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.

Gig Culture, Working and Not Working

My blog is unapologetically a couple of days late this week as I decided to take some time out over Easter to recharge my batteries, eat Darth Vader Easter eggs and play through the Portal series with my lovely wife. But, as ever, this rest cycle still had a couple of processes running in the background, and got me thinking about the nature of work, especially of freelancing vs. salaried employment, and the notion of it seemingly being a badge of honour to say how busy, tired and stressed you are in your job these days. And then, as in previous weeks, interesting articles caught my eye as if by magic.AIME

The first was this Facebook meme seen on AIME (an indigenous non-profit mentoring scheme in Australia)

Source

They have a point – we live in a culture where people are continually expected to do more for less. I don’t necessarily think that’s an entirely bad thing, I’m all for economical solutions to problems, and I pride myself on running music workshops using upcycled and discarded tech that’s been repurposed. But who benefits from a worker going above and beyond? Well, simply put, if you’re on a salary it’s your boss, and if you work for yourself, it’s you and your clients. But I promised I’d stay away from politics on this blog, and I’m on thin ice here so I’ll move on…

The second article I read was about the emergence of the ‘Gig Culture of Work’ – that is, rather than working a single job, you work on a range of jobs and projects simultaneously. The article in the Guardian is here.

I found this interesting for several reasons – firstly, because it’s what I’ve always done and now suddenly it’s seen as the future of employment – I always freak out a bit when I’m accidentally in fashion. But the main reason I found it interesting is because it’s what I’ve been teaching people to do in order to have a career in the music industry for some 15 years or more, and this advice comes directly from my sideways lunge into the arts. Cue sepia-toned flashback montage…

Tangentially, my degree is actually in model-making – doing things like special effects, architectural models and so on. Within a few weeks at college I’d realised I wasn’t very good at this career but I stuck at it nonetheless due to stubbornness and living with a bunch of excellent, supportive and hard-partying fellow students. At the time, back before computers started chipping away at the industry, modelmaking was a career where 80-90% of people worked self-employed and freelance, and to the credit of the college I was studying at, this was reflected in the lectures and lessons we were taught. So alongside how to use a lathe and a milling machine, we were taught business studies, finances, marketing, graphic design and promotion – and it is these skills that allowed me to sustain myself in the music industry later on in life.

This is why the Arts are so important in schools today – it doesn’t just teach people about their chosen subject, it gives them an adaptability which I think is becoming essential to surviving in the changing world we’re living in now. Be honest – did the career path you chose when you were 14 work out the way you intended it to? The agility you gain as a musician, actor, dancer or other creative practitioner in the arts comes from knowing that you are only as good as your last performance or commission, and only as strong as your portfolio. I think that’s an extremely healthy mindset to be in when it comes to work.

So, the biggest change I made recently was to quit the day-job to free up some time for new projects – but the thing is, I’ve not left yet, as I’ll be seeing out the academic year. And yet, all of a sudden, I’ve started to receive some excellent offers of work. I wondered why this might be, and then I realised – it was because I stopped telling people I was busy and started telling people I was available for work. So I’ve decided to stop myself from using the word busy as my default answer when people ask how I am. Busy is a barrier, it shuts down conversations and possibilities and options for exciting projects. Fortune favours the prepared, and a good band is always ready for a gig.

measuringThe other issue I face as a teacher and mentor is, in a nutshell, parents. They often (quite aggressively at times) want to know why their son or daughter should study music. Seemingly ‘because they love it’ is an inadequate answer, which is a whole other blog post… With a bit more questioning, it often becomes apparent that what the parents really want to know is ‘how much can my child expect to earn making music?’. I mean, everyone knows that the music industry is in decline, right? Well, yes and no – there are less new pop stars around these days and the old ones keep coming back, but that’s more to do with the sales of physical music falling (unless of course you’re talking about the unexpected and confounding vinyl resurgence).

But there’s more music and sound around than ever – all those new TV shows and channels need music and dialogue and sound effects, as do all the adverts in between, and the film industry isn’t doing so badly either. But the best example I think is the computer & video games industry which has gone from a bedroom business to a multi-billion dollar industry, and created a huge range of jobs, including many in music and sound, that simply didn’t exist 20 years ago, but which are still based on the skills of the industries that went before them. Much like modelmaking, the industry has changed radically but many of the core skills transfer directly onto the new ways of working.

