Getting Better?

I starting writing this post about a month ago… Xmas and other stuff got in the way, but somehow what I had written just didn’t seem write.   Normally I just write and regret it later but for some reason I didn’t click on publish.

I originally wrote this blog about practising, following on from my last post.  Working at my saxophone has been a big thing in the past few months and its something I’m increasingly thinking about.  But improving has to be about more than just work and hours put in.  I’ve left my original post below, but it should be read now in a different context.

I had the pleasure of interview a most inspirational musician this week:  Dave Drake.   He is a young jazz pianist, originally from Brighton but currently studying in New York.  He is also an amazing musician!  In the course of talking to him we touched on the subject of jazz education.  Dave’s responses to my (pretty feeble) questions were actually quite a revelation.  For Dave the most important thing in his education as a musician is having a mentor:  The best, greatest mentor that you can find.  Somebody who is an amazing musician, who can inspire you and let you know what is possible and show you that you can achieve your goals.   However the concept of a mentor might be somebody who works alongside you, it might even be a pupil taking on a mentor role for a teacher.

This chimed with me really strongly as earlier in the day I’d been leading a session working with teachers on mentoring for developing skills.  Many people can get stuck in a rut, even if they are working and putting the hours in to try to develop themselves.  Sometimes it takes another human input to push you, inspire you and make you move forward.

Anyhow the original no debunked post is below!


Following on from my post from last month… I’ve been thinking about the how’s and why’s of practice recently…

I happened to be teaching a couple of advanced students recently who both were worried about their progress and specifically wanted lessons to help them move forward.

The thing is it all boils down to time and effort. (Or at least that is what I believe.)  There isn’t an easy answer to this stuff.  If you want to get better at your saxophone, clarinet, kazoo or whatever it might be, you need to put the hours in.   I am a big fan of the Outliers theory.  It’s a psychological survey from the ’90s in which it is theorised that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any skill.  There are those who have debunked the theory, but for me it holds true, if you want to be good at something you can’t just think it is about talent or some mystical magical ability.

Of course there is going to be a degree of input into a persons ‘talent’ or their specific predilection towards a given area.  Your neurones might fire in a slightly different way to others, your life experiences or hormonal balance might give you strengths or weaknesses compared to others.  But as a ball park if you want to master an instrument you are going to have to put 10k hours in.  (Maybe 7k, maybe 15k but something in that ball park.)

If you are speaking to a teacher about wanting to improve… you already know the answer play your instrument more and you will get better.   Listen more and you will get more in tune with how you want to sound.  You need to put the hours in.

Sure, teachers can give direction… I’m not totally trying to talk myself out of a job here!  We can give you direction on how to approach things, we can save you time as we have already made some of the mistakes and we can help you avoid them.  But if you want to get good you need to put the hours in.

I often find my role as a teacher is more about coaching than teaching.  It’s about motivating people to get towards their goals, about getting pupils to realise what their goals might be, and how to achieve them.

But the practice works… I’ve been doing some recently… and I can really feel the results showing in my playing.

A couple of years ago I saw a fantastic Youtube video by Bassist and online teacher Scott Devine.  (He has an amazing teaching programme which you can find HERE).  I was very sad to see the video is no longer on YouTube, but it seemed to make the case very clearly about How and Why to practice.   Scott has lots of newer videos about practice out there, but none seem to hit the spot that the original one did.   In the original video Scott talked about how as a starting out bassist he was given a great job playing, but which he was totally not equipped to take on at that point.  He had a really short space of time in which to get his stuff together and take on the pro job.   Scott described how he got there but really looking at his practice and only focussing on the the stuff that he needed to get better, nothing else.  The fundamentals, the skills, exercises, scales.  But only picking the stuff that moved him towards his goal.  He had to be efficient and he couldn’t afford to spend time working at stuff that wouldn’t help him.  You need to pick the specific skills that you need to progress.  The single bar, the single finger movement.  Find your weakness and develop it.

That’s it on practising for the timbering.  I’m off to the shed!  Hopefully a new subject for the next post as I have a new project which I am very excited about.  Am bound to be posting regularly about it very soon!



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Posted by on January 6, 2019 in Uncategorized


Practice Makes ?

Practicing is hard.  Very hard.

Playing your instrument once is easy, but practising means regular, means often and means intense and that is where the difficulty lies.

I must have talked to students thousands of times, generally about doing more of it, (occasionally about doing so much of it… ) but I don’t think I have considered enough about what I actually do in practising music and what actually gets me to get my instrument out and work in a thorough useful and consistent way… and how to share this knowledge with my students effectively.  It is so easy to say things need more work without talking about the ‘how’ or the ‘why’.

