Monday, 7 July 2014

On Learning in Music

The Pirates In Short Pants

Now, divine air! now is his soul ravished!
Is it not strange that sheeps' guts
should hale souls out of men's bodies?
(Much Ado About Nothing. William Shakespeare.)

One of John Holt’s lesser known works, Never Too Late charts his struggle to become a musician late in life. As ever with his work, the reader is given much to contemplate. At one point, after writing of a child he once helped to play cello, he wrote (and I paraphrase) that however good or bad he may have been as a teacher, he never actually put anybody off music. That might seem like a pretty average achievement. But it is something that few music teachers could boast of.
Music is an area of human activity which is least suited to those teaching models commonly practised in schools – ie a person ‘with knowledge’ dispensing it to those ‘without knowledge’. Music is essentially speech of the heart. Appreciation of song and the creation of it comes from our very centre and is primarily a physical and emotional experience. The adrenaline rush of the early Beatles, the wrenching pull of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, the mischief of Mozart’s middle period piano concertos – such stuff moves and tingles the flesh. If a child wishes to play or participate in music, it is nearly always because music has already touched them in some profound and joyful physicality. They want to be able to speak the language that has quite literally touched their heart. What a child can most helpfully learn, is how to develop and pronounce this emotional physicality that is already inside them. Whilst children do sometimes need assistance with this, my problem with music lessons is that they often press a child to sing from a place that has no physical and emotional meaning for them – ie detached from their heart – and then music becomes a chore. The first time a child is reminded to do their music practice they are playing for some other reason than their heart’s delight and their heart’s need to speak. Nobody should have to drag their feet towards playing an instrument. In learning to play, create and experience music, children should not come to see it as a commodity transferred from the ‘knowing’ to the ‘ignorant’ like a sack of coal from a lorry to a shed. That will undermine any sense that they can derive music from within their own self.
It’s tempting for adults who think of themselves as unmusical, when they hear a child say, “I’d like to play a musical instrument” or watch them tinkling on an instrument, to think – hmm, I know nothing about music – I’ll send this child to an expert – a music teacher. Somebody who will be able to direct the child along a programme in a ‘structured’ way. How easy that is. The responsibility is then somebody else’s. The responsibility for finding out what the child might want to do is then the teachers. The trouble with this is that most teachers won’t really engage with the child’s heart and where it lies musically. Even if they do, they won’t do the little that needs to be done and then leave the child to get on with it. They’re being paid to teach and teach they must. Most will have a pre-set proscribed way of working – a set of steps or curriculum they will insist the child follows. This will probably not speak to that place in the child’s soul that is responding to music. And the child’s part in the process – which is learning about what they love and how to get more of it and revel in it, will be negated. They will be deprived of taking responsibility for their own learning. They will not learn how to learn or how to articulate music from the centre of themselves.
The child may like the experience of lessons for a while, but eventually, usually pretty soon, however good the teacher, a child ends up fed up of having a teacher calling the tune, and stops wanting to go. Or they get used to music being detached from their centre and become unable to live it and truly speak it. The fire goes out. Sometimes never to be rekindled. I know very few children who have grown up to be passionate musicians who have been pushed. I know of a great many musicians who have been pushed who grow up to hate music and drop out of it, often after mastering high grades and struggling through degrees in music. I rarely meet a classical musician who has the love of classical music that I have – and I have virtually no musical training despite having been a part-time theatre composer for most of my adult life. Many classical musicians I have talked to have dropped out of orchestras and talk cynically or bitterly about their experiences and their hatred of learning music from teachers. Even the ones that still like playing can rarely compose. They are terrified of it. Most (but not all) music teaching destroys a student’s ability to speak musically. Their love of music is shattered by instruction.
But if you feel you are not musical, and can hear your child singing like a nightingale in the nest and wonder should you be doing something to help, what might that be? If playing an instrument is not something that happened in your family, it can be a bit daunting when your child suddenly wants to twang at a guitar or saw at a fiddle. Most children however, need very little assistance. I have on many occasions, helped young people play an instrument, or write a song and given them ten minutes of my time, maybe even less. Often, the next time I see them, they are well on the way to mastering their craft and need no more help. There’s no great secret to it. Just find out what a child would love to do or play musically and help them do it. Helping them articulate what they want as a next step is simple enough – only a question: what would you really like to be able to play? But it means properly engaging with the child. (impossible in school.) There’s no-one going to do that location work better than the child’s parents. A child might have seen a peer playing music or hear a song that interests or inspires them. It is essential that whatever caused the spark is traced. It is important because that will mean a parent can get close to what the child is truly interested in,