At this point I could quote the UK Music report of 2015 stating that music contributed £4.1 billion to the economy, but instead I like to drop in this video below, based on research by Fisch, Macleod and Brenman; the point where it goes quiet is when it mentions that “The top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004”. The music industry, for better or worse, is changing radically, and whether you think that’s a good thing or not depends entirely on your viewpoint. But music itself isn’t going away, and I don’t think it ever will.

Deaf dancers and vibrating faces

The interesting thing about doing a blog is that as I go about my working week, I’m now actively looking for ideas and projects to discuss. As a result, I’ve started to notice themes throughout the work I do that previously might have gone unnoticed, with these little ideas latching onto trains of thought and causing other cogs to start turning.

The first thing that caught my attention earlier in this week was this video:


It’s about a project sponsored by Smirnoff (and that’s a whole other blog post in itself…) working with a troupe of deaf dancers. It reminded me of a story I was told at art college about a profoundly deaf student who used to love going to illegal raves because it was the only place where the music was loud enough for him to feel the music, and therefore be able to dance. I was also told that he managed to rig a bouncy castle to a sound system for his 21st birthday party because he wanted everyone to experience music as he did, and as I suspect the dancers in the video do. In a world where music venues are facing a tough time at the hands of property developers and those in favour of noise abatement, it occurred to me that something important is lost when music is silenced.

For a while I’ve been concerned about using digital music in workshop environments; when you play a drum, you hit it and it not only makes a sound but it vibrates, giving you physical feedback that what you’ve heard is connected to what you did. This is true with most instruments, but as we move on to the piano or harpsichord, for example, there’s a level of abstraction – you press a key, the key causes a hammer to hit or pluck a string and then there is a sound. Electronic music further separates the action from the outcome, and I think this can result in a disconnect between the performer and the instrument. In a workshop environment for instance, it’s important that the person uses the SoundBeam is aware that they are creating the sound, and that is more difficult as the sound gets more layered and complex.

This has come up in conversation several times over the last couple of weeks – it was the subject of an excellent presentation at Music Education Expo by Animate Orchestra who combine music technology with conventional orchestral instruments who discussed how important musicality is with the use of technology, and how putting students in charge of their own volume levels is an important skill when working in an ensemble.

In a talk I did this week for Wilson Arts Group I discussed some of the work I’d done for temp0rary, specifically the Interactive Rave project we’d built for BoomTown festival in 2014. Because this featured lots of ways for the visitors to interact with the setup, I had made sure that feedback was provided through the lights above each of the sensors, which helped but wasn’t ideal. If people don’t feel like they are contributing to the sound – or can’t tell what effect their interaction is having within the group, they can disengage. Be honest, how many of this did this in school assemblies?

Then, in the sessions I worked on this week, I started to look for clues as to how to confront this issue of musical agency. In one of my sessions with adults with disabilities, I noticed a behaviour that was similar in several of those taking place – they would interact with a drum not by playing it, but by placing it against their hand, or their cheek or lips. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried this, but the results are surprising – you can immediately feel the sound as well as hear it, and certain frequencies create a literal buzz from the skin of the drum. Singing into the skin of the drum created a dramatic effect, exciting two senses at once. This was a big hit in the sessions I tried it in, and definitely something I’ll be exploring in future.

This got me thinking a bit more – over the next few months as I reduce the amount of academic teaching I do, I’m hoping to leave some time for my own music projects and a bit of inventing – I’ve already had a tinker with some interface design for temp0rary performances and my ideal situation would be to have the resources to build instruments that are specific to each person’s own abilities within workshops, or create several adaptable instruments. I’m thinking that adding a bit of haptic feedback into the mix might be the key to creating digital devices that more closely replicate the feedback – and thrill – of hitting a drum really hard. It’ll be the next best thing to having a bouncy castle at every workshop.

Moving forward loudly

Another week, another fantastic lunge in the right direction… I’m trying to be as generous as possible with my time at the moment, saying yes to lots of projects and then trying to hammer everything into a calendar which is now starting to look like a particularly tense game of Battleships.

On Tuesday I met with some of the residents of Podsmead in Gloucester about getting a new music project off the ground. I’m new to the area, but it’s clear that it is similar to Cheltenham in that it has some affluent areas alongside some places of social hardship and economic disadvantage. The young people I met were full of energy, enthusiasm and great ideas, but it was apparent that they had all had a really challenging time at school, and that what they thought they were capable of had been defined more by what they couldn’t do than what they could achieve.

