Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Initial thoughts on conducting

It's now been 2 years since I first started conducting, which seems like a good point to reflect on what I've learned and put into writing my initial thoughts on what conducting is actually about.

First of all though, what isn't conducting about?

  • It shouldn't be an ego trip - the point is not to make yourself look good but ensemble sound good - and it's not about asserting the superiority of your point of view to the exclusion of everyone else's.
  • There isn't a magic solution or system that will enable anyone to suddenly conduct really well.
  • It's not about learning and then repeating a set of gestures for a specific piece - you can't learn a 'right' way of conducting a particular work. Similarly although there are 'schools' and systems of conducting, it isn't enough to learn and then copy a specific conducting style - your gestures have to be individual so you know what it is they're meant to communicate and can adapt them depending on the response of each ensemble.
It's also important to recognise that conducting as we know it today (as opposed to the role of a music director) is a fairly modern idea, having first developed in the nineteenth century. Berlioz and Liszt were among the first conductors in the sense we would recognise, and therefore there is much music where a first step must be to consider whether a conductor is necessary at all.

So what is conducting?

  • Ultimately it is about doing what is necessary to make an ensemble sound as good as possible and helping musicians play to their full potential.

So first of all, it involves choosing the right repertoire for each particular concert and group, based on factors such as the venue, standard or players, and type of concert. Choosing the wrong music might not matter, or just be slightly unfortunate but it can be a major issue, and it's one of the things I've found surprisingly difficult.

  • I think one of the most crucial elements of conducting is flexibility - every piece, ensemble, and even each rehearsal needs a different approach in order to get the best results, and the nature of that result is constantly changing as well.
  • At the same time, that flexibility has to be paired with a strong certainty about the musical result that you're trying to achieve, and an overall conception of how the piece should sound. A conductor has to adapt their gestures in order to get as close to the ideal result as possible, whether that be simplifying them to make the beat clearer or changing them completely if they don't have the desired effect - thinking on the spot is important as well!
  • It is about making decisions - despite the frequently repeated idea that conductors are in service to the score and the composer, what we are really there to do is making interesting, exciting, stimulating performances, and as not all the information to do so is in the score that entails taking responsibility for making choices about the music and creating an interpretation.
  • Conducting means enabling the musicians in the ensemble to work together effectively. Ultimately the conductor isn't actually making the music, the players are, and conducting is about helping them work together to create an effective performance - to do this it's important to understand what they players need from you before and during rehearsals and performances.
I could go on, but I think I'll leave my thoughts on this particular topic there for now, and maybe update this post if I'm struck by any new thoughts.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Music and silence


This weekend some thoughts about performances and concerts struck me that aren't regularly discussed but that I think are very interesting, and worth examining briefly. As well as doing some conducting at the National Concert Band Festival (where I heard my old group, Northamptonshire County Youth Concert Band) I also went to see some shows put on in Oxford by friends of mine (A Little Night Music and Hansel and Gretel - both fantastic). In each performance it was the end that really struck me.

It seems to me that the very best performances often create a very special, almost magical, atmosphere as they draw to a close - whether they end softly or with a bang (although I guess it is more common in the former). The audience's attention is captivated so completely that they remain under the spell of the music for a few seconds after it has finished, held in place by the continuing effect of what they have just heard. I don't think this is necessarily a return to reality from escapism - music often forces us to confront various aspects of our lives, whether directly, as in Britten's War Requiem, or through the experiences we associate with particular works. Instead I think it's more of a return to the present from the temporal ebb and flow of the music, and maybe also to a different, less intensely aesthetic perception of our surroundings - but this is really just speculation on my part.

Of course, there are also some exceptional performances where the audience immediately explodes into applause, but I think those times when that special silence descends makes us realise how much power we have as musicians to capture people's attention. For me, it also serves as a reminder of why I love music, and why I chose to study it - it can be easy to lose track of that sometimes when I'm fighting through essay deadlines or struggling with a particularly dense section of a fugue.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Minimalist Design

I've been going to some careers fairs and thinking about marketing and advertising recently, and one of the companies that struck me most was M&C Saatchi. Their adverts stood out from everyone else's, as did their slogan 'brutal simplicity of thought'. This reminded me of a blog post by Antrepo (a design consultancy) which featured product packaging redesigned in minimalist fashion. The results are quite striking - in almost every case I prefer a more simplified design to the one that is actually in use, and it made me realise how complex the original designs are.

