Category Archives: Blog

The weekly thoughts of a music teacher

Digital Literacy and the Knowledge Gap in Contemporary Music Education

Here is my full essay on the subject ‘How Digital Musicians Learn:  Digital Literacy and the Knowledge Gap in Contemporary Music Education’.

It is available to download as a PDF

Here is the introduction:

 

Digital Literacy and the Knowledge Gap in Contemporary Music Education:

How Digital Musicians Learn

 

Benjamin Jenkins

The digital age has transformed every aspect of media.  From production, consumption, distribution and knowledge, the way we interact with media changes “the way that we think and also has a profound impact upon the ways in which we communicate and express ourselves” (Dubber:2012).  This shift in communication has led to a new generation of people who take these changes for granted, where technology is integrated into almost every aspect of life and has become second nature to them.  The rise of the digital musician is a direct result of these changes.

The advent of industrialisation towards the end of the nineteenth century brought about massive changes in access to education and knowledge, in order to create a workforce literate enough to work effectively in a new media age. Similarly, the digital age has brought about a shift from an industrial society to a knowledge society, but the “massive and sustained public investment in schools and (later on) universities” of the previous era “has not been matched” (Hartley, 2008).  The ways in which digital musicians learn, create and share their knowledge in the virtual world of the internet differs greatly from the previous generation, yet very little of these new skills are taught in formal education settings.   There is a knowledge gap opening between this generation and the last, between those who are digitally illiterate and those who are digitally fluent. In this essay I will discuss how digital musicians use new technology to learn and to create, and the role of music education infrastructure in the digital age.

 

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Dave Brubeck 1920 – 2012

I was very sad to hear that Dave Brubeck passed away today.  Brubeck was an innovative keyboard player  and composer – a good example of someone with classical training who could not read sheet music. His music featured many irregular time signatures including Take Five in 5/4, Unsquare Dance in 7/8 and Rondo All Turk in 9/8 (or to be more precise in 2+2+2+3/8).

Anyway here’s the tribute played on our Korg SV1 Rhodes emulation: – 

How Music Makes Us Feel

Last week I posted a blog about the value of music, and how it’s not just monetary value that gives it it’s worth. It is something far more than that, something intangible that has eluded scholars and artists for hundreds of years.  It has a power that cannot be expressed with words – an innate quality akin to trying to describe emotions themselves.  It brings people together in festival and divides opinion with taste; it brings a tear to the eye and a smile to the lips.  It’s power is manifest in ceremonies such as funerals where the simplest melody can cause a cascade of powerful emotion.  It can bring about states of religious fervour and trances.  Babies understand music before they understand language, and a song from childhood can transport an elderly person with dementia straight back to that wonderful place.  It can take you on an extraordinary journey or make you hyper aware of the time and place you’re in.  It creates a sense of identity, time and place.

It has many contrasting qualities, all of which I love.  This is the real reason musicians make music, the reason many of us dedicate hours and hours of our lives to mastering our craft.  When it stops being about that, and starts being about money, or looking good in the eyes of others, or just a fashion statement is when I believe music loses it’s soul.  Not that these things are inherently bad,  they come hand in hand with music, but when it’s solely about those things we start to lose that real power.

Last night there was a great documentary on BBC by Alan Yentob, called How Music Makes us Feel, about this very subject.  Yentob has made many great and thought provoking documentaries on music, and this is one of his best.  He describes something about music that I believe is being forgotten in this digital age, an age where our gigabytes of – and endless streams of –  music may be de-sensitising us.  All this debate about the collapse of the industry, peer to peer pirates and loudness wars is missing the real point:  it is the feeling that music gives us that matters the most.

Watch it and remember that first time a song gave you goosebumps.

How Music Makes Us Feel

BJ

Our Teaching Philosophy

1) We will never get angry if you make a mistake.

2) We won’t enter you for an exam we think you won’t pass.

3) Although learning music can be tough and challenging, it should first and foremost be fun.

4) We will always give you honest and fair feedback on your music-making, even if we do have to say something you don’t want to hear, we will do this in the NICEST possible way.

