Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Susan Boyle Syndrome

I feel moved to comment on the latest sensation to take the entertainment industry by storm – Susan Boyle. Now I have to say that I think the media have responded predictably; but a little hysteria never hurt anyone, I guess. It was just that one article I read set me thinking. It asked the question, 'Do you have to be beautiful to be talented?' This, of course, refers to the fact that Susan isn't exactly Paris Hilton in the looks department – something about which I'm sure she's quite justifiably relieved. But let's think about the question they're asking here: is this where we're going wrong? Are we judging performers by their looks rather than open-mindedly listening to what they have to say? Does anyone with any wisp of raw talent now have to check into a health spa or beauty salon before their audition? I for one hope not. (Come on, you've seen the pictures...)

I find myself thinking if Einstein would have made more of a contribution to science if he looked more like Hugh Grant? Would some of the ugly buggers from the first generation of rock'n'rollers ever got where they are now without surgery?

Another important question is whether society has now decided that talent is merely the province of the young and anyone who hasn't 'made it' by the time they are 40 might as well sod off and grow vegetables. So maybe Susan Boyle's story is a timely reminder that we should avoid the temptations of prejudice and learn to listen with our ears and not with our eyes.

Incidentally, if you haven't already seen the You Tube footage of Susan's performance then you should. Even if, like me, the whole idea of TV talent shows makes you want to go and throw yourself from a tall building. It's worth it – even if it's just to see the look on Simon Cowell's face!

It's here.

Friday, 17 April 2009

The Hidden Dangers Of Teaching Guitar

OK, so I know guitar teaching isn't dangerous in the same way that putting out fires on oil rigs or deep sea diving are – but it has hidden dangers if the teacher wants a career as a player as well as an educationalist.

Naturally, I can only draw on my own experiences as a guitar teacher – but all the same I don't think that my story is at all unique.

Before I started private teaching, back in the 1980s, I was really only interested in jazz guitar. That was my oeuvre, if you like... When I began playing during the previous decade, I was interested in progressive rock bands like Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd – and I liked some blues-based heavy rock, like Zeppelin, Cream, Deep Purple and so on, too. But after punk hissed and spat its way onto the British music scene in 1976 I lost interest – and I think I lost hope, too. Suddenly, prog bands were seen as yesterday's news and so my prime influence was no longer valid, somehow.

I retreated into jazz as a sort of haven where chops were still necessary and musical invention still lauded. Hopeless case, huh?

So when I began teaching, I was really into teaching jazz; but my jazz pupils were outnumbered around 10-1 by people coming to me to learn rock, blues, pop, folk, metal and everything else besides. An average evening for me would be teaching someone an AC/DC riff, transcribing a Smiths song, showing someone a Hank Marvin instrumental and then maybe something by Stevie Ray Vaughan... In other words, I had to diversify in order to survive. Luckily for me I've got a fairly quick ear and, music being music, was able to pick out solos and riffs from various styles quite quickly. But it meant that, to a certain extent, I had to become something of a guitar chameleon at the same time.

It had a knock-on effect on my playing to the extent that at one time I found myself playing in a rock covers band, a jazz-fusion band, solo classical guitar and solo jazz guitar! It might be tempting to think that I was applauded for my ability to diversify – but the truth was that I was quickly becoming a jack-of-all-trades... And, insidiously, master of none.

So what happened? Well, I got into journalism which meant that I didn't have time to teach – certainly not every evening, six days a week, anyway; I still gave seminars and did the occasional private lesson, but the teaching eased up considerably. I still didn't have much time to think about playing, though; journalists are busy people.

When I left the magazine in order to write books, I was eager to start paying again and sat back to see what would happen. First of all, I got back into jazz, but that quickly evolved into acoustic guitar playing – DADGAD and so on. It strikes me that this is the first time in my career that I have actually specialised; I don't have to transcribe Metallica, SRV, Hank, Def Leppard any more and so I needn't immerse myself in diversity on a nightly basis. I can just concentrate on one style on one instrument. No distractions.

I know that there are many players who also teach – but most tend to teach what they themselves play: a single style. Anyone who shares my own experiences should be aware that there are perhaps fewer teachers who play...

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The Shock Of The 'New'?

Every so often, something comes along which is truly new and innovative - and what happens? Everyone copies it. This is a recurring nightmare in just about every branch of the arts. After Dan Brown's success with 'The Da Vinci Code' in 2003, similar titles - with similar cover art - started popping up on the bookshelves. All of a sudden authors were working on plots which detailed how their heroes had found some sinister significance in the works of Charlotte Bronte, which led to a showdown on the Yorkshire moors with an arch villain who would have been played by Sir Ian McKellen in the movie.

