SWWYK SAFE

(This post is based on a paper presented at a conference on the subject of popular music pedagogy.  It is derived primarily from my experience of teaching popular music for music students, instrumentalists and composers (from primary school to university), and from experience of using popular music in lectures on music analysis and in aural skills classes.)

From discussions with music students of all ages (although primarily high school and undergraduate students) I have become aware that it is very common for there to be an interesting disconnect between students’ listening choices and the music they perform. Whether in school or in university, when asked about the type of music that students are interested in, the vast majority of students state that they choose to listen to popular music whereas the music they play is closely aligned with the repertoire historically associated with their instrument. Although this is simply anecdotal evidence, it suggests to me that there is something of an aural familiarity with many forms of popular music and it follows to suggest that such familiarity can be capitalised upon as a starting point for the development of aural and analytical skills, in addition to instrumental skills and theoretical knowledge.  Additionally, it is believed that listening to and engaging with popular music can be important in the development of students’ analytical listening, the contextualisation and enhancement of their understanding of traditional music analysis and in musicianship skills.

This observation serves merely as an example of the way in which understanding the prior knowledge of one’s students may be instructive in the design and delivery of learning experiences.  By embracing the current knowledge and aural familiarity of a group of students, it is possible to develop understanding and build strong links to concepts and skills central to the education of music students in higher education.  In this sense, the proposed philosophy of ‘start with what you know’ is particularly useful as it accepts and celebrates the considerable and diverse knowledge and experience that music students arrive at university with and encourages them to contextualise, develop and build upon this, in turn empowering them and making them feel valued as legitimate contributors to the collective educational experience of the group.  In considering the diverse range of knowledge and skills of undergraduate students arriving at university, it is also important to consider the changing and varied nature of: (a) high-school music education (b) the experience and aspirations of new first year students and (c) the music industry (in it’s widest sense), including the expectations and demands of other industry professionals.

The inevitable diversity inherent among  first year undergraduate students, in particular, poses interesting challenge to the design of learning activities and, in the wider context, the design of courses and degree programmes.  It is a multi-dimensional issue in the sense that it relates not only to the nature of students entering music degrees but also has strong implications for the attributes of graduates.  More specifically, the perceived nature of the music industry (in the most general sense) impacts upon the values and beliefs of learners to the extent that they choose to study music at university level.  However, in order to be admitted to study music at university and also, to be able to engage practically with the music industry there are certain ‘entry requirements’ related to musicianship skills.  The nature and development of such skills are based on education and experience and vary significantly (both in level and focus) depending on the nature of training and the aspirations of the student.

In an environment where motivations, values and knowledge are so diverse, it is difficult to conceive of absolute definitions of terms such as ‘aural skills’ and ‘musicianship’, for example.  Consequently, this may lead to focus on certain aural skills deemed most important/relevant by lecturers who inevitably have their own educational/professional biases and beliefs with regard to the requisite skills, knowledge and attributes of a music graduate.  It is believed, based on anecdotal accounts from students, that this may result in a situation where some elements of music literacy or musicianship skills may be considered ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘irrelevant’ in the current industry context or ‘inappropriate-for’/‘incompatible-with’ many contemporary forms of music including popular music. This is an important issue when we consider that engagement with such contemporary styles may indeed have been the motivation for university study and the aspiration for future employment or practice, for example.  Indeed, given the relatively recent advent of graded performance syllabi in rock music and jazz (e.g. Rockschool, ABRSM jazz exams, Trinity Rock and Pop etc.), many students undertaking music degrees may arrive at university with little experience of classical music beyond that which is covered in national curricula (e.g. Highers or A-Levels, for example).

I believe that it is, therefore, important to use and build on the (not inconsiderable) prior knowledge and experience that students have as this (a) helps them to learn the material more thoroughly (b) improves their self esteem and, (c) promotes engagement in self directed learning/practice by encouraging them to consider their own experiences and knowledge as valid and valuable.  Building on this allows such prior knowledge to be contextualised within certain fields and for learners to explore the area they are working in and the ways in which their knowledge, expertise and skills relate to wider disciplines, for example.  From my experience of teaching music in a range of educational contexts, for the vast majority of the students, prior knowledge and aural familiarity is generally built around popular music.  If popular music is that which is known, then the philosophy of ‘start with what you know’ dictates that popular music is a suitable starting point.  By building on aural experience and ‘hanging’ theoretical concepts on that which is already understood aurally, it is possible to begin to develop and introduce appropriate discourse that allows students to engage with theoretical and analytic concepts based on solid aural experience.

