New beginnings (1st September 2015)

It is roughly a year ago that I very gingerly stepped into the waters of part time employment. Both my wife and I were utterly terrified at the prospect of losing two days of safe income.
Today I have ceased to be a science teacher, and make all of my income as a musician, furthermore, from this end of things it seems to be the best decision I have ever made.
A former science teaching colleague of mine and his wife have given me much inspiration over the last three years to make this step. They made a similar change about four years ago having become extremely disillusioned with teaching to the point of being unwell. He was thoroughly insistent that the most difficult part was to make the jump in the first place and that opportunities would arise for me. He was so right.
Fast forward to today and the pleasure it was for me to meet my new guitar teaching colleagues in Doncaster and astonishing to see the level of enthusiasm that they have for the ukulele. I suspected initially that I was employed as a ukelele specialist purely because none of the guitarists took the instrument seriously. It seems I couldn't have been further from the truth. They have all dipped their toes in the waters of teaching it and all say how much fun they have had doing it and how much the kids have enjoyed it too. All of them are very experienced guitar grades tutors and in spite of knowing that the ukulele does have a grades curriculum they were horrified at the prospect of teaching grades on the instrument, citing that it would ruin their enjoyment. That's good enough for me.
I will now be spending most of my week teaching uke and supplementing the hours with bits of writing, guitar teaching and wedding work. I can't wait to get stuck in. I'm sure I'll give another synopsis in 6 months time but contrary to last year, I am filled with less fear and more optimism for the future.
Cheers Doc Mosedale for giving me the courage to take things this far.

Teaching instruments to people with learning difficulties and "quick fix" methods (23rd June 2015)

For the last year or so I have taught a number of pupils with both physical and learning difficulties.

One student in particular has been quite awkward to cater for as their fine motor skills are not conducive to planting chords of any kind with the left hand. This is also compounded by the fact that they also find chord charts virtually impossible to follow.
Our first session together left me scratching my head and thinking that lessons were probably not viable for this student in particular. I looked online for a number of solutions and remembered a contraption used by a very musical old friend of mine called the guitar wizard - The contraption was called the guitar wizard not my friend in case you were wondering.
I'm sure my mate won't mind me saying that he has tried loads of weird and wonderful quick fix teaching methods to learn the guitar. He has spent so much time and money on various methods that he could really have learned better by using the conventional, have lessons and spend the time doing it properly approach. In fact he has recently learned ukulele by the old-fashioned hard work method and is actually becoming a cracking player.
The guitar wizard was one of the more memorable contraptions he used to try to learn how to play guitar. It involves tuning the guitar to a chord and planting the contraption around your hand on the fretboard.
A strip of numbered stickers adorns your fretboard and then you follow the number guides which appear above the lyrics in the transcribed songs.
My pal made some rapid progress using transcriptions from the booklet provided with the gadget. He was able to play a small repertoire of songs for a grudgingly approving school staffroom much quicker than learning by conventional methods.
There were however several limitations to this approach Only very simple tunes could be played with any success. It only allowed basic major and minor chords. Using it for more complicated stuff sounded somewhat stilted and often wrong. It really grated on me. I like my fancy, jazzy altered chords.If you are not musical enough to work things out for yourself, you have to buy specially transcribed songs directly from the manufacturer which can be expensive and also they may not have the songs you are looking for.Lose the contraption, as I would, or find it mangled by the washing machine having left it in your pocket and you are right back at square one and 40 quid out of pocket.This however seemed like the best way for my student. Being able to play any music at all, no matter how simple it may be, would be a huge achievement but knowing that they would probably lose the expensive contraption in days, I had to think of another solution.
I liked the idea of tuning to a chord and spent hours building a number of, to put it in over grandiose terms, prototypes to try and emulate the guitar wizard cheaply. I thought I had found an easy to make, cheap solution and was quite happy with it, however my student didn't really get on with it and couldn't press down hard enough. I was gutted.
I needed a method of easily sounding notes at once without the need for pressing down. I turned to the old fashioned slide guitar method. You put your finger inside a smooth bottle neck and slide it up and down the strings to your required note.
I put coloured stickers on the fret board and have my transcriptions colour coded for the required fret. The student, moves the slide- which is actually a cheap curtain pole - not a bona fide slide- to the correct colour on the fretboard.
If you are slightly out of position it sounds badly out of tune.

