Visiting schools, colleges and universities during the past few years has allowed me to reflect on how I got the music bug, and how are musicians being inspired these days. Talking to music students, watching how they work and listening to their performances and compositions, the ideas can sound more instantly pleasing, but are limited by the equipment and software they can access.
My experiences during infant, junior and senior schools and college was all about instruments. That odd collection of brass, strings, percussion and wind that rested in a cupboard in the school classroom and the sounds coming out of the rows of practice rooms at college. I was excited by what I heard, the screeches, wind noises, scrapes, growls, huffs, beautiful phrases, soaring sounds, just audible tones and virtuosity were a listening education. For many years I sang in a choir each day, it was a natural part of the daily routine, and this has never left me, I still sing each day. Nowadays not complete songs but interesting melody lines or some part of a new composition I am working on.
The school orchestra did not have standard instrumentation, just a mix of who was having lessons on what at the time. Looking back, it was very interesting performing works from the repertoire with half the strings missing, no French horns and triple wind. I was at the back of the ensemble, fitting in as many percussion parts as I could. Being at the back and playing percussion also gave me the opportunity to listen to the other instruments. It is very rare for percussion instruments to be called for during the whole work, after all, percussion adds the sparkle to the ensemble, the less it is used, the more effective it is during the music. These days, it is not helpful to performers or the percussionists that many arrangers and conductors use the drums (especially drum kit) as the metronome to keep the musicians in time. How can the musicians appreciate the other instruments as well as develop their own sense of time when they are driven by a monotonous drum loop? How can the drummer learn to listen and work with other instruments when all they are asked to do is replicate a drum machine?
As well as the percussion playing, I had lessons on violin, piano, bassoon, cello, pipe organ, tuba and guitar during my school and college years. Not to a professional standard but it was an important part of my education, especially in becoming a composer. These lessons taught me to understand the idiosyncrasies and difficulties inherent in each type of instrument as well as an appreciation of their sound(s), performance ideas and an ear that can isolate each instrumental timbre in an ensemble or orchestra.
The worry I have for the next generations of musicians is how will they be enthused by the interest in sounds from performers when the majority of experiences they have are programmed in a factory and triggered from a keyboard or computer. How can a student value the many differences in sound that are possible on one instrument when they can only access 127 pre-set noises that are often misleadingly labelled as musical instruments?
Where is the education about dynamics, different articulation, the power of the fortissimo or the whisper of pianissimo? Spend a short amount of time with an instrumentalist during their warm-up and many of these concepts quickly become apparent. Only by experiencing the instrument can student musicians begin to realise the possibilities of musical sounds. The vibrations created by an orchestral bass drum or the shimmer of harmonics from a violin and the many other colours of sound that can be created by most instruments.
It is not only the orchestral instruments that are isolated in a MIDI approximation. The art of band or rhythm section grooving is also being lost. The precise grids on a sequencer and an over-reliance on the incessant click track does not allow the freedom to pull and push within a bar (or measure). The essence of a groove is the listening which results in the minute variations that the bass player, drummer and guitarist will perform as one during the music. This is not achieved by intuition, but by rehearsing together, respecting each other’s input and settling on a collaborative sound. I have worked with many groovy rhythm sections, Dave Lynane (bass), Dave Hassell (drums) and Les Beavers (guitar) or Don Richardson (bass), Mike Smith (drums) and Lewis Osborne (guitar) are two that spring to mind. When they were on form, the rest of the music perfectly slotted into place.
The amount of money needed to keep bands, orchestras, live ensembles regularly rehearsing and performing is many times more than the cost of a computer and some software. Money is needed for performers more than ever at this time and anything we can promote to get students to concerts, get them involved with smaller groups of instrumentalists, compose for these groups (to hear their music performed in a completely different way) or just be able to hear how musicians interact is an important part of a musical education. Very good musicians are very good at listening but not as good at asking for support. Try and help them keep their performance standards but not be forced to take cuts in wages and I hope this will secure the participation and excitement for live music in the musicians of the future.