Working with the staff of the Podsmead Big Local project, we came up with a plan for a more urban version of an open mic night. What was great for me was that equipment and expertise which I was able to volunteer with little effort was a real catalyst for their plans – things such as providing a PA, mics, beats and backing tracks which are pretty straightforward for me give the young people in the group lots of inspiration and focus for their ideas. It was clear they want to dream big, but have had lots of setbacks in the past, so it will be really exciting if we manage to run this event successfully and use it as a focus for some more ambitious long term plans. I’m already thinking of ways we can make this bigger and better, and we have barely settled on a date for the first event!

Thursday I was asked to deliver a performance and presentation about my career in the music industry at Forest High School in Cinderford. For this one I rolled out the big guns – working with Tim, our apprentice for The Music Works, we set up a nice big PA, and I performed one of my temp0rary tracks with layered vocals, which to my delight, had the assembly hall up and dancing. I then talked about my history in the music industry embellished with some of the anecdotes more suitable for schoolchildren, before finishing with a demonstration of some of my music workshop equipment. The star of the show was definitely the Ototo board and the introduction of the Dubstep Bananas! The talk seemed to go down extremely well (I even got asked for an encore!) and hopefully will lead to setting up an after-schools club in the near future so that I can start teaching the more interested students how to make music and noise with computers.

In between the usual teaching sessions I’ve also been experimenting with some other new kit for workshops. My latest eBay victory was a pair of AudioCubes which I’ve just started to learn how to use. Initial research is extremely promising; I’ve long held the belief that visual feedback can be extremely helpful so the fact that these little boxes can be programmed to light up in response to proximity and gestures as well as output MIDI data could well see them being extremely useful in workshop situations. Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long to find out, as this coming week I’m starting a new one-to-one session with a young person with cerebral palsy, and I think the AudioCubes will be the perfect way for him to interact with music making software. And then after that session I’m off for another show and tell session at the Wilson Gallery to demonstrate my equipment to the Wilson Art Group, and maybe see if we can set up another project or two whilst I’m there…

Opening night performance anxiety

I’ve said in the past to students that doing something once is easy, it’s doing it more than once and getting better each time that requires dedication. The same is true of blogging, and since the first post I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want – and don’t want – this blog to become. I’ve decided that rather than use it as a diary, I’ll just highlight the stand-out parts of my week, and try to keep it weekly in the hope I’ll fall into a groove where this feels like a normal part of my working week.

A lot of this has been brought on not just by my move into self employment but also by a convergence of two excellent training & continual personal development (CPD) sessions I’ve been undertaking. The most recent has been Inclusive Practitioner training with the excellent and knowledgeable Phil Mullen, organised by Bristol Plays Music. As well as being directly related to the music workshops I run, last month’s session was focusing on the value of reflecting on the work that we do as music leaders – stopping and thinking what worked, why things went well, why things didn’t go as planned and how we repeat successes and avoid pitfalls in the future. This blog is part of that process, but it got me thinking about the always-on world we live in where often the speed of response is more important than the response itself, how we may be losing the skills of thinking before we act in modern life, and how that might be contributing to some of the changes in society. Time to take the space to breathe and think more.

The other training I have completed recently is a pilot of an Action Learning group, organised by Create Gloucestershire. Action Learning is “an approach to solving real problems that involves taking action and reflecting upon the results. The learning that results helps improve the problem-solving process as well as the solutions the team develops.” (shamelessly cribbed from Wikipedia, because, for once it’s accurate). Our group of 8 assorted people who work in the arts sector got together in June and have met about once every 6 weeks for a day of Action Learning, and we had our last official session on Thursday.

I have to say that it has been a transformative experience in many ways. Although it was extremely difficult for us all to find 6 days we could commit to in the 9 months the sessions have been running, actually putting time aside to discuss each others’ problems has in itself been an extremely valuable thing to do. Not only have the sessions given me the chance to discuss what was going on in my work in a confidential and supportive manner, but they’ve allowed me to both help and support others, and given me a new set of skills to use personally and to share to help resolve problems. If this sounds a bit like therapy, in a way it is, but it’s extremely goal oriented, and has been incredibly helpful in giving me the clarity and positivity I needed to move forward with my career. If this sounds interesting, Create Gloucestershire are looking to get another Action Learning set off the ground and are offering a free taster session on March 24th – I wholeheartedly recommend it.

http://www.creategloucestershire.co.uk/news/2016/2/24/new-action-learning-set-and-taster-session-deadline-extended

Musically, this week featured a very exciting discovery for me – I found out where the secret Gamelan orchestra meet in Cheltenham, and confirmed that I will be running a project between April and July to work with them! In fact, not only did I get a chance to talk to the orchestra leader, Jonathan Roberts, but I was given a crash course in how to play Gamelan too, and it was an incredible experience.



