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Category Archives: Teaching

Back in the saddle

Been a while since my last post.. was a good Xmas but I really need to find time and energy to write these blog posts every week… new years resolution coming on……  (whiskey by the fire every weekend with laptop on my knee… thats got to be the way….)

Anyhow todays blog is about teaching… I haven’t been doing much of it recently.  Even though I advise on teaching in schools as part of my job, other work has taken over and I haven’t been doing any musical teaching for the past six months.  But previous to that my teaching has all been based in schools for many years.

But teaching is a good thing…. so I have been trying to address this and today I started teaching my first private pupil for 6 years.

First off… part of the reason I started to stop teaching privately at home is that (anybody who knows me will vouch for this!) my house can be a bit of “chaotic’ at times.  So part of the ritual of teaching pupils at home is spending an hour or so before the pupil arrive tidying up, hovering, moving muddy bikes from my studio etc… I am not sure how the economics of this will work out…  But it is good to have a reason to sort things out… My music room has not looked so sparklingly lovely for a long time!

Today my new pupil was an adult learner.  She came along full of enthusiasm and keen to learn.  A library of new tutor books under her arm and a brand new saxophone that had been a christmas present at the ready.

A lot of the teaching I have done in the recent past has been in schools, in groups and in short compact lessons. The luxury of having a single pupil for a whole half hour is something I haven’t been used to for a while.  The lesson raced past, but we could cover so much ground with time, in a good space with no distractions around, and no pressure from the next pupils waiting at the door, (or me worrying that they weren’t ready at the door)

My new pupil did really well, she got the a really good tone, and got her fingerings without too much effort.  We looked at some basic notated music, and we even looked at some articulation, which was all in place ready for her to work at before the next session.   A model lesson!

I was at home, I was relaxed, I had not time pressures.  I had a pupil who was keen and had the right equipment.  I had coffee on tap.  I had a good musical space with all the equipment and resources I needed around me.  It was bound to be a good lesson.  But in a way it was a bit easy…  Having been away from private teaching for so long I can see the benefits and the draw as a way of earning a living.  But what about inclusion versus elitism.

I have blogged about Patrick Costello and his Dad who have passed on to me so much of their musical learning recently.  And I do feel a need to pass on the favours on in some way.  However having thought about I can’t think of a good way to offer free lessons to any takers without somehow demeaning what I do (people value things by what they cost…) but also being faintly suspicious to those who might be interested but don’t know me.

However if you happen to read this and you are interested give me a shout and I will happily give you a lesson (over Skype or here in Sussex) for free.   Just let me know and we will see what happens!

Alex

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Posted by on January 11, 2015 in Education, Teaching

 

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Today I Sang An Opera

I love the multitude of music that my life leads me to.  So in total contrast to my normal jazz, and folky music, earlier this week as part of my work through Surrey Arts I sang through a newly commissioned opera.

Now I have to say I’m not normally an opera person. I’ve played in orchestras accompanying opera in the past and in my youth was involved in some choral work but I’ve never actually sung in a real life opera before.  I am not ashamed to admit I do have a bit of a soft spot for some famous classical opera and I’m not one to miss an opportunity to see some Mozart or Verdi if it comes up.  Britten’s Peter Grimes has to be one of my all time favourite pieces of classical music.

So I was very keen when invited to spend the afternoon away from the office for a sing through of the freshly composed piece.  This work has been commissioned by Surrey Music Hub for the festivities surrounding the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta.  (Which happened at Runnymede, Surrey in case you don’t you know!)

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The opera is a fantastically ambitious project that promises to involve around 1000 young people both singing and dancing, for a performance at the Royal Albert Hall this summer.  The music was composed with Surrey’s young people in workshops in schools and has been composed by Hannah Conway with lyrics by Richard Stilgoe.

So what is it like singing through an opera:  Well we did have professional help present in the room, with the directors taking on lead parts, and many in our group were music educators and singers, so we really weren’t starting from scratch.  That being said though about half of us weren’t really singers, and I certainly have no recent experience of sight singing multipart choral music.   However once we got going the music all started coming together and we all joined in, taking parts as was needed, and started making quite a glorious sound.  It was really interesting for me trying to follow a part of written music and fumbling to find the harmonies. All the singing I have been doing recently has been worked out aurally and often I find myself sliding around vocally trying to find correct harmonies by ear. Having the notation was different but did make things easy.  I guess I have enough musical training to be able to see the pitches and intervals from the score, although several times I was listening around the group searching for other voices doing my part to give me confidence in what I was doing.

The title of the Opera is The Freedom Game, and it is themed around a child and his family playing a game with a Mephistoheles type ‘dictator’ figure to win back freedoms for the world, journeying through history and discovering rights that have been enshrined in law through the ages. The format really works, and has been clearly well thought through with roles emerging for the massed choirs and more specialised experienced singers and their professional help.