Let me say here… I am really bad at practising!  I am easily distracted.  Normally when I start to play my saxophone at home the internet and world of social media and all its distractions come calling to me as soon soon as the instrument is out of its case.   But occasionally I can get myself motivated and find myself actually getting into the groove of regular, in-depth work at improving my skills.  Normally interspersed with periods of no work which are just long enough for any new skills to disappear entirely.

But when I do find the zone it’s like a kind of meditation, transcendentally repeating patterns, breathing, stretching.   It’s a physical exercise:  draining and tiring.  But thoroughly rewarding once I see the results of my work coming to fruition.  Worse than this.. I play music because I enjoy it… steering free of the temptations of playing music for fun, rather than rigorous intensive, time efficiency which does me good, rather than just being enjoyed.

But at periods of my life the work, the motivation and the energy have all clicked and the bug hits me.  Improvement is like a drug and the mantra of the rituals of my practice can be seductive in its own way once I find my place in the practice groove.  I have put my hours in over the years… just not so much recently…

So what would my number one tip for practice be?

Sorry I don’t have one..  It has to be two.. and they totally contradict each other which is pleasing.

Be efficient and intensive.  What are you aiming for, and what are the specific things you need to do to improve the skill / ability / knowledge?  Don’t waste your time twiddling your fingers around playing tunes, noodling around. What is the scale that needs work, what segment of that scale actually needs the work?   What is the specific finger pattern that is failing you… work it out and sort that, nothing else.

But that is boring and you will give up unless you are a robot.  If you just do this you will fail… so…

Enjoy, play, improvise, perform, have fun!  Its all about balance, work and reward, yin and yang.   Get your intensive work in, do our warmups, your stretches, your technique. But then set yourself free and give yourself a real reason for doing all that hard slog.  One without the other will mean you are scale machine without feeling and passion for the music.

And the passion must be the real reason for you playing.  Else why bother?


Also never write about practice without practising correct spelling…  (those Americans have it easy!)


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Posted by on November 30, 2018 in Uncategorized


Sparkling night with Mark Bassey

Sparkling night with Mark Bassey

Superb Sunday night of jazz and swing with Mark Bassey and Straight No Chaser!

Straight No Chaser

Every so often, stars align and musical sparks fly. Last night’s gig with Mark Bassey felt to me like one of those fabulous nights. Mark was terrific, of course – thanks Mark – but I truly enjoyed witnessing the enthusiasm and support from such a lovely audience.

SNC, Hassocks, Mar 2017 Our view of you!

Great to see dancers and we’re looking forward to our Brighton Fringe gig together in the Spiegel Tent on Saturday, 20 May.

Mark Bassey Mark Bassey

Thanks also to our deps: Titch Walker and Kris Jones on trumpet and Andy Pickett on baritone sax. Quality! Also, thanks again to Neil Garrett for these beautiful images.

SNC Straight No Chaser

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Posted by on March 14, 2017 in Uncategorized


Falling Live Music Attendance

Taken from an interview we did originally with Portsmouth News. I recently saw an opinion piece in the Portsmouth News that stated that venues, promoters and bands were all partially responsible for falling attendance at live music events in Portsmouth. The overarching message seemed to be that a lot of people weren’t doing their jobs […]

via Live Music Attendance Falling in Portsmouth? Here’s the Truth. — The Wedgewood Rooms

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Posted by on October 8, 2016 in Uncategorized


Different Languages

I feel I have quite a wide musical experience having performed professionally as a jazz and classical musician, but also having worked in extremes of the genres (free improv:  pub rock and blues, new complexity music: wind band marches.)  I’ve also studied and taken part in music from many parts of the globe:  Samba, djembe drumming, indian classical music, morris, gamelan.   So it is rare for me to have new musical experiences.  However last month I travelled to Andalusia… A trip which, of course, would not have been complete without seeing and hearing flamenco… and this is where I had my latest musical adventure.

My thoughts about this experience are about language, shared language, even a global shared language.  But also about expectations, format, participation and the rules of engagement with a musical performance.

Why the (utterly phenomenal!) flamenco performances that I experienced were interesting to me is that I didn’t understand how to participate as an audience member in the music.  The performers worked brilliantly to create tension, release and musical climax, but as a listener I had to be led as to when I should show my appreciation and applaud as I discovered the format of their music.  Similarly the rhythmic basis of the  was alien to me.  I know about additive rhythms and have some theory about what this music was based on, but musically I didn’t have a key to unlock the multi-layered rhythmic complexity.  The new and unexpected experience for me was digesting the music as an outsider!



