Musical Musings (Musical-ings?)

The Mystery Jam 

It's important, as a person who plays and teaches music for a living, to take time away to follow other interests and passions too. Making your hobby your job has many wonderful benefits but, for me at least, it has made the hobby feel much less like a hobby and it's sometimes good to take some time away from playing, when I'm not working, to keep things fresh.




So, a solo jaunt to London was on the cards this weekend for, not one but, two comedy shows. Plus a whole 2 days in the big smoke to amuse myself, catching up with some friends and family and generally hanging out in a city I find endlessly fascinating and entertaining.




By Sunday afternoon though, my fingers were getting itchy and only a trip to Denmark Street would relieve them. Obviously every moment spent on this historic musical thoroughfare is magical but I occasionally find myself overwhelmed by the variety of the instruments on display. Best always, I think, to have a mission, even if it's theoretical rather than a search for an instrument I'm actually looking to buy.




Sunday's mission was to find "The Strat". A Fender Statocaster that feels like it belongs to me or, perhaps more accurately, that I belong to it. I owned such a guitar once. A purple sparkle 1998 US Strat I bought at the cheekily named Hooters music shop in Watford. It was just a bog standard, stock, US made guitar, pulled from the stock room cos I wanted a purple one rather than the blue display model I'd tried. It had magic though. I don't know why. Probably just a nice piece of wood. It felt right in my hands and sounded terrific. Glassy and bright in positions 2 and 4 and snappy at the bridge without the brittle highs you sometimes get. The neck pickup was the real star though. Woody, warm and almost throaty at times. I will always judge a strat on it's neck pickup as a result. Sadly, in 2012, it was stolen from my car and never found. It is still a vague hope to find it again, somewhere at the back of some dusty old guitar shop in the middle of nowhere.



I never replaced it properly. I had a backup Mexican Strat I still own that has always served me well but, cool guitar though it is (purchased from the legendary Manny's on 48th St in NY), it lacks the mystic voodoo of the purple one. My playing has evolved since to be less Stratty so I rarely have cause to play one but maybe, one day, I'll go back to them again and, if so, having played a few I  search of "The One" is probably no bad thing.1




Denmark St is definitely not quite what it was when I first started going in the late 90s. The combination of the decay of in person retail and the architectural butchery of Crossrail have reduced the number of shops but, even on a Sunday, there were still 5 or 6 to get my teeth into. 



My basic entry requirements for "The Strat" are minimal: rosewood fretboard a must, 5 way switching and a cool colour (piss off with your purist sunburst nonsense. They're ugly). Sadly nothing really was even making it over these basic hurdles for a realistic price. I suspect I would've fallen madly in love with the Rory Gallagher Strat I saw in Wunjo Guitars had I played it but £12k is not within my price range, particularly if you add the cost of the inevitable divorce that would follow. 




In the last shop, The Music Rooms, I did find a candidate. A John Mayer PRS Silver Sky. OK, strictly speaking, it's not a Strat but it is very closely modelled on one and bears the name of one of the great Strat players of the last 25 years. Plus the colour options were cool, a kind of pastelly bluey green and a slightly darker pink. Both of these would match the colours of our kitchen at home and would, therefore, more likely receive endorsement from Mrs S and reduce the probability of aforementioned divorce.




So I ask to play the green one. The assistant corrects me, saying it's blue and I decide not to press the issue. I plug into a Fender amp and start to play. Neck pickup first, obvs. It's nice, if a bit bright but makes me feel funky so I loosen my wrist and bust out my best Cory Wong chops on some Bm blues thing.




There's another guy who's also started trying a guitar out. He's behind me and on the other side of a bookshelf. Always a difficult balance to strike when there's someone else playing too but we both are following proper guitar shop etiquette and keeping the volume sensible (one day I'll write about the time I was in a guitar shop at the same time as a 90s shred monster who certainly did not follow etiquette).




I've been happily funking away for a couple of minutes when I notice the other guy's playing. He's jamming to my Bm backing, bringing forth some tasty, jazzy licks. This is certainly not guitar shop etiquette but it's a lovely thing to hear so buoyed on I start to embellish the chord sequence a bit to give him more to work with and he takes note and plays accordingly. We spend about 5 mins like this with me messing with the dynamics of the rhythm part whilst he matches me. It's a really magical moment. We've not met or spoken or can even see each other and yet we're playing together, communicating purely through the music.



