Tag Archives: Education

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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‘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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Confessions of a Luddite: My eventual acceptance of technology in performance

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.

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Marking Work: Music Education, Feedback and Assessment

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.

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Improvisation Between Compass Points: the debt to and burden of jazz

In response to the excellent contributions by Dr Zack Moir [1] and Dr Richard Worth [2] I thought I might add my tuppence worth on the subject of jazz improvisation from an autoethnographic perspective.
Like many of my fellow jazz musicians, I was bitten by the jazz bug somewhere in my mid-teens. Having grown up listening to the popular music of the day (I’ll avoid examples so as not to give away my age), I began to take guitar lessons from the extraordinary Edinburgh based polymath, Francis Cowan. Francis, who is sadly no longer with us, was an internationally acclaimed double bass player – the go-to bassist of choice for visiting musicians in the days where itinerant musicians would perform with a local rhythm section. Double bass was only one of many musical instruments that Francis played to ‘concert standard’. He was also a highly regarded lutenist, reflecting his passion for Early Music and was adept on a range of instruments ranging from cello to trumpet. He also reputedly fluently spoke nine languages and was an avid twitcher (bird-watcher).
I went to him initially for classical guitar lessons but while waiting in the hallway outside his sitting room for him to finish his personal practice sessions (sometimes for several hours), my ears were opened to the melodies and harmonies of jazz – jazz guitar being another of his talents. It wasn’t long before I persuaded him that this was the music that I’d prefer to play and my efforts in classical guitar were confined to a footnote in my musical development. Continue reading Improvisation Between Compass Points: the debt to and burden of jazz

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‘Just Like Clarence’

This post is based on a presentation that I gave at ‘Improvisation: Educational Perspectives’, a conference that we held at the University of Edinburgh in April, 2014.

It is very common for people to say to me on a gig or recording session:  ‘play a sax solo…you know – like the the one on ‘Born to Run’ – or, ‘let’s do Baker Street’ (or even Careless Whisper, unfortunately).  Similarly, I’ve had many occasions where my pupils have said things like – ‘show me how to do it like Maceo Parker‘ or ‘how can I make it sound more like [X, Y or Z player]?’.  I am really interested by the idea that people, particularly in the realm of pop music, will not only learn to improvise by emulating those who they enjoy listening to and respect, but will in many cases also be asked in educational and professional contexts to do so and may be assessed or evaluated on the success of the emulation.  So, in this post, I would like to explore the notion of improvisation in pop and rock music – clearly this is a huge topic but this is deliberate and I will try to write as generally as possible for the purposes of stimulating discussion.  I should also note that, although a great deal of pop/rock music is improvised, (guitar strumming, keyboard fills, etc.) featured solos are inevitably of great interest. Continue reading ‘Just Like Clarence’

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Fundamentals of Music Theory MOOC: how was it for me?

I almost arrived late for the first class of this MOOC! I hadn’t realised it was running until I saw mention of it on “Cafe Saxophone” (a brilliant online forum about anything saxophone). So I signed up for the Fundamentals of Music Theory MOOC (from the Reid School of Music, University of Edinburgh) during its first week.

I’m not really sure what I was expecting. I had done 2 other music related MOOCs, with very disparate experiences, so I was prepared for almost anything. I have played the saxophone for 5 years, having taken it up ‘later in life’, following redundancy from a job as a Research Scientist in Radio Communication systems! So my background is definitely not in music.
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An Ecology of Music Making: Young people, leisure, industry and education

Last weekend I had the pleasure of giving a paper at the ‘Creativities, Musicalities and Entrepreneurship‘ conference which was a wonderful event organised by the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance.  This post is essentially an abridged version of that presentation.

In addition to my university work, I also teach music in schools and on a number of youth music projects and, therefore, spend a lot of time working with young musicians. One particular youth music project that I am involved with affords young musicians (aged up to 25 years old) an opportunity to work with music industry mentors (professional musicians, composers and audio engineers), over a six month period in order to write, record, produce, publicise and sell their own music.  Through working on this project and in schools/colleges/universities I have become very aware of a number of interesting issues surrounding the music making of young musicians, particularly in informal learning environments, and I will use this post to discuss them briefly. Continue reading An Ecology of Music Making: Young people, leisure, industry and education

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Conflict and Coherence: Thinking About Idiomatic Interplay in Music

This March, I attended the International Festival of Innovation at Leeds College of Music . The conference brought together several strands of research and practice, including Popular Music, Classical Music, Leeds International Jazz Education Conference, and the International Festival of Innovation in Music Production and Composition.  In previous years, these strands have been run as separate conferences, and I have been involved with the Leeds International Jazz Education Conference for several years. To my mind, bringing together these events was an inspired move: scholars and practitioners from each field were able to network and share ideas, and delegates frequently found there was more in common between the disciplines than they had previously thought.  Dr Zack Moir (@zackmoir) and I got talking at a coffee break, and ended up having an impassioned discussion about new methods of teaching music. We agreed that practical musicianship can be informed by theoretical and historical understandings, and vice versa.

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Learning to Improvise: Communicative Improvisation Workshop

Earlier this year, I was asked to run a workshop on ‘Communicative Improvisation’ for the University of Edinburgh as part of their ‘Innovative Learning Week‘.  I have led many workshops on improvisation in the past, some focussed specifically on jazz, some on pop/rock, some on free-improv or improvisation for dance, for example, but never on ‘communicative improvisation’. To be honest, I wasn’t sure of exactly what this meant or how I would approach it. Also, when I agreed to do it, the only information about the participants was that they could could be from anywhere in the whole university (not specifically for music students) and that they may not even have any previous practical musical experience.  As it turned out, the group comprised a range of people who had never played an instrument before , people who were professional musicians and everything in between.

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