Monthly Archives: April 2016

And you may say to yourself… how did I get here?

This week’s blog is going to be a little bit self indulgent – a few people have asked me how I ended up having a career in music, so I thought I’d spend a bit of time trying to remember how I ended up making music for a living. It’s not been the most obvious of routes and it certainly wasn’t the plan from the beginning.

My first musical memory is of being very young and very ill, wrapped up in a blanket, and singing harmonies along to the sound of my mum vacuuming the carpet. I remember the feelings in my head as I sang, and played around with different notes, seeing which felt nicest when sung along to the mechanical drones. My second musical memory is of a big kid picking on me for singing too loud in the school choir at Primary school – I’d always enjoyed singing up until that point, but suddenly I became very conscious of my voice, and this one comment damaged my confidence so badly that I became reluctant to sing alone for many years after.

Secondary school was a disaster for me musically – this was a long time before equality and diversity and Every Child Matters, and our teachers seemed to regularly leave less able students behind in order to focus on the naturally talented members of the class. And, so, after a few unsuccessful experiments with a recorder and a violin, I was classified as Not Musical, a state that could only have been remedied by a combination of costly private lessons and enthusiasm, both of which I couldn’t afford at that point.

Around this time I became an avid heavy metal fan, initially drawn in by the artwork of bands like Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Led Zeppelin and so on, before encountering Guns N Roses – apologies to any fans reading this, but I found Appetite for Destruction so repellent with its misogynistic lyrics and whiny vocals that I sold all of my metal records and disappeared down an electronic music rabbit-hole. For me this was the gateway to incredible new soundscapes and unexplored worlds, some of which were musically within my grasp through the magical powers of the holy trinity of synthesis, sequencing and sampling.

When I was doing my A-levels, we had a change of staff in the music department, and a more forward-looking music teacher called Mr Yarnley changed my life forever. He updated the school music room with a synthesiser and 4-track recorder, declared that he didn’t have time to learn how to use it and by some twist of fate, give me the keys to the music room to experiment with the equipment during private study sessions. I balanced my academic studies with an art A-level and as much music as I could fit in the gaps around the edges, learning how to put tracks together piece by meticulous piece, compensating for a lack of music theory with remorseless trial and error. These early experiments even got an opportunity to take to the stage, early synth-pop experiments sticking out awkwardly in the end of term rock concerts.

Electronic music became my hobby whilst I went through art college for 4 years, firstly in Cheltenham and then in St Albans. I spent all my money on music equipment and records. My first student grant (those were the days) went on my first drum machine, my second got spent on my first sampler, and the money from my job was spent on cheap food and gig tickets. My college course was in modelmaking – something I wasn’t particularly good at, but which gave me a wide set of problem-solving and business skills. With some friends we also staged a hostile takeover of the Students Union, and we started to run events alongside scraping a pass on the course. Although I was a barely adequate modelmaker, I was able to use computers to enhance and manipulate my 3D creations, and in my final year I was able to combine this with early experiments in computer programming, installations and composing film soundtracks. By the end of the course I knew I had no future as a modelmaker and knew that music was what fired my motor.

1997_Live_David-Birch_06-803x1024After the inevitable freefall from college graduate into dead-end job, I ended up working in music retail whilst starting to form my first serious band, The Chaos Engine. We were the band with no drummer at a time when grunge was big, but our stripped-down and portable stage set-up, coupled with our love of filling the stage with projections, smoke and strobes, meant that we got a lot of gigs and played all over the country. I always maintain that we didn’t necessarily get gigs because we were a great band as much as the fact that we were incredibly efficient, well organised and easy to work with. Most of my free time was taken up booking gigs, promoting, running our little fan club and writing & recording music at home.

The usual musical route of sending out demos to record labels and getting rejection letters was followed before we decided to self-finance our own CD – this wasn’t common at the time but thanks to some great T-shirt designs and paying gigs, we’d managed to save up enough money to give it a go. Suddenly, people started to take the band seriously, and because of my contacts in the record store, we were able to get the album on the computer system and shipped out to other stores. Accidentally, I was running a record label.