Of course, there are other issues at play in the packaging and design a company chooses for any particular product - food has to include nutritional information, and brands want to have an identity - but I think there is a lot of room for greater simplicity. If brands want to stand out then simple and beautiful design is one way to do so. I suspect most consumers are so used to being overwhelmed with advertising and marketing information that they don't properly register most of what is presented to them anyway, and a 'brutally simple' minimalist design - at least on the front of the packaging - would actually stand out better than clutter.

On the other hand, I also suspect this contradicts a lot of the advice that major corporations receive. Great design is rare enough that companies such as Apple and Dyson can make it a defining feature of their brands, and charge much greater sums of money as a result.

Destroying Pianos & Modern Musical Culture

I read this rather interesting BBC article on destroying pianos the other day: BBC News - Will your piano end up in the dump? It was fantastic to read something in the mainstream national media dealing with the sociological aspects of music history, as it is so often swept under the carpet and ignored.

The huge demand for pianos at the turn of the twentieth century is a significant point in the history of amateur music making, which goes back to the second half of the eighteenth century, when pianos were first manufactured in London. I've been doing some reading on this recently for my Keyboard Sonata essays, and it's fascinating how many aspects of our current musical culture can be traced back to some key developments around 250 years ago, such as the beginnings of public concerts, the development of the musical canon, and the appearance of a divide between popular and classical music.

The current move to digital music consumption and production is the next big shift in our musical culture, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the next few years. I suspect that it will be rather less than 100 years before today's digital keyboards become obsolete.

Monday, 22 October 2012

The Media News

This is just a quick post to say that I've decided to cover a slightly more diverse range of topics in the future. I've had to take a slight break from this blog in the last few weeks because of work commitments, and in the meantime I've realised that I want to include more about my interest in technology and other forms of media. I'll still be mainly writing about music, but there will be more posts on other topics as well. I'm going to use this blog still, rather than creating a new one, for the sake of convenience. There should be some more posts on the way in the very near future!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Can't you hear yourself? (The X Factor)

I was watching The X Factor last night and thinking briefly about some of the issues behind what must surely be the most popular music programme on TV at the moment. I'm sure that most people don't give such things a second thought, but I find the questions that pop music and TV raise in relation to music fascinating.

Although I find programmes like The X Factor to be at the very least frustrating, and often completely exasperating to watch, it's clear that a lot of people love it, and there still doesn't seem to be any shortage of applicants. Of course, the auditions themselves vary hugely in quality - in fact, a lot of people enjoy watching the terrible auditions more than the final rounds - and for me that raises very interesting questions about self-awareness and hearing in relation to music. Why is it that some people think they are singing in tune and with good tone but sound awful, while others are very good but don't really seem to realise it, seeming shocked when people like what they hear? It often seems as though people simply cannot hear themselves when they sing.

I think there is a common issue lying behind many of these auditions, which is not lack of pitch recognition or musicality (although they are clearly problems for a significant number of applicants!), but lack of musical or auditory self-awareness, by which I mean the ability to proactively and critically listen to themselves, and the sound they make in relation to others. I suspect this stems from two main factors (although I must proceed with the caveat that I don't really know anything about the musical backgrounds of the contestants for definite).

Firstly, the majority of the contestants seem not to have had any genuine, sustained musical or vocal tuition, in a group or individual context. I'm also not sure that many of them have ever spent very much time singing with other people. When I look back on my musical training so far, self-awareness appears as a constant theme, although it didn't necessarily seem so at the time, especially when I was younger. This is because whether it is developed consciously or not, self-awareness or proactive listening is important for someone to become a skilled musical performer. Without being able to judge how you sound and compare it to what you want others to hear it is much harder for a performer to either improve their skills or perform music to a high standard. It is this proactive listening that you learn when comparing your performance to that of a teacher in a lesson, or when trying to match intonation and tone quality with the other members of a choir. If contestants on The X Factor have not had musical training or spent time developing their listening skills then they will often not have learned to really think critically about what they hear when singing. Therefore they will not be able to get an accurate sense of how they sound to other people, or improve very significantly, which goes a long way to explaining both why they are bad, and why they don't know how good or bad they are.