As a trained musician when I hear music I understand the mechanics of what is going on, I can empathise with the experience of the performers, I know the underlying harmony, rhythms and musical direction.  I can see when things are going well for the performers or not and sense their frustrations, or successes.  In this new musical experience I was able to listen without some of these expectations and higher level knowledge.  To actually succumb to the pure musical tension and joy without having to engage in the higher level meta-musical thoughts.  To engage with the music as a novice was much purer in many ways it allowed me to discover the music as it progressed without expectations as to format and purpose.

Of course more engagement can only ever be temporary as more experience will lead to learning, understanding and higher level knowledge.  But the experience was great, and an exciting way of discovering more about our musical experience for me.

By the way… the tapas was very good too!  (but didn’t present me with the same challenges!)





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Posted by on July 1, 2016 in Uncategorized


True Professionals

I had an absolutely lovely and totally positive musical experience this Friday which I thought I would share here.

I am sad to say that over my years of working as a music educator and performer I have learnt to limit my expectations of musicians.  I’ve come across lots of ‘Job’s Worths’ in both of my areas of musical work, and I’m often depressed by the seemingly narrow mindedness that can seep into some musicians as they pursue one particular area of musical performance to the disdain of other styles and genres.

Over the past few months I have been putting together a project which is aimed at setting up an ‘inclusive orchestra’.  This hopes to be a musical ensemble that could be open to young musicians of all styles, abilities, and needs.  The project has been sponsored by Surrey Music Hub with support of the BBC.   I have put a lot of thought into how this project could work, the music we will produce and how we can make this accessible to a huge spectrum of young people.


The music the ensemble will be performing is going to be based on a selection from The BBC Ten Pieces,  classical musical performances that the BBC have been highlighting over the past couple of years (in fact its 20 pieces now!).  So the musical inspiration for the day will be classical… but the mode of the performance will be anything but… I’m looking at a workshop model where the young performers will take their inspiration from aspects of the pieces given, but then use these ideas to produce their own music through group composition and improvisation.  Its all very exciting but feels very nerve racking to prepare for as the end results are totally un-predetermined!  All I can do is set up starting points for the musicians and help steer things in what I hope will be a positive direction.

I’m used to this manner of working with my jazz and free improv background, but the team of musicians I will be working with on the day are going to be members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus….  Classical Players at the top of their game, but classical players nonetheless!

So it was with some trepidation that I headed up to Maida Vale studios to meet my team of musical tutors for the very first time.  I had done some preparation for this, but in essence all I had to show were some vague motifs and chord sequences from a short list of music from the Ten Pieces programme.  Things have to be vague because I don’t want to pre-determine what the musicians will end up with!

I have worked with professional performers in the past of educational projects and my experiences have always been slightly bittersweet.  Yes these phenomenal musicians can be truly inspiring, but putting this inspiration into a package that is accessible to a range of children is often tricky.  Good musical performers have often turned out to be less good educators and these events often cause me huge heartache and headache as I work to turn inspirational playing into a real learning experience for the young musicians involved.

The meeting with my musician tutors on Friday was different… I don’t think I have ever had a musical rehearsal with such a ‘can do’ attitude!  I laid out my plans for the day, which I thought might receive some hesitancy but instead there was just a continuous flow of ideas on how we could practically put everything into place.  These were musicians who were able to perform amazingly, but also were totally open minded as to what their performance could or should be.  But coupled with this positive attitude was facility to make things work.  They performed transposing at sight from full scores, playing and singing lines from other instruments, improvising and helping arrange a performance that would link our material all together and provide a starting point to inspire and challenge the young musicians for the day.   With just four musicians, some scores and oodles of positivity we had created arrangements of Shostakovich Symphonies, Bizet Opera, and a beautiful Cello version of Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending.

This is what I would describe as true professionalism.  The ability for a musician to understand the brief, even though it might be outside their comfort zone, and then use all their musical skills and abilities to create a performance to the highest standard.

Maybe it is my mis-informed view of classical musicians that is at fault, expecting to see performers who needed sheet music and exact instructions in order to perform, and with an equally narrow minded attitude as to what would be a successful performance.  I will certainly be more open-minded in the future about these things.  But it iscertainly looking good for this project now!