Example of colour coded music :


Slowly but surely and somewhat surprisingly, my student's idea of intonation has improved significantly. It still sounds ropey at times but it means we can attempt some simple 3 and 4 major chord only songs. You'd be amazed at just how many of them there are to choose from.
Loads of Elvis, Cliff Richard, most rock and roll or country and western songs fall into this category.
I'm not sure which sounds worse, the bottleneck not being quite in the right place or having to play and sing the Cliff Richard, Val Doonican and Des O'bloody Connor songs I've been asked to transcribe. Either way it means that students who otherwise wouldn't be able to access the instrument can play to their heart's content without shelling out loads on expensive teaching methods and contraptions.

Censorship in Music? (12th June 2015)

I haven't written a blog for a few weeks now but came across a bit of a quandary while transcribing a popular song for a children's ukulele group which has made me want to write. 

I was transcribing the Bruno Mars song "The Lazy Song" for two of my children's groups and had to change the lyrics which are less than wholesome shall we say. Certainly not suitable for children ages 6 to 8 years old. The sad thing is that I remember going to a children's party at a play centre in Barnsley a couple of years ago where all the children were lined up and skipped into the party area to this song. They sang along to the genius hook chorus part beautifully and thankfully didn't know the words for the rest of the verses. Most parents were either blissfully unaware of the rest of the words or had turned a blind eye. A couple of weeks later at another children's party, I remembered raising my eyebrows at a DJ's song choice while my wife was nodding her head happily at the song she hadn't heard before saying that it was really catchy. I said that I couldn't believe that the song had even managed to get onto radio 2's playlist. I was initially laughed at and the humiliation made me feel rather stiff - ooh er - I made that somewhat unfunny and childish double entendre to show I'm not prudish in the slightest, just a concerned parent.When the rest of the world awoke to realise what the lyrics were about, the song which turned out to be  "blurred lines" was banned on certain university campuses and given a 7:30 watershed on BBC radio / tv.

I felt like the only person in the country who actually listens to the words. 

Both songs are absolute genius at the way they pull you in and would stand perfectly well without x-rated content. Pop song writing at its very best. It is just a shame that by the very definition of pop song, writers no longer feel the need to be aware of audiences of all age groups. These two songs are not by a long way the only examples of inappropriate  lyrics. On any given day on any mainstream radio station you will hear examples of totally unsuitable lyrics on songs aimed at young audiences. 

You may be surprised to learn that I do not necessarily blame the artists themselves for writing these words. I feel that they are after all just plying their trade in an ultra competitive and lucrative environment and will tweak their product to give it what it needs to sell as many units as possible. If that includes appearing naked in the video on a demolition ball á la Miley Cyrus then that is what these people will do. 

I feel that the real fault lies with censorship teams which to me appear to have been either unaware of what the words actually mean or worse, have been bribed to allow this material through. If unsuitable videos and songs couldn't get through censorship processes, most artists would not make them. I said most but certainly  not all. 

My brother-in-law recalled days of buying punk albums by bands like the sex pistols and the dead Kennedys purely to raise eyebrows in his parents' old fashioned household. He would turn his old record player up full blast and loved to watch his mum's shocked reaction,to such happily titled songs as "Holiday in Cambodia" and "Frigging in the Rigging". She was probably having exactly the same dilemma I am now.The best bit is that he didn't even like many of the songs he subjected her to. He was a breakdancing addict who also loved artists as diverse as kraftwerk and George Benson!

The final bits of this blog relate to my role as a parent and the fine line that I tread between being overly liberal and overprotective.  

I have long been a fan of the American musician Ben Folds. A wonderfully funny, observant writer who plays great piano.  My eight-year-old son is a keen piano player who I would love to introduce to Ben Folds' music. I've tried, but I have to skip most of the best tracks for fear of awakening sensibilities I am just not ready to deal with yet. 

The same goes for the brilliantly talented Australian comedian Tim Minchin. All of his best showy piano songs are absolute filth. It seems that the virtuosity of the piano part in each song is directly proportional to the rudeness of the lyric. It would be plain irresponsible to subject my boy to Tim Minchin at his tender age. Maybe I'll just have to be patient and wait until he grows up.