Secondly, the format of the auditions means that the vast majority of applicants sing along to a backing track. I suspect (although again I don't know for sure) that most of them therefore practice by singing along to the track in question, which means that they probably don't focus enough on how they actually sound. When working with recordings it is easy to get lost in passively following the track, and therefore assume you are putting across a particular performance rather than analysing what is actually happening. This can result in a rather nasty surprise when trying to perform in a different context.

These two factors do not provide a full picture, but I think they are intriguing starting points for an explanation of why people seem to completely misjudge the nature of their abilities and performances on talent shows. (Although I suppose I could just be over thinking the whole question - maybe they know they're bad and just want to get on TV?)

We hear lots about how music can help with fostering team work and cooperation, but there seems to be less about how it can help the individual. Surely the fact that music-making can improve self-awareness, an important skill in every area of life, is another argument in favour of increased musical participation in schools, and something that deserves to be considered in music education?

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Stradivarius Obsession

This morning I have been reading (via Gizmodo) the news that someone has discovered a method for treating wood with fungus in order to make violins good enough to rival the famous Stradivarius models. Apparently one of the reasons for the legendary tone of the Stradivarius violins is that the wood they are made from is particularly dense and also highly elastic, properties that are ideal for encouraging resonance in a violin but also very hard to recreate. Treating certain types of timber with two specific species of fungus alters the wood to make it closer to that ideal, and therefore excellent for violin making - so good, in fact, that 'in a blind test a panel of experts was unable to distinguish the fake Stradivarius from the real thing.'

This is hardly the first such story to emerge from the woodwork, I'm sure it won't be the last, and I'm also sure I'm not alone in treating these reports with a a rather large dose of scepticism. For much of the media, the word 'Stradivarius' seems to have a special quality and attraction. I think this is because it is such a recognisable name, even for many people with almost no interest in classical music, and therefore radiates potential for a slightly unusual, quirky story on a subject (classical music) that most people find a bit boring.

Whatever the reason, I suspect similar stories will keep appearing. Which is a shame, because it's all a bit ridiculous, and not really that interesting once you realise how pointless the whole thing is.

I'm no expert on violins, but the fact that so many people hold Stradivarius violins in such high regard is enough to make me believe they have some special qualities. On the other hand, just as with many other musical figures (Josquin, Mozart, Beethoven), the reality has clearly been distorted by mystique and legend. Stradivarius violins may be exceptional, but there have no doubt been many other outstanding models created since then, of which this new version made from fungus treated wood is just the latest. The idea of comparing them in a blind 'taste' test is pointless for so many reasons - surely there must be better things to talk about in the musical world, especially regarding the intersection with technology, than these clearly ridiculous 'experiments'? What about how technology is helping disabled people make music (as at the Paralympics)? What about the future of musical notation and input with touch sensitive devices? This Stradivarius research and the subsequent articles are a vaguely interesting diversion for a few minutes, but nothing more, and it is such a shame that these are the aspects of classical music that get written about. Let's try and move on from our Stradivarius obsession shall we? They're good, yes, but they're not going to make me play like Joshua Bell, and not having one isn't going to make Joshua Bell sound like me.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Finding concerts

I often feel that trying to find out what concerts and shows are happening in a particular place on a specific day is quite difficult. The internet and search engines make things much easier of course, but finding out if there is something happening that you might want to go and see is still quite a long process. Trawling through the websites of every group you know of takes a long time, and their events calendars tend to include tours rather than gigs in a specific location. There are various websites that aim to let people know what's going on in a particular city, but they are often of dubious quality, tend to leave things out, and can't really be tailored to your specific tastes.

Because of this I've been wondering if there would be value in a customisable service that collated information from various sources and then kept people informed and updated about concerts, gigs, or events in general. You could choose a place, group, or act that you were interested in and then either receive updates when there was an event happening soon or get complete listings. The value would be in the customisable element - there are very few people interested in absolutely everything happening on any given night of the week in a place like Birmingham, for instance, and from my experience it would be very useful. It's actually something that Google seems to be trying to offer as part of their drive towards more personal search results. Now a Google search for a film provides times for cinemas near your location, but their service doesn't seem to cover music yet, and isn't very thorough.

