Guitarists, the ear, note reading and a free spirit.

Last week I started a new one-day-per-week role as a guitar teacher in a stunning private school here in Scotland where I presently live for much of the year. The working environment is fantastic. I have a designated guitar room with plenty of instruments of many sizes as well as all the instruments of the ukulele family at my disposition. I met my pupils and they are universally charming. As many of them board at the school, they have time put aside for supervised practice of the instrument as well as music theory support in other areas of their education journey. In short, it’s a dream scenario for an instrumental teacher.

I spoke to my predecessor via email a few times in the weeks leading up to me starting the role and it soon became clear that he is a man who loves folk, pop and rock music above classical music. He is a massive character and it is absolutely apparent that he was much loved by all those at the school. Every time I mention his name to a pupil or colleague, their faces light up and there follows a warm chuckle and distant glazed expression suggestive of a recollection of some amusing incident from yesteryear. I soon began to feel rather inadequate.

After day one, I made a number of observations. Firstly, none of my pupils can read notes. Secondly, many have a very casual posture – reminiscent of a guy strumming in a pub. Thirdly, they all love the guitar and can do many things, physically speaking, quite well. I would suggest though that the casual posture will limit further development.

Consequently, I have inherited a group who are making good progress but whose literacy note-wise is poor. I have made the decision that, in this environment, my pupils should be able to read fluently. I already have one pupil who is reticent to adopt this approach, preferring ‘power chords’ or playing rock riffs. My challenge is to continue motivating the pupil but also ensure that he develops as a rounded, cultured musician.

I have no intention or desire to criticise my predecessor. He has developed a sense of love, joy and desire to play in his pupils. That is most admirable and both I and the pupils owe him a great debt.

I often see discussions on guitar forums debating (with varying degrees of intelligence) whether guitarists should be able to read notes or not. Arguments against note reading include ‘Jimi Hendrix couldn’t read’ or ‘readers can’t play by ear’. Both of these arguments are irrelevant. Hendrix was a great rock improviser but his structures are easy to memorise. Writing his works on paper serves no purpose. I often see transcriptions of improvised solos for sale in music shops and I wonder what purpose these serve. No-one will ever use them. There is little point in learning a Hendrix solo note-for-note. The original spirit and intention is completely lost.

It is also unintelligent to make a direct link between being able to read and having a poor ear. That points to teaching which has failed to develop the whole musician. Guitarists are frequently unaware that musicians in the Baroque and Classical periods were great improvisers. When I say ‘great’, I mean truly great. They wouldn’t improvise a pentatonic solo over a simple chord structure but would spontaneously create multi-voiced fugues full of sophisticated counterpoint and modulation. Beethoven’s concerts would usually feature a section when the composer himself would take to the piano and improvise on a theme, perhaps one proposed by a member of the public.

I’d also make the point that I am often approached by adult learners who want to start reading as ‘they never did it when they were a kid’. One adult pupil asks me to transcribe sophisticated pieces from notes into TAB. It is a little bizarre requiring one code to be transferred into another. Why not learn the second code as well?

I think that having a good ear, a free spirit and being a competent reader are all comfortable bedfellows. My challenge as a teacher is to develop my pupil’s reading skills without demotivating them. I think much of the solution lies in ensemble playing so to start things off at my new school, I have created a little quartet which is an arrangement of an Argentinian folk tune. The lower part is chords and it is tailor-made for my rock-lover. There are percussion parts too to help in the reading of rhythm.

If you’d like a copy, it’s available for free at my online shop shop. If you’d like to buy me a virtual beer via PayPal as a thank you, you can but please do not feel obliged in any way. I’d welcome thoughtful and helpful comments below; let’s have a good debate about how we can best serve our pupils and fulfil our roles and weighty responsibilities as teachers.

An Inspiring Young Lady

In around 2007 I was working as a musicianship tutor at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. Part of that employment was working with very musically advanced children on Saturdays (I am privileged to do similar work today at the RCS in Glasgow). One week, I was invited to teach musicianship to a girl who had been blind since birth. I was comfortable with this challenge as I already had some experience in this area, and so I met Rachel. From the first class, I was captivated by her amazing passion and deep love for music. She had an incredible ear and was able to memorise repertoire at a frightening rate. We had a game where I would play a random CD (in any style) as she entered my room with a helper, and she would immediately, grinning from ear-to-ear head to the piano and rattle off what she’d just heard pretty much note-for-note. The helpers usually fell over in disbelief.

As time passed I recognised that Rachel’s musical gifts were utterly extraordinary – at times inexplicable. She was always reliant upon her amazing memory and ear to learn repertoire, so colleagues and I thought it would be wise to teach Rachel to read music. Together, Rachel and I learned the basics of reading Braille sheet music – a process which was pretty torturous for me but which Rachel picked up admirably. There was no doubt though that using her ear and memory would always be her primary technique, and why not? It is an art of the ear after all.

