Friday, 25 September 2009

Playing for Dance

Last week Eastern Straynotes, the little band in which I play clarinet, had a couple of firsts. We were asked to play for one of the monthly gatherings of a group of Lindy Hop enthusiasts upstairs in a bar called Orgasmic. This we duly did with our brand new double bassist Gary Rudd, aka Ukuleleladdy and (soon to be) famous for The Ballad of Ronnie Biggs.

Playing for dance is always rewarding. There's a communication between musician and audience that only happens in this context. It is completely unlike playing for diners who, let's face it, only require a background ambiance and perhaps the cache of eating to a live band. This group of people had come to dance and we knew, by the filling and emptying of the dance floor, whether or not we were hitting the spot. We quickly learned what worked and what didn't. Swing numbers such as Stompin' At The Savoy and Jersey Bounce went down well but one of our favourites, Diga Diga Do (which we medley up with the bar music from the first Star Wars film) bombed because the tempo was too fast. One number that really set the place alight was Topsy - hot swing in a dark minor key.

Given that this is a dance form that kicked off in Harlem in the 1920s and was mainstream in the 1940s I wasn't expecting any original exponents to take the floor but I had anticipated an older crowd. There were certainly oldies in their sixties, possibly older, who had lost some athleticism but were able to convey so much with superb economy of movement. But many were in their twenties and thirties, too, coming to the style with no previous knowledge of partner dance. It was lovely to see the ages mixing and feel a part of that.

So, the first Lindy Hop gig and our first outing with new-kid-in-town Gary. I'll remember it partly for the music and partly for the realisation that the ubiquitous kettle lead (Gary needed one for his amp) is all but obsolete as practically every kettle is now cordless. But mostly I'll remember waiting outside Orgasmic for forty minutes after the gig while Gary tried to get his van, parked a three minute walk away, back to the venue through Norwich's one-way system.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Why become a musician?

Why become a musician? Or anything else for that matter?

My father always wanted me to get a steady job; he often mentioned banking as a suitable career because of the security it offered. His own path had led him into an unexpected life in the military via the second world war, going back in after de-mob when he discovered teaching wasn't for him. The stable peace of the cold war made for safe and secure employment.

Today I wouldn't associate safety and security with either of those fields. But they obviously appeal to some for all kinds of reasons. The important thing is to follow your heart. I was told the following at a party last night:

Confucius said "find a job you love and you'll never do a day's work in your life".

Now doesn't that sound like good advice?

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

What a surprise!

Research, reported in the Guardian, has shown that learning an instrument at school has knock on benefits in other areas of learning. Does this sound at all familiar to anyone? This time the UK government 'hopes to double the number of children' in primary schools learning an instrument by 2011. The bad news is that there will be an election next year that only the most roseate Labour supporter thinks the incumbents can win. So a great time for making promises then.

Perhaps the new government, of whatever political persuasion, will at last take some notice both of this research and all the other studies that have been made in the past. If you sense a lack of optimism on my part it's because many people struggle with the idea that something recreational, like music, can be of educational benefit beyond its own sphere. No amount of evidence is likely to overturn this fundamental prejudice. I just hope there are enough forward-thinking head teachers out there prepared to give it a try. There's really no need to wait for yet another government initiative.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Sustainable technology

It has been said, although I can't remember by whom, that renaissance man (and presumably woman) understood his world completely. And although I can't help thinking it something of an exaggeration there is no doubt that it was far truer then than now. Since the industrial revolution we have become increasingly specialised creatures, a point brought home to me whenever a piece of hi-tech equipment fails. The most recent instance was the failure of my computer's motherboard. I imagine the 15th century equivalent was having a quill snap; easily remedied, either by oneself or by someone to whom you could explain the problem. I am no stranger to computers but, beyond the fact that mine didn't work, I didn't even know what the problem was.

When a piece of hi-tech gear stops working the first question is whether or not it is cost-effective to effect a repair and this often requires the opinion of a specialist. Often the parts are too expensive to replace or the item itself has become obsolete. In theory it can be recycled by poorly paid workers risking their health in the developing world but in practice it usually ends up as landfill.

So it was with no little joy that I read of some 15th century church bells in Suffolk being re-mounted and rung again for the first time in 25 years. I may even make a pilgrimage to hear them. They are testament to the enduring nature of acoustic instruments. I still play a soprano saxophone that is close to a hundred years old. Somehow I doubt either the software or hardware I use now will be anything like as long lived. Even if it survives it is unlikely to be considered fit for purpose. The life-span of electronic instruments is short, regardless of how well they are looked after. Something worth bearing in mind when deciding how to spend the departmental budget.