I am totally aware that this is not a modern problem. TV channels weren't allowed to show Elvis Presley from the waist down. A little further back in time Socrates was charged with corruption of the youth of Greece. 

I would be interested to know how other people feel about this and whether you feel I've become an old stick in the mud. 



Playing Live (6th May 2015)

Tickhill Ukulele Group playing at the Scarecrow FestivalThe Tickhill Ukulele Group had their first live performance last bank holiday weekend. We did a set of about 40 minutes worth of our best songs, outside the Parish Rooms for the Scarecrow Festival. It was enjoyed greatly by all concerned. The only mistakes I heard were my own and more people than usual were up for singing.

The interesting part for me was seeing people respond to the pressures of performing live for the first time in years or even the first time ever. My son Harry and I are both used to playing on a regular basis in front of people and so didn't really give the concert a second thought beforehand. Both of us went in knowing that we are part of a much bigger collective, and as a result the performance quality was to be determined by the group as a whole. Ok, maybe they were just my thoughts and not Harry's, he's 8 for goodness sake but, credit to him, he doesn't flinch when he is a small cog in a big machine. He just does his bit with no frills.

I was surprised to learn that a number of the group had had a real case of the collywobbles before performing and were quite pumped up by the prospect. Especially when some of these people are used to speaking in front of groups of people for a living. 

How do you help overcome this?

The first tip you'll want to smack me for, it's so obvious. Straight forward practise. We stopped learning new stuff a few weeks ago and drew up a short list of songs from our repertoire. Then, we only did those songs for the last three weeks. In fact, I even thinned out one that I didn't feel would work on the day. The more you run through things, the less likely you are to make a hash of it.

The second tip would be to stick to the plan. The minute that you deviate, especially as part of a group, things become ragged around the edges.  Great bands have a knack for making things look improvised but aren't really. Giving over a set length for an instrumental solo or having very definite cues to start and finish one at least give an "off piste" feel to something which is actually well planned. 

The third tip would be to leave out your ego! This can take several forms and I've seen a few car crash performances.

Play within yourself - keep it simple stupid

I've seen countless performances where younger students have chosen pieces that are way too hard. They've gone for glory and looked poor as a result. Younger players who make judicious choices on material are rare. 

Return to the second tip - get over your wonderful self and stick to the plan Stan.

This could be comical if it wasn't so annoying to play alongside. I have been lucky enough to have played with some fine musicians over the years. Some of the best instrumentalists I have played alongside have been the worst team players when it comes to playing in a band. I think all young musicians have been guilty of turning up their amps to eleven while no one is looking, but I still see this trait in musicians who are old enough and experienced enough to know better.  They bust a gut to get noticed, end up over playing and trip up either themselves or someone else. 
For a band leader, the best solution here is to give your superstar musicians singing duties. The more important the line you give them the better.
A guitarist won't turn up their amps if they can't hear their important backing vocal and will be too busy to do their diddle twiddles if they have to sing as well. Secondly, the egomaniac in them won't be able to resist telling off the other musicians if they too decide to over embellish or turn up because the harmonies can't be heard. 
Win win.

The Tickhill group aren't guilty of any of the above- I am the biggest pain in the backside ego there by far. 

The last tip is getting over the fear. What was the title of that self help book ? - " feel the fear and do it anyway" or something. I hinted at this at the start. The more you play live, the more routine it becomes. A few nerves are a good thing. It's not a good idea to have a drink and desensitise. Often, that bit of nervous energy drives you on. 

The hardest part is often breaking the silence at the start of a performance. Keep smiling and just be yourself. I think many audiences smell pretentiousness a mile off and don't really warm to it. A gently self deprecating approach leaves audiences interested, liking you because you are just like them and often inspired to have a go themselves. 

So in short,
Rehearse, stick to known paths, put your ego in a box and play for the team. Finally, go out there and be yourself. I won't say it never fails but it is the least likely route to offer any pitfalls. 

Should I do grades? (19th March 2015)

I have hit a bit of a dilemma this week. It has cropped up in conversation with parents of students that I teach guitar to but this week I have had to weigh up the possibilities of either putting my own son through piano grades or simply leaving him to play pieces that he likes to play. 