Musically I think the opera is really clever.  It builds up from some quite challenging atonal and polyrhythmic ideas, but set in a way that make singing actually quite easy.  (super important for the children who will be singing the work).  However interweaved into the complex music are themes reminiscent of famous english folk songs and other world music, making the content actually very approachable and easy to appreciate.  The music worked cleverly from dissonance and complexity to clear vocal diatonic harmonies musically showing the direction of the theme.

I’m really excited to be involved in the production of this massive project and really looking forward to seeing the final results. I know when I performed as a child at the Royal Albert Hall it was a fantastic experience and I am sure it will be the same for the young performers who are involved in this production.

So what next?

Well I will certainly be involved more in this production so will be reporting back here soon on that, but this has left me feeling motivated… Perhaps it is time to join a choir?

 

 
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Posted by on December 4, 2014 in Education, Teaching

 

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Lessons In Music

I had my first music lesson for almost 20 years at the weekend, courtesy of the great folks at http://www.dailyfrail.com. Pat (A.K.A Dear Old Dad) met up with me via Skype for a slot we had arranged earlier in the week and we had a good chat, and worked through some tunes. Pat was very kind and helpful, offering me some really excellent nuggets of advice. He had very thoughtfully already checked out my playing on some of my YouTube clips and so was prepared with some ideas that would be useful for me.

Not having a lesson for 20 years is not entirely true… I guess as musicians we are constantly learning from those around us. Every gig or rehearsal is a lesson in some way or another and I guess part of graduating to becoming a musician is your formal learning transforms into continual informal learning through experience.

Spending the time with Pat at the weekend made me consider how we learn, and how we teach. Having taught music for many years now, both in the classroom and in private instrumental lessons, I have learnt how to overcome musical problems and how to impart this to others. I know how to work out exercises to overcome technical difficulties. Unless there is some technique I don’t actually understand, or physically am not capable of, then issues are simply a matter of time and determination to overcome. (Some things take more time and energy than others though…) For pupils who have been learning for some time lessons are much more about coaching and encouraging. The pupils know inside what they need to do, they just need somebody to push them to do it! Expression and performance is a matter of experience. Go and see performers play, and watch what they do, listen to recordings, analyse, transcribe and learn. You just need a willingness to self analyse, and determination to improve.

So what is the point of the teacher?

I am very glad I met with Pat. Having seen him many times in his videos it was so nice to chat and play alongside him in real time. It was wonderful that he could give me confidence in what I was currently doing, and what I needed to work at. I kind of knew these things, but I feel better about what I am doing having talked it through with another person. The lesson did help me and I have improved because of it.

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So what next?

Well Pat has suggested we hook up for a ‘Skype jam’ at some point, which sounds great, not sure if i trust the laggy internet for this yet, but it would be a great thing to do, jamming with another guy thousands of miles away sounds like a great experience, so I may have to take him up on this!

Pat (and son Patrick) are offering all their knowledge for free through their Daily Frail videos, as well as currently setting up lessons via Skype to those that ask for it. (Please check out their website at http://www.dailyfrail.com ) I trying to work out how I can pass on my musical skills in a similar fashion. Being able to teach in order to share positive experience sounds like such a marvellous ideal, but how could I do so in my community? I need to work past my experience that my musical skills are a commodity that have to be sold, to a place where they are something I can share with others.

I haven’t got a plan yet… but I’m working on it….  Anybody need a music lesson in Sussex?

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2014 in Education, Teaching

 

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Learning and Teaching

A new day job this year puts both teaching and learning in the frame for what I do.  Both have to work together and this seems to be happening constantly in my musical life at the moment.

Over the past year or so I’ve been thoroughly inspired by frailing banjo guru Patrick Costello, who has, without even meeting this delightful fellow, taught me as much about music as lessons at the most established music conservatoires in this country.

 

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Patrick is an inspiration both because of his innate musical talent and his ability to frame concepts with encouragement and friendliness that makes him a truly great teacher. However I am also inspired by his attitude to what learning is, and what music is as a cultural activity and concept.

Often I see and hear so called professional musicians and musical teachers complaining about the woes of their profession and the economics of their life earning their living from their trade. Comparisons to the rates of plumbers seem the norm, as do the complaints of non-professionals stealing their gigs.

I won’t be popular with my compatriots for saying this, but i believe that music is higher than this. If you are a true musician then you play because you love it. You perform and practise because it is something you love and wish to excel at. You want to share your performances with others, preferably lots of them! But dilemmas always arise over how this can make your living.

In my mind at least, once upon a time communities were made of people who all worked together. Some had trades and some of these might have been musicians. But being a musician is more than a trade, it is being part of your community. Without a community and an audience a musician is nothing. Performing requires and audient, it is a two way process with the performer as reliant on their response as the listener is on the musical experience.