It happens in music, too - especially pop, but I think that is probably stating the obvious. Just listen to the radio for half an hour... soul divas, rap masters, boy band power pop; it's not just that I've reached 'that certain age' it does all sound the bloody same!

As a journalist who witnessed the 'instrumental rock guitar revolution' at first hand you would not believe how many CDs turned up on my desk at Guitarist magazine that had been sent in by artists who all wanted to be another Joe Satriani or Steve Vai. Honestly - you wouldn't believe it. After Stevie Ray Vaughan died we received bundles of blues guitar CDs accompanied by press releases all claiming that their artist was 'the new SRV'. And in case you're interested, they were generally really, really bad. Imitation following innovation, but all lacking that essential spark.

OK, so why does this happen? One reason is the pressure that agents, managers and record companies exert on new artists to make their work easier to categorise. Which pigeonhole would you like, sir? You're much easier to sell if we can align you with some sort of dynasty of musical style, after all. This doesn't offer a lot of hope for anyone who thinks that they have genuinely discovered something 'different' - and yet the paradox here is that all areas of the arts desperately need the 'shock of the new' in order to progress.

No wonder they say that art is pain.

I guess that musicians who have found something new to say all have MySpace, YouTube and iTalk Guitar as 'viral' outlets for their work - and we've already seen a few new talents plucked from obscurity thanks to the internet. So I guess my message to guitarists in particular is to try and turn off the chatter that surrounds you, begging you to somehow conform to current standards, and listen to the music inside your head. Your music needs you.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Head Or Heart?

I think that teaching composition must be one of the most difficult things you can do. The reason for this is that I believe the process to be incredibly personal, subjective and almost certainly a different experience from individual to individual. 

As someone with a background in teaching I'm sometimes asked if I employ my actual knowledge and reasoning where music's concerned or if I rely purely on instinct and gut reaction. Literally, a case of 'head or heart'?

Well, like I say, it's probably different for everyone, but speaking for myself I have to say that it was a long time before I realised that I had to actually 'switch off ' the teacher inside before anything really creative could come through. In other words, I had to subdue my intellectual reasoning and rely purely on 'autopilot'. At least, to an extent...

I suppose the real breakthrough for me as a writer was discovering the world of alternate tunings. (Incidentally, I must point out at this juncture that I'm not in any way holding myself up as anything other than a 'jobbing guitarist and writer' here. I've long since come to terms with the fact that I am not and definitely never will be another Paul McCartney or Sting!) When I threw out everything I knew about the guitar from a tuning point of view, I had no option but to rely on instinct. I deliberately didn't start the journey all over again and begin to work out scales, modes and chords in whichever tuning I found myself. That would be retrogressive, I thought, as I would begin to intellectualise everything I did once again. Thought processes like, 'shouldn't that chord be a dominant 7th?' or 'you can't do that!' aren't helpful when you're trying to access the creative side of your brain.

For me, a composition starts with the clash or collision of two ideas - it might be a few melody notes that seem to want to be together or two or three chords which somehow sound like they 'belong'. I don't know exactly what it is, but a switch is definitely thrown and the songwriting process begins. From then on in, it gets personal. I have a kind of editing device whereby I never write anything down in the initial stages, figuring that if I can still remember it 24 hours later then it must in some way be memorable enough to build upon and take to the next stage.

That 'next stage' is usually a case of improvising around the idea for ages until it seems to want to go somewhere else. All the time, the intellect is sitting on the sidelines offering 'helpful' observations like, 'ok, that's the verse sorted, now you need a chorus' but I've learned to ignore it. I'm aware of the conventions of traditional song structure, but if we all stuck rigidly to it, we'd all still be musically living in caves.

It helps if I can summon up some kind of visual imagery at this point and coming up with a title certainly helps. If you're involved in finishing something called 'Summer Rain' it tends to help direct you towards the appropriate - a bit like writing a film score for pictures inside your head.

Writing music is a hard process for me; I find writing books a breeze by comparison! But it's an immensely rewarding process when you come out with something that somehow works and something which is definitely a part of you. By that time, of course, all the birth pains have been long forgotten and I'm often left wondering where melodies and chord sequences have sprung from. But I don't want to analyse my own music, write it out, or even talk about it too much. The most surprising thing is that I don't want to teach what I do on acoustic guitar as I think that would invite the intellect back to the party and I'd lose the power to engage autopilot. And I don't want that to happen!