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Dynamics 

On Wednesdays and Fridays I teach at a primary school in Chelsea. It’s a lovely school in a beautiful neighbourhood near the river. The atmosphere is warm and relaxed but with strong discipline and codes of behaviour (when teachers shout I get the feeling it’s for the greater good rather than a power trip). There’s lots of laughter, and extracurricular activities going on all the time. Excellent music provision – concerts, bands, a choir. Children’s artwork on the walls and posters with words like peace, kindness and compassion (and a sense that these things are genuinely being thought about and worked towards). School lunch is delicious and healthy and integrated into the curriculum. I enjoy sitting with the children and other music teachers in the gentle clatter of the hall at lunchtimes, pupils asking questions (”Are you married?”) and telling jokes (”What animal says Oom?”). It’s a state school and despite the super-wealthy area it’s demographically varied. Teachers and staff seem wholehearted and there’s a tangible feeling of community.

I leave the house early to get a seat on the tube at Bounds Green, put on over-ear headphones, listen on repeat to a track by Jonsi & Alex and try to meditate. Half an hour later I’m at Hyde Park Corner getting the 19 bus which takes me through Knightsbridge and the rows of designer flagships to halfway down Kings Road. I like walking in the cold bright air through the pretty backstreets, passing well-dressed people and sports cars, to the school on a peaceful pedestrian cut-through near a big church. My experience of London is so varied. Chaos, speed, poverty, uber-commerce, refinement, threat, thrill, abundance, madness… There’s something about this little school far enough away from the noise of the main road and high-end retail, in amongst the tall, ornate houses and tree-lined pavements, that feels calm and healthy and vibrant. A kind of innocence and spirit that I find positive and grounding in my life.

Today I arrive with time to spare and play piano in the quiet of the practice room before school starts. I have 23 students over the two days, each having 20- or 30-minute lessons. Fridays I teach Guitar Club. We’ve been playing songs from a book called Guitar Basics – a 12 bar blues piece and a Spanish pastiche called “Fiesta”, both with three guitar parts of differing ability. The boys always want to play the bass part – it’s the closest we get to Rock, which is their Holy Grail. (“Can we play Rock now?” is probably the question I get asked most, to which the only satisfactory answer is Yes.) “Who knows what ‘dynamics’ means?” I ask today. Harry says, “soft and loud”. “Soft and loud, well done. Does anyone have any ideas for how we could use dynamics in this piece?” Isabelle suggests that as each line repeats we could do each first time loud and the repeats quiet. This works well. Dynamics really add a lot when working with children. Well, in general, I guess. They’re such a simple way to make things more musical and engaging. As we play, the music seems to have a new sense of occasion and I feel confident that we’ll be ready for the Spring Concert in a few weeks.

Guitar Teacher’s Diary 3 

Getting off the 134 bus for the Saturday music centre I meet two colleagues and we walk through the school grounds together. The playing fields are frozen and it reminds one of them of winter rugby as a schoolboy. Big puffs of breath hit the air as we laugh and walk. Today I have six one-to-one lessons and two guitar groups – four and a half teaching hours. Jack, six (“and three quarters”), alternates between excited eagerness and heavy sighing after concentrated effort. He has good technique, holds the guitar as I recommend: right wrist arched away from the guitar, left hand thumb on the neck, feet flat on the floor. Some students don’t take to it so easily. One of my efforts to encourage another student to sit well was to assign a car name codeword to each technicality. Thumb on the neck became “Maserati” and “walking fingers” was “Lamborghini” – it worked for a while!

Robert, 14, is studying for a classical guitar Grade 4 exam. I started teaching him when he was six; now he’s leading a guitar group at his school, arranging music for ensemble and a confident improviser. It’s great to see. Red & Yellow Guitars, a group of seven year-old guitarists, is fun but challenging. I have to become a slightly different person. I’ve learned to be that person quite well now, firm and positive and occasionally stern. Able to raise my voice sometimes and cut through the noise. To begin I strum a rhythm loudly on my guitar and they know it’s Copycat, focus on me and strum it back. We do the same thing with rest-stroke then I ask who wants to be Copy Boss. The hands shoot up – today I choose Theo for sitting well. He plays a few rhythms and the rest of the group copy him. Then we play Call & Answer, where everyone gets to make something up in response to the previous person’s riff.

