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?
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.
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.
Let there be rock
Really, let there be rock. I argue in this piece that too often we do not. Educational institutions frequently permit an unfulfilling simulacrum, but we fail all too often to grasp the core of rock music and allow it to happen, or to insist that it happens, in schools. I write a little about me in this post, because it is a first articugolation of an irritation that has been brewing inside me over 16 years of teaching in primary, secondary, tertiary and higher education.
I am a drummer, and I teach music at a school of contemporary (popular) music. This year I’m also studying there for a master’s degree in music performance. This combination of being the teacher and the taught has helped me see more clearly who I am as a musician. While I love playing drums, there are particular conditions that make the experience for me the fullest consummation of human experience. These are generally met when the following align:
- I am playing drums in an ensemble
- I can play what the music requires
- The band is comprised of competent players
- We’re all listening and feeling intently
- Our commitment to and immersion in the moment are complete
- I can move as large as I need
- The volume in the space is loud, and I am enveloped in sound
- We are playing rock music
In short, all is well with me when I rock.
My drum teacher and undergraduate mentor, Peter Fairclough, used to pose a question to his students. He would ask, “Who gives you permission?”[i] Pete’s idea was that a confident, successful musician enables (permits) her- or himself. I took from his advice that I should have enough ability in my wrists and fingers to do whatever I wanted on the instrument. But asking Pete’s question now, of myself and on behalf of students who I know love to rock, the answer, or part of it, lies below.
Today I carved out an hour to play drums. Well, in the end it wasn’t quite an hour. After I’d accepted a colleague’s invitation to meet a special guest in a lecture room two floors away at the same time as my session was due to start in a drum kit practice booth (only available by the hour, on the hour), and since I finished three minutes early so as not to hold up the booking for the next guy, it was closer to 50 minutes. Then taking account of the portion of that time I spent rearranging the kit (why do all the other drummers in the college have the stool so damn high? And why do they insist on putting the floor tom unreachably high and totally level with the floor?!), and the time I spent stretching out, removing jewelry and rolling up shirt sleeves, it was actually nearer to 40 minutes. But the point is that I found the time, and I managed to spend it playing the drums. Alone. In a room. Just me and the drums. Plus the briefly distracting feeling that I was being watched by one of the junior members of the Facilities Team courtesy of the CCTV camera conspicuously sprouting from the otherwise bare wall. So it was that despite, and perhaps partly because of, the presence of Big Brother that I removed my shirt to play. It’s not that I dislike getting sweaty when I drum – indeed, that’s often a part of the pleasure– but I harbor an intense dislike for having patches of perspiration spread across my abdomen, back and arms in a blue formal shirt as I return triumphantly but increasingly meekly to my shared office, parading my bedraggled, (albeit invigorated and enlivened) academic figure through a sea of students confused by the figure of a man in a blazer looking like he just fell out of bed, ran to work in yesterday’s clothes, and forgot the way to his desk. Most students, I’m sure, actually don’t notice or care that I am there at all as I emerge from the drum booth and retreat (fully clothed) to my labours, while others make eye contact, acknowledge the sparkle in my eye, and smile. One or two have seen me like this before, and they grin knowingly. Others seem confounded as to why I could appear so happy to be at work in the middle of the day/first thing in the morning/late in the evening/at all.
Fulfilling my overlapping roles as a drummer, a teacher of aspiring musicians in a London music college, and a ponderer on what it is some of us are trying to achieve in and through higher popular music education, I spend a good portion of my time worrying about what kind of example I set, and to what extent how many students will see my example, casually ignore it, and go their own way. Most of the music I play is perhaps most easily grouped under the broad descriptor of “popular” – although the relative popularity of that music is borne testament by the collection of boxes I have at home containing CDs of the Eruptörs’ first (OK, and also our second) punk-metal quasi-concept-album from 2008 (and 2010). That being said, I just finished a run of panto in Essex, and the show was 99% sold out – an impressive box office feat that I am confident had nothing at all to do with my being involved in the production. But although panto is popular and I hardly stopped drumming throughout, isn’t it much more theatre than music? Where does one draw the line, and why? All of this (and more) has me wondering about my relevance, anxious about the pedagogic authority – as Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) have termed it – that students, consciously or unconsciously, ascribe to me.
I hate marking. No, I hate the idea of it. I like it once I get going, but it’s awfully time-consuming. In principle I value it, as it’s one of the most important things a teacher can do for a student. Although years later people often remember great teachers or great moments from particular classes, what seems to matter most to students when they are at college is the marks they get. Or maybe that’s just what teachers say. Often I think that what matters most to my students, anyway, is the music they make (and how much they can drink). But when they’re paying for a degree, and working very hard to do well at it (most are, although “very hard” is relative – I had no idea what that really meant ‘til I started doing a PhD whilst working full-time in two jobs and playing drums for three bands), students deserve their marks back on time.
I’m planning a study into the performed experience of playing drum kit. The study will be conducted from an autoethnographic perspective, and will explore the intensity, banality, madness and surreal-ity of twice-daily musical performances of a Pantomime musical theatre production. The study will be contextualised from ethnographic and philosophical perspectives, and is perhaps helpfully explained in a haiku that I wrote when trying to Tweet about my nascent research in this area ahead of giving a talk in Cleveland, Ohio, earlier this year:
I am a drummer
Drumming is when I am me
Then is who I am
Adages concerning writing-about-music, and dancing-about-architecture notwithstanding, and the irony of the heightened relevance of these in a piece on an intended study about embodiment – the planned principal output of which will hopefully be a book – not lost of any of us, I shall proceed.