Popularity, winning and the birthday paradox

The most popular blog so far on this site was one of the first – it dealt with winning, and made the point that win or lose, it’s important to recognise that the way you prepared was more important than the outcome. You can read it here.

It’s ironic, because I don’t think it was the best blog I have written (process), but if you measure the success of your blog by the amount of people who read it (which I don’t), this particular blog is the winner (outcome). I find myself coming back to the same point in a different way today.


It’s a mathematical fact that if there are 23 people in a room, the chances are higher than 50/50 that two of them will have the same birthday. It’s known as the birthday paradox – because it’s counter-intuitive, but completely true. In fact, if you fill the room even further and put 75 people in it, there is now a 99.9% chance that 2 of those 75 people will have the same birthday. You can read about the math behind this here.

I presented this fact to a friend of mine recently, and he didn’t believe me. He set out to prove me wrong, and so asked 23 people who happened to be in the same hotel bar as us for their birthdays. None had the same birthdays, and so he claimed victory.

But here is the thing – his social experiment, while fun, proved nothing. The sample size was too small. It’s like using the results of one coin toss to disprove the statement that there is a 50/50 chance of a coin landing on heads every time you toss it.

As the old saying goes – there is nothing certain in life, bar death and taxes. Everything else is a series of probabilities.

If you’re going for a job interview, no amount of preparation you can do will make it a certainty that you will get the job. You can increase your chances by preparing well-crafted answers, researching the panel of interviewees, and dressing appropriately, but no matter how well-prepared you are, there is always a chance that a more suitable, equally-prepared candidate will be waiting to go in when you are finished.

That’s why process is more important than outcome. Process is under your control, outcome is not. Keep improving your process and you will increase your chances of a favourable outcome.


When our eyes deceive us…

I had to look at this sign twice today.


Because I did read the top line wrong. I thought the ‘if’ was before the ‘I’, as it would usually be, but it wasn’t.

We think our senses never deceive us, that we see what is in front of us, but in fact what we see is partly determined by what is there, and also partly determined by our expectations and beliefs about what should be there, and our experiences of what has been there in the past.

It’s the reason why two musicians, playing the same tune at the same tempo together, afterwards disagree on whether it was too fast or too slow.

And why supporters of a particular politician will view his actions in a completely different way to how his opponents will.

Once we realise what is shaping our view of things, and take it into account, we will start to experience them in a truer way.

The mental and physical benefits of singing..

Anecdotally, I can tell you about two musician friends to whom I spoke yesterday, both of whom have lost someone close to them recently. Both spoke of the importance of singing in their lives, and how good it feels to sing in the midst of dealing with grief and loss.

I can tell you of the 250 people I saw singing together on stage last Saturday night and the obvious joy that being part of such an ensemble brought to them all (some of which is captured in this photo).



Scientifically there has been research done on this too which agrees with the above – you can read some interesting articles which will point you in the right direction here, here and here.

Christmas is on the way. There will be lots of opportunities to sing songs you know inside out in an informal environment. Maybe try it. See how it feels.

Reading an audience and choosing songs.

Sligo Jazz Project – August 2007. The end of week concert. I was a student on the course and was getting ready to go on stage with my ensemble. We had been working hard on our standards all week and had selected Willow Weep for Me (a ballad – to feature our vocalist) and an uptempo version of Giant Steps (to let the instrumentalists have a blow) as the two we would go with for the performance.

We had decided previously that we would open with the slow number and finish with the fast one. I was worried about Giant Steps however – I could play the chords but didn’t know how I was going to solo over them and it was playing on my mind.


Walking up to the stage, our tutor, Mike Nielsen, asked me about the order in which we were going to play them. I told him, and he immediately said ‘Switch them’. The previous group had just finished (I hadn’t even noticed what they were playing due to my anxiety) and had closed their set with a vocal ballad. Mike reckoned that the audience wouldn’t like two ballads in a row and advised us to start with Giant Steps.

Of course he was right. How a piece of music will be heard by your audience depends in part on what has gone before. And you need to consider them and what you think they want to hear. We had only two possible orders for our set and we chose the wrong one.

Structuring an entire gig is a different story. The old-school method is not to use a setlist. Like Christy Moore does. He reads his audience from start to finish, and must have an exceptionally well-organised catalogue of his many songs in his head because he wouldn’t be where he is today if he kept choosing the wrong songs. This is a rare skill however, and not everyone can do it, or plays the type of gigs in which it might work.

