Category Archives: Music Education

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.

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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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The Creative Process of Composing for Media: A Study of Collaborative Creativity

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Continental Drift: 50 Years of Jazz from Europe

In July of this year I was part of a team, along with Dr Haftor Medbøe and Prof Chris Atton, that organised and hosted the international conference ‘Continental Drift: 50 Years of Jazz from Europe‘, in association with the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival.

We were delighted to welcome a broad range of delegates from around the world, including academics, musicians, industry representatives, and educators. Through a programme of panel discussions, research presentations, and discussion sessions, the conference was a wonderful weekend of informed and lively debate around the ontology of jazz in Europe, the nature of jazz in the region at present, and a look towards the future of the music in this area.

We now have video footage and audio recordings of the event, and I would like to share them in this post.  For audio recordings, you can subscribe to the podcast using iTunes by clicking here, or visit the blog feed here. Please see below for a range of videos of the event.

We are looking forward to working in association with the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival again next year, and we will be distributing a call for papers in the next few weeks.  If you are interested in participating, or even just attending, then please get in touch or comment below.

Enjoy the video content – we’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Let There be Rock

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.

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The International Journal of Inaccessible Jargon: A research dissemination gap.

As a research student, I regularly attend research training sessions and other such events. A running theme in many of these sessions has been ‘impact’ – more specifically, how can we create impact with our research? Who might benefit from our research? How can we engage with them?

What is impact? 

Earlier this year I attended a training session on “Evaluating your Digital Impact”, run by the Scottish Graduate School for Social Science. The aim of this training was to make us aware of how we can evaluate our research impact, and identify ways of disseminating our research. J. Britt Holbrook’s list of 56 Indicators of Impact (featured on the LSE blog) shows that impact is measurable in more ways than counting how many times your work is cited. Furthermore, Holbrook identifies that impact – which is so often talked about as a positive outcome – can also be controversial or negative.

Last week I was in Keele, at the first PG conference held by the AHRC North West Consortium. In his keynote, Professor Charles Forsdick suggested a shift is needed, away from talking about ‘impact’ – which in the REF is encountered as a short-term result rather than the long-term impact more applicable to the arts and humanities – towards a focus on public engagement and knowledge exchange.   I find this helpful, particularly as a musician and music PhD student, as it suggests more of a dialogue between research and society.

Continue reading The International Journal of Inaccessible Jargon: A research dissemination gap.

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Found Sounds: Music from the mundane

 

‘Hearing’ Music:

Whenever I am on a train, I find myself hypnotised by the sound of the wheels on the track and the rhythmic ‘rattle’ that this produces in the carriage. And at other times, I spend time on tech review websites because their reviews matter a lot to me since I’m a strict audiophile. Similarly, when at a queuing to pay at the supermarket, I love to stand and listen to the sound of the ‘beeps’ produced when items are scanned at the different checkouts, the differences in pitch (probably due to the relative distances) and the sometimes ‘rhythmic’ effect of the beeps occurring at random intervals. When I’m in a traffic jam in a car, I can amuse myself for long periods of time by simply listening to the ‘music’ created by the interaction of the indicator’s clicking sound and the swoosh of the windscreen wipers, slowly moving in and out of phase with each other. When using a photocopier it is not uncommon to see me nodding my head, in time with the mechanistic ‘groove’ of the machine, as if I was listening to music on headphones.

When I tell people about this, or when people observe me absent-mindedly humming as I invent bass lines that compliment the metronomic ‘tick-tock’ of the car indicator, or tapping additional layers of rhythmic patterns over the incessant ‘clickity-clack’ of the train, some people think I’m mad, some think I’m just a muso-geek and others seem to understand and even recognise this behaviour in themselves. Regardless of what other people may think, I find that I derive genuine and meaningful musical experiences from sounds that other people may regard as noise, or indeed, that they may subconsciously ‘block out’. This does not surprise me, I am fully aware of the subjectivity of musical experience and I’ve also attended the events at the United Center many times, but it does intrigue me. Consequently, in recent years, I have started to use this idea in my teaching and, most recently, in the context of a 1st year undergraduate course I teach in Popular Music Composition at Edinburgh Napier University.