The grades route requires discipline. The scales, arpeggios, sight reading and music theory and skills taught throughout the grades program are invaluable to all musicians. You can't communicate without it. It can however be a long haul, stuck perfecting the same pieces for months at a time. Some of these pieces can be a tad grim, especially some of the "modern", more atonal ones. I often wonder if this stuff is the Associated Board's response to being repeatedly asked for more modern music but because of an aversion to popular culture that they don't really know what it means. The problem is that just because it may have been written in the last 20 or 30 years, does not necessarily make it the modern music that many young musicians would like to play. 

Here is a clip of a Leo Brouwer piece, beautifully played by Corey Harvin. Leo Brouwer is a wonderful musician and has written some iconic guitar works but grade 2 and 3 guitarists can't make it sound like that. It needs to be played extremely well to work. I for one wasn't remotely interested in it as a kid, although that probably says more about me. If you read my first blog about my entry into guitar playing you will probably get the idea.

Students (and parents) misuse  the grades route when they use the grade of the pieces they are currently playing as a yardstick to measure themselves against other musicians. It seems to bring out an intense snobbery among students and competitive parents alike. " ... Well my Tarquin you see who is  grade 8 on basoon, has moved on to trumpet to get a more prominent place in the orchestra, and has already reached grade 5 while only having been playing for three weeks and sight read the exam.....yawn....."
You don't often see these types of students playing into old age as the music loses it's edge when there is nothing more to boast about. 

I have all too often seen students make mediocre at best, attempts at playing grade 8 pieces when they could have played a grade 6 piece beautifully but went for the harder one for the kudos. I can totally understand it when students are doing this for either A-level or GCSE examinations where the difficulty of the piece actually affects the number of marks available but not when playing for entertainment purposes. 

The theory taught in the formal route however is not the be all and end all of music theory. While doing A- level music at school, which was the only time in my life that I found myself surrounded by lots of classically trained musicians, I found many were clueless when it came to improvising or being able to figure out the chords for songs to just be able to jam. Even at A-level, lessons in chord construction go little beyond inversions of basic chords. 
Many of the students I came across were completely unable to play anything unless the music was in front of them. This included many players of grade 8 standard and beyond.  Again, I don't know of many of these guys who still play.

On the flip side, there are drawbacks to just playing what you want to. I feel that students who don't do the grades generally have poor sight reading skills. Initially, this is not a major problem. Many students can figure out a piece by ear. This is fine when the music is either simple or repetitive in construction. The guitarist's dream musical style to learn is blues. It sounds great, but is a bit formulaic and repetitive. Plus you can mix up very simple melodic techniques such as string bending to make something sound essentially different. Eric Clapton is a master of the blues style of playing and professes to not be able to read a note. 
The problems with not being able to read music manifest themselves much later on in the musician's learning journey. There comes a point in every improving musician's playing where they have to be able to read to be able to push it further and escape those old  habits which were once nice tricks but have now become old hat. 

If you are playing one style at a high level beautifully by ear then need to move to another style, reading helps you learn more quickly.
The musician with poor reading skills has to take a step down several levels because their reading isn't good enough to cope with the more tasty stuff. 
This can be totally demoralising for some, knowing that they will have to work for several months to get even close to the standards that they are capable of. It causes musicians to switch off or simply return back to the style that they know and are comfortable with. 

This whole thing could rumble on and I have work to do so I suppose I have to draw some conclusions here. 

Typically, I am going to have my feet in both camps. The best approach to learning is a varied one. Some of the grades certainly open doors for young musicians studying music at school and beyond. Grades five at GCSE and grade 8 at advanced level certainly seem to be the benchmark grades for students to be able to access  the highest performance marks. I would certainly put more chord construction and harmony into the curriculum as to a guitarist, this is what music is about. I would actively encourage students to play as many different styles as possible from the outset.

I want to see my son playing for life, just as I have. He is very lucky to have a teacher who is more than capable of following the traditional route, and teaches scales and broken chords, coupled with a bit of the Italian needed to express the music properly. She also gets a massive kick to see him happy playing stuff he enjoys.
I asked him what he wants to do and he's happy to leave it for now. Suits me fine.