Yesterday the clocks went back and we gained an extra hour. This is what being on sabbatical feels like – gaining precious time. It’s been almost 2 months now and I’m just starting to settle into a new way of being. I’ve never had such an extensive period of complete “time out” on my own – I never had a gap year for travelling as many young people do and I’ve worked full time since graduating from University up to the grand old age of 44! I was very lucky to receive both a Winston Churchill Fellowship and a Finzi Award for travelling but both of these trips had very set agendas and required detailed analysis of how project aims were met.

So this precious time, generously supported by Katherine McGillivray Get a Life Fund, is a completely new experience and a massive luxury. I really do feel like I am getting a life! Not having to hare around on public transport to far-flung concerts, workshops and projects has afforded me time for mindful reflection on the past, physical exercise on my new mountain bike and at the gym, catching up with inspirational friends and enjoying time at home with my cat Geoffrey!

Of course, I have objectives for the sabbatical: to improve my kora playing and knowledge of the kora and its history, to build my compositional portfolio and to explore funding streams for my performance and healthcare work. Being able to creatively work on these objectives without a pressing sense of deadline is immensely liberating but also quite an unusual experience. I’ve had to consciously stop beating myself up for feeling like I’m not working hard enough just because I’m not panicking over looming deadlines and burning the midnight oil!

It’s hard to reprogram negative ways of thinking – “I didn’t practise hard enough today – will I ever be able to play that complicated polyrhythm”, “is that song good enough for the album?”, “only a few months left and then it’ll be over”, “there are so many virtuoso Kora players – what’s the point?”. However, this reprogramming of myself is proving to be a really vital part of the sabbatical. Reframing negative thought processes and embracing a positive ‘going with the flow” attitude – letting myself take time with my practise and creativity and learning to congratulate myself on achieving small milestones.

Since I got back home from 3 weeks in Eigg, I’ve started to make quite significant strides in improving my thumb technique on the Kora. I’ve been having “What’sApp” lessons over the last few weeks with Muhammed Saho my teacher who has been passing on exercises which involve fast, ornamented phrases. These are the kinds of phrases that the index fingers find relatively easy but the lazy thumbs are less inclined to tackle. I’m trying to develop little “brains” in my thumbs so that they are much more aware of what they are doing rather than stabbing away in the dark! These ornamentations and their specific articulations are very traditional for the kora and any griot listening should hopefully appreciate my desire to play in a more authentic way whilst also writing new music for the instrument.

I’ve also managed to distil a theme for my solo album from an extensive amount of research, watching documentaries and reading. I’m not going to reveal this in its entirety quite yet but I will do soon! I’ve realised that if I try to write “lyrics” they can sometimes sound a bit contrived and simplistic (Note to self – maybe a bit too derogatory but somewhat true!). I’ve therefore been experimenting with writing poetry and then setting this to music and this is quite an exciting new way of working. The poetry doesn’t need to have a fixed metre, stanza length or to rhyme. This means that the melodies that arise from it are freer in movement and there are more opportunities for word painting and alliteration within lines rather than the words following a preset melody. I’ve written 3 tracks so far and have another poem to set. I’ll be arranging these for kora, strings, voices and percussion.

I didn’t get the first funding I applied for to record the CD and, in the bid not to beat myself up, consoled myself with the knowledge that most of last year’s recipients were already very well established with several albums out, radio play and Mercury nominations! I am going to try and find other more realistic sources of funding for this debut album and have been compiling a list of prospects. Rather than just doing the bog standard album tour, I’m keen to collaborate with other artists/producers to develop the musical material into a small scale, easy to put on theatre production that could tour unusual venues…watch this space!

I’ve also been exploring funding options for my “So Many Beauties (SMB)” healthcare project (dementia/neonatology) which will move into phase 2 once the sabbatical is over. I hope to establish SMB as a CIC and to really build this programme of work so that my portfolio is 50% healthcare work and 50% performance/composition work. Seeing the impact of music on people with dementia and also families with premature babies has been such a transformative experience for me. The premiere of the oratorio So Many Beauties was also met with such incredible critical acclaim that it makes absolute sense to try and develop this work further.

So I’ve certainly not been idle over the last three weeks but equally I’m learning not to over saturate myself with expectations and pressures. It takes time to change the way you work – the way you think about and approach work. I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to take more time and hope I can adjust my working life post-sabbatical so I’m not feeling so pressurised and anxious as I have been in the past. I hope to gain a good work-life balance in the future, to have projects in healthcare that are more local and require less travel and to have put something new and beautiful out there on the music scene.

Here’s a sketch of one of the new tracks from the album as an appetiser in the mean time! Actually, I take that last statement back, time isn’t mean – it’s generous if it’s used mindfully! This track isn’t in my new poetic style but the lyrics are drawn from a prayer for pilgrims from the Celtic collection Carmina Gadelica.

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