With colleagues, we tried to direct her through A Level music many years early. The content of the course was almost too easy but the accessibility issues created many frustrating barriers. I’m still uncertain as to whether visually-impaired musicians face an even playing field when it comes to assessment today.

So you can imagine my surprise and sense of joy when I saw that Rachel had posted a recording of her final degree recital on Facebook (available here). Kirsty and I watched much of it last night and I confess to being deeply touched by what I heard and saw. I was thrilled to see that Rachel and her teachers had had the courage to allow Rachel to present improvisations in the style of certain composers as part of the concert. This is a practice which was commonplace in the 17th and 18th centuries but is dying today. Please understand that we are talking of multi-voiced, modulatory, structured improvisations here rather than jamming a blues scale over a few chords. Rachel achieved a near-unprecedented mark of 96%. It is richly deserved and I am both unsurprised and thrilled to bursting point for her.

It is important to say that I have played a very tiny part in Rachel’s musical development – the vast majority of the credit belongs to Rachel herself and her piano teachers. Rachel had an incredible energy and joie de vivre which all part of the package of her as a musician. As I consider her story, I feel that I was taught more by her about the art of teaching and the question of developing the inner ear.

When I talk of this experience with fellow musicians, I am often faced with statements such as ‘she was so good because the ear compensates’, suggesting that in the absence of one sense, another develops at an increased rate. The problem with this is assumption that there is no evidence whatsoever to support it. I think that what we are witnessing is something slightly different. I believe that the ear and memory have been required to work harder. The development is not a compensatory gesture put in place by the body but has happened through sheer hard work. The key point here is that such accelerated aural and memory skills are probably available to all, sighted or otherwise, should we choose to train ourselves in a balanced manner.

Whatever the truths of such things, there is one definite. Rachel, you richly deserve what you have achieved and you continue to be an inspiration to many. Now a joyous career of music awaits and I for one look forward to hearing more from you!

 

Giving Concerts in Rural Areas of France

During my life as a student and concert performer in the UK, I soon learned a clear code of conduct for audience and performer alike. Concerts billed to start at 7.30pm started at 7.35pm; a first half lasted for 45 minutes, the second half a little less; a 15 minute interval lasted for about 20 minutes; an audience did not applaud between movements; an audience applauded whether they enjoyed the performance or not; an audience requested at least one encore, whether they enjoyed the performance or not.

This was an altogether pleasing state of affairs – everyone knew where they stood, meal times, babysitters and restaurant reservations could be made with reassuring predictability and reliability., ushering staff would get home on time,  and the stability gave the performer a sense of routine and confidence.P1000465 Cropped.jpg

Concerts are not like this in rural areas of France. In the summer of 2018, I performed ten concerts in France and one in South Wales. The first thing a Northern European musician must understand is that the starting time will habitually be at least an hour later than that to which they are accustomed. Furthermore, if your concert is billed to commence at 8.30pm, this is actually a cue for the audience to gather at that time for a chat, drinks, nibbles, more drinks and to allow children to climb up trees. In the Dordogne, they talk of the ‘quinze minutes Perigordine’ (the Perigordine fifteen minutes) which is to say that any meeting of people, albeit a concert, a business appointment or a council meeting is susceptible to a certain flexibility of timing. I have frequently started a concert nearly an hour later than the billed time (yes, this means 9.30pm) and have sometimes felt like an unwelcome intrusion in a convivial social gathering.

The reverential silence one experiences in a British concert is notably absent as well. Children will attend concerts and will make, within reason, some noise. They will often gather at your feet and watch your every move from a distance of six inches. As the pre-, mid- and post-concert drinks are key to the mutual enjoyment of the evening, expect to hear a table being dragged into to hall about ten minutes before the close of the first half (just as you approach the fast movement of that tricky sonata). During one concert, a gentleman taking photos for the local paper approached me mid-Bach and took some snaps, complete with noisy shutter, polyphonic beeps and a robust flash, at a distance of sufficient closeness so that he nearly knocked over my music stand mid-snap.

In the UK, some performers choose to speak about the works they are about to play. In the French countryside, this act is almost as important as the music itself. Often, concert organisers will employ a local character to act as a raconteur at strategic moments during the performance. He/She will tend to use a microphone to read information already printed on the programme at the kind of volume that would have made the late Lemmie wince.  If you are a second-language French speaker and you introduce a piece in French with a charming British accent, you’ll be a triumph before you’ve even plucked an open E.