If you want to know more about The Infinity Orchestra I am sure I will be blogging about it again very soon.  The workshop day is already fully booked, and I’m hoping to create something truly inspirational with our young musicians and the fantastic team of performers from the BBC.

Infinity Orchestra:  June 12th, Tillingbourne School, Surrey.   More info here:


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Posted by on May 22, 2016 in Education


Jammy Jam

I’ve spent the last couple of days getting myself out there again as a jazz player.  It is easy to get yourself stuck in a rut as a musician, find groups and gigs where you are comfortable and stop challenging yourself technically and musically.  I’m making a public statement here that I’m trying to challenge myself at the moment, and am going to push myself and my playing in the future.

So with that in mind, I grabbed my saxophone on Sunday afternoon and headed off to Brighton.  I heard there were a couple of gigs on with some bands that might welcome the odd guest and so i jumped on the train and headed down to the coast.  First up was a gig at The Seven Stars from Harry’s Tricks  I could hear the session was already in progress as I wandered down the sun drenched laines to the pub.  The band were really storming away in their first set with a blend of 20’s style slightly gypsy jazz accompanied by Dimitri with a really melodic trumpet and valve trombone sound.  A friend introduced me at their break and I was up and playing for most of the second set.  Lots of new tunes that I hadn’t heard before, and some unusual standards too.  The band were really accommodating and I felt immediately at home in front of a hugely appreciative (and often bopping) audience.


Next off was a quick walk along the Seafront down the Lion and Lobster to see the marvellous Lawrence Jones and his band in action.  I had heard lots about Lawrence in the past from other musicians, all highly complementary about his encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz and his superb instrumental skills.  However I hadn’t ever met Lawrence in person until Sunday.  What a guy.  He is such a larger than life character both in his gritty stage persona, his intense jazz soloing, an his equally gritty vocal delivery.  I was slightly nervous just tuning up to Lawrence’s gig… he has a reputation for demanding the best out of the musicians around him, and to be honest I haven’t turned up and sat in on a band for years!  But nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I gladly accepted the invitation to come up and join him on a few numbers in the second set.  Lawrence’s band were really blistering and there was some great jazz happening in the pub that night.   His band have been a regular fixture at The Lion and Lobster for years and you can see why with the quality and variety of music Lawrence had put together.  And again some really unusual jazz tunes that I had never heard before!

Sitting in with these bands was a real treat, and I got to have a really worthwhile play at both sessions.  So Monday night I was all set for another outing, and this time headed down to Brighton with the aim of checking out some of the jam sessions that were on.

Again I haven’t played at a jam session for years.  I used to run a great session myself on Green Lanes in London many years ago, and I know there is a real skill in making these evenings work.  Making sure everybody gets a fair play, keeping the house band busy (and paid!) and keeping the egos out of the room as much as possible.   Some jam session can be really competitive, but the music I played yesterday in Brighton was all collaborative and supportive and musical!


First up was the Acid Jazz Jam led by Simon Brewin down at the Latest Music Bar.  This jam was in a great venue, a real music venue with full sound system and monitors for the band.  Simon is just getting this session up and running but it has real potential with an amazing rhythm section, Tom Phelan on keyboards was as ever a true musical star and really kept a variety to the sounds and the tunes being played, (which can be a problem with the funkier sessions!)

I came and joined the band for an atmospheric rendition of Maiden Voyage (which I could barely remember the notes for… must practise…) and an extremely funky version of The Chicken.  It was all good stuff, but the funky, explorative style of the music meant we could move away from the chords and have a bit of freedom.  It was great to play with a band that were really listening and thinking musically!


Next of was a walk across town to Chequers, a really fabulous, tiny pub which has just started hosting guitarist Tony Williams and his A Train Jazz Jam.


Tony has gone through a few venues with this session recently, but I hope that he has found a permanent home at this new pub, as it is a great venue with a really relaxed vibe.  There is barely enough room for the band to be honest (was great moving around to let people get up to the bar!) but that meant you were really up amongst the audience who seemed to be really into the music going on.  Tony had a superb rhythm section on the gig with Alex Eberhart on drums and Andre Fry on bass,  I was amongst friends and joined the band for most of their second set.  Some great tunes, and lovely playing alongside Phillipe Guyard on some double tenor numbers.

And so for the last train home and some bit thoughts and aims for the future…  It is time to get practising.   Playing in new environments has thrown up some tunes that I know I need to work at now.. and some tunes that are too easy a choice, cliched and I need to avoid playing.

i just need a plan to help me juggle all the folk and the jazz sessions now!

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Posted by on July 21, 2015 in Performing


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