This was one of the resources that I intended to provide on this blog when I first started it - hence the events pages and calendar - but at the time it proved to be too time-intensive. I'm thinking of starting it up again in a slightly different format similar to that described above, so if you are interested or know of a service similar to what I've just described (in which case I would probably sign up!) your feedback either here or on twitter (@andywarnock) would be very welcome.

Welsh National Opera: Things Classical Music Costs Less Than

This is the second in the new series of posts I'm writing on 'Things Classical Music Costs Less Than' and I've decided to take a slightly different, more local, approach this time, looking the Welsh National Opera's production of La Bohème.

The basic idea is to contrast the cost of classical music with other activities or purchases to show that great live music is much cheaper than many people think. However, in the first post in the series (which looked at the BBC Proms) the things that I chose to compare a ticket to were fairly random. Having thought about it, in the future I'm going to compare ticket costs with local activities that are actual alternatives to going to a concert, rather than with different types of products. In this case, I'll be focusing on Cardiff, as although the WNO is a touring opera company, they are based at the Welsh Millenium Centre


WNO - La Bohème at the Welsh Millenium Centre: £12 £5 - £40
Both the WNO and Welsh Millenium Centre websites advertise £5 as the cheapest ticket price for this production, and although I couldn't seem to find any that were available (they may have sold out or be concession prices) £12 is still very cheap. Having sat in some of the cheapest seats in this particular theatre, I can testify that they aren't so far away that everything will pass you by!
This production is sung in Italian, with surtitles in both English and Welsh, and has had plenty of good reviews (from The Telegraph, The Guardian, and The Arts Desk among others), so should appeal to both newcomers and opera regulars alike.
If you're not in Cardiff then this production will also appear in Swansea, Llandudno, Birmingham, Oxford, Liverpool, Southampton, and Bristol.

Update: The WNO has informed me that £5 tickets are available for everyone, not just concessions, but they might get sold out - I assume that's why I couldn't see any. That makes it even better value, and cheaper than a few other events, including some of Glamorgan's cricket matches.


Wales vs Argentina at the Millenium Stadium: £32.40 - £42.70
This is the first match of the autumn for the Welsh national rugby team against Argentina, and although tickets for children under 16 are £11.35, the cheapest adult ticket is more than double the price of a ticket to La Bohème. For the match against Australia there are some cheaper tickets, but the most expensive goes up to £73.80.



John Bishop - Rollercoaster: £34
For those who like having their funny bones tickled, the popular standup comic John Bishop is also performing at the Motorpoint arena next week. However, despite all the tickets that are left being the same price, getting in is only £6 less than the most expensive seat for La Bohème.



Cage Warriors Fighting Championship 49: £26.50 - £41.50
If mixed martial arts is your thing, then you'll be please to know that the Cage Warriors Fighting Championship, 'Europe's leading mixed martial arts organisation' is coming to Wales for the first time in October. You may not be so pleased to hear that the cheapest ticket is more than double the cost of the cheapest ticket to La Bohème.




Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds: £50.75 - £65.50
This weekend Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, the former Oasis guitarist's new band, perform at the Cardiff Motorpoint Arena, but the cheapest ticket costs £10 more than the most expensive ticket to La Bohème.



George Michael - Symphonica, The Orchestral Tour: £83.60 - £100.10
After his recent performance at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics George Michael has resumed his Symphonica tour, and will be performing in Cardiff for two nights in October. However, the tickets are rather expensive, and if you find paying £83 to see George Michael a bit steep, you and several friends could probably get the cheapest seats to La Bohème, as well as a rather nice dinner, for the same price.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

BBC Proms: Things Classical Music Costs Less Than

For the first in this new series of posts on 'Things classical music costs less than' I thought I'd focus on the BBC Proms. The Proms are (as far as I'm aware) the world's largest classical music festival and, I suspect, also the most open and accesible - but how does the price of a ticket compare to other products for sale?



BBC Proms Arena/Gallery Ticket: £5
'Promenading in the Royal Albert Hall's arena continues to be a central feature'. Hundreds of £5 arena and gallery tickets are made available on the day for every concert. Admittedly you potentially have to stand during the concert, and queue for several hours if the concert is a popular one, but the having the option to turn up on the day and get a ticket for such a cheap price is quite special. Also, if you buy an arena or gallery season ticket for £190 it gets you into all 76 proms, which works out at just £2.50 per concert without needing to queue! If you really have to have a seat Circle tickets start at £7.50 for some concerts anyway.