The French are very forgiving regarding repertoire.  Have dropped in the odd musically-challenging piece and it has usually been received with warmth and open hearts. The French adore Celtic repertoire. If you play something familiar (La Paloma, Cielito Lindo, The Water is Wide, Arrangements of songs etc) you can expect to hear your audience singing along. That is something I find truly beautiful and touching.

At one concert in Egurande et Guardedeuil this year, I was invited by Monsieur Le Maire for a pre-concert light meal. We finished the performance well after 11.00pm and was then invited, along with the luthier Daniel Jarvis (who had loaned me a guitar) and his wife for a post-concert get together. We entered the local salle des fetes and were seated at a table. As an aperitif and starter were brought out, I soon recognised that this was to be a full meal. I got home after 2.30am. Were I not driving, I would have been pleasingly plastered given the rich array of wines which were pushed in my direction.

Concert giving in France is refreshing, rewarding and has a certain sincerity which perhaps we’ve lost. If you can be open-minded, flexible and humble, it is a deeply rewarding experience. I can’t recommend it enough.

If you’ve enjoyed this blog, keep your ear to the ground for my book Extracting Goats From Jean-Claude’s Kitchen which will be published in the next few months. It tells of my seven years of musical and family life living in a sleepy French village.

 

A Modern Fathers’ Day Song

As well as being a guitarist, I love to compose and write many works for myself and others to play. Recently, I’ve been asked to create a simple song for Beavers to sing (the cub-scouts rather than river-dwelling mammals) for Fathers’ Day which I was delighted to do.

This also meant writing the lyrics which, in my recent capacity as an author 🙂 I enjoyed just as much. When giving the task a little thought though, I realised that in today’s world, such a job is more complex than it may have been yesteryear. We must be very sensitive to the fact that many children may have little, or no contact with their fathers. To remind these children of how great it is to have a Dad could be, at best, deeply insensitive.

The solution I’ve come up with is to create lyrics which involve the appreciation of traditionally-masculine roles but without actually saying who it is who carries these out. A child is free to interpret this as Dad, Mum, Stepdad, Grandma, Grandpa, Carer or whoever. Some of the Beavers supplied ideas for these.

My professional development this year as a tutor at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has really taught me about intervals and melodies which musically-inexperienced children can sing, hopefully with ease. I’ve tried to incorporate this knowledge into my song and, In particular, I’ve avoided the leading note and the fourth in certain contexts. Finally, I’m working and living in Scotland. The melodic patterns and figures respect many of those I’ve seen in Scottish Traditional Music. Although I’m not a Scot myself (I’m a kind of Welshman/Honorary Frenchman/New Scotsman/European born in Essex due to my Dad’s job!) I believe it to be correct to respect the culture of one’s environment as I did when working in France.

The result is Song for Those Who Care for Me. I am attaching a simple score and please feel absolutely free to download it and enjoy it with your group of youngsters. DO let me know how you get on.

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Performing in Care Homes

Framed C4 PhotoToday, I played at a care home in our village. Since moving to Scotland, this has become an important source of employment for me – not necessarily financially speaking, but in terms of giving me a moment to reflect on what I do and why I do it.

Playing in care homes can be challenging. Some residents are in much physical discomfort and others are suffering the cruel effects of dementia and its associated illnesses. I have come to recognise how challenging it must be to work in a care home. Employees have to balance compassion and understanding with their own vulnerability as human beings.

As a result of the working environment, the performance conditions can be very challenging. Staff must continue their everyday work, relatives come to visit – perhaps failing to recognise the nature of a performance environment and residents may sing along with the musician. I’ve also noted that the temperature tends to be very, very warm – obviously limbs in later life get colder more easily. I’ve had to deal with sweaty fingers and strings going very out-of-tune. These are all alien concepts to those with a classical training but I have come to believe that working in such an environment can be humbling and reminds us of how fortunate we are to be doing the work which we do.

I am lucky enough to work in The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland where the students are simply a joy. Such institutions set up wonderful performance opportunities for their students (as they did for me many moons ago) but I must say, I wonder if we should be encouraging them to serve their community and to take opportunities which remind them of how blessed they are. Being a musician can, and should be, hard work. Giving those in their formative years incredible and positive experiences can be a real inspiration to students, but maybe a few challenges of an unexpected nature thrown in could be beneficial in the long-term.

Today, I went with a portfolio of about thirty pieces and selected half of these as I went along. It is great training to try to evaluate the mood of an audience and respond accordingly.

Finally, playing in care homes means that we give something of real worth to those who truly appreciate it. It won’t necessarily gain you credibility with the ‘in-crowd’, but if you do a good job, you will leave with the satisfaction of knowing that your efforts are valued and appreciated.