5) Creativity and improvisation are encouraged (but not when we are talking)

6) All we ask is that you try new ideas and concepts.

7) Technical exercises are an unavoidable part of music learning.

8) Music theory is also very important to us and is included as part of every lesson.

9) Music listening is also an essential part of being a musician. Our students are encouraged to listen to a wide variety of musical styles.

10) We will actively encourage our students to embrace music technology so they have the skills to be able to record themselves. This is essential in today’s music industry.

BJ

How Do You Pay A Musician?

When I buy a Banana it’s paid for by weight, the price per gram or pound dictated by the market price.  Market price  is driven by abundance and scarcity.  The trouble with music in the digital age is that not only is it weightless, it is everywhere.

So what value does music have?

In monetary terms it would seem like it was getting worse for the industry due to p2p piracy and streaming free music.  But according to several different sources, including this in-depth report into the wider entertainment industry published by Techdirt, the music business is doing really well and is growing all the time with opportunities created every year.  The money has been de-centralized, it’s been spread out amongst the new wave of ambitious and tech savy music businesses from the slowly leaking pail of cash that is the mainstream multinational music industry.

But the question remains, what is music worth?  How much would you pay for a single download?  How much do you give the busker in the street?  How much would you pay for an album?  How much you pay for a live ticket?

And with all these conflicting platforms and ways to enjoy music, how does the musician get paid?  Record contracts? Royalties? Direct cash from sales? Selling CD’s out of the boot of their car?

But then there is the other value, and one which is at risk of being eroded.  The value of music is a lot more than just money, it is a central part of the human experience, a uniquely human trait that connects with us deeply.  Music is more than a product or a mere commodity, it is intangible and special.  It pervades not only almost every aspect of our lives, it also marks seminal occasions and holds deep emotional connotations.

In all this craziness to get the £ sign all over music again, we risk forgetting it’s other value and diluting something truly important to our lives.

So next time you download a track, or stream a song on youtube or watch a gig you really enjoyed one of the simplest rewards for a musician is gratitude.  Just let them know how much it meant to you.  And if it meant that much to you it won’t hurt to chuck them a buck or two either.

BJ

Thoughts on Learning Online

I watch a lot of tutorial videos.  From how to program soft synths to make crazy noises, to videos explaining blues slide guitar, there is a wealth of amazing information on the web, all for free.  For the young aspiring (and skint) musician this is great.  If it wasn’t for the amazing generosity of many well informed individuals, such as Ableton Live tutor Tom Cosm for example, I wouldn’t have half the know-how I possess now.  There is also great support to be found on internet forums, where usually any question or problem you have can be solved by a community of helpful and knowledgeable users.

So to all those who have helped me in my quest to become a better producer and musician I offer my sincerest gratitude.  And now I find myself on the other side, offering help and guidance on forums, making tutorial videos and posting them online.   It is one of the wonders of the internet age – free education and a community of support.

But, like everything in life, there is a flip side to it.  As a teacher working in a music school I wonder how much of this free content will affect my business and lively hood.  If you can learn it all for free online why bother paying a teacher?  Well, I’ll tell you why.

I often get self-taught musicians coming to me in order to hone their skills, and iron out bad habits they’ve picked up along the way.  This suggests to me that for all the great Youtube videos on how to play this, and how to master that technique, none of them can replace the effectiveness of one-to-one tuition from a real person, be it remotely via Skype or in person in a class environment.  A tutorial is just that, a step-by-step guide on how to do something.  It cannot give you critical feedback, confidence in your abilities or be tailored to your individual needs.  There is also very little quality control, and many tutorials are often wrong and full of mistakes, which wastes your valuable time trawling through tonnes of rubbish to get to something worthwhile.  I’m not claiming that I’m perfect, but I am always getting better as a teacher.  Improvement is something a three year old video on Youtube can never do.

So the best way to use them, in my opinion, is as a complimentary resource whilst getting tuition from a real teacher.

BJ

Welsh Live Music Venues

I have learned that the PRS brought out a list of the top 100 live music venues in the UK.  How many do you think were in Wales?  I’ll tell you:  Just one, St David’s Hall in Cardiff.  One lowly venue for a whole country, a statistic which makes me wonder: what on earth is going wrong here in Wales?  Or maybe we’re not doing anything wrong and the PRS is just massively biased towards England.