‘Collecting’ Sounds:

In week 2 of my composition course (after the initial introductory lecture) I ask my students to attend class with some sort of hand-held recording device. After a preparatory discussion about sampling and related issues, we head out into the campus (and beyond) in search of sounds that we feel are ‘interesting’ and that are/could be considered ‘musical’. The term ‘musical’ is deliberately used as a problematic and ambiguous word as the intention is for the students to decide what this word means, and why. I want my students to start to listen to sounds in their environment analytically, to think about the ways in which sound is perceived, and to consider the ways in which ‘music’ can be found (or drawn from) unexpected sources.

Use of samples is clearly not a new – for many composers of popular music (particularly for younger students), this is one of the first steps in writing/producing a piece of music. For example, a drum sample is loaded into a digital audio workstation (DAW) and other layers are added on top until the track is complete. The exercise that I described above is different, however, as it is not about using pre-existing samples – it is about creating audio files that can be used, manipulated, and sculpted to create musical source material. Again, this is not a new idea and it is one that has been a key aspect of many types of electronic music for decades. That said, without exception, my students consider this approach to be entirely novel and, in some cases, the idea of starting a compositional process without even touching an instrument or DAW is even met with scepticism.

Implications for ‘Popular Music Composers’:

Popular music is an ‘aural art’ (Warner 2003: 8) that comes into being through the recording and manipulation of audio – popular musicians use production technology (software and hardware) as means to work directly with sound and to create sonic artefacts (Moir and Medbøe, in press). In this sense then, recorded sounds are the building blocks of many types of popular music. Regardless of whether we consider recordings of traditional instruments or samples of ‘found sounds’, for example, when a track is created we engage with it aurally. In my opinion, this means it is of paramount importance for popular music composers to think carefully and creatively about timbre and sound creation, just as much as (if not more) harmony and melody etc.

First year popular music students often tell me that their default approach is to use a DAW (Logic or Ableton Live, primarily) and to begin with instrument presets or samples and compose a track using these pre-existing components. Additional layers of audio, such as vocals or live instruments, may be added but the starting point is often one that is essentially curtailed by the parameters of software presets, workflows, or technical ability. This, in turn, can lead to students reverting to habitual processes or to genre stereotypes. I do not mean to suggest that my ‘found sounds’ exercise will necessarily yield music that defies genre classification or idiomatic norms – nor should it. What this exercise does is to encourage students to break habits, listen at a deeper level, and consider their music in a way that goes beyond the melodic/harmonic/rhythmic content that is the typical priority and preoccupation of young students in this area. By considering their music from this sonic perspective, it is hoped (and is usually the case) that the students will uncover new and interesting perspectives on composition and production that they may not have arrived at by conventional or habitual practices.

References:

Moir, Z. and Medbøe, H. (In press). Reframing popular music composition as performance-centered practice, Journal of Music, Technology and Education (Special Issue, Edited by Gareth Dylan Smith and Bryan Powell)

Warner, T. (2003) Pop Music, Technology and Creativity: Trevor Horn and the
digital revolution, Ashgate, United Kingdom.

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‘Teaching’ Music

What does ‘teaching music’ mean, anyway?

Admittedly, this is (in part) a bit of a flippant question – in some ways we all know what is meant when someone says that they are ‘teaching music’ or that they work as a ‘music teacher’.  However, this question has recently become more of a serious concern of mine and I have to confess to being increasingly unsure of how to answer it.   Given that I spend the vast majority of my working life teaching music in some form, it might be expected that me asking the question ‘what does teaching music mean?’ is alarming.  Actually, I can’t help but feel that this is a natural (and important) question to ask and I worry that any singular definition offered in answer to such a question may be problematic.

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Drumming and Timespace

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.

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‘Layers’ – Documentary

Following on from last week’s post about The Digital Ensemble, this post gives you the opportunity to watch a short documentary about a project I worked on recently with this group.

‘Layers’ is a new track by The Digital Ensemble, a group of musicians with disabilities who compose and perform original music in a variety of styles. The track is the result of collaboration between CP Productions and Drake Music Scotland and was supported by Creative Scotland’s Youth Music Initiative (Access to Music Making fund).  Zack Moir worked primarily with Paul Duff of The Digital Ensemble to write, record and develop ways to perform this innovative music. The track was recorded with the rest of The Digital Ensemble in Slate Room Studios, Scotland’s newest professional recoding facility in January of this year.  The track is out now to buy on iTunes:

itunes.apple.com/gb/album/layers-single/id971257721
(all proceeds to The Digital Ensemble)

This documentary shows how the composition and production of this music was approached:

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