Copyright 2020 Helen Sanderson White)

Earlier this week, while I was walking into the bank, a woman approached me and asked me outright “this won’t last forever, will it?”. While I was a little taken aback with her directness, I sensed an opportunity to speak the truth about hope and replied with “no, it will pass, things will get better”. And with that, she looked relieved and walk away. While it might sound flippant to say that in the middle of a pandemic, the truth is that everything comes to an end at some point and life moves on. The longterm effects of the stress of the pandemic can be seen in the nation’s outlook and mental health. Eurythmics once sang “everybody’s looking for something” and right now, we’re all looking for HOPE.

So how can we feel hopeful when everything around us looks bleak? Hope is something that has to be worked at; sometimes it flows easily and other times it seems far off and inaccessible. It is not some magical element that is unobtainable though. The truth of the matter is that we have to foster a hopeful and expectant mindset. Hope is sparked when we recall how something worked out well in the end, or we look on the positive side of a situation. We have to train ourselves to believe and expect good things for our lives; human nature tends to believe that bad seasons hang around forever, when in fact it is just a passing season. We live in a world where fear and negativity is prevalent, but if we believe that God is love then we have nothing to fear, as he has our best interests at heart and a plan for our lives. 

The media is full of hearsay, doom, gloom and negative views; provocative headlines sell newspapers but they don’t necessarily represent the truth. A huge amount of damage can be done by scaremongering: it divides and isolates community and focusing on despair will corrode the nation’s attitude and resolve over time. What we know from history is that the human race has survived some of the most horrific events; the human spirit has found resilience and strength to keep going. If you fill your mind with bad reports it will affect your perspective on life, and in the long term make you depressed, and to some extent this all becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. You get out of life, what you put in. 

Everyday is one day nearer to the end of the season and new beginnings. Ecclesiastes 3:1 tells us that there is a time and season for everything; nothing is forever, and an end to difficult seasons will come in time. What we can do is work together to make things easier for each other. Spreading fear and gloom does nothing to help people, it leaves them in a place of despair and helplessness. We have a duty to ourselves and others to be agents of hope; the change starts with us. What we know from the Bible is that the Lord always comes through for his people, and he loves to bring new life to dead situations that have gone way past the point of no return. If nothing is too hard for the Lord, perhaps we need to remind ourselves not to limit him and his power. He can do far more than we ever dreamed of and that in itself is reason to have hope. If we hand our own situations and even the pandemic over to the Lord, we release ourselves from carrying the burden on our own and give him the opportunity to bring our chaos into his good order. Letting go requires bravery and courage but it leads to a place of peace, and in that peace is the small spark of gritty hope.

Teaching diploma I AM 25. I am so not 25, you can add a couple of decades to that number. However, this month I celebrate 25 years of teaching music. At the end of August 1995, I went for a job interview for a teaching assistant post at primary school in Torquay. The headteacher told me that she didn’t really need another teaching assistant, but she had noticed from my CV that I sang and played the piano. None of her staff were musical, so would I mind taking on a teaching assistant role with responsibility for music? Well that was my “year out” job and the rest as they say, is history.

Nothing about my journey into music education has been normal. In fact everything about my journey is backwards from the traditional route. I went down the route of singing and piano grades as a child but due to various problems at my school, I didn’t take GCSE or A Level music, I went on to do a Theology degree, graduated and thought “I think I might do a music degree, I want to be in music”. I didn’t actually believe that I would get onto a music degree course, but 3 years later I started studying at Middlesex University and I did graduate! Traditionally, you need grade 8 on a instrument to go on to study music at degree level. I didn’t have that, I had grade 6 singing, grade 5 piano and grade 5 music theory, I’d been performing since I was 3 years old and teaching since I was 18. Sometimes experience opens more doors than qualifications. I often share this story with my students to encourage them; life can be messy and far from perfect but we somehow find a route through to where we are supposed to be.

It seems to be an odd time to be celebrating a musical milestone when the performing arts industry is in chaos, however, this milestone only happens once in a lifetime. The pandemic has changed the landscape of music teaching, but it hasn’t stopped teaching taking place. I am lucky that I have managed to keep teaching online and yes, it is different from teaching face to face, but I still get to help people develop their skills and find joy in making music. It seems pertinent to mark this anniversary as one era ends and a new era starts.

