Musings on musicianship

John Moline playing at the Old Ford in North Camp

John Moline playing at the Old Ford in North Camp

Kids used to learn by rote. It went out of fashion. It now seems to be coming back as kids are trained to perform under continuous testing.

We have an education system where kids leave school uneducated, lacking any culture, the ability to read or write or count. They cannot even communicate. They are unemployable and destined for a life unemployed. The dirty jobs are done by Filipinos, skilled jobs by Poles. The height of their aspiration is a pair of Nike trainers on their feet, as we saw with the riots last summer. [see Wasted Youth]

In music this rote learning never went away. Lean how to play, then perform a set piece.

Want a career in music? What does that mean?

I used to see a group play in a hotel. There used to be three of them, then it was two. Every night the same. People used to joke they could set their watch by what they were playing. There was no enthusiasm. They were going through the motions. They looked bored stiff. They could have been automatons. Maybe they were.

One night, maybe approaching midnight, I thought, who is that playing, they are quite good. To my surprise it was the guys who had been playing during the evening. To my surprise they could play.

They then left the hotel. One afternoon I was walking along the beach. I heard some good music. I walked further on and found it was the guys who used to play in the hotel, playing outside a beach-side restaurant. Playing with enthusiasm.

It is thought it takes around 10,000 hours to become proficient.

Let us assume I write one hour every day. Let us assume 1,000 hours to become proficient.

In a year I am a third of the way. In three years I am there.

But 10,000 hours, that is 30 years!

I write three hours a day. That brings it down to 10 years.

Write ten hours a day. Now down to three years. But ten hours a day, that is a lot of hours.

OK, let us try five hours. Manageable. Now six years. Not too bad.

The Beatles changed the face of music. Paul McCartney, as we saw with the Diamond Jubilee Concert, is still a great rock n roller.

The Beatles were not an overnight success. They played the clubs. They did not play the same old number night after night. If they had they would have been bored, the club empty and they out of a job. It is estimated they played more than 10,000 hours before their first hit.

In Hamburg they were playing eight hours a night for seven days a week! When you play for this length of time, you do not just churn out the same old numbers like clockwork puppets, as I have seen performers in hotels who you could set your watch by depending upon what they are playing, you improvise, you have a vast repertoire.

The Beatles put in 106 nights, five hours or more per night on their first tour in Hamburg, on their second trip 92 nights, their third trip 48 nights, plus two more Hamburg gigs. In total 270 nights in two and a half years. By the time of their first chart success in 1964, they had performed an estimated 1200 times, something most performers do not achieve in their entire career.

Paul McCartney still likes to takes to the road and considers himself to be a rock n roll performer. His classic performance some years back in Moscow live in Red Square.

Thus the ability to play is important, practice improves that ability.

By all means pick up a guitar and learnt to play a favourite piece. But then play around with it.

Jimi Hendrix did not get to where he was by playing set musical pieces, by sounding like everyone else.

If you are in an orchestra, not everyone gets to play like Hendrix. But no two performances are the same, no two conductors interpret a piece in the same way.

Marks on sheet music are waiting to be turned into music.

Music is the shaping of sound.

That is what Imogen Heap does. Listen to her improvisation on a piano for Earth Hour.

It is what Kimbra does when she loops her vocals, similarly with Steve Lawson doing amazing things looping a bass, or Zoe Keating with a cello.

Writers need a vocabulary. What they do not need is being told how to write. I can always tell when they are the product of a writing school, their writing is wooden, encased in a straitjacket.

Without a vocabulary, you cannot express what you wish to say, but you have to have something to say, a story that needs to get out.

Bland hype will sell to people who do not like music. On the other hand there are people who are technically proficient but their music lacks soul.

Watch someone pick up a guitar. They do not repeat a guitar lesson, they coax a sound out of it. They do it without thinking

My grandfather was a musician. He could not sit still. He would be tapping out a rhythm.

I have never been a fan of Gary Barlow. Someone with zilch talent in a pathetic boy band. That was until I saw him search the world for musical talent. He was a model of humility before some of the musicians he met. Girls singing in a school, drummers who made music out of what they found on a gigantic rubbish dump.

Few people make money out of music. It is a myth peddled by crap TV programmes like X Factor, that dangle record contracts and mega-stardom before gullible idiots. It is a myth peddled by music colleges and courses who want bums on seats. A cheap con trick that too many fall for.

Lady Gaga, Jessie J, Amy Winehouse, the originals are bad enough, why would anyone wish to debase themselves to imitate them? Walk past the bars in Protaras full of drunk English and when it is not karaoke it will be an awful clone act. One bar had posted up, X Factor finalist! Assuming they have some talent as performers, then by all means do covers, but make them your own.

There is a lovely album by Lobelia called Beautifully Undone, covers she makes her own.

A day job as a musician may pay, but you may not enjoy it. You may be better off working in a bookshop as the day job and playing the music you love at night.

Charles Ives had a day job as an insurance broker. His night job was writing music.

Learn to play music because it is a fun thing to do, not because it will give you a career. If you do it for the latter, you will end up bitter and disappointed.

In the High Street in Guildford, I often find a guy called Neil playing. He is actually quite good. I doubt he earns much money doing this, but he does it because he enjoys it. Sit in the street and talk to him, as I often have, and you will learn he has his own band and he will tell you where and when they are next playing.

Next to North Camp Station, on the Reading-Guildford line, is the Old Ford. Turn up Tuesday night and you will find a group of musicians under the name Jon’s Jam playing into the early hours of the morning. They just turn up and play. And they are good.

An absolute must listen to is the ramblings of Steve Lawson and Andrew Dubber on the future of musicianship. I would embed their talk, but have yet to figure out how.

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