A setlist is a necessity in many gigs, where other musicians, sound and lighting cues or dancers for example may need to know the order in advance.

When it isn’t a necessity however, there are options.

Many pub gigs in Sligo are structured in the way of the ’round system’. For example, if there are three musicians on the gig, often they will take it in turns to lead, while the other two will accompany. There is great learning in this. You always have to be thinking ahead – considering not only what the audience want to hear, but also what the pieces are that you want to play, and the order in which to play them. It changes in real time too, as your choice will often change depending on what the musician before you does. It also means you are in charge of the piece – responsible for the arrangement and delivery of the piece.

One thing you want to avoid is the big gap while you think of a song. There is no surer way to lose your audience than this. Think ahead. Learn on the go. Consider your audience. Have a mental or physical list of your songs if you need it. This skill will stand to you, and your audience will appreciate your music more as a result.


Highlights – the good and bad

Our lives are increasingly about highlights. Showing the highlights of each day/week to our followers on social media. Watching the highlights of a sporting event online instead of sitting through the whole game. Streaming the tracks you want instead of listening to the whole album. We can pick and choose what we reveal, what we watch and what we listen to to a far greater extent than ever before.

If you want to truly experience something, to understand it, to live it, highlights are no good however, and despite all the changes in our world we still know this to be true. Seeing a good friend’s pictures on Instagram doesn’t compare to actually meeting and catching up. People are still willing to pay good money to attend live sporting and musical events, because they know that no matter how slickly the highlights are put together, it still can’t compare to the whole, live experience.

Theme Night #22 will happen next February, and will feature a carefully selected set of highlights from the previous 21 shows, telling the story of how the nights reached this point in their evolution.

I am currently figuring out what the set will be, and am looking for input from fans of the shows on what they would like to hear. I’d love for you to leave a comment on this blog with one of your highlights from the shows so far. If you would like a chance to win two tickets to the show and a couple of seats on the Thomas Connolly’s bus up and down to Dublin however, just go to my Facebook page and do the same.

Below is a short video with some highlights (not necessarily the ones that will be featured in Feb). I’m very happy with how it turned out. But it’s nothing compared to what the gig will be like on the night.

What Dave did with Meadhbh…

When I released my first album in 2013, I knew very little about the world of songwriting. I wanted to do a cover of God Only Knows – originally written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher and released by The Beach Boys in 1966.

I asked IMRO (Irish Music Rights Organisation) for advice, as I thought I had to ask the owners of the song for permission before I could cover the song. Not so said the helpful man in IMRO, you simply have to pay a royalty fee, dependent on how many albums you thought you were going to sell.

And that’s the thing – once you write and release a song, you relinquish some ownership. You still own the rights to it, but it becomes part of the huge catalogue of music out there in the world, open to anyone else to interpret, imitate, praise or criticise. It’s the deal.

I have often wondered what the original writers of some of the music I play would make of what I/we are doing with it. Only a few weeks ago I wrote a blog about playing my arrangement of someone else’s music while he was standing a matter of metres away.

And last night, the shoe was on the other foot. Kate Winter and I wrote a song in 2015 which we entitled Meadhbh’s Call. I don’t play it much on gigs any more and I had largely forgotten about it until it appeared on the set for a gig last night.

My friend and colleague – Dave Flynn – had arranged it in 4-part harmony for the Sligo County Council Heart’s Desire Choir and they were on the bill for the Sligo Sings concert which I wrote about earlier this week.


I happened to really like what they did with it, but even if I didn’t, it would still have made me happy to know that the song was being kept alive.

So thanks to Dave and the gang…long may you sing it!

Rainbow Over Sligo…

Rainbows are pretty, but if you’re chasing the pot of gold rumoured to be at their base, you’re never going to be satisfied.


We know this, and so we often choose to pursue things we know we can attain instead. Sometimes to the detriment of the little child inside of us who ran across the fields chasing that rainbow.

Your pursuit of practical should never exclude having some magic in your life. It won’t be a sustainable pursuit if it does.

There have been many songs written about rainbows – here’s one of my favourites…performed by Steve Wickham, Lisa Lambe and No Crows.