Cinema Ticket: £5.50 - 9.50
Even the cheapest ticket at the Odeon cinema in Oxford (for a child at off-peak times) is more expensive than a Proms ticket, and the most expensive (for an adult at peak times) is nearly double the 
price.


Tesco Finest Parm Reggiano: £8/0.5kg
I don't know much about cheese, I guess this is pretty good cheese.

Kindle ebook: £9.99
Admittedly books, especially ebooks, vary enormously in price, so this is just an example to demonstrate that a good book by a popular author can quite easily be twice the price of a Proms ticket.


Abercrombie and Fitch boxers: £20
Yes, a pair of Abercrombie and Fitch boxers costs four times as much as a proms ticket.


1 litre of Tanqueray Gin: £25
This is good gin. Five times as much as a proms ticket though.


Things Classical Music Costs Less Than

I've been thinking recently about how classical music is perceived by the general public (for lack of a better phrase). It seems to me that many people still see it as elitist (in a bad sense) and exclusive but in my experience that couldn't be further from the truth, at least when referring to attending concerts. Obviously there are still issues with the affordability of music lessons, but the majority of people who listen to pop music don't play instruments - you don't have to be a performer to be a listener. In fact, in the age of Spotify, YouTube, and other internet music services listening to good music has never been cheaper or easier.

I recently read an article by David Conn called 'Follow the Money' about the role of money in the history of professional football. What struck me most in the article was the fact that last season 'the cheapest ticket to see... Chelsea, play a top Premier League match was £56.' I have never paid that much to see a concert, and don't see myself doing so in the near future - I don't have to in order to hear some great music.

That article, and the fascinating tumblr blog 'Things Apple Is Worth More Than' have inspired me to start a new series of posts: 'Things Classical Music Costs Less Than', comparing the price of tickets to various classical concerts to other (random) items. This is a bit of an experiment, and to some extent I'll probably be working it out as I go along, but I think it'll be interesting, and hopefully it has the potential to open people's eyes to just how easy it is to listen to some great classical music live.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Review round up: Dr Dee (ENO)

This week has seen the opening of Damon Albarn's 'Dr Dee' at the ENO and the reviews of both the production and the album seem somewhat mixed. This is actually a revised version - it was first staged at the Manchester festival last year - in its first extended run, with performances at the Coliseum until the 7th of July.

In some ways it is really no surprise that there are differing views, as this is an unusual experiment, combining a pop musician with a pit orchestra and other elements of 'classical opera'. It seems that opinion is divided on what to refer to it as: is it an opera or musical theatre, and where does the album fit in? As a result how you view 'conventional' opera, pop music in general, and Doman Albarn's style are all significant factors in how you will view the production. That reviewers' opinions affect what they write is obvious to a certain extent, but productions like this tend to bring prejudices and tastes to the fore. While some (such as Kieron Quirke and Rupert Christiansen) value the creativity and artistry of the staging, others thought it the opera was indistinct, that any good numbers were let down by other poor songs. Michael Church in particular felt that Albarn 'blew his chances to do something original with the musicians at his disposal'.

On the other hand, there are some common themes: most reviewers criticised the lack of drama and a cohesive, intelligible narrative, which was not helped by the lack of surtitles (which are standard in the vast majority of ENO productions). There also seemed to be other production issues, such as inaudible vocals (which are amplified - demonstrating the enormous skill and technical ability required for opera singers to be heard over a full orchestra), although these may get ironed out.

Despite the criticism I think the ENO should be applauded for trying to do something new and different with opera. It's also not really a surprise that the album which has also been released isn't an unqualified succes - this production is clearly built around visual as much as audible elements, so a potential lack of variety and cohesion is not surprising.

If you like Damon Albarn's voice and style, have an appetite for something new, and don't mind feeling left a bit out of the loop while watching then it seems like Dr Dee might be for you.