In the interests of clarity, this approach requires two caveats.  Firstly, I am in no way suggesting that popular music is a ‘stepping stone’ or an easy ‘first step’ into a supposed ‘mystical’ or ‘complex’ world of Western classical music.  This particular use of popular music is as a result of many students indicating that they choose to listen to this type of music and that they are, therefore, familiar (aurally) with many aspects of it.  Secondly, when using popular music to teach students about specific concepts, examples should not be selected in an attempt to be populist and appeal to the musical tastes of the group; rather, any musical example should be stylistically suitable and genuinely represent that which is being discussed or explored and not merely bear a passing resemblance to a concept or compositional device, for example.  Popular music should be considered a valuable pedagogical tool for music students in the development of listening/analysis skills and theoretical knowledge; additionally, engagement with popular music encourages students to embrace other ways of listening to music and to attend to musical features that, (although not traditionally the focus of music theory and analysis), provide valuable and interesting information about the composition and production of the music.

Remembering Keith Tippett

There’s a story Miles Davis tells in his autobiography, about how seeing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie perform in a tiny club was the greatest experience of his life (he adds the caveat “with my clothes on”), and how he spent his career trying to reach that level of musicianship in his own work. For me, it was a concert Keith Tippet played at the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay, spring 1998. The first half was just Keith at the piano, and after the interval he performed with his wife, Julie Tippetts singing, and Paul Dunmall on sax. That night changed my life.

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the uniquely captivating qualities of Keith’s piano playing. Nonetheless, there was something entirely other-worldly about a Keith Tippett improvisation that on an average day was completely spellbinding, and on a good day was utterly transformational for anyone in attendance. He named one of his bands “Mujician” after his young daughter’s mispronunciation of his job. But Keith really was the most magicianly musician.

That phenomenal performance at the Norwegian Church was on a Thursday. I know that because the next afternoon was the college big band rehearsal, and Keith said to some early arrivals, “well, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who were at last night’s concert, and those who weren’t”. Years later I heard on good authority that even for Keith, with the 1000s of concerts of he’d played over 40 years or more by that point, that night was one of his favourites. I’ll never forget how it made me feel.

For the three years I was at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, I lived for Friday afternoons with Keith. 12-1pm was free improvisation, and 2-5pm was big band. It was magnificent. The first time I went to the free improv class, I thought Keith was bonkers. He asked me to play some bongos along with a flautist. Neither of us had any sheet music, a timeframe, a plan, or a clue what we were doing. Keith said to listen and respond without being selfish. I was wracked with anxiety and I’m sure whatever we did sounded horrendous, but Keith was encouraging enough to this 19-year-old budding classical clarinettist and closet rock drummer that I came back the next week. Keith would put us into duos, trios or sometimes quartets, and everyone was welcome in his class. He curated a beautiful, safe space where we could experiment and offer feedback on each other’s performances. The fragile young musicians in attendance learned to believe in ourselves because of Keith’s unerring belief in us all. I didn’t miss a class till I graduated.

Keith’s big band was like the free improv class on steroids, with sheet music. The pad was all music Keith had written for one of his avant-garde ensembles like Centipede or Tapestry. The melodies were memorable, the chords complex, the structures varied and often baffling, and the tempi ranged from incredibly slow to unplayably fast. All were welcome – we had French horns, violins, flutes, saxes, trumpets, guitars, piano, trombones, cellos, recorders, vibraphone, bass and drums. In addition to “burning” group free improv (I can hear Keith’s devilish Bristol accent now – “burrrrrrn!”), he had us all stroking wine glasses and chanting the names of fallen jazz comrades in whispers; we would collectively improvise freely in “circular time” in the middle of a composition, and play long or short random pitches at Keith’s direction in the middle of these improvisations. Each week a different person was a section’s riff-meister or riff-meistra and led conversational call-and-response during others’ solos. Keith ensured we played every note and every phrase with intent. The energy and focus in the room were intense. The students would all go to the college bar with Keith for a pint after class, or he’d go with us to a pub in town.

Keith rarely spoke to me much individually, beyond direction and feedback as the drummer (or, for two of my three years, one of two drummers) in the big band, but Keith’s influence expanded my listening, broadened my musical horizons exponentially, and made sure I practised my ass off. Keith was a sage – deeply wise and full of unvarnished love. He often spoke with adoration of his wife, Julie, and his children, Luke and Inca. He showed by example how to live life as a musician.