I’ve been working on some new instrumental music, most of which came out of a creative period in the summer holidays. The recording process felt more intuitive than how I’ve worked previously. A feeling of allowing what came to come, not complicating things too much, not trying to make something impressive. Just keeping it simple and showing up consistently. It’s mainly acoustic guitar compositions with layers of improvised electric guitar, lots of volume pedal swells, slide, reverb. I’ve been listening to a lot of Americana in the last year and I can hear that, as well as folky elements and hints of post-rock.

Guitar Teacher’s Diary 2 

I’m in a practice room at a school in North London, teaching the bass part of “Boom Boom” to a boy in year 9. Then I’m teaching another student a song called “Bonecrusher”, a heavy metal pastiche using palm muting from Rock School. We work on the first four bars only. First we clap the rhythm of the notes then I ask him to play bars two and four while I play bars one and three, then we swap. This works well, building gradually, playing segments slowly and in time rather than attempting to play the whole thing and it being out of time and sloppy.

I have a tea break with one of the other instrumental teachers. We have a few laughs and exchange notes about students. I watch the sun bathe the playground, lighting up the wooden bench seats. The whole school is in the field having photos taken and I like the feel of emptiness, no one around except us two instrumental teachers with our mugs of tea and the sun and wind outside in the mid-morning and a cleaner passing through with a trolley.

At home I do a guided body-scan meditation and then go for a run in the slanted evening light. I have a bath and listen to a podcast from NPR music, an interview with the singer from the National. He talks about his creative process. He doesn’t have neat files for each set of song lyrics or even each album but instead just has one document with words in it and pulls out words and phrases for various projects in an intuitive way. He seems to have a fluidity between projects and even across art forms that I find inspiring.

Jack, seven, plays “Rabbits In The Rain”, a two note song, on three different strings, one after the other. I ask him if he wants to play it faster or slower: ‘faster’. Next we play “Fox”, the two-note accompaniment (which I explain as the ‘background music’, a phrase I discovered last week from another student) and then the melody – the ‘song’. We use a technique called ‘mosaic’ where the student plays just one note to start with – all the E’s for example – and the teacher plays the rest of the notes, then gradually the student adds other notes until they can play the entire melody. We only get to three out of five notes today. That’s what teaching is like, things are part-learned and unfinished and left there for this week. It makes me think about process as opposed to end product, that perhaps things are always in a state of being learned, that we are all in a perpetual state of becoming.

Guitar Teacher’s Diary 

October 3rd 2017

My first lesson is at 3:45pm with David, a man in his forties. We play “Take It Easy” by the Eagles, strum the chords and sing, each take a solo. It has a good energy. We also play “Your Song” by Elton John, a Tom Waits song, an American folk song called “Hang Me” (from the film Inside Llewyn Davis) to practise finger-style, “These Days” by Jackson Browne, and go over a B natural minor scale which he uses to improvise on “Fields Of Gold” by Sting.

Earlier in the day I go to the river. The sun coming in and out, the water moving softly. I try to let myself just be there, relax and be open and see what comes. I enjoy the sun on the back of my neck. I crouch down, squatting, watching the river, turning my head this way then that, looking down then up the river, noticing the trees hanging over it, feeling the ache building in my legs, pressing into the ground so that my spine can lift like I learned in yoga. Then I sit against a tree trunk and play with conker shells – spiky but not sharp. I turn at the sound of a black waterbird with a white head diving into the water and see it coming back up.

I walk from David’s house to my second student, ten-year-old Ethan. He’s studying Grade 1 classical guitar and loves working towards exams. He wants to get level with his sister who is on Grade 2 violin. Sometimes teaching is frustrating but I thought today how it’s a privilege to work with people in this way, to build these one-to-one relationships. We go over his exam pieces, making notes about things to improve such dynamics and right hand technique. I write in his notebook and draw five 10-minute practice boxes with the days of the week by them (Sunday and lesson day off) which he can tick off each time he practices.

Next I teach thirteen-year-old Emily. The room I teach her in is her father’s consulting room. There are books on psychotherapy and Buddhism, poetry books, and a copy of the red book by Jung. For a while there were lots of toy animals on a shelf – Emily said they were for her dad’s work. I glance at the book spines and feel inspired. It’s got a good feel to it, their home. We play “Hallelujah”, transposed to make it easier to sing. We do a strumming version and a fingerpicking version. We play Caje Sukarje, an Eastern European folk tune with syncopated rhythms. We start learning “And I Love Her” by The Beatles and recap a finger planting exercise from last week. 