Independent:
Edward Seckerson (thumbs up)
Michael Church (2/5 stars)

Guardian:
Andrew Clements (3/5 stars)

Daily Telegraph:
Rupert Christiansen (4/5 stars)

Evening Standard:
Kieron Quirke (4/5 stars)


Londonist:
Franco Milazzo (thumbs down)

BBC (album not production):
Martin Aston (thumbs up)

NME (album not production):
Eddie Smack (5/10)

The Scotsman (album not production):
Fiona Shepherd (4/5 stars)

Cherwell (album not production):
Samuel Parsons (thumbs down)

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Blur & Twitter

Blur, who are performing a concert in Hyde Park at the close of the Olympics, are going to stream two of their new songs via Twitter on the second of July. This sounds like a good idea to me - it's something that I don't think has been done very often and Twitter has the potential to draw in new viewers very quickly.

On the other hand, I'm not exactly sure why Blur are doing this. As a marketing idea it appears to be part of the current trend to give your music away for free, in order to draw people to live events or merchandise. But Blur have already sold out their Olympic concert, and the only other gigs they have coming up are some smaller warm-up dates, and they don't even have an album about to be released.

It's still a cool thing for them to be doing, but I think it would be far more useful for groups about to release an album and go on tour, especially those without the backing of vast advertising campaigns (or perhaps to replace those campaigns and therefore lower costs). We'll see whether this idea takes off or not, but I can see it being quite useful, and a possible way for Twitter (and Facebook) to make money.

Sky news: Blur To Debut New Songs Live On Twitter

Spice Girls: The Musical?

Well this is certainly an interesting story: it seems that a Spice Girls musical is imminent. I'm not really sure what to make of this to be honest.

On the one hand, I'm not really very keen on their music (aside from in a 90s nostalgia kind of way) and musicals based on pop group's songs tend not to be the most sophisticated of artistic endeavours - musical theatre has much more to offer as an art form than a plot tenuously linking together a selection of hits. On the other hand, Jennifer Saunders is very funny, and therefore this could be too.

We'll just have to wait and see how it turns out I guess, but I'm sceptical. At least it adds a slightly different twist to the band reunions which have been happening so often lately.

Spice Girls Reunite For Launch Of New Musical

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Music education and Out of the Blue

Over the past few days I've been doing reading for an essay on music education, and after going to a concert by Out of the Blue this evening I've been thinking about how teachers can make music more interesting.

Out of the Blue's performances and arrangements are wildly popular - this year they have expanded their New Theatre concert to two nights, and tonight's was absolutely packed, with a very diverse audience - and it seems to me that their style of music could work very well in classroom music lessons. In fact it presumably already does, given the number of school workshops they put on. They combine pop music with musicality, great vocal technique, interesting harmonies, and fun (!) - surely all things that should have a place in classroom music lessons. Admittedly their arrangements would have to be simplified, especially harmonically, but that is certainly possible -  in a large choir you could have several students on each voice part, and even then there would be room for rhythmic, textural, and textural interest. You could also increase the difficulty gradually, and accommodate different skill levels.

Judging from the reaction of younger members in tonight's audience singing music in this style would be very popular, probably more so than a lot of the music children have to learn, which is either too traditional or dumbed-down to be interesting. I'm willing to bet that teenagers would find dancing around, showing off and singing pop music in Out of the Blue style a much better use of their time than singing more classical choral music or boring pop arrangements to a piano accompaniment. This would demonstrate creativity, composition, and performance skills in a very different light to classical music, and doesn't have to involve notation, sophisticated technology, instruments, or any in-depth musical knowledge on the part of students. It is also be far more likely to be fun and relevant for most students than Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, and could still lead on to complex discussion about what music means and how it works - are Out of the Blue's or the The Gargoyle's arrangements the same pieces or different in some way?

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to implementing this kind of music in lessons is individual teacher's skills and ambition, and this is something that a lot of my reading has kept leading me back to. It seems a shame that the teaching profession has become so devalued recently, when so much knowledge, talent, skill, research, and time is needed to put together great lessons, especially in music, which has many unique challenges as a subject. If we want music in the classroom to be more relevant to students then we need to find new ways of engaging them, and it seems that in Oxford, at least, the solution was right in front of several thousand people's eyes tonight.

