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Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



Teaching Thoughts Pt 4 – Pleasing parents is bad for the student.

July 9th, 2008 · Comments Off on Teaching Thoughts Pt 4 – Pleasing parents is bad for the student.

One of the things I most like about teaching electric bass is that very few kids are ever told by their parents to play it. ‘You need to learn piano/violin/clarinet because I never had the chance’ is the bane of so many teacher’s lives and one of the main driving forces behind kids giving up playing an instrument as soon as they are afford a degree of self determination by their parents.

In all my time teaching bass (15 years) I think I’ve had 3 students ask to do graded exams. In the same time over half the parents that have brought their kids to me have asked whether or not it would be a good idea. There’s an assumption in education these days that people a) need some kind of external certificated validation in order to measure where they are up to and b) that without that, students will lack motivation and will just slack off because no-one’s telling them what to do.

For me as a teacher it’s imperative to get across to my students – especially the younger ones – that them not practicing has no impact on me whatsoever. I can just pick up where we left off in the last lesson as though the time were continuous. The point of practice is never to placate me. Practice serves two purposes – it’s enjoyable (if done right) and you get better – the two are clearly deeply linked. The idea that practice has to be torturous is another crap hang-over from the music education of the early 20th century, where suffering was a signal of how serious you were about what you’re doing. That’s clearly bollocks, especially for people with families, friends, jobs, school work and other interests. Practice time should be valued time in and of itself not just for the pay-off. The pay-off makes it even better, but playing an instrument should be fun!

That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require a large degree of self-discipline, commitment and focus, it’s just that we’re selling kids short by telling them that those things can’t be enjoyable!

These are all elements in my reasoning for not following a syllabus. If a students comes into a lesson, tells me about a gig they just went to, and I then teach them something the band they’ve just seen – whether it be an actual song by them, or something that can be drawn from that music – they can pulled a little closer to the magic at the heart of music. The gap between them and the music they love is lessened and the feeling that the magic is in their reach is heightened.

At the heart of what I teach is a desire to help the student write and play music that can change the world. It might not, but the desire to play the songs that have soundtracked their life – whether that’s Mozart or Metallica, Stockhausen or Stock, Aitken And Waterman – and to then create their own music is what drives individuals to learn an instrument, and pandering to the wishes of pushy parents who want lil’ Tommy to get certificates so they can brag to the other mums and dads about the distinction he scored in his grade 3 exam is the death-knell of lil’ Tommy’s musical aspiration.

Parental encouragement is often an utterly vital and energising force in the music-life of a student. I still take inspiration from my mum’s on going encouragement of what I do, and am thankfully big enough to ignore the distain with which my dad views my musical endeavours. Channeled in the right way, parents can be integral to the musical growth of a student. But if pushy parents are allowed to ride roughshod over what Tommy actually wants to do with music, he’ll end up as one of the 95% who give up before they are 18, and may resent it for decades to come.

We’re your parents an encouragement or a hindrance to your creative path? Comments pleeeeeze

Tags: bass ideas · Musing on Music · teaching news · tips for musicians

Teaching ideas part 1. There's no electric bass in most orchestras.

July 4th, 2008 · Comments Off on Teaching ideas part 1. There's no electric bass in most orchestras.

The state of contemporary music teaching in the UK is terrible. Actually, the state of music teaching across the board is pretty awful. But at least with the classical stuff, the method makes sense, even if so many of the teachers are failing to inspire the students (do a straw poll of the people you know, find out how many played an instrument as a kid, and how many quit in their late teens. The percentages should be 90% keeping it up. In reality, well under 5% of the people I know have stuck with it…)

The huge problem with the way that pop/rock/jazz/punk/funk etc. is taught in the UK is that most of the methods are still based around the classical idea that you’re learning repertoire. If you’re learning an orchestral instrument to play orchestral music, there is an expectation that you’ll play your instrument a certain way, learn how to take direction from a conductor and play the way other people want you to. That’s what orchestral musicians get hired to do. Because of this, a set of graded exams that measure how far along that widely recognised scale you are is a great way of providing benchmarks on your journey towards proficiency.

I think I’m on fairly safe ground stating that pretty much no-one takes up the electric bass (or guitar, or drums) in order to play in an orchestra. People play bass for a couple of different reasons – MOST (not all, but most) people take up bass to a) play the music they love listening to and b) form a band with some mates. (Despite bass being the greatest solo instrument on God’s green earth, those are the primary reasons people play it 🙂 )

I think it’s fairly obvious to anyone who stops to think about it that there’s no set path to aims as nebulous as ‘playing the music you love’ – what is the music you love? any stylistic boundaries? Any desire to put your own spin on it? At what point does writing your own music become important in the journey?

There are a million questions that can be asked, and the answers are different for every single person. Sadly, this wasn’t taken into consideration when most of the bass teaching materials I’ve ever come across were prepared – the old model of taking the student through a set course, as though this was the repertoire they’d need, is still the way that instruments are taught in our ‘post-repertoire age’.

I’ve never liked the idea of graded exams, I don’t like the way it says that your ability to play a particular piece, or to sight read (whether or not your area of musical interest requires it), or in the case of the ‘rock school’ grades, to ‘improvise’ in a style are measured against any kind of fixed criteria. It seems to fly completely in the face of what makes music special.

Most of all it ignores the fact that pop music is essentially folk music – music BY the people and FOR the people. It’s not an academic exercise, measurable metrically and verifiable by an examination board, it’s about self-expression, shared language and history, identity, culture, branding, etc. etc.

So what am I saying? That all music teaching is futile? That music colleges are a waste of time? Clearly not. What is vital though is that the skills being taught and how they are measured have to be demonstrably related to the end result.

I have a few rules for myself when teaching, and number one is that Context Is Everything. A huge part of the value of having lessons is learning how to learn – how to extract valuable principles and concepts from whatever the actual material is that’s being looked at. Whether it’s a group of notes (key/chord/scale), a rhythmic subdivision, the bassline to a song or an approach to improvising, there are lessons within the material that are found by playing with it in context. Remove the context, and the material becomes sterile.

I refer to this distinction in lessons as ‘active learning‘ and ‘passive learning‘ – passive learning is about learning the material as is, ticking a box and moving on. ‘active learning’ looks at what’s there and says ‘what can I deduce from this? What does this tell me about the way music works? what does this tell me about the style I’m exploring? What does this give me in terms of skills needed to write and perform my own music?’

Those are things that are incredibly hard to map out as a mark-scheme for an exam. Incredibly hard, but not impossible. It just relies on the exam board recognising the value in the musical relationship between teacher and student, the shared journey towards the student playing the music they love, and being able to express the music they hear in their head.

How we start to break down those aims is part 2…

Feel free to post your own experiences – good and bad – with music education, in the comments!

Tags: bass ideas · Musing on Music · teaching news · tips for musicians