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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


The X Factor Rant

Vocalist Megan is recovering after surgery on her vocal chords but she has found a new voice in her blog…. Please check it out!

The Brighton Guide

This was meant to be a nice post about recognition coming from within or something but its turned into a rant about The X Factor. Recognition tomorrow.

The ‘Dream, Believe, Achieve’ line has been a thorn in my side I only consciously noticed when my voice problem forced me to slow down and look. A culture that sells a hyper-ambitious mindset as the only healthy one coupled with a financial crisis and changing attitudes to performing musicians has made it very easy for any artist to feel lost in our time.

It doesn’t help that perceptions of what this work entails have become skewed from the perspective of both audience and budding artist to a point of derangement, shows like The X Factor push hard work on the back burner and create this myth that simply ‘having what it takes’ to ‘make it’ will grant you the ‘chance’ to perform…

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Posted by on December 11, 2014 in Uncategorized


A letter to Nicky Morgan

Great reply to Nicky Morgan

The Bell Jar: Jo Bell's blog

Here’s what our education secretary said recently at a conference to promote science and technology learning. Here’s my reply.

Dear Ms Morgan –

I left school in 1986. I did two humanities degrees. Jobs, as you may recall, were not thick on the ground. I did a business course first, not because I wanted to but because, oddly enough, I didn’t know what else to do. I thought it would give me a solid, useful career in which I could contribute to the national economy and make my father happy.

Then I came to my senses. I ran away from the business course, which made me want to kill myself and a number of other people, and did two humanities degrees. I spent eighteen happy, poorly-paid years in archaeology. My specialist field was – as it happens – the archaeology of industry, and particularly of mining, which was so vital…

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Posted by on November 15, 2014 in Uncategorized


Way Down In The Hole

It has been a manic week of music activity so far.  4 videos made so far, which I’ll be posting up on here as I get them finished, and 2 tracks started in the studio.. oh and new material to be learnt for gig on Friday, promoting the Straight No Chaser gig Sunday and sorting Count Basie charts for the November Atomic Mr Basie night.

Anyhow first video finished and up on the Tube…  Love this song and I think Jacqui sings it amazingly well.  We managed to get this done on monday evening after a manic day in the office.  A nice fire and a nice bit of music made a great end to the day.  Hope you enjoy!




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Posted by on October 29, 2014 in Uncategorized


Big Yellow Taxi

Manage to find enough time this morning with Jacqui Sampson to do this recording before I dropped her off for her lunchtime Jazz gig.  Banjo for breakfast… what could be better!

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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in Uncategorized


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.


Savannah & Patrick


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


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


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