Eventually I bring the piece to a close and I turn to try to see my new friend. He pokes his head out from behind the bookshelf and we exchange pleasantries about each other's playing. "Let's do another", he says, "do you know Just The Two of Us". "Nope", I say, "but I can probably figure it out. What key?". "Dunno", he responds. "No worries, I'll find it", I respond, with ill-judged confidence and we’re off. 



He busts out some beautifully voiced jazz chords and I start to noodle, quickly dialling in a bit of overdrive and delay to sweeten and sustain my uncertain single note musings. I managed to find the melody quite quickly as I’m quite aware of the song, although less so from the classic Bill Withers/Grover Washington version and more from the Dr Evil/Mini Me version from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. I find the key (Abm, in case you’re interested) and fumble my way through the melody adding embellishments as I go. It’s a fun piece of musical creativity between two people who’d never met and couldn’t even see each other. We had a quick chat afterwards. His name’s Aaron and has only been playing a couple of years. Lovely guy too. Turns out, his mate had recorded it. I’ll post the results here somewhere. 



Oh, and I didn’t really get on with the PRS Silver Sky. I continue to fly in the face of popular opinion about PRS guitars in that I’ve played loads and never got on with any of them. I think the necks are too narrow and I ever feel I can really dig in. 


The 2 of Us Jam



Who Is This Even For? 

Ah, half term! An oasis of calm and relaxation in the teacher’s otherwise vast and exhausting desert of school life.

Not for proper teachers, of course. For them, there’ll be a mountain of lesson planning, marking and other associated admin to do. For the peri though, it’ll be a well-earned break from the relentlessness of back-to-back teaching that makes our job so intense.

However, at The Music Service, 2 days of every half term holiday is taken up by our Rock & Pop Workshop. 40+ kids aged 8 to 18 are arranged into bands, and have 2 days to write and rehearse a song (or a couple of songs) and perform for parents at the end. Despite significantly reducing my time off at half term, these days are comfortably my favourite teaching days of year. There is such a buzz amongst the kids. Many are experiencing both the songwriting process and live performing for the first time and there’s a genuine excitement and apprehension and the raised stakes both these disciplines involve

The trap I always fall into, as a teacher, is to worry too much about the standard of song and performance that is produced at the end of the event. Given the range of age and experience, it’s no surprise that the quality and confidence of the performances vary quite a bit, although we’re always pretty pleased with the end product we manage to coax from the kids. It struck me this week, however, as the performance hall emptied of proud parents and adrenaline-fueled children, it struck me how much more important the actual wider experience was than the final performance.

This type of thinking always reminds me of the a session at the first inset day I attended when I joined The Music Service in 2012. I forget the name of the gentleman giving the speech but, if memory serves, he was the head of another music service (Hampshire, perhaps?). The essence of his address was that, whilst we may endeavour to “deliver” the best and most well prepared lesson to our pupils, in the end it is how the lesson is “received” by the pupil that is important. This idea really resonated with me. As an unqualified teacher, I’m often intimidated by the language and pedagogy of teaching (all your outcomes and objectives and formatives and summatives). At that time in particular, I was newly surrounded by an enormous wealth of teaching experience and knowledge and, although I’d been private teaching quite a while at that point, I became quickly aware of how little I actually know about teaching as an art. It was extremely, reassuring to have someone emphasise the importance of the impact of the lesson on the pupil over the technical competence of the way the lesson has been taught.

I was so effected by this line of thought that I considered how it related to my role as a performer too. Those who have played with me will doubtless agree that I’ve never been the most immaculate player but the relative sparseness of solo acoustic and voice often highlights this in a way a full band setup wouldn’t. In the early days of my solo act, this was a real worry for me but this inset speech made me rethink my relationship with the music I was playing and, particularly, the people I was playing for. Just as in a lesson, it how the lesson is received by the pupil that counts, at a gig, it’s the effect on the audience that matters rather than how well I actually play.

I think it’s this line of thought that has developed me most as a performer. At the end of the day, the audience are the most important. It is THEIR night, not mine. I am merely there to enhance their evening in whatever way I can. This is a particularly useful headspace to be in during the quiet gigs. If what they want is a backdrop to their conversations, that is what they’ll get. I will, of course, fish for a little more involvement and increase the energy levels, if they’re willing to come with me but, if they’re not, it doesn’t matter. Where, in the past, this type of gig would leave me feeling downhearted because I haven’t got the whole room dancing, that is no longer how I measure the success of a gig. It was a pretty key breakthrough in my career and one I try, wherever possible to impart to my young charges at the Rock & Pop Workshop, particularly in situations where they’re worried about making mistakes.

That came back full circle nicely, didn’t it?