So say for instance, a child wished to play a song on a guitar, the help they need is only twofold. Firstly get a guitar. Easy enough usually. Ireland must have more guitars per capita than all of Spain and Latin America combined. Every 2nd person I see in Cork is carrying one. An electric guitar is actually easier for a child to learn on than an acoustic. If you’re buying, this costs a bit more - as a small amp (80 euro) is necessary too - but it’s much easier to hold the strings down on an electric guitar, and a learner gets a better (more encouraging) sound. An classical (Spanish) acoustic guitar can be a problem as the necks are wide and hard to wrap the fingers around. A steel string acoustic is painful to play until pads have developed on the finger ends, and until the child develops strength in the wrist and fingers. The resultant noise is buzzy and unconvincing which is off-putting for an under confident beginner. The noise an electric guitar feels powerful even if badly played - and power is important to people who are not confident in learning an instrument. Don’t worry, anybody who learns to play electric guitar, quickly falls in love with acoustic guitars. Half sized guitars are easier for children to play too.
Secondly, there’s the learning – and in fact the small amount of information you’d need is on the net. Find out which song the child really loves and then google it for chord diagrams, or buy a songbook (with chord diagrams) from a music shop. Chord diagrams are just pictorial representations of where to put the fingers on the guitar neck. They’re very easy read and use. There’s even tutorials you can follow on youtube. Most popular songs have relatively few chords and if your child already knows the tune, a song book/chord diagram will provide the chords that get strummed underneath. I think most young people need ten minutes to half an hour with someone showing them how chord charts work, then they’ve probably enough information to go a long way on their own. I’ve found a Beatles songbook helps learners alot. (Actually, one other thing – you’ll need an electric tuner – circa fifteen euro.)
If a child wanted to play piano I’d follow a similar procedure. If it was a song, I’d get a piano chord book and work from that. If a child wants to learn a classical piece then it might be necessary to work from musical notation, but even this needn’t be too difficult My eldest son started with the Moonlight Sonata because that’s what he loved. I got some sheet music of a slightly simplified version of it (basically the piece in an easier key – with less black notes) and showed him how to play it section by section. My input was ten minutes, twice a week, for about a month. I think it was important that he really wanted to know how to play it and my input stopped when he could. As I was able translate all the crotchets and quavers for him, the process was reasonably easy for us. But if you can’t read music, it wouldn’t be difficult to get a friend (or a friend of a friend!) who can, to do exactly the same as we did, thereby avoiding a programme of instruction set out by a teacher. My son very soon learned how to read for himself and so could progress without help.
From this small bit of assistance, I’ve found most children can go a very long way musically. Interest might wax and wane, but the process of as little interference as possible, just helping when it is absolutely necessary, means that the child only plays music when they want to and when they have an inner desire to do so, thereby never killing their love of music or playing it. They gradually learn to locate and nurture the spark of musical creativity for themselves, which is empowering and enables them to self-structure other areas of their learning.
I’m not saying one should never ask an expert or teacher for help in aiding your child towards their goal. But make damn sure it is going as directly as possible to that goal. And be prepared to check with quite a few different people whether it is the most direct route possible. Many music teachers would insist on all sorts of ‘preparatory study’ before allowing a pupil to progress. When I took up the piano at the age of 30, I desperately wanted to be able to play Chopin and Rachmaninov. For three months I was playing Three Blind Mice and Home on the Range in a music school with a very nice teacher, before I gave up and bought myself the sheet music of Rachmaninov’s C sharp minor Prelude. A very demanding and difficult piece – so full of flats that to read a single chord took fifteen minutes of patient study. Because I really wanted to play it, I was playing it within a year, without much outside help. I knew a musician who answered my occasional questions about reading the music.
If you are interested in helping your child approach music, one of the best things you can do is play and listen to music yourself without reference to your children. If you know nothing about music, learn something. Learning to read music is fairly simple. Much simpler than it looks. Let your own love for music be in the house. Learn an instrument yourself. Listen to the music you love. Not with an aim of indoctrinating your child with your choices, but if you enjoy the music you love, you will be creating an environment in which music is valued. Go out to listen to music, a band you’re interested in or an orchestra. And have fun with music. If your children are around someone who plays with music, they will be more likely to be able to do so themselves.
As my own children were growing up, pre-teens, I was constantly making up songs for theatre shows I was involved in. I made these up around the children, snatching half hours here and there. I never thought that what I was doing was in any way educational. So I was quite shocked – astounded even – when my youngest son, at the age of ten, out of nowhere, never having showed any musical inclination, invited us to listen to a song he had made up that was lyrically and musically complete and arranged. By living with someone who often composed music, he’d drunk it all in subliminally. He never needed lessons – and in fact went on to teach me more about music than I ever have taught him.
Helping a child build the fire of their musical passion, one must go twig by twig. As slowly as the child needs to go. And often that means leaving six months or six years before offering the next bit of help. Grown ups just need to keep out of it until asked, and then give just as little or as much as is requested – sometimes only a single word or a single chord might appropriately be offered. The process, like all real learning, (ie not the battery farm cramming of school) needs oxygen, space, time. Western civilisation seems to cause a detachment from what our hearts yearn to say. So although the heart’s utterance is rarely so profound as in song, we are easily struck dumb. That is why much gentleness and sensitivity is needed in helping children speak the most sublime and universal of languages.