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In the next few Monday evenings, I will bgamelan-poster-A4_1e working with Jonathan and a group of young people to create an augmented Gamelan, combining the traditional musical instruments with some of my modern digital performance equipment that I have used in music workshops and installations in the past in order to create something that has never been heard before. And just to up the ante somewhat, we will be performing the work as part of the Cheltenham Music Festival in July – no pressure then…! I’m so excited to see where this project goes as this project is going to be a massive learning curve for me and a brilliant opportunity to combine old and new music forms. The project is organised by The Wilson Gallery, and we are looking for young people to get involved, so if you’re interested and between 15-25, drop them a line on learning@cheltenhamtrust.org.uk

 

To wrap up my weekend, I did a music (and noise) making session at Allsorts in Cam. I’ve been involved with their sessions for more than three years now, and they are always great fun, wonderfully creative and often chaotic – just how I like it! This week we ended up doing lots of experiments with microphone feedback and accidentally created a fantastic effect with pitch-shifted and distorted guitar, composed some fantastically atmospheric music and made some great recordings of our jam sessions.

The only downside to these sessions is that they are only an hour long, and many of the young people who attend clearly have an appetite to get involved with music making on a deeper level. Luckily I’ve got just the thing lined up – between 8th and 12th August, I’m running a summer school project called Mix & Mash as part of the Of Course We Can programme, which will be a whole week of music making for people with disabilities aged from 11-25, non-disabled children aged 11-17, some talented music makers, and me! We will be running the sessions out of the Friendship Cafe based in Chequer’s Bridge Community Centre in Gloucester – if you know anyone who might be interested, we are recruiting now – there is more information at www.plugplay.org

Until next week,

Lee, 6/3/16

First of the Month

Hello! Welcome! This is the blog of Lee Chaos. You might know me from various things in the past – being in bands, running a record label, teaching, DJing and promoting, sound engineering, running music workshops, tour management, radio broadcasting, political ranting and activism, or just as that guy with the funny haircut.

Recently I’ve taken the scary and exhilerating decision to terminate my permanent part-time teaching contract and plunge headlong into the world of freelance self employment. There were lots of reasons for doing this, but financial stability wan’t one of them, quite the opposite. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb said, “The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” – I think he might be on to something, and I think it’s time to wean myself of the latter. Reducing the carbs will have to wait…

Basically, my calendar had become full, but I didn’t feel like I was in control of how it was being filled. At the end of each day I was feeling tired but like I had more to give. I wanted the space to try new projects – exciting, risky things that might prove rewarding in ways other than financially, things that might fail but provide a new learning opportunity, projects that widened the scope of the people I worked and collaborated with.

I’m going to be using this blog to document the process – it’s mostly for my own benefit as I use it to reflect on the work that I do, keep a note of the sessions I’ve done and what worked, and plan & organise for the future.

I’m also making a concerted effort to keep this blog as positive and politically neutral as possible – anyone who knows me will also know that this isn’t how I am in real life, but just for once I’m going to be doing my utmost to keep those conversations away from this blog – that’s not to say I don’t care or that these discussions are unimportant, but I really want to focus on the positive changes I can make right now, personally and to the wider community.

Although I’m not leaving my current job until July, February was a pivotal month for me and has been  the very beginning of the process. By just opening myself up to the possibility that there may be other exciting projects just on the other side of the valley and taking a leap of faith, I have already met lots of new people who share my passion for inclusive music and arts activities. I have been taught to play the  Gamelan orchestra and the spoons (more in common than you might imagine..!), helped to establish a new Sound Technician Apprenticeship and arranged to teach some new whole class and individual music sessions. There’s so much going on that the trickiest thing is working out where I need to be and which cases of equipment I need to have with me.

So now begins the process of looking for work, bidding for projects, meeting like-minded people and working harder than ever before to make all this pay off. Come along for the ride, who knows what happens next?!

Lee, 1/3/16