I walk home and it’s almost eight by the time I get back.

2016 round-up 

The year started with an exciting trip to BBC’s Media City to play on the Marc Riley show for Victoria Hume, promoting her Closing EP (which has just been championed by Lauren Laverne in her best of 2016 list). It was the first time I had played on live radio and was a little nerve-wracking but all went well and it was a fun trip with Victoria and (viola and musical saw wizard) Quinta. Back in London I also got to do my first TV appearance when Victoria was invited to play on the Ayala Show with full band - you can see that here

The early part of the year was taken up with recording my own EP, Rocks Of Bawn, which came out in June. The five tracks are all traditional songs, inspired by my time working for The Song Collectors Collective. I was delighted that so many wonderful musicians played on the EP. We launched it at New Roots Presents, a brilliant London folk club run by Rory Carlile, and also performed some songs on the Nest Collective Hour on Resonance FM - my second radio appearance of the year! 

The next major event of 2016 for me came when I was asked to perform as a “Troubadour” for an exhibition by Ragnar Kjartannsson at the Barbican Art Gallery. This was definitely the strangest job I’ve ever had and quite possibly the most rewarding too. It involved playing a song on endless loop whilst wearing pyjamas and drinking beer. For two months. True story. You can read my blog about the experience here.

Other highlights included reuniting with Amy Walker to play some shows promoting her latest album Unravel; some barn stomping gigs with The Trad Academy Shanty Choir (particularly one at a naval base banquet – lots of healthy guffawing in dinner jackets!); a session for a forthcoming reggae EP and one for a new documentary film. I was also delighted to be promoted to Senior Teacher with The DaCapo Music Foundation, a music education charity I work for; I’m now teaching a large guitar ensemble, a teenagers folk/pop group and a group of beginner adults alongside my one-to-one students.

In the latter part of 2016 I’ve been writing and recording some new music (you can hear an instrumental demo here) and I’m looking forward to getting my head down in the new year. First gig of the year is supporting Victoria Hume next week, January the 4th in Hackney - more info here!

Wishing everyone a very happy new year!

Ragnar Kjartansson, Barbican 

So far today I’ve played the song about 60 times. It’s just gone 1pm; another 80 or so to go after lunch. Not that I’m counting – each rendition blends into the next and the piece becomes a long, polymorphous soundscape. It slows and swells, drifts and softens. Sometimes it almost falls apart, but it doesn’t stop until 6pm when the troubadours strum their last and the gallery closes.

That’s my job this summer – professional Troubadour. I’m performing as part of an exhibition of Ragnar Kjartansson which runs at the Barbican until September 4th. Hailed by the New York Times as “one of the most celebrated performance artists anywhere”, Kjartansson is well-known for his use of music, romance and repetition. In Take Me Here By The Dishwasher: Memorial For A Marriage, men with guitars sing and play a three-minute song on loop whilst drinking beer in their pyjamas to the backdrop of an Icelandic love fantasy film clip (featuring Kjartansson’s real-life mother and father). 

On the one hand it seems like the greatest job in the world, paid to lounge around on a sofa, drink beer and play guitar. It’s like “being on holiday” said Ragnar in a rehearsal pep talk. “But it’s going to be tough” he added. That’s the other side of it – boredom, monotony, aching fingers, the never-ending earworm that accompanies every waking hour.

The musicians approach the challenge in different ways. Some take up a position on a mattress and stay there most of the day, strumming away, getting up only for toilet breaks; others like to wander around. A few have tried to get drunk (though three beers a day is the official limit) and some aim for spiritual reverie. One performer just spent half an hour walking backwards slowly through the exhibition space. 

There are ‘breakthrough moments’ too. Suddenly I become aware of the mechanics of vocalising in my body, my throat opening and the pressure in the roof of my mouth. I feel present. I hear the sound of a neighbouring musician, our parts locking together beautifully. It’s a kind of meditation.

The reactions of visitors range from puzzled to enchanted, amused and intimidated. Lots of people chuckle and occasionally someone will try to strike up a conversation with us. One woman passed on a mystery note to a lucky troubadour. All sorts of people pass through – arty types, tourists, babies, businessmen, day-trippers, musos. My grandad came the other day – he thought it was pretty good.

Right, I’d better get back to it… There’s a strange comfort in sinking back into this big soft beast of a song and taking up my post among the forlorn, tipsy cry of the full-time troubadours.