One of the challenges I have faced is the ability to keep going when life is broken. Resilience needs to be at the heart of any business, and on top of that, I have needed a high amount of personal resilience through the difficulties I’ve faced. One reason I feel that I am beginning a new era, is that I wanted to put right some of the things that had failed or not materialised in the past. Some of you know that I survived long term domestic abuse, and the devastating effect that it had on my life. To be fair, this blog isn’t the place to discuss the abuse that I suffered for years, however, one area of my life that was deeply affected was music. It was constantly taken away from me in attempt to hurt and control. I should have undertaken my teaching diploma 15 years ago, but I was never able to and it grieved me for years. Every time I tried to apply for the course, I was stopped and the opportunity was deliberately taken away. The more I fought back, the harder life would become. The pandemic really pushed me to look at how I wanted to end this year. Did I want to leave this chapter of my life having not completed something that affirms and consolidates the experience and skills of the job I have undertaken for 25 years? The short answer is no, I just couldn’t leave this season with unfinished business, so this month I have finally started my teaching diploma!

I really want to encourage you to mark the anniversaries in your life, however small, and celebrate your achievements, resilience and persistence. You showed up, did the work, learnt from the mistakes, gained experience and eventually reached the goal. Just because other people have the same achievements doesn’t mean you shouldn’t celebrate them; your own personal journey is special and precious. It doesn’t matter how many years you have been plodding away at something, long or short. My teaching journey has lead me to meet hundreds of amazing people through individual tuition, arts centres, further education colleges, churches, theatre schools, adult and children’s choirs, and music therapy with community groups. So this month I AM 25. Here’s to the next 25 years…

Well here’s the song I didn’t expect to release: Tomorrow’s Brighter. During the last four months of lockdown, we’ve all needed some hope to get through this very strange and unexpected season. I think the lyrics of this song sum up that everyday we are indeed moving forward to the end of lockdown and a day nearer to the end of the virus. Something to think about as we slowly press ahead…

Three years ago I wrote this song quickly one evening so that I could try out a new piece of software. It seemed quite catchy and lent itself to harmonies, so I landed up using it for a singing workshop I was leading a few months later. I didn’t imagine relasing it as a single. However at the beginning of the lockdown, I found a an a cappella recording of the song and started playing around with it and voilà, a new song!

Welcome to the cartoon version of me! I wanted to do something different for the video, something with a lighter tone than I had used before. A cartoon seemed the obvious way forward and I even got to create a cartoon version of me. An official date will be set soon, but as usual, you are the first to hear the song and see the video!

The song is available on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music and many other places! Download the single here.

 

No singing, woodwind or brass instruments…” For me, that statement was one of the saddest things I have read in awhile. The public playing of woodwind, brass and vocal performances are now banned for the foreseeable future. A wave of emotions followed this, from grief to anger and then disbelief yet in reality I knew it was coming. This affects many areas of my life from teaching music, performing and leading worship at church. Having to explain to my children that they won’t be leading worship at church and also to my daughter that she won’t be able to play the flute at school for awhile was not easy and their questions of “how long will this last?’ have been difficult to answer. COVID-19 has affected us all in so many ways, personal losses great and small, lifestyle changes, family tragedies and an uncertain employment horizon. 

However, the wonders of technology have allowed us to find a way through. Though we may not want to continue to teach, produce music or worship online forever, the internet has provided a way to survive and move forward in this season. We have had to reinvent ourselves and reinvent how we do things. Nothing has stayed the same. By migrating to the internet, we have not only boosted morale for regular viewers but also attracted new audiences for our artistic endeavours. Previous situations in history have lead to an incubation period in the artistic community; as everything gets driven underground a reinvention occurs. As we emerge from lockdown, we can look forward to an explosion of creativity in all areas of life. And hopefully the public will greet the artistic community with enthusiasm. Maybe there will be more respect for the arts as people realise what they have lost. After all, Joni Mitchell sang “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone”.

And as for the singing, woodwind and brass playing… The time will come when we can all perform in public again. There will be an opportune, kairos moment when we are released to do what we do best and everything falls into place. 

 

A few weeks before we went into lockdown, I had a dream where a variety of famous and not so well known comedians were performing shows in the streets. Each audience was tiny, ten people at most and they were sitting on the pavement surrounding the performer eating picnics!  I remember wondering how we could ever return to anything so small and primitive when comedians undertake extensive tours and fill arenas. How little did I know that this could turn into reality. Turns out that fact is stranger than fiction…

Last week I received a series of excited texts from brother, he had bought tickets to a show by his favourite comedian, Paul Foot. In normal circumstances, there would be nothing unusual about this, however, while we are in lockdown, no shows are taking place. Turns out that Paul was hosting a live show via Zoom and charging £5 for tickets; an exceptionally good price to see a well known comedian but is it profiteering in the current pandemic? Many well known music acts have been performing for free or offering some gratis entertainment via other platforms such as Facebook live and Instagram. So how come comedians can charge for online shows but musicians seem to avoid this? 

