The Riff and why we sometimes get stuck.

I was sitting in an old lunch shed on a construction site. Outside it was cold and wet with a howling sou’ westerly. We’d come in for smoko. I was a 17-year-old surfer. My fingers were so stiff from the cold I struggled to hold the pencil as I scratched out notes on a manuscript.

‘Whaddya doin’ that for? You a poofter or something?’ said one of the old carpenters. The whole shed laughed along with him. ‘ Yea, this young fella must be a fuckin’ poofter, I reckon,’ they shouted. I got slapped on the back and pushed, a mix of humour and menace, then the men went back to their tea, papers and porn magazines.

I was in my third year as an apprentice. Somehow, I’d discovered music, books and martial arts. They had shown me there was something more.  They gave me courage.

No one in my family had ever been to university. They weren’t really sure what it was or how to go about it. I had decided to try. I was going to study music. I had been playing for about three months.

The siren on the hill blew. ‘Come on you blokes,’ said the leading hand. We stood and clipped on our nail bags like a bunch of ramshackle gunmen.

I looked out at the clouds skipping over the horizon. They seemed such a long way off.

By the end of that year I had passed my black belt grading (breaking my right hand in the process) tossed in my apprenticeship and enrolled in the Certificate of Music at the local TAFE college.

Within two years I was accepted into the Elder Conservatorium at Adelaide University and within three, into the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in Melbourne. This was a big deal in the 80’s. At the time, it was regarded as Australia’s preeminent music school akin to the Julliard in New York.  I still remember the phone call.

‘Shit!’ said my old man. He’d seen a story about the VCA on the telly.

I eeked out a living by teaching martial arts and fitness to disadvantaged young people. I worked in bars, did security, played in bands and took on the odd construction job as a labourer/carpenter during holidays. I was poor and living on my wits. I surfed and skated. Life got wild. I didn’t live on the edge I jumped off.  I had never been happier.

I went on to study yoga and various other martial arts. I worked as a musician and eventually changed careers. I went back to university to study ecology and environmental science. I spent years in remote regions, working with Indigenous people. Like all of us, I lived a life, made mistakes, did some good, had a family and generally bumbled my way through.


When we are young our lives grow outward. We study, live and learn, try and fail, take risks, gain skills and a profession. We are open. We then become comfortable and draw inwards. We tell stories. These stories become riffs and tropes about our lives and the situation we are in. It’s easier to keep telling these stories rather than go through the pain of change and making new ones.

Now I’m older, I find these stories represented as metaphors in my various practises. I get stuck in certain riffs, songs, chords and scales, words, phrases, movements, techniques, routines and exercises because I’m reasonable at them and they are comfortable. It’s an easy win, in front of an audience, to demonstrate something I’ve been doing for 30 or 40 years.

We get stuck in our practise and this becomes reflected in our lives. Pushing outside our comfort zones by learning new things, new approaches, new techniques and new points of view helps us grow. Mastery is fluency and adaptability, not just repetition. 

If you are not feeling fear, frustration, foolishness and failure (and yes sometimes insight and elation!) in your practise then you are probably not growing. We need to continue to evolve our stories or write new ones. Working with the breath and movement can change us. Sometimes the body leads the mind. The vein of hope and light, the meaningful life and its richness, lies in the striving. 

It’s somewhere out there, on the horizon.