I started taking piano lessons when I was 3 years old and continued to play keyboard instruments and the trumpet through high-school. When I was 14 years old, I bought my first guitar. That’s when I became really interested in pursuing music as a career.
My name is Stuart Mclean – I’m a father, a software engineer by day (and sometimes night), and a musician whenever I have time. I chose my profession because I wanted a job that would provide a stable income, not require large amounts of formal training, and never be boring.
I was born in Calgary, Canada, but my family moved to the Netherlands for two and a half years when I was seven years old. When we moved back to Calgary, I found that I missed Europe a lot. In my 20s, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to study music at a university in England. I lived in England for 9 years, first in Liverpool and then in London, before discovering Berlin. My girlfriend (now wife) was living here at the time, which made the move easier. I’ve lived in Berlin for 9 years and am still very glad I made the decision to move here. It’s been the most inspiring, creative, challenging and cozy time of my life (so far).
Outside of my job, I love music. The band that I admire the most is Arcade Fire – I’ve seen them live quite a few times, and the way this large group of multi-instrumentalists works together to create a unique sound is breathtaking every time. I also find Brad Mehldau particularly interesting to listen to. On the mandolin, I love Chris Thile, Butch Baldassari, and the band Oh Pep. For modern folk music, the bands Lau and Session A9 are particularly inspiring.
Guitar was the first stringed instrument I played, and I practiced it more than any other instrument I’ve played. There are a lot of people out there who can play guitar very well, so I’ve tried to stay diverse in the instruments I could play. I’ve played trumpet on quite a few albums just because I had one sitting around in my studio and could play some simple things on it. I joined my first real (out of school) band as a bass player. From playing in Irish sessions, I realised how fun and joyful a mandolin can sound. I bought my first mandolin on a Tuesday – I was so excited about practicing it, I was able to bring it to an Irish session on the following Sunday and I played almost 3 hours straight with it. Soon, my guitar was mostly left at home. At another Irish session, someone brought a tenor banjo along that was tuned an octave below the mandolin – I instantly fell in love with the sound and the playability of that instrument, so I had to get one of those too. These days, I do a lot more gigs as a mandolin and tenor banjo player than as a guitar player.
I mostly play folk and singer-songwriter music. I’ve studied jazz and classical music, but have never considered myself a proper musician in either genre. I’ve been in some interesting cross-over ensembles, two of which included operatic soprano singers. One of these, called “Electric Opera Duo” (https://electricoperaduo.com/English.html) is about to do its first gig in almost seven years, and I’m curious to see if we can find the time to perform more regularly again. I also love playing along with old and modern rock. Overall, I try to listen to a wide variety of music – anything that has some emotion behind it. For example, this year, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend concerts by The Dead South, The National, Tinariwen, and Tool, each of which has been inspiring in different ways.
Folk music is also very accessible. Almost anyone who has developed a musical ear can sit down at an Irish session and contribute something. If you’re a fast fiddle player, you can push the tempo, and everyone who feels overwhelmed can step back to playing in half or quarter time. I also love playing more complexly arranged music, but that requires a lot more rehearsal time, which I don’t have at the moment with a full-time job and two young kids at home.
I am also a member of the band Flinkfinger. When I was leaving London, a friend told me I should get in touch with her brother (who is a professional musician in Berlin). He invited me to a weekly Irish session and I started going there to play every Sunday. I got to know one of the founding members of Flinkfinger, which started performing in Berlin in 1975, five years before I was born. Before long, I started playing with the band whenever one of their regular members couldn’t make a gig – after five years, they made me a full-time member of the band. We’re a four-piece, but we all play more than one instrument, so any combination of three people can play a gig together without feeling like we’re missing a lot. It’s always best when all four of us play together, but it takes the pressure off for all of us knowing that we can prioritise family commitments without feeling like we’re letting the whole band down.
Some of our best gigs have been in small villages that might only have live music events once per month. Often, the people there are much more engaged and seem to enjoy themselves more than the average person at gigs in larger towns and cities. Overall, every gig is a bit special because I really like playing with these musicians.
Speaking about my other music project, I’m working on writing and demoing 40 songs before my 40th birthday, which is a really good challenge. I don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to this, so I’m finding myself jotting down ideas whenever I think of them, sometimes on scraps of paper, my laptop, or my phone. I have a little studio space near my apartment, where I built a room-within-a-room in an old office. I’m trying to find an evening every week where I spend two or three focused hours on making progress on one or two demos. Sometimes, having a short time to do something is the best inspiration. I’m also posting my finished demos publicly on SoundCloud, which makes me want to finish them to a reasonably good standard: https://soundcloud.com/stuartmclean-1/sets/project-2020.
My music and my job as a software engineer both certainly involve some creativity and improvisation. I often appreciate each of them more because they feel so different. Taking a break from programming to play some music can feel very refreshing. I sometimes work in my studio space and I keep an old mandolin under my desk at the office so I can take music breaks in empty meeting rooms.
For people interested in music, I recommend keeping instruments easily available in your home or workplace so you can play for even 5 minutes at a time. If you do this (even a few times a day), you will definitely see improvements in your playing. Going out to jam sessions and open mics is a great way to meet like-minded musicians and to get some experience in performing in front of other people. I think it’s also important to be patient with yourself, remembering that even the most talented people in the world spent years developing their musical abilities.
There is always more than tech – I certainly felt inspired reading about other musicians and artists in Otia Magazine. When I feel frustrated by some aspect of my programming job, having a good hobby can really help to put some perspective on things. I love Rich Hickey’s idea of “Hammock driven development.” And sometimes, as many have already said, a change is as good as a rest.
Feature Photo by Tatevik Mkrtchyan. You can reach Flinkfinger’s website through the following link: http://www.flinkfinger2000.de/01/indexFF.htm.