Update: these quotes from a post in the Guardian by their 'secret teacher' seemed appropriate here: 'to plan an outstanding lesson can take hours. I can't do that for every lesson I teach. Sometimes I stand in class delivering a lesson I know isn't as good as it could be. I know how to make it better. I just didn't have the time to do it ... All work for students needs to be scaffolded. That means be done for them. The very notion of giving a student a task they might fail is considered child abuse. Every task must be completable within about ten minutes.'

It seems that ultimately, and unfortunately, a lot of the problems with standards in schools can only be solved with money: if we want better lessons we need to give teachers more time to plan lessons, which means we need more teachers. On the other hand, it seems like the current climate isn't helping either, as the need to continually meet better targets, and to not let any child fail anything actually hinder progress. If we consider these comments in light of what surveys show pupils think about music lessons - that they are often boring, with little creativity involved - then maybe we should try challenging students more, and giving teachers the time and resources to provide the stimulating lessons pupils need.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

One Direction take two

It seems that the Simon Cowell's dream boy band, who just done remarkably well in the U.S., are in a spot of bother. Their name is already taken, and they are being sued by the original One Direction.

As the old One Direction say, they don't have anywhere near the resources of the X Factor runners-up, and I fully expect this case to be settled very quickly. But that's not really the interesting part of this story.

One Direction are pop at it's most manufactured: put together from entrants to a talent show (that they didn't even win) and backed by Simon Cowell's media empire. I recently read an article defending the reality TV show boss (essentially saying that, yes, he's not very nice, but that's what you need for success in pop and business, and he gets results), and I have to say I agree. I hate Simon Cowell's talent shows and quick-to-burn-out popstars, but he's a very effective businessman and deserves respect for that.

But this story is essentially a business problem, and a surprising error. How on earth, in our current internet age, did someone not find out that the name One Direction was already taken? For entertainment that survives as much (if not more) on marketing and business strategies as the music itself, this is a real error, especially given the tight ship Cowell normally runs. If the name, image, marketing, and related issues were considered to be secondary aspects then this would be more understandable, buy they're not - they're the most important drivers of (new) One Direction's success.

On the other hand, any publicity is good publicity, and this has put (new) One Direction in the news again. As long as the lawsuit is resolved quickly and relatively cheaply it's probably as much a positive as negative story. Someone's going to have to check their facts a bit more carefully on the next series of X Factor though...

One Direction could be forced to change their name after being hit with lawsuit | News | NME.COM

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Super rich music gigs

This is great work if you can get it! There was a similar story about Coldplay recently.

I think this kind of event - the super rich paying for the most famous entertainers in the world to appear at their party - has become a lot more common over the past few years. I suspect this is tied up with the phenomenon of live gigs and concerts becoming more of a focus for artists and ensembles.

As record sales decline it's becoming easier and simpler to earn money from touring than record sales, even to the extent that some music is being given away for free to tempt people pay for gigs. As this happens and everyone listens to (essentially) all the music they want for free whilst also becoming more willing to pay money for gigs this is a way for the super rich to assert their wealth and power.

Getting such famous bands to come and play for them personally shows that they are superior to the rest of us and gives them instant cachet. This is just an extension of the move we're seeing towards live experiences to balance the increasing amount of time we spend online.

Red Hot Chili Peppers Play Abramovich Party

Monday, 2 January 2012

Stradivarius shocker

The tendency for collectors and famous violinists to spend vast sums of money on antique instruments is one of the best examples of why classical music is often labeled as old-fashioned and elitist. Often it seems as though performers have to own a note-worthy instrument to br credible at all.

As a clarinetist I've often thought this was a strange idea - why should instruments that are hundreds of years old be any better than modern ones? This research, while not perfect, strongly suggests that the idea of a Stradivarius' superiority is an artificially constructed one.

In blind tests violinists couldn't really seem to tell the difference between the antique and modern instruments they were given to play. Of course, there are flaws: every instrument is different and if the violins and players were changed the antiques might come out on top. Nevertheless, the result does go some way towards disproving what has been an extremely stubborn idea.

Hopefully soon this particular element of entrenched prejudice will disappear. Starivarius' and the like remain brilliant instruments, but it would not do any harm to recognise the craftsmanship of modern violin makers, and stop unnecessarily judging players on a such superficial aspect of music.

How many notes would a virtuoso violinist pay for a Stradivarius?