Keith’s sheer generosity as an educator was profoundly impactful during my formative years. A whole generation of musicians passing through the Welsh College before the turn of the millennium owe so much of our confidence and belief in ourselves – as musicians and humans – to Keith. In the spring of 1997, after only 6 months behind the kit in his big band, I was the sole drummer when we closed the opening night of the Bath International Jazz Festival in torrential rain. I played a drum solo that night in front of 10,000 people. That, like every class or rehearsal or performance with Keith, was a masterclass in listening and being fully present in the moment. Keith was relentlessly encouraging. He cared about the musicians and the music. He cared about each of his students, and remembered us all many years later. Keith demonstrated that making good music is inherently worthwhile. (He had left King Crimson in the 1970s after one album with them because their music and ambitions were too commercial!). Keith loved life and he loved music and he loved working with his students.

Keith’s jokes were a rite of passage at the Welsh College. He liked to say “groovy, baby / gravy booby” with a cheeky grin like a 13-year-old, and every now and again when directing us to play a mezzo-forte passage he would say “MF – mother f….” Keith appeared to wear the exact same outfit every day – light blue jeans, white shirt and a tweed waistcoat; judging from publicity photos from the mid-1970s, he’d not changed his look a bit since at least then. He didn’t like or trust acid jazz – he was an acknowledged jazz virtuoso and had certainly dropped acid, he said, so the music, in his opinion, didn’t live up to its name. He had the most preposterous sideburns, which I imitated until I shaved them off for a series of unusually well-paying gigs in the mid-2000s. He preferred the Spice Girls to the Rolling Stones (I’m still trying to get my head around that one, 23 years later). He loved professional football. He felt one should drink a full bottle of wine with dinner.

Keith was fond of saying to an audience or band after a show, “you’ve made an old man very happy, and a happy man very old”. Just last week I wrote the same words in an email to a younger collaborator; it was the first time I’d said it. Keith knew 24 years ago when I first met him that he was responsible for lighting a flame and passing the torch. I guess he’d want to know that even his awful jokes are still alive and well among the next generation.

Keith used to say to students when we graduated, “it’s an honour to have been a link in your chain”. Keith, it was the profoundest privilege that you were a link in mine. Thank you.

Rest in Peace.

Inspiring Alumni: Refugee Accommodation and Solidarity Space City Plaza

I spent eight years teaching undergraduates at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP) in London, England, hopefully setting students on paths to careers in the music industry. My work there largely involved lecturing and supervising students on a mandatory final-year project – a 10,000-word critical essay. I enjoyed the process, but wondered about the value of this work in the lives of the aspiring professional musicians whom I was teaching. Many resented undertaking the project and saw it as a distraction from what they felt they should be doing – making music. I became increasingly uncertain of the role played by the school and by higher music education in general; did students really benefit from spending several years at college, honing skills for an uncertain foray into an ever more saturated music market in a dense and intensely isolating city such as London?

If you are like one of those people who often overpacks and then stresses out before boarding the plane, is important that you check Scales Zen to find the best luggage scales of 2020 .

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My Top 5 Songs of 2017:

This is becoming a bit of a tradition for me, having started this as part of an activity for the MOOC we wrote. I have done this in 2014, 2015, 2016, and now 2017.

I love getting to the end of the year and giving myself an excuse to dig back through all the music that was released and pick some favourites to share. There were some incredible records released this year, but here are some highlights for me.  If you are looking for the latest coupons and offers available online, in couponscollector.com you can find a wide range of coupons that you can uses to buy what you need.

Please do feel free to join in by posting yours in the comments section below!

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How Does This Work Then? (for solo cello)

The purpose of this post is to share a recording of new composition of mine for solo cello.

Whenever I get to play around with a cello or think about writing for it, I instinctively seem to see it as some sort of ‘orchestral’ version of the bass guitar – an instrument that I am more familiar with. As such, this music was composed to represent the exploratory, experimental ‘bass-like’ mentality I naturally have when thinking about the instrument.

Justyna Jablonska - Cellist
Justyna Jablonska – Cellist

When performed, this piece should sound like someone ‘discovering’ the cello through the lens of their own experience of playing the bass guitar. The performer should convey a sense of naïve, experimental investigation throughout, and should feel free to hesitate, become frustrated, and embrace any issues associated with exploring an alien, yet strangely familiar instrument.

The score can be downloaded here.

 

The following is a recording of the track (with animated score), performed by Edinburgh-based, Polish cellist Justyna Jablonska.