ChildrenObstinateWasp Factory Recordings escapeferocitywas a great idea in principle – it was more like a co-operative than a traditional label might be, and we got to sign and work with many of the bands that we had enjoyed gigging with in the earlier years. We released more than 20 CDs around the world, took artists to play festivals in Europe, North America and Australia, did deals with Microsoft to provide music for video games, won awards, had brilliant adventures, and made hardly any money at all. Whilst trying to control this juggernaut, I also worked at a local arts centre called The Axiom, which is where I learned how to be a sound and lighting engineer, DJ and events manager.

Somewhere in amongst all of this I met George Moorey, who asked me to do some music workshops for a project he was running called Wired Music. From this small seed, I started to get involved in teaching and mentoring young people in bands, briefly running the recording studio at Whaddon Youth Arts Centre and providing music sessions for young offenders and excluded school children. Of all the work I’d done to date, this some of was the most rewarding so far. When the funding for that project ran out, I decided to look for other work, and as luck would have it, I managed to get a job running a project called In Tune for Stroud College. Over 18 months, we worked with 150 hard to reach students trying to re-engage them in education through a programme of music, film-making, poetry, DJing, animation and anything else that would catch their imagination. It was here that I really began to understand the positive effect that music could have, how it could literally transform people and energise them like nothing else. It helped people to communicate and express themselves when everything else had failed, and I realised that it had done the same for me throughout my life.

comfort-zoneEver since then I’ve been working to try and provide these opportunities for people of all ages and abilities. I’ve started to build my own music interfaces to allow people with limited mobility to access music making, and to modify existing instruments to make them more accessible. I think back to my experiences of music in the past, and of all the barriers that were put in my way, and use this experience to try and help people overcome whatever barriers they face. In general, we have moved towards being a more egalitarian society since I struggled with a recorder in the 80’s, but in some regards, music education has failed to keep pace with these developments, and still judges musical accomplishment by a set of criteria that haven’t changed in 50 years. Similarly, the music industry has struggled with change and its reluctance to adapt to a digital age has stunted its growth of late. It’s time to move bravely into the future and maybe leave the recorders behind for a while.

Push the button

It’s been a busy week this week – I added another job to the stack and started the first Gamelan session with Jonathan Roberts. We had a good group of young people at the first session and they gave me some good ideas on how they would like to augment the Gamelan and the kind of music they’d like to try and play. As is often the case with these kinds of sessions, I came away with a head full of ideas about ways that we could add music and technology to the conventional instruments and create something unique.

Each job or workshop I do requires a different set-up so that I’m using equipment that specific person or group can interact with. There’s a core of equipment that stays mostly the same as I mentioned in a previous blog but with different instruments and tech added to it, depending on the abilities of the group. When I’m starting a new workshop, I’ll consider all the options and try to work out which will work best – and since I’ve been collecting unusual instruments for about 20 years, there’s a fair few to choose from. Other factors will come into play, such as the venue, how much time there is to set up, and on occasion environmental factors (some interfaces are based on light and doing workshops outside can be a whole other challenge).

LaunchpadAt Monday’s session, I did a bit of show and tell and demonstrated some equipment to help the musicians select some approaches for the Gamelan session. One of the young people pointed to one of my pieces of kit – a Launchpad, covered in a grid of 8×8 buttons – and asked what it did. This caught me off-guard a bit; the Launchpad can be anything, and it can easily act as a drum machine, keyboard or mixer, but it’s not actually anything without the computer. This is one of the issues with using computers, tablets and other technology for music – because they can do almost anything, it’s hard for whoever is using them to know what they are doing at any given time. A button can do anything from playing Ode To Joy to activating the self destruct, after all…

The good thing about this flexibility is the ability to continually modify the equipment. The flip-side of this however is that the continual changes prevent the building of the muscle memory that one gets from practicing with an instrument in order to develop musical technique. The flexibility can reduce the barriers to access to music, but the key is not to entirely remove them and ensure that within the workshop or performance there is a degree of musical challenge. This will be different for everyone, and it’s where one to one sessions have an advantage as it it’s easier to assess current skill and prescribe methods for development. Pushing a button can be a massive achievement for some people.


Nice day at the office

I have been really pleased with how well this blog has been received so far – thanks to everyone who has given me such positive feedback, it’s really appreciated. A couple of people asked if I had any video of my sessions; this can be tricky due to issues around client confidentiality and child protection. However, I did a great session this week, and managed to get a couple of good clips – and was honoured that the mum of the person I worked with gave me permission to upload them. I couldn’t wait until Sunday to share them with you so here they are!

