In 1993, Unity of Calgary Music Director Anthony Burbidge released his first CD. People were telling the then-22-year-old, who had just earned his classical music degree, he was destined to become a star. But while living in his parents’ home in Nova Scotia, Anthony was exposed to toxic mold. On doctor’s orders, he moved from the damp climate of Nova Scotia to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, with an Army surplus bag full of clothes and his acoustic guitar. Anthony began the long process of reclaiming his health and music. Today, in addition to his music director position at Unity of Calgary, he teaches singing, songwriting, and guitar lessons, and operates a recording studio where he helps children and teens realize their musical dreams.
Unity: How is your health now?
Anthony: I have learned how to manage the symptoms of chemical sensitivities, chronic fatigue, and environmental illness, so I live a normal life as long as I stay away from moldy places, strong perfumes, and control my diet. Over the years I figured out what makes me feel awful, so I don’t eat or drink certain things anymore. I might miss it, but I would rather feel good.
Unity: What did your illness initially feel like?
Anthony: It felt like this weird pressure in my throat, as though someone were squeezing my throat from the inside. My lymphatic nodes all through my neck were swollen. They were putting pressure on my larynx and vocal chords. This, combined with extreme fatigue, was the first sign something was wrong with my health.
Unity: How did you get relief?
Anthony: One thing led to another. I went through all the specialists and doctors. I finally found a holistic doctor. He’s actually an American doctor who had clinics in Nova Scotia and the United States, and he would go back and forth between them. He checked me over and said, “Okay, here’s what I think happened. You’ve had a toxic mold exposure. You’ve got to get out of here. You have to leave this damp climate.” He gave me medication, a diet, homeopathic remedies, and so on.
When I moved out here (to Calgary), I worked with one environmental illness specialist for about two years … It was a real blessing to find him, but then he passed away unexpectedly.
Around that time, this other fellow appeared. For several months, this guy had been coming into the record store where I was working, and I decided to ask him what he did for a living. He said he had just opened a new research clinic in town specializing in complementary medicine, and they help people who have rare illnesses.
I told him I have an environmental illness and I’ve been taking all these herbs, I’ve read every book, and tried every treatment. My doctor died this past year, so what can I do? He looks at me, like Yoda, and he says, “Oh, you don’t need all that. All you need is good food and to get your energy right.” He gave me the name of his clinic and told me to call.
When I got home that evening, I told my brother about him and how he might be able to help us—my brother was also sick with similar symptoms. My brother runs off to his bedroom and comes back with this little prescription paper with a name written on it and says, “Is it this guy?” And I said, “Oh, my God.”
We both grabbed hold of each other’s arms and jumped up and down. We were so excited because we had been struggling for years trying to find some answers. It was like this doorway to the Universe opened and said, “Please, walk through.” That doctor became my spiritual mentor and opened the doorway to meditation and spirituality, and so on.
Unity: Has there been a gift in your whole health challenge experience?
Anthony: Yes, but it took a long, long, long, long, long time to get there. It wasn’t until about two years ago when I finally understood the full blessing of the whole journey, if that makes sense.
Unity: How did you get there?
Anthony: You know, in 1993, I released my first CD and everybody was telling me, “You’re going to be on MTV, and you’re going to be a star, and we can just see it.” And then within months, this whole mold exposure ordeal happened. When I first got sick, I told the doctor I had big career plans. I was 22 and I asked, “How long is this going to take to get better?” He said, “If you follow this diet, take the medication and the homeopathic remedies I’ve given you—since you’re young—I’m thinking maybe six months to a year, and then your healing mechanisms will kick in.” When I moved (to Calgary) I thought it would take a year to heal.
I focused on getting better. All my money was going toward vitamins and herbs and treatments. I didn’t have any energy because I was dealing with chronic fatigue and trying to keep a job waiting tables and working in the record store. One day I just said, “Okay, I’ll take a break from the music.” However, one year became two years, and the next treatment and the next test. It was three years, and then four years, and so on. It ended up being seven years since I had sung a note. I didn’t play the guitar. I didn’t play the piano. I didn’t do anything.
Prior to this time, I was on stage six nights a week. I was more comfortable on stage than I was off stage. I was full of myself. From an ego-based point of view, I was very confident in myself. I also had a very deep sense that God had a plan for me, and I was going to make the world a better place through my music. My role models were Bono and Sting and Peter Gabriel—people who were making music and making a difference.