Friday, 27 June 2014

This Wooden O


The Story of Kinsale College’s Amphitheatre.

Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?
Or may we cram within this wooden O
the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?

Around the turn of the millennium, my wife Belinda, was invited to run a theatre course for adults at Kinsale college. John Thuillier, the then Principal, was an educational visionary who had already set up the best Outdoor Education Course in the country and an arts faculty that was refreshing and different. We were allowed to design a fun, exciting and practical training where students could experiment with acting in a free and uninhibited way. It was quite unlike any other professional drama training in Ireland or any of the headbound University courses. One early difficulty for the course though, was a theatre. We didn’t have one. Though, back then, we had three light and airy rooms for rehearsals, when it came to performing our productions, we had to move house – pack everything into a lorry and tumble into the Town Hall, or a venue in Cork. Building our own theatre, never seemed an option. Who thinks like that? Well, Rob Hopkins did, fortunately for us.   
Once a drama training had been established, a permaculture course was next to take root in Kinsale college. As it was the only such course on the planet, people came from all over the wide world to join it. The numbers overwhelmed. Permaculture aims to create a more sustainable way of living with the earth. It emphasises the provision of local needs with the least destruction to the world and its resources possible. Rob Hopkins, (leader of the course) was interested in his students serving the college community and asked Belinda what the drama course needed. Only a theatre, she said. And so the idea of a mini-Shakespeare’s Globe, made from natural building materials and sitting in the grounds of Kinsale College, was born. Rob and Belinda were, of course, both quite mad.
Why the Globe? Partly because the sort of natural building techniques that the Permaculture students were using were common in Shakespeare’s day, and also because Belinda has this slight infatuation with a man from Stratford – though not the Shakespeare of set texts in the junior and leaving certs. There is a very different Shakespeare to that ghastly fellow, and people mostly love him when they meet him. Although Belinda was interested in all aspects of theatre, mime, clowning, tragedy, masks – she had just been to see the Globe in London and was fired up about creating a smaller version on the college grounds with Rob and the permaculture hordes. And so, with plans drawn on the back of an envelope, Rob set to work with a team of Permies (as they were affectionately known) and in a matter of months raised an odd-looking, but strangely attractive stage (a theatre that Bilbo Baggins might act on and not seem out of place). It was made out of cob (straw and mud) with wood frames. 

