Lorin Nicholson has tapped into his disability to inspire him as a musician and a motivational speaker.
By Linda Gross
On Christmas Eve last year, Lorin Nicholson performed alongside singer Anthony Callea before an audience of more than 10,000 people at Melbourne’s iconic Carols by Candlelight. It was a high point for the 38 year-old who, despite being born legally blind (with less than 10 percent sight), has pursued a career as a musician. But it hasn’t been an overnight success. After playing guitar for 24 years, he cemented his name in country music circles when he was nominated for a coveted Golden Guitar at the Tamworth Country Music Festival in 2005. This was in the instrumental category, and was recognition for his second album Summer Rain.
Australian country music critic Anna Rose has watched Lorin’s career go from strength to strength. “His music crosses boundaries and is equally at home in any genre – from classical to country, rock to reggae,” she says. “There’s nothing this wonderful guitarist, composer and performer can’t do, I’m sure. I’ve never seen anyone more determined, gifted or committed to his goals than Lorin Nicholson.”
Lorin’s eye condition, called retinitis pigmentosa, affects the rods and cones at the back of the eye, and may result in his sight deteriorating as he gets older. “I’m not kicking myself because I can’t drive a car, because I’ve grown up with it,” he says. “In a sense it is normal for me.”
Growing up in Tamworth, music played a large part in Lorin’s life, particularly country music. “Dad was a big country music fan and Mum loved classical,” he says. “I also listened to a lot of folk music – The Seekers, Cat Stevens, Roger Whittaker etc. Mum also played the piano, so there was always music in our home. I had piano lessons for two years, learning by ear and by feel, but mainly memorising the songs, which a lot of musos would love to do.”
Lorin had guitar lessons at high school and experimented with different styles. “As a teenager I started to admire various guitarists and was influenced by Mark Knopfler, John Williamson and John Denver,” he says. “I like their fingerpickin’ style of guitar playing.”
Lorin draws much of his material from his early years, which were difficult. He went to school at Kootingal, outside Tamworth, and was teased and ridiculed because of his disability. “With the aid of a magnifying glass to help me read, I made it though to Year 12, but I never really got any outside help,” he says. “Mum, Dad, the teachers and me had to work it out ourselves. Now there is so much more technology and assistance available to blind children.”
Despite the constraints of his condition, Lorin has an adventurous spirit displayed not just in his choice of career, but also in his leisure activities. He and long-time friend John Eder have won two silver medals at the Queensland State Track Championship for tandem cycling. Lorin also rode a bicycle from Tamworth to Port Macquarie when he was only 16, just to prove to himself and his friends that he could do it.
After finishing school, Lorin studied as a remedial therapist and operated his own remedial and sports therapy practice for 12 years in Tamworth. Among his clients were Olympic javelin throwers Louise McPaul (now Currey) and Andrew Currey. “I virtually put the guitar down when I went to college and concentrated on my studies,” he says. “I had done 30,000 massages when I realised it would be a terrible shame to never play guitar again. So a friend and I started to play in restaurants around Tamworth and started doing a few weddings.” He went on to release his first solo album, Unwind, in 2001. “I never expected it to sell out in six months,” he says. “That was the year my career in music turned around.”
Lorin is now focusing on his album Only You, released in July 2006. “It has been received very well,” he says. “Within two weeks of it coming out, I had emails from all over Australia from people wanting to buy it.”
He is also involved with See Sharp, which he started in September 2002 with his father-in-law Trevor Donaldson, a teacher. It is a travelling show that focuses on social justice, music and motivation. Through his life stories and his music, Lorin teaches young people that any obstacle can be overcome.
He has taken his show on the road to more than 500 schools across Australia and the United States, and is accredited with Education Queensland and the New South Wales Department of Education and Training. He has received three awards for outstanding contribution to the touring performance program in schools from the New South Wales Education Department, and is planning an extensive trip to US schools later this year. “The demand for the show has just grown Australia-wide, and the US schools are busting for me to come back,” he says.
Annandale State School principal Jeff Hay, of Townsville, Qld, believes the show is a performance every student should experience. “Lorin’s outstanding talent with the guitar enables him to capture audiences of any age,” he says. “More importantly, though, Lorin presents a profound message about acceptance of difference and belief in self.”
After several years in Warwick, on Queensland’s Darling Downs, Lorin and his wife Lisa are now living in Brisbane with their four children – all of whom play instruments. Andrew, 12, plays drums, Emmalyn, 11, plays cello, Harriett, nine, plays violin, and Tom, seven, guitar. “I’ve been giving Tom some lessons,” Lorin says. “I had to have four kids before I got a guitarist.”
Lorin still has goals he wants to achieve, but his wife and children are his priority. “In a sense, what more could you really want,” he says. “But I guess it would be nice to become an internationally-acclaimed musician. I really just want to play good music that inspires people.”
This story excerpt is from Issue #52
Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2007