Almost all of the arts sector has come to a halt; freelance performers are suddenly unemployed and the industry is in crisis. Granted, that this is same for most of the industries in the UK at the moment, but for the arts which chronically under funded and dare I say, under valued, this is potentially fatal. The Literary Festival, Ways With Words at Dartington cancelled its event and although many of the major music festivals hung on to see if it was possible to go ahead, they have all had to concede that cancelling is the safest option. However, some events chose innovation and moved their performances online. One arts supporter I spoke to mentioned that they had watched the Hay Festival online and that they were surprised that it was free as they would have happily paid to watch their favourite writers speak. Did the organisers miss the opportunity to charge people for the event and recoup their outlay?

In The Independent this week, Jenny Eclair decried the fact that the lack of football has been given precedence in the media, yet the arts are barely mentioned. I wonder if the arts were given the same amount of media coverage and funding where this would lead us as a nation? Currently arts and culture contribute £10.8 billion a year to the UK economy and we can also note that a large amount of tourism is driven by the arts sector’s good international reputation. A deeper investment would not only have a good return for the economy but for the lasting cultural, artistic and historical legacy of the nation. Not all investments are financial, and there needs to be more emphasis on what we leave behind for future generations. Very little is ploughed into the development, mentoring and establishment of artists and creative networks in the UK. Current television programmes have pushed the “get famous quick” route which has resulted artists who fall at the first hurdle as they aren’t prepared for the business. Equally, if there’s no immediate financial return, artists can be dropped by companies before they have a chance to establish themselves and also, their craft. 

So back to Paul Foot and Zoom show… Hats off to Mr Foot for his entrepreneurial spirit during difficult times. While there is no doubt that the arts should be accessible for all, there are times when free shows provide a platform for wider exposure, however, the reality is that creative people need to earn a living too and also fund their projects. It seems more comedians have been charing for their work than musicians, I often feel that musicians have a poverty mindset when it comes to charging for their work. We don’t seem to be brave enough to ask for money for what we do. Many musicians use platforms such as ko-fi.com and buymeacoffee.com to raise funds but it feels a bit like beggars change rather than deserved wages for the work. Foot’s enterprise should encourage us to be more brave. My brother tells me that there were more than 200 attendees on the zoom call; that’s more than £1000 for two hours work. Paul’s idea shows a tenacity to keep going and not succumb to redundancy. It encourages all of us that there is always a way forward, you just need to keep innovating to keep your head above water through turbulent times. 

While some musicians have provided free entertainment, such as Nerina Pallot, others have performed live Facebook shows and asked for donations for their work like Martyn Joseph. Art has great value whatever discipline it comes from, I believe that more artists should be charging for their work and not be timid about it. After all, if we value it, others will too. I’m not suggesting that those who have performed for free are wrong to do so, far from it; the graciousness of those who have done this have brought great comfort and joy to their communities, which is one of the main purposes for creative work. But we need a game plan in order to survive as artists and have something to build from when lockdown ends. Whichever option you go for, free or chargeable, building a supportive community around you as an artist is essential to longevity through the changing seasons. COVID-19 is causing a renaissance in the industry and now is the time for artists to take over and gain control of their work and business for their benefit. 

After five weeks of quarantine, the COVID-19 situation is no longer a surprise to the nation. We’re settling into new routines, ways of working and communicating, and accepting that life is going to be very different for the next few months at least. For some people life hasn’t changed at all: key workers are working harder than ever to keep essential services going, whilst others have found themselves unexpectedly unemployed. This has led many people to raise questions as to what this season in life may be all about…

For some time, I have felt that this is a season of rest and resetting. On an international scale, we’ve never had a period of time where so many nations have come to a halt all at the same time. We no longer need to travel to work, school or church. There are no social activities available to entertain us outside of our homes, and our travel footprint has been reduced to one trip a week to the supermarket. We now have to time to stop, think, reflect and enjoy where we are. There is no doubt that we will come out of this lockdown wanting different things in our lives, most importantly, a much simpler existence. The resting period is teaching us that there so many things in life that we don’t need: no non-essential items cluttering up daily living. Things that stop us being who we are, drain our energy, or divert our attention into needless causes. 