Rosalind from college production of As You Like It. Photo by John Allen.

Colossal cedar beams held up the turf roof. With a view to practicality, I was at first perturbed at my wife’s eagerness to stage a large end-of-term play in a theatre so completely open to the elements. Any actor, stepping onto the apron of the stage in a downpour would have been immediately drenched. And as for the audience ... well, there were no walls and no roof for the groundlings, or any spectator. There were benches in a semi-circle that formed, with the rest of the theatre, a large ‘O’. But protection from the ravages of nature? There was none. And in Ireland, if I might import a quote, ‘the rain it raineth every day’. Or at least, sometimes it seems so. For some reason, this didn’t seem to overly concern Rob or Belinda. Faith, I dare say, wears no mackintosh.
It was however, a tremendous achievement to get a performance space ready for the end of term play, the Merry Wives of Windsor. We rehearsed in this open air arena, like ancient Greeks but without their blue skies and dusty olive groves. It wasn’t until the show went on that I realised that the amphitheatre was something out of the ordinary. The play electrified the audience. Of course, it is a great play, and the actors excelled. But there was more to it than that. The space had a magic that modern theatres entirely lack. The Globe and all early Elizabethan theatres, were designed to maximize contact with the audience: to connect with playgoers in as direct a way as possible. A modern theatre seeks to distance the audience from the actors. In Kinsale amphitheatre, the audience are in the play. Not in a way that will discomfort or embarrass them. In a way that will enchant and enthral. 
Jacques from college production of As You Like It. Photo by John Allen                                                        
That first spring – in early May, the weather held all week. The air was a little refrigerated. I was playing mandolin in musical accompaniment to the play and my fingers once went a funny blue colour. It was something though, to watch Falstaff’s antics with an awareness of a starry infinity overhead. We all realised, the permaculture students had raised something rare and unique. Alas, Rob Hopkins left for England before the amphitheatre went much further. But not before starting the Transition Town movement (now an international phenomenon) in Kinsale, from the college. The baton was taken up by lecturer Graham Strouts, with assistance from Paul O’Flynn, and gradually, year on year, the amphitheatre has been improved and enlarged by diligent permaculture students. Walls grew and backs appeared for the benches. But most difficult of all, was the provision of a roof for the audience. We knew our meteorological luck couldn’t hold out forever; but how could we prop up canopy across the wide auditorium? Nobody wanted great pillars obscuring the spectacle of a play. Eventually, Christie Collard from Future Forests arrived and designed a reciprocal roof: impossible Escher-like cross struts which suspended a roof above the audience like a conjuring trick. Christie’s experience with natural building, meant that he shaped structures entirely in keeping with the beautiful and idiosyncratic appearance of the theatre. Travel where you will, there is nothing like it. It is pretty and unusual as Elizabethan architecture was, because, as with buildings constructed back then, the amphitheatre has grown organically. Instead of the prefabricated square and rectangular monstrosities that modern architects inflict upon the landscape, this wooden O is human. The grass roof is a little prairie on the house. Throughout, the theatre is an arcadia of trunks and beams. The place seems to have a sense of humour and is full of inbuilt jokes, the windows being made from recycled portholes of washing machines. In a world that is becoming increasingly regulated and conformist, it is part throwback, partly a dream of the future. One could almost say, the amphitheatre is a physical embodiment of the spirit of the drama course it serves. Always growing, always different, always human, busily creative and comedic.
For many years, hardened amphitheatre devotees sat on hard seats and braved the chill of evenings in early May by arriving with cushions and even sleeping bags. Those days, for good and bad, are pretty much gone. The Auditorium is soon to get a thorough draughtproofing and stuffed seats. It’s not centrally heated, but on a May evening, there is no longer any danger of blue fingers or toes. I like to think that it’s the sort of place Shakespeare’s ghost visits now and then. Arriving unseen through the thick walls, seating himself at the back and enjoying plays – all manner of plays – even his own, in one of the most intimate and thrilling auditoriums a person could ever visit. 
photo by John Allen

Kinsale College:

Christie Collard and Future Forests:

Rob Hopkins and Transition Towns

photo by Alicia Falvey