The Worst Week. Again.

Generally, it’s helpful to know what’s coming.  Specifically too with chemotherapy cycles.  But this week, that familiarity has bred all sorts of contempt.

There’s no point in writing about what I’ve been up to this week for two reasons.  Firstly, nothing has happened and I barely exaggerate.  Chemo is now effectively my full time job as well as my primary leisure activity and I’m working from home.  Secondly, please refer to the past few blogs for how it’s been going and what chemo life involves, because it’s exactly the same.  The first week of cycle 2 is just like the first week of cycle 1, except for being a bit worse and me being a bit more weakened, sick, lethargic, anxious, dizzy, frustrated, slow witted, bored, confused, fed up and holistically rubbish.

Just as I get used to managing one side effect, another demands my attention and tests my resolve that little bit more.  I had grand plans for this lot of chemo.  I was going to keep running, even if inside on the treadmill.  I was going to write a load of music and had the rose tinted notion that, overall, I’d maintain some kind of quality of life.  Well as Mike Tyson once said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.  I can see fragments of my jawbone strewn all over the carpet and with the absence of a plan, I’ve not been doing much more than watching rubbish tv because that’s all I’ve been good for.

Having been a bit openly moany about this has led to a lot of sympathetic words and people checking in.  Unusually for me, I’ve just smiled at this rather than deciding I don’t need or deserve support.  That’s a bit of an emotional leap for me – things really must be bad!  The other thing that’s kept me going this week is that the contemptuous familiarity with chemo tells me that by the end of week one, the knockout punch recedes to the level of a kick to the stomach.  Yesterday, I made it in to music school and was well enough to be useful.  Yes I went straight to bed when I got home without passing GO or collecting £200 but I did it.

I write this on the sofa rather than from bed and when the coffee kicks in, I’ll get onto that sackbut octet arrangement I said I’d do for tomorrow.  Later, I’ll be playing in an orchestra with some obscure soviet repertoire.  Given the trials of the first week, it wasn’t sensible to commit to this without a safety net, so I’m incredibly grateful to Sam the bass trombonist for agreeing to be on standby.  That’s in addition to the fixer who took a punt on booking someone for whom it’s uncertain whether or not he’ll make it out of bed, let alone be able to read alto clef and squeeze out a few unison top Bbs.

On the bad days, what’s really helping is seeing the fruits of the good days.  Around 10 days ago, when I was struggling to manage the chemo-diarrhoea, I recorded for Steve Pretty’s Origin of the Pieces podcast.  I wasn’t feeling great when this went out but it was lovely to hear it.  Steve was generous keeping in so many of my fevered ramblings about trombone marathons and the music that has come to me in response to recent trauma.

There’s one thought that I didn’t get across as well as I’d have liked to, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot.  It’s fair to say that as a musician, I’m not a highly skilled virtuoso.  I haven’t built up the decades of all day practise that means I can effortlessly glide over my instrument as some can.  As a songwriter, my harmonic vocabulary is pretty simplistic.  I know all about Bach chorales and such, but all that comes out seems to be generically basic pop song harmony, like you’d see in a year 9 composition project.

But over the past year so, I’ve come to a conclusion about being a musician – one that is born of the pragmatism that comes from it being a case of ‘do this now, because tomorrow really might be too late’.  There’s no time to go back to uni and study advanced harmony.  No point in intensive improvisation training and by this point, I’m not going to master Giant Steps in double time.

But it’s dawning on me – that doesn’t matter.  Because I reckon that all the complicated, flashy stuff is just one tool in your box.  Lack of technical fluency can lead to creativity.  I keep telling kids that a good solo is so much more than the pitches you choose from or the scales and arpeggios you so intricately negotiate. How about I believe that myself?  Repetition, developing a small idea into something that builds and engages a listener to keep them moving with you – that can be achieved without a jazz degree.  I’ve made rooms full of people weep with the poignant beauty of my story told through song.  I’m not making high art, but I can make people feel something.  My old Uni trombone teacher Alwyn Green once said something that’s stuck with me.

Music should be moving or exciting.

If I can achieve this, do I need to worry about German 6ths and tritone substitutions?  Not really.  What’s important is that I have something to say that, if I hadn’t had cancer, wouldn’t have come out. Something is better than nothing and, more than that, something that starts off insignificantly can be powerful.  People often cite an emotional maturity that differentiates child prodigies from the world’s greatest musicians.  Well I guess I’m on the fast track to that.

Am I capable of finding my musical voice through inventive creativity?


Can I achieve that special bond between performer and audience that makes us all feel that bit more alive?


That is what I’ve got and it’s enough.


  1. I came across your story after hearing you interviewed on the Guardian podcast this week. I’m so sorry for all that you are contending with – I am sending you my best wishes (from Germany). So impressed by all the running you’ve kept up with – good luck with the marathon! It was lovely, too, to read more about your passion for and perspective on music during this time. All the best, Sophia

    • Thank you so much Sophia for getting in touch and for your kind words. It’s great to hear that my episode spread as far as Germany!
      All the best to you too,

  2. Nat, a very moving and honest “article”. It was my pleasure to be your standby – but glad you made it… it looked a pretty terrifying programme to sight read 🙂
    Take care…


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