This leads me to think of the current situation of professional musicians. Constant complaints about lack of pay for gigs, and the demise of the profession leave me cold. I play music because I love it. I can practise (occasionally) for hours each day. I don’t do this because I see a pay cheque for it coming. I do this because music is part of my being and something that I strive to improve myself at. I don’t do this because I see it as a loss-leader with pay as the ultimate goal.

If you want to earn money take up a profession that will give you your salty salary. If you want to be a musician then just do so, and don’t think that the world owes you a living, no matter how expensive your instruments were, or how many degrees you have.

This brings me back to Patrick Costello, who, despite being a thoroughly amazing musician and inspirational person generally, also sees music as a thing you do, rather than a profession. If you want a lesson with him (wherever you live in the world) you are invited just to ask him! (Skype is wonderful thing!). From Patrick’s perspective this is so that learning and sharing music isn’t about financial ties. It is something you need to do, if you want to do it, and all should be free and able to sit at that table. Patrick does not charge for his lessons.

I haven’t had a lesson from Patrick yet. Despite (or because of) being a teacher for many years I am still nervous about asking for help and opening myself up to learning in that way… But I have been told to man up already by the banjomeister himself.. so it may just be a matter of time before I report back here on progress being made

If you want to find out more about what Patrick does you can find him at www.dailyfrail.com

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2014 in Education, Teaching, Uncategorized

 

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Inspiring Young Musicians

Inspiring Young Musicians

Well last week was rather manic!

Over the past couple of years I have set up concerts in partnership with local schools featuring the wind band I conduct: SESAW (South East Surrey Area Wind band) and last week we put together 2 huge days of music for the local area.  4 bands, 8 schools and about 450 children were involved in the events!

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When I took over the band it was really struggling with numbers of players, so I started working with the local schools, setting up joint concerts, trying to get more children to know about the band and hopefully inspire others to start taking up instruments too. Through doing this I set up some larger scale concerts at the Harlequin Theatre in Redhill. The first year we managed to join up three primary schools with a very musical secondary school and my bands. In the second year we aimed higher, putting the event on over 2 nights and doubled the numbers involved. This year we moved to an even bigger theatre, trying to include even more children over two nights.

It took a lot of organising but these events are really worth while. The highlight of each evening is the joint item where we get all the children on stage performing and singing together. Choosing the right material for this is the key, previous years we’ve gone with Abba and Stevie Wonder Medleys, and this year a combo of some (surprisingly?) almost current pop with  Moves Like Jagger, Party Rock Anthem and Have a Good Time.

The show this year was great in lots of ways, but particularly because we got a few schools involved who are normally really hard to get to join in with events such as these.  One of the highlights was seeing other music teachers taking the lead and taking groups of schools off to work together during rehearsals.

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Overall a fantastic event that has left me feeling more motivated than ever to get young children involved in music from as early an age as possible.


 

 

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2014 in Gigs, Teaching

 

Practising is cheating

After my dear friend Simon D’Souza was first diagnosed with cancer he was playing and composing with more vigour than ever.  I did have a chat with him about not wasting time and making every moment count.

Around the time Simon was first diagnosed he produced these two videos of his work and practice at a Joshua Redman transcription.  I hadn’t seen these films until recently but I had heard Simon working through the transcription at rehearsals and we talked about some of the interesting harmonies that Joshua had put into this solo.

I know that Simon motivated many people with their playing and music and he has now done so with me.  My saxophone practice has been laying low for some time now… (children, busy at work, and just plain not enthused in working at my sax skills…) In fact one of my little quips that I will often come out with in conversation would be …’so and so is really good’… ‘ yes but he practises.. and we all know that is cheating!’  I saw Simon’s videos of him performing the Redman solo and I set myself the challenge that I should be able to do this too. Not in a competitive way, just that I should be making each moment count and trying to push myself to be as good as possible at the instruments I play, not be content to just be ‘good enough’.

Have a look at Simons videos below.  His talk about how he has approached the solo is really interesting and it turns out to be very similar to how I’m working at it.

Watch this space for my own version of this in about a months time!

 

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2014 in Teaching, Uncategorized

 

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Young Musicians

Sometimes I think I love my work!  Well in fact often I love my work!!

Today was glorious both in term so of the sunshine, but also the music.  Alison Butler at Royal Alexandra & Albert School had set up a great event, inviting children from schools within our local music network to come at perform together as a huge orchestra.  We invited young children who were near beginners hoping to give them the great experience of playing in a large ensemble, something they would not normally be able to do.

Alison’s impeccable organisation skills were certainly on show as the day ran like clockwork.  Also I had the honour of being able to conduct the mass orchestra piece.  I had worked up an arrangement of ‘Happy’ and the kids seemed to really enjoy it.  At first there was some minor panic on my part as I thought it might turn out to be too difficult to bring together in our 30 min slot, but it all turned out well with some really focussed work from the students.

I’m really hoping this will turn out to be a regular event with our local schools… fingers crossed.

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Posted by on June 10, 2014 in Teaching

 

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