This is also a period of incubation. New hobbies have been found, new business ideas developed and there is space for artistic and creative exploits. Even the way we work, shop and reach out to our families and friends has evolved. Technology is almost struggling to catch up with us. There is no doubt there will be an explosion of innovation and development from this period of lockdown. But all of these things emanate from rest. The space to be able to stop, think and relax in order to let the mind wander and create. 

The reflection also helps us to let go of failures and hurts form the past. We have an opportunity to deal with the things that worry and hound us. If we let go of those things now, we will be fit and ready for a new season. Our “busyness” has stopped us from dealing with past issues and now is the time to be healing and forgiving ourselves and others. This truly is a time of divine reset, starting over and rebuilding from scratch. Forgiveness flows from resting in the knowledge that the past has gone, and resetting ourselves by letting go of the past. Forgiveness leads to a fresh start. 

Air pollution is at an all time low for the first time in decades, probably even a century. The earth is recovering from the ordeal that we have put it through. One of my friends commented that “..while humanity struggles to breath with COVID-19, the earth can breath for the first time in years.” An unexpected positive side effect from the lockdown is that our environment is cleaner and safer than ever; humanity is being forced to let the world heal and flourish. 

Although this period of time is frightening and frustrating in many ways, the outcome of resting and resetting life will benefit humanity long after this season is over. If you can take anything from this strange season of confinement, it’s the rediscovery of who you are, and the preparation for the next season ahead. A new season is loading, and this is merely the buffering while the season downloads. So rest ready for the reset. 

Photo by hammondgower.co.uk

It has been said that it takes a crisis for people to see what they truly value. Never has this been more evident in our generation than through the COVID-19 crisis. The national lockdown may have brought people to a stand still but also to a place of deep introspection on personal and national level. We are continually in awe at the NHS response to coronavirus, and as a nation, I think we can see how deeply passionate we are about keeping our uniquely funded National Health Service. In the past key workers have been treated with a lack of respect, however, their true value has now been seen: the least have become the greatest. 

We’ve also realised how complicated our lives have become and discovered that simplicity can lead to contentment. The fact we can’t go out or see our families and friends has lead us to rethink what is important in our lives. We’ve discovered that the internet is not luxury but a necessity in life; everything from schooling, work, business, and relationships has been diverted into online formats. I do believe that something good comes out of every situation. Sometimes it takes us a long time to see it but something good always pushes the ashes. In our crisis situation, a new world order is forming and to be fair, it is long overdue. 

The lockdown has hit the arts sector hard; most arts practitioners are self employed and the work has dried up overnight. The government has put together a package for self employed workers who currently are unable to work and the arts community has come together to support each other and provide new ways of connecting people together for projects. There has been a mixed reaction to this government deal, but to be fair an offer of financial help is better than no offer at all, even if it doesn’t come as quickly as we would like it to. I also speak from a very different point of view, in the last 13 years, I have had two major low points where my business collapsed and the circumstances that surrounded these low points were totally out of my control. There was no government help, no union support and a lot of colleagues fled. For me, the good that came out of it was a resigned resilience and I learnt who was really for me. It left me with a small but extremely committed group of friends and colleagues which is better than what I had before. If you’re going to work in the arts, you need to be resilient, focused and flexible. 

It was during these low points that I began to pray that things would change in the self employed and arts sectors. I do believe that the crisis we are currently in lead us to a new way of working and will also open the door for artists and musicians to campaign for a better working conditions and deals. The plight of artists has been publicly acknowledged and this platform will help to campaign for better working conditions and employment deals in the future. 

The necessity for the arts and its role in society has been brought to people’s attention during the lockdown. How many of us has listened to some music, read a book or watch a film or TV show during this time? Yep all of us. Without the arts, life would be dull, lack colour and also insight. Not only are the arts part of our entertainment, but they are also essential for good mental health, understanding concepts and culture, and provoking thought and conversation. The arts are often seen as frivolous and expendable, however they need to be protected for their philosophical and spiritual values. At some point everyday, we reach for something creative to inspire and motivate us. 

In recent years, the financial and management sides of the creative industry have been abused and ripped apart. Much of this is being exposed and brought to light; we’ve watched as major figures have fallen from grace and organisations have collapsed. Artists have had to work for free, and I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been asked to perform for free or to give my music away. Creative enterprises have been devalued to zero. Maybe this period of introspection will bring a realisation that this can’t continue; we have to build an industry that is sustainable and fair for artists. There’s an opportunity to raise up pioneers who are passionate about encouraging and developing a wide range of genres disciplines and creating new platforms. Whatever we feel about this dark season, it won’t last forever. The temporary cessation is harmful to the arts industry in the short term, but in the long term it could actually bring about good for creatives. 