 

Popular Music, Politics, and Prudence

Today via social media I received news of an exciting alumni success. Lauren Johnson, a young woman with a tremendous voice, whom I taught six or seven years ago at ICMP, came to my attention, thanking her circle of contacts for acknowledging the success of her band’s new song. Lauren did not actually feature on this particular release, but Captain Ska’s “Liar Liar GE2017” had made it to no. 1 on the UK iTunes download chart. The song gently mocks Teresa May, sitting Prime Minister and leader of the UK’s governing Conservative Party, highlighting some untruths she has told during and leading up to her campaign to lead the country for another parliament.

Protest songs have not been all that popular for a while. Perhaps people felt no need to pay attention to political singers, or maybe broadcast media have preferred to divert attention away from issues beyond the allure of sex, romance or dancing. Either way, it was heartening, indeed thrilling, to note that the BBC – that bastion of British Values (e.g. championing the monarchy, reifying the free market economy and de-emphasizing news stories about tragedy affecting non-whites) – had banned the song from airplay, along with popular London radio station, Capital FM. I was naturally excited for my former student, and felt a flush of pride to be connected (albeit incredibly remotely) with her band’s success.

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‘IDDM’: Music from diabetes data

Introduction:

I have Type 1 (insulin dependent) diabetes.  Trying to manage this disease feels like a full time occupation, and it can be exceptionally difficult to try to keep my blood sugar levels stable enough to function properly sometimes.  Simple things like making sure insulin dosage matches my food intake, how much to reduce insulin to compensate for the physical exertion of exercise or even the mental exertion of writing/lecturing etc., can become difficult calculations and when they go wrong, can have some significant effects.  Too much insulin and I get hypoglycemic symptoms which can be anything from mild dizziness and confusion, to loss of consciousness and even seizures.  Too little insulin and blood sugars rise, causing lethargy, unquenchable thirst (coupled with the constant need to run to the toilet), splitting headaches, and ultimately damage to internal organs and other parts of the body.  I feel constantly as if I am performing a tightrope act and that any false steps have life-threatening consequences. All in all, it is not a great deal of fun to have a condition that can make you feel pretty rough a lot of the time.  I should make it clear that I am very aware that many people are far worse off than I am and, in the grand scheme of things, I’m lucky that my condition is relatively easy to treat.  I am not complaining – just setting the scene for the musical information that follows.

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MY TOP 5 SONGS OF 2016:

For the last few years, I have created a list of my top 5 records of that year.  I do this for my own amusement, primarily, as it is nice to get to December and have an excuse to spend a while looking back over the year’s musical offerings and rediscovering things that may have slipped my mind.  However, it seems to be a nice way to get people talking about music and sharing their favourites so I thought I’d do it again this year. I normally wait until later in the month to do this but I am currently incredibly busy and, naturally, looking for any procrastination opportunity I can find.

(If you’re interested in the lists from previous  years you can check them out here: 2014 and 2015)

This year has been full of great music and the following is my list, in no particular order. Please do feel free to join in by posting yours in the comments section below!

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Drums and Shouting of Words

I was becoming bored of (and spending a small fortune on) playing in the Toxic Twins Aerosmith tribute band, and wanted to make new music at the drums. I quit with the firm intention of not playing any more rock for a while, unless it was of the ‘feral pop’ variety discussed by Charlie Bramley (2017), or in projects with Stephen Wheel or the Eruptörs. I had also recently burnt all my bridges with the London musical theatre fringe circuit by fathering a child and therefore not being in a position to do gigs for free any more. I was still playing in pop-noir electro-swing band, Sweet Tooth, whose gigs and rehearsals were consistently beautiful, immersive quasi-cinematic experiences that kept me technologically on the edge of my seat, but I wanted to express myself a bit more on the drums – to breathe, move, listen, respond and emote. Jazz might have been the logical vehicle for such an endeavour, had I not long ago abandoned its oppressive subtleties and sophistication for a post-quiet performance aesthetic that allows me to play as loud as I feel I need.

At one of the monthly Cabaret Futura events hosted by legendary London musician and curator (and one-time olde-English executioner), Richard Strange, I absorbed the performance of spoken word artist and self-proclaimed “shouter of words”, Oh Standfast. Having seen him play at another event a few months prior, I was excited to be bombarded by his bombastic bardery for a full fifteen minutes and gave him a lift home after discovering we lived in neighbouring regions of north London. My rock covers holiday inspired me to contact him later by email, and he was curiously accepting of my invitation to meet in a rehearsal room to see what would happen. I confessed at our first session, I had been struck by a video that caught my attention on Facebook, of a drummer (and bassist and keyboard player, but I wasn’t at all interested in them) playing along to this advertisement for Jones’ Truck Rental and Storage.

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Multi-authored academic blog on various aspects of music.

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