Friday, 18 June 2010

The Vuvuzela Phenomenon

You may have no interest in football but I would be surprised if word of the vuvuzela has not yet reached your ears. I switched on the radio shortly before the opening game of the World Cup in South Africa and thought I must be listening to a conversation about Formula One. The commentators and pundits were having to shout above the noise of what sounded like a racetrack in the background. It was the sound of many, many people blowing vuvuzelas inside a stadium.

I watched some of the opening match between the host country and Mexico and the noise sounded unbelievable. According to academics from Pretoria and Florida universities it peaked at 144.2 decibels during the game. (In the UK, workers must be provided with ear protection if they are subjected to noise levels above 85 decibels.)

If you get a chance, tune into what may be the host nation's final game at 14.00hrs GMT on Tuesday. It is like being inside a giant beehive - a most unusual sound. South Africa is the home of the vuvuzela and make the biggest noise, but tune in before their opponents score!

I picked up one myself which one of my daughters borrowed for tonight's bore-draw against Algeria. They are made of plastic and require a trumpet embouchure to play, although a trumpeter might scoff at the comparison. Mine is in patriotic red and white. A good choice of colour; if England gets knocked out my vuvuzela can be patriotically Danish or Swiss. And maybe even Japanese.

I don't see the vuvuzela catching on in the UK or indeed in many places outside its South African home, and sadly the bulk of those produced, although theoretically recyclable, are probably destined for landfill sites.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Claytime in York

I was up with the birds yesterday morning in order to pedal off to the station and catch a train for York. At short notice I had been asked to play for Claytime at the Theatre Royal. I love places that are visibly rich in history and York is right up there with the best. The theatre was opened in 1744, having been built on the site of the mediaeval St Leonard's Hospital, some of which was incorporated into what was then called The New Theatre. The atmosphere on the stage is awesome, in the true sense of the word and that was where the show took place. The curtains were drawn and the stage itself became the theatre.

Claytime, by Indefinite Articles, is one of my all time favourite children's shows, truly interactive and perfect for its target audience of 3 - 6 year olds. I have only played for it on two previous occasions, the most recent being in Kings Lynn early last year but a quick talk-through before the show brought it all back to me. What I find hardest is remembering I'm supposed to be working. Steve and Sally are such accomplished performers that the temptation just to sit back and enjoy the show is almost too much to resist.

The show is in three parts, the first being negotiations between the two characters over the possession of clay and the things that can be done with it. The characters reflect the ages and concerns of their audience and the children become very involved in boundaries, transgressions, repercussions and moral justice.

In the second part, characters and a story are elicited from the children with Sally modelling the protagonists as Steve works the audience. This is then told using the models. Cue the 'end' and bows. But then each child, and usually parents/teachers too, is given a lump of clay to play with. The resulting models are gathered together and photographed with the resulting image going on the theatre or school's website for parents/teachers to download.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

How architecture informs composition

I have just watched an illustrated lecture by David Byrne, he of Talking Heads fame, entitled How architecture helped music evolve. It lasts a mere 16 minutes but seems much shorter. It's a very good introduction to the relationship between composers and the venues for which they wrote. The presenter infuses it with his own perspective and inimitable style. Recommended!

Friday, 11 June 2010

Health and Safety

A friend of mine who teaches music to young adults gives a lecture on safety once a year as part of the course. He stresses the importance of having the electrician's sticker (pictured) on each piece of kit. The week following one of these lectures a student came in with a sheet of the labels, carefully recreated in Photoshop and printed onto sticky paper. These he was gaily distributing these to his classmates. While his ingenuity is admirable I suspect he may have rather missed the point. (I should stress that all Eastern Straynotes stickers are genuine and up to date.)

My own belief is that the UK's attitude to health and safety, largely driven by a blame culture and an increasingly litigious population, is stifling. This is especially so with regard to children who seem destined to suffocate in cotton wool.

However, I must admit that life as a performing musician is far safer than it once was. On-stage electrocutions are now extremely rare. This is partly because of more reliable equipment designed with better safety features, and partly due to regular safety checks. The band I play in has all it's electrical equipment checked by a qualified electrician once a year. This was initially because some venues insist on seeing the paperwork but now, for my own peace of mind, I wouldn't be without it.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Carrot and stick

I have a young student who had narrowly missed out on taking her grade 1 exam with her previous tutor about 18 months ago. Between then and becoming my student last autumn she had drifted, making little progress with a flute that was in need of some attention.