Seven years went by and I had not made any music. I went through bouts of depression being away from what nurtured my soul and my being. I started to doubt myself. I started to think I was crazy—thinking clearly God was punishing me for being such an egotistical little brat for thinking I was so great when I was 21.
Unity: When did you reclaim your music?
Anthony: It took another three years. Around year seven, I started taking voice lessons with a fellow who taught a combination of voice, yoga, and breath work to help me get back into singing. I started to pick up the guitar a little bit and play. It was just kind of sporadic, here and there. At the beginning of 2005, my wife, God bless her—we had only been married for a few months at that point—said, “Quit your day job, do the music full time, and see where it goes.”
Unity: What would you say was the blessing?
Anthony: It took almost 20 years for me to realize that God’s plan for my life was really the plan I had for myself all along. Even though there were years when I wasn’t playing or writing music or touring, in the back of my mind I was holding on to this sense that this is who I am, and one day I’m going to show everybody … “I’m going to be the next Bono. I’m going to inspire the world and all that stuff.” The moment I finally let go of that idea and said, “For the next few months I’ll just say yes to whatever is happening,” things just started moving, like dominos falling over one after the other.
Unity: How so?
Anthony: What I always wanted to do was to use music to help other people. All at once, these things started to fall into place. A woman called me unexpectedly and said, “Will you teach my daughter singing lessons?” I don’t even know how she found me. By the end of the conversation, she asked if she could tell other moms about me. One thing led to another and now, five years later, I have about 100 students.
I used to think if I ever ended up teaching, it would be confirmation that I’m truly a failure as a musician. But my parents were teachers, and the most influential person in my life growing up was my music teacher who, when I was 11 years old, told me I would never amount to anything as a musician, and I should leave the school music program. It ticked me off and I started practicing every day.
He became my greatest mentor. He mentored me through every stage, from knowing nothing, right through to playing in orchestras and getting a music degree. I’ve come full circle. When I’m teaching the kids, I’m an entertainer, a public speaker, an actor, a performer, a songwriter—everything comes into play.
Another interesting thing happened around the same time that opened up a wonderful experience. In 2010, I built a recording studio in the basement of our new home. It wasn’t even done when this woman emailed me and said, “Will you do a birthday party in your recording studio for my daughters?” She somehow found me, and she had this big birthday party concept. This whole business opened with me doing parties for kids where they’re pop stars for a day. They come to the studio and my wife does photos and everything. It’s wonderful to see the kids’ response to this once-in-a-lifetime birthday experience.
The more I let go, the more things fell into place. The final piece came about two and a half years ago when I said yes to becoming the Unity of Calgary music director. Just like when I thought I’d be a failure if I ever became a teacher, I also thought if I ever became a music director, it would prove I’m a failure as a solo performer.
Prior to this, I had been traveling to different churches as a guest performer. I always felt a little sorry for the music director who had to be there every week and do the same songs every week. But, once I became music director at Unity of Calgary, I soon realized how wrong I’d been and what a great opportunity the position was.
Unity: How did you become the music director?
Anthony: I had played as a guest musician at Unity of Calgary for years and, in late 2012, the president of the board called me and said, “I know you’re a musician. Do you have any idea how we can start to look for a new accompanist?” I said, “Well, what about me?” She was open to the idea and open to the two conditions I gave her: first, that we’d change the format from piano accompanist to a full band so we could bring the energy up; and second, that we could let go of the old songbook and bring in some of the many wonderful New Thought songs written by friends and fellow songwriters including Jack Fowler, Karen Drucker, Eddie Watkins Jr., Freebo, Rickie Byars Beckwith, and others.
It turns out, this is what I always wanted. I wanted to front a band and do music that inspired people, opened their hearts up, helped them heal, and made them feel better. Here’s this place where the congregation looks forward to me doing my thing every week and to hearing the next song I’ve written or the next New Thought song they’ve never heard before.
Unity: So the blessing was …?
Anthony: It took me almost 20 years to finally stop trying to direct my life. The more I get out of the way, the better things get.
Learn more about Anthony Burbidge at anthonyburbidge.com.
About the Author
Annie L. Scholl is a freelance writer and native Iowan who lives in North Carolina. In addition to writing for unity.org and Unity Magazine®, she is a regular contributor to Huffington Post and blogs at her website, anniescholl.com.