We all go through times when we feel as though we’re not achieving very much.  We continually show up, put in the hours, the effort, the thought, and yet nothing seems to grow or change. In my own life, I’ve been through a long period of working very hard and seeing very little in terms of results or progression. If anything, a lot of my work has been met with opposition and setbacks, however, after a lot of reflection I’ve always come to the conclusion that it is better to keep going. If it makes me happy then it is worth it!

Earlier this year, I was given a prophetic word from a woman I don’t know. She told me that she could see that my artistic work had grown in a way that I couldn’t see, despite the setbacks and problems she could see growth and life. She described seeing plants that became “tall trees” and was encouraging me to understand that even though I couldn’t see the influence my artistic output was having, it was indeed having an effect far wider than I can see. And that’s what this new song Tall Trees is all about…

We have an idea, a plan, a vision, but the daily grind of bringing that idea to pass can make us lose sight of the vision at large. Sometimes people don’t support the vision we have or don’t see it as necessary for helping others. They cannot understand that God might want to work in a way that is outside of their understanding or world view. It’s in these times that we need to focus on what God has said to us and keep going. 

I’ve found over the years that I have questioned whether I understood God’s plan correctly. Did I get it wrong or mishear what he said? However, it’s the gentle encouragements that the input is making a difference that have kept me going.  The unexpected emails or social media comments that take me by surprise; little hidden gems that remind me that I am doing the right thing. It’s important to keep chipping away at the task, as small things add up to make a big difference. We often think we know how God will bring a vision or idea to pass, but in reality God does things outside of our own understanding and perspective. That doesn’t mean that it will be less than we expect, the Lord always gives more than we hope for, but he is also interested in the journey to the destination as it helps us become more like him. 

Strong, tall trees don’t grow overnight and deep roots grow in the dark soil. It’s the same when we’re building with God, it can take years of toiling away before we see fruit of what he showed us years before. Although the process can be disheartening and gruelling, the end result is worth it. The difficult and challenging seasons are designed to give a us a great story to share with others. I wrote Tall Trees as a reminder to myself to keep moving with the word that God gave me many years ago. It’s a challenge to myself to keep being creative and faithful to God. So don’t be afraid to keep moving forward and make the next chapter of your story…

Listen and buy the song here

Sometimes you look back at a song and realise that you have been trying to tell yourself something for a long time. A situation you need to put right, something that you need to do, someone or something that is doing you no good that you need to let go of or even congratulating yourself because you have done really well. Little fragments of our inner thoughts seep into our work and ferment while we are unaware. 

As a songwriter, I always want to write music that moves people with lyrics that make them think. That’s always been my goal, to give people a song that is valuable to them and that they can hold onto. Lyrics and music can be so intrinsically linked that they can move us on a spiritual level. Every artist wants to connect with their audience, but if you can share something in common from experience you have a much deeper connection. 

Recently I found this video clip of comedy actor Jim Carrey talking about his other passion in life, art. I was really intrigued by something he says about the path of creative discovery:

“You really don’t know what a sculpture or a painting totally means, you think you do. Most of the time I start out with a plan and then in like a year later I’ll realise that the painting what I needed to know about myself before.

Sometimes when we create, we start by giving our audience a message but more often than not, we we find out something about ourselves. Six years ago I wrote the song Close That Door, I was actually writing about two different situations that two of my friends were finding themselves in. None of it was pretty and they both had come to the end of themselves and needed to close the door on those situations. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was actually prophesying to myself about something that needed to happen in my own life. I need to close a door, a chapter, a lifestyle and move on into new things. As I was going through the season of transition and change, one of my closest friends pointed out that I had already told myself that this new season was coming and to let go of the old so that I could embrace the new things ahead of me. That was a bit of a shocker at the time! But now I understand it was coming from a place of being led by God into a new season. He likes to prepare us before he makes changes, it’s part of his promise to always be with us. 

“What I needed to know about myself before…” Life is a constant journey of growing, reflecting, making mistakes, celebrating victories but we learn so much about ourselves by contemplating on where we are and how we are dealing with our current moment. Jim acknowledges that his art is therapeutic and helps him process his emotions and experiences, but also that each piece of work contains part of him and his life journey. There are so many different ways that God can speak to us and this really is just scratching the surface of what artists, musicians, and writers channel through their creations. What I’m trying to say is that art isn’t just for an audience, it helps the artist hear what they need to know…