 



The haircut helps

chaos_donutshot_175x175My haircut – a red double Mohican for those who’ve not met me yet – is literally what was left over after I cut my dreadlocks off in about 2004. This was around the same time as I made my peace with the fact that my record label wasn’t earning me a living and took on my first full-time teaching gig.

Almost exactly 10 years ago, I started work on my first full time music project called In Tune, an outreach project working with excluded children and those with behavioural issues. This was in a time before the economic crash – the budget to run it was more generous than anything I’ve run since, and the freedom to manage it however I wanted was exciting and terrifying in equal measure. With the support of an excellent, trusting boss and a phenomenally accomplished technician, we went into a a dozen schools & pupil referral units, working with students that other teachers were struggling to engage.

I remember turning up to my first school in a suit with my hair flattened into as close to a normal haircut as I could managed – something I’d only ever done previously for funerals and job interviews. I felt self-conscious for the first 2 weeks of teaching. In the third week, one of the students asked me if I ‘always looked like that’. I explained that, no, normally I had spiky hair and wore combats and a hoodie. When he asked me why I wasn’t always dressed like that, I didn’t have a good answer for him, so I agreed that if we got all the work together for the end show, I would come into the school with my hair how it normally looked.

The day of the show, I remember the mood being very different when I arrived with the Mohican in full effect. The students thought it was fantastic – they didn’t see me as much as an authority figure or a teacher, more like an artist, a mentor, or just a helper. Well, this is interesting, I thought…

The In Tune project was excellent experience for me, as we went into schools for 3 weeks at a time, working intensively with the same group of students, so I had an incredible opportunity to put together a programme of study and continually revise and improve it as we went from one school to another. That refinement included my demeanour and personality in the classroom too. First, the suit went – suits are designed for people who don’t do any manual labour, and the teaching I was doing involved lots of running around making films, playing instruments, choreographing dances, basically anything to reengage disinterested students. Then the Mohican started to make a permanent appearance, so right from the beginning, the students I was working with realised I wasn’t the same as the other teachers they’d worked with. I was aware that this didn’t always go down well with the faculty staff, but I wasn’t there for them, I was there for the students they’d given up on.

And what a wide range of students they were… I had some students with profound emotional issues, and I had some incredibly sweet kids who had just fallen foul of the school system and found themselves labelled as being troublemakers. I had a knife pulled on me during a lesson observation, and I worked closely with a student who had been given a months’ detention for dyeing his hair black. The one unifying factor was that the less I acted like a school teacher, the less they acted like naughty school children.

I’m not being down on teachers here – they’re not given a great deal of choice when it comes to deciding how they deliver their lessons, and that’s certainly not something that has got any better over the last 10 years. Some children just don’t get on well at school for a variety of reasons, and the fact of the matter is that there is so little choice for students if the default doesn’t fit. Normally what happens is that a student gets in so much trouble they’re moved somewhere else, and only then does the system consider changing.

gamelan-poster-A4_1We were able to do great work with In Tune by creating these little bubbles of alternative provision within mainstream education, tiny temporary autonomous zones that allowed us to focus on what the students wanted to do and build outwards from there. I went on to do my postgraduate research on these issues, and it’s been a cornerstone of how I teach ever since. The Mohican helps, because it’s a demonstration that you don’t have to follow rules to become successful, and it sure helps people remember who I am more than a suit and tie.

Whilst I have your attention, a final reminder that tomorrow I’m starting my collaboration with Jonathan Roberts to create an augmented Gamelan orchestra – if you are aged between 15-25 or know someone who is, drop an email to learning@cheltenhamtrust.org.uk and we’ll see you at the Cheltenham Pump Rooms – and to whet your appetite, here’s a video of the kind of instruments we’ll get a chance to play with!


Until next week,

Lee, 10/4/16

The right tool for the job is sometimes a banana

As part of my ongoing campaign to fill my life with as much awesome work as possible, I have taken on some one-to-one music therapy style sessions with a young man who has cerebral palsy. This is the first time I’ve done a session that isn’t group work, and it’s really interesting to compare the two. One of the key advantages is that I can spend a lot more time developing the equipment and techniques that work best with his abilities, trying out new approaches, and observing closely what works best, and what he enjoys most.