We started looking at the grade material again but I quickly realised she was bored with it, having studied for an exam that never materialised. She needed a new challenge and, having made some great strides (including prevailing upon her parents to get her flute sorted out), I felt she was ready to take grade 2.

That was some time before Easter and the exam has been booked (July) and paid for. Since then, however, she has done almost nothing. The effect of this is to go into reverse; the pieces she could play some weeks ago are now too difficult. Because she doesn't practise, her tone has suffered and she spends the first ten minutes of a lesson looking into the instrument (for blockages!) and adjusting the footjoint in the hope that her flute is somehow to blame.

There was an article on BBC radio this morning about the psychology of household waste collection. It turns out it is more effective to reward people for the amount they recycle rather than charge them for the quantities they send to landfill sites. Any psychology student could tell you that encouragement is more effective than punishment. Buoyed by this fact I gave her all the praise and flattery I could think of. I finished by telling her how much better her tone sounded at the end of the lesson than it had at the beginning. I may have exaggerated the improvement but there's nothing like practice if you wish to improve and she had, after all, just spent half an hour playing the thing.

After she'd gone I congratulated myself on avoiding dire warnings of impending failure if she didn't put in some work. Hopefully she is sufficiently astute not to assume from my positive demeanour that she will walk grade 2. So, carrot and more carrot for my students. The stick, should it be needed, will be wielded by the exam result when it arrives during the summer break.

Sunday, 6 June 2010


You learn something new every day. Last night I was working with a drummer who introduced me to the concept of 'piggybacking'. To save bringing an extra stand, and indeed to save space on a crowded stage, two cymbals share the same stand. The second cymbal is mounted upside down above the first, the two being separated by a couple of felt washers. It goes without saying that the smaller one goes on top.

Friday, 4 June 2010

The False Economy

What a wonderful thing, advice. Especially those maxims and catch phrases that roll so easily off the tongue. One of my favouites is 'stick to what you're good at' but I can never follow it myself because I am naturally curious and 'a student of life'. In particular, my aversion to DIY (an acronym for Don't Involve Yourself) is tempered by the satisfaction derived from completing a project. And I learn new skills, even if lack of further practice means I don't retain them.

Last November the work on my new studio took another step towards completion. I had ordered some aircrete blocks called 'Toplite' which weigh in at about eight kilos and can be cut up with a panel saw. I had discussed, at length, the relative merits of various blocks with the supplier and there must have been some confusion as to the final choice. What arrived were the same size of block but called 'Topcrete'. These are more dense and so better for sound isolation. But they are harder to work with. Each block weighs 27 kilos and requires an angle grinder to cut to size. I don't have an angle grinder but, as luck would have it, Simon had a solution.

Simon had come to build the wall and, to save time and money, I would cut blocks as required and operate the cement mixer. And Simon it was who taught me the knack of chopping up dense concrete blocks with a lump hammer and a bolster chisel. Six months later and I still have tennis elbow - not the kind of condition clarinet players dream of but at least I'm still playing. And this student of life has learned he is neither indestructible nor in possession of a builder's forearm. Next time I want to make myself useful to a bricklayer I'll just make the tea.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A new month, a new game

This month's free music game is for any number of people and is suitable for a wide age range, from about 6yrs to adult. It is particularly good for waking up your group's powers of concentration and getting brain and body working together. If you have a regular group, or are a classroom teacher, and can keep returning to the game, you will notice steady improvement over time. Once children, in particular, know the format it can be used to good effect in odd moments of 'spare' time.

Target is a counting exercise. The object is to place a sound , be it a handclap, word or note, in a specified place in in a bar. In my experience musicians don't generally count in the literal sense of the word. It's more a case of feeling or knowing. If I were to show you three apples or four pencils you wouldn't need to count them to tell me how many were there. You would just 'know'. We don't usually count numbers of five or less because we can tell the quantity at a glance.

Musicians, who don't usually deal in numbers bigger than four, begin by counting but soon learn to feel when a certain number of beats or bars has passed. The counting becomes internalised and subconscious. This game will help speed that process for beginners. It will also improve the rhythm and timing skills of experienced players.