Can an event be inspiring and frustrating at the same time? Yes.
Before I kick off, one of the brightest local musical talents, Grace Sarah (who has got her GCSE exams in a few months time), has got some new songs out. Here’s one.
Appropriate given the event I’m writing about and the challenges facing young people today.
I found out about MusicNet-East after browsing through Eventbrite, noticing that they had an open invitation event at The Junction in Cambridge. With a forests worth of chips on my shoulder regarding all things music tuition, I went along to see what it was all about. To summarise the event, I saw ***lots*** of really inspirational things being done all over East Anglia, but found the format of the event incredibly frustrating – and the panel talks to be utterly soul-destroying.
The use of digital media by a number of people such as Anna Gowers was brilliant. A simple gadget to record digital video vox-pops (very short interviews) with children on how they were experiencing music gave a clear picture of the positive impact their activities had. It was also nice to see a much wider variety of approaches being tried – with more than a fair amount of success – to engage with young people in ways that traditional exams-focused tuition had otherwise failed.
“What didn’t work?”
There were too many things that I found incredibly frustrating – to the extent where part of me wanted to fire tranquilliser darts at the panel session hosts.
It’s not the first time this has happened at a conference at The Junction. Some stereotypical affluent, bland middle-class artsy-type asks lots of long-winded extended questions that fail to illicit focused answers from the panel – with no opportunities for short, sharp Q&As from the audience. The two people concerned (whose names I can’t find so won’t mention) demonstrated complete incompetence in their task and failed to notice that their style of facilitating was sending the audience to sleep.
With the second panel – of which Anna, mentioned above, was on, I was utterly damning.
The fault was entirely the interviewer’s – Anna had superb case studies and he completely killed it. Even the other panellist, Suzi, was trying to inject passion into the talk but the blandness of the interviewer’s responses, comments and questions was soul-destroying. Absolutely not do you say in a soft, emotionless voice in front of a conference audience something like:
‘Yes…and we can clearly see the enthusiasm in…’
…while demonstrating a complete lack of it in your tone of voice and delivery yourself.
“But then, you don’t like interviewer + expert panellist with no audience interaction”
Exactly – get the group in front of a camera, whack it on youtube and get people to view it in their own time. If you’re going to get lots of people from all over the region together, get them to interact. Don’t give them death-by-dullness-facilitators.
An ethnic musical divide too?
Professor Lucy Green of the University of London gave the opening talk. Content-wise it was fascinating but she needed to deliver her speech with much more passion and in half the time. Some of what she covered is in the video below:
The problem was when you use audio musical samples like Shakira’s ‘The hips don’t lie’ (and children & teenagers singing/playing along to it) in your talk and then follow it up with a monologue lacking in energy and passion, it brings to the fore the contrast between the hold on music academia by a White affluent class stuck in their ways (such as the toxic hold the ABRSM and other exam boards have over formal music learning in schools) vs alternative forms of music making.
It was after her talk that I verbally opened fire in the Q&A session
I have a forest-worth of chips on my shoulder over music learning in my childhood. (See blogposts here). Professor Lucy Green just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time to be on the receiving end of such a passionate broadside. But as a member of the music establishment, in front of an audience of music educators at a venue on my doorstep in my childhood neighbourhood, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass. Hence it was more therapeutic than anything else.
“What did you say/ask?”
I asked her what was to be done about the stranglehold of the ‘exams culture’ in music. But I prefaced all of that with a short bullet-point history of what it was like growing up and learning music in the neighbourhood that the conference venue happens to be in. It’s far more powerful emotionally when you can say to people ‘This is what happened here in the neighbourhood you are standing in, and I lived through it.’
I also told the audience that after giving up the violin in my early teens because of exams culture, I wasn’t able to pick up a stringed instrument for ***fifteen years*** – and ditto trying to get back into singing. I just could not overcome the mental and emotional barriers. Understandably Professor Lucy Green was visibly disturbed as I put the emphasis on the number of years – you could see it in her face and body language. To her credit she acknowledged the points I was making, and responded by saying that the ABRSM (the main musical exam board) are a private organisation with a financial incentive regarding exams. I’m glad she said this as it’s a conclusion I came to in previous blogposts. If she’s thinking this and I’m thinking this independently of each other, how many other people are thinking the same, and of the impact this has?
‘You don’t need to read music in order to play a musical instrument’
This was a point Robert Taylor put to me on his experience with music – saying when he grew up, music theory wasn’t even considered. They just played music. The way too many music teachers in his experience taught music – in particular theory – was a massive barrier to learning, rather than an enhancement.
“Yeah, why are you bashing classical music?”
Bashing the music or the establishment around it? Penny Homer of the Association of British Choral Directors understandably got a little defensive after one to many jabs at classical music in general from the audience Q&As. (In her position I probably would have done the same). The challenge Penny and those like her face is that they are fighting battles on two fronts. The first is with their existing establishments, trying to stop them perpetuating the divisions & barriers that exist; the second trying to convince non-traditional audiences that classical music belongs to them because music belongs to all humanity.
Opera for the posh people, musicals for the masses?
My first opera that I consciously chose to go to was in 2006 – Bizet’s Carmen. My first ballet (Swan Lake – because I rewatched Fantasia the animated film & started getting back into classical music that way, & wanted to see an orchestra perform Tchaikovsky) that I chose to go to consciously was in late 2000. In the case of the latter, I was making a conscious effort at the time to become ‘educated beyond exams’ (you know in the way that everyone wants to be well-read in the classics but without actually having to read them). As it turned out, it was the costumes I was mesmerised by because they had such deep bold colours in a manner that I had not expected. I assumed it would be just prissy things in white polyester prancing about. With Carmen, I bought the a pair of tickets when I was at the end of a short intense relationship with one person, and when the event came around, ended up going with a different partner at the start of another short but intense relationship. As the latter was a choral scholar at the time, she knew the opera inside out and eased me into the operatic audience.
Yet there lies my point about barriers – music, just like human beings, are social
As a result, over the centuries humans have developed various social trappings around different musical scenes. Some of those social trappings will be barriers. The informal dress codes for classical music concerts for example. This was something I discussed when I first went to see Dowsing Collective – see here. At the other end, many-a-movie has been made of the affluent character classically trained in something meeting someone from a class-oppressed background talented in an alternative form of a similar art, and finding a connection in the face of hostility from their parents and communities. (Dirty Dancing 2 being one that, where I was in my life captivated me). My point here is how to make the social trappings part of the fun – and inclusive, rather than becoming a barrier?
How to make things greater than the sum of their parts?
The never-ending challenge for people in and around the interface between the public and not-for-profit sectors. I was guided towards the ‘Music Bridge’ that covers Cambridgeshire – and according to this map there’s nothing going on in Cambridge. Or rather, nothing listed by the organisation. But again this doesn’t mean that ‘nothing is happening.’ It is. The problem as with other areas is that we don’t have this single place/organisation to go to (whether online or bricks-and-mortar) that has all the information of what is going on and where, in a manner that is easy to search and that is run by knowledgeable and passionate staff that are not constantly firefighting against cuts.
Why does this all matter to South Cambridge?
Because from the conversations I’ve been having and from what people are telling me, this part of the city is one that is lacking in confidence. How can we use things like art, dance, drama and music to help turn things around?