IMG_2323For the young man in question – let’s call him Dee – fine motor skills aren’t currently possible but he has some movement in his arms and hands, and can vocalise, but both of these things take a significant amount of effort on his part. Because of my obsession with collecting and building unconventional instruments (which I’ll discuss in another blog), I’ve got a huge range of equipment to select from for music workshops, which for the technically curious I’ll list here – non technical folks can skip the rest of this paragraph. I use a laptop running Ableton Live and a multi-input soundcard (Tascam US-1641) instead of a mixer, using Live to mix the elements. I have an Akai MIDI controller keyboard, microphone, open-tuned guitar and Novation Launchpad, so I can jam on any instrument, or pass instruments to people I’m working with and grab loops to build songs. Live is also programmed with some drum loops and sound effects dependent on the group I’m working with. In addition to this, I add other input devices depending on the session, anything from Soundbeam to iPad to theremin to hand-made bits of equipment or reprogrammed video game controllers.

Right, non-technical folks back with me? Good – although I’m afraid I’m going to talk a bit more tech. So, with Dee, we had noticed some excellent early work with the Soundbeam – a device that’s like a keyboard but controlled by an ultrasonic sensor, and is triggered by any movement in front of it. Dee doesn’t have the motor skills to hit a key on a regular music keyboard, but by concentrating hard, he was able to interact with the Soundbeam and play along with the guitar I was playing. In this week’s session, I decided to also bring the Ototo gadget that I’d previously demoed in Forest High School. Again, I attached these to bananas, and the equipment needed a few modifications to deal with the slightly rougher play in the session, but once everything was firmly attached, Dee had a great time triggering a wide range of sounds from dogs barking to bass and piano sounds along with beats and accompaniment I provided.

All of this is great – there’s not a single session I deliver like this, where the focus is on finding out what people can do and building on it, that I don’t enjoy. If the enjoyment of the people was the only metric by which those working in community music were judged, everything would be peachy. But it isn’t. A great deal of formal music, including music lessons in school, is obsessed with grading music performances, and progression through those grades. The fun of playing is regularly replaced with rote learning and exercises. One of the most joyous subjects can end up ground down to repetitive exercises. This was certainly my experience in my music lessons when I moved from Primary to Secondary school; my love of singing was quashed by an inability to read music and a lack of aptitude on recorder. I was labelled as Not Musical, humiliated and abandoned by the school system.

This is not uncommon, and I have spoken to literally hundreds of young people who share this experience – it’s almost as if removing the simple pleasure from music was the purpose of the process. Luckily for me, I am stubborn and contrary, and although I never gained the skills to be a virtuoso player or learned to read music, I used technology and bloody-mindedness to find my own ways to play and perform. Not everyone has the resilience to bounce back like I managed to, and I meet altogether too many people who consider themselves not musical, or say they can’t sing or play. And it saddens me that we allow students to leave education believing that they have no aptitude for the arts, and as I mentioned in my blog last week, I think it can lead to a lack of creative thinking that prevents people from fulfilling their potential in later life.

Play – by which I mean the act of enjoying something without judgement or grading – is extremely important in behavioural and emotional development. I have read a couple of really interesting articles about this recently – the first, by Peter Gray PhD. discusses how an absence of play can lead to an absence of personal control and ultimately depression in children:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201001/the-decline-play-and-rise-in-childrens-mental-disorders

The other I recalled was from a couple of years back, called ‘The Overprotected Child’ by Hanna Rosin, which discusses what we may have lost by preventing children to play on their own and manage their own risks and safety:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/04/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/

For some of the sessions I run, I try to invoke some of this spirit of the adventure playground for music. Sometimes I’ll lay out a table of instruments and give no instructions on how to use them, allowing those taking part to find out how things work on their own. This can often result in a terrible racket, microphones and guitars feeding back, synthesisers squealing, and support workers looking on in horror. But how often do we get an opportunity to go wild and make as much noise as we possibly can in the world today? Noise and play go hand in hand. It’s good to go bananas every now and again – sometimes literally.