All the recent talk of setting up a Wales based collections agency to replace PRS would suggest so.  Since 2007 PRS changed their formula for calculating royalties generated from airplay from local radio stations. Welsh Language musicians in particular have been the biggest losers in the change, with 70-95% of income from BBC Radio Cymru being lost. It was a massive blow to our small industry.  And now it seems that the live music scene is dying a death.

Are our live music venues really that poor compared to the rest of the UK? Or are the Welsh culturally apathetic, and don’t care much for live music?  Or do we simply have a boutique, small venue based industry?  Why don’t we have a Roundhouse, Sage or O2 arena style venue in our capital (not including the Millennium Stadium which is a sports venue, and is not completely acoustically suitable for music)?

I’d really like to know which venues in Wales would be included in a similar list.  I would love to hear your opinions on this matter, as it’s a subject close to most musicians’ hearts here.

Some of my favourites include:

  • Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff – the legendary city centre venue that every Cardiffian must have been to by now!
  • Acapela, Pentyrch – a beautiful converted chapel with amazing acoustics tucked away on the side of a mountain just outside of Cardiff, this venue has to visited to be believed. Fantastic space which is also a recording studio so perfect for recording live gigs. www.acapela.co.uk
  • The Gate, Cardiff – another old church, this space has fantastic potential for growth
  • The Globe, Cardiff – a lovely intimate venue with a decent sized stage and a balcony area
  • And a special mention to a venue that no longer exists, the Backrooms in the vaults of the old Natwest bank in Cardiff Bay.  Pretty intense little club!

I don’t venture much past Cardiff at the moment as we have a young son, so some suggestions from elsewhere in the country are more than welcome!

BJ

The Isolation of the Modern Musician

In some ways, musicians today are lucky.  Setting up a powerful recording studio in your own home is now easier and more affordable than ever.  A computer based recording setup means unlimited tracks, huge memory for ridiculous amounts of effects processing, home video editing and unlimited recording time, all in pristine 24 bit 192 kHz digital audio quality.   We can call upon any sound we can imagine thanks to vast and detailed sample libraries, which get more realistic by the day – from Tibetan hanging drums to full symphonic orchestras.  We can create any sound we can imagine using soft synths, which get more innovative and fully featured by the minute.  We can capture any sounds we can make in the real world thanks to high-quality affordable microphones, and listen to it all back on professional speakers designed specifically for small, home sized rooms.

We can then go and share our masterpieces to (potentially) the entire internet-connected world, for little to no cost.  We can instantly call upon the largest collection of songs ever assembled on Youtube for comparison.  We can collaborate with other musicians who aren’t even on the same continent.  We are more connected than ever before.

Yet all of this technological wizardry has had a curious effect, one which I myself have been drawn into.  This effect is isolation.  A paradox, considering how connected we all are now thanks to the internet and mobile broadband.  But it is true.  Many musicians now feel they can cut out every single other person that used to be involved in the process of writing, recording and releasing of music.  Who needs a distributor when you have iTunes?  Who needs a record label when you have CDbaby and Tunecore?  Who needs a publisher when everything is digitally trademarked?  Who needs a promoter when you can do it all on Facebook?  Who needs a manager when you have an iPhone with email and a calendar and an address book of contacts?  Who needs a producer when you can learn all the techniques online? Who needs A&R when your Youtube video goes viral?  Who needs a band when you can program it all in yourself?

And therein lies the problem.  We are all becoming self-contained, multi-tasking music businesses.  Jack of all trades, masters of none.  Music is a social process, and we need other people to work with, to bounce ideas off, to be criticised and to be critical to.  Even the masters of old, your Beethovens and Mozarts, had to work with other people to perfect their craft.  They had to work with orchestras and conductors, not forgetting the people who commissioned their work.  What if the individual members of The Beatles all had laptops and Soundcloud accounts, never once bothering to write a single tune together?

I have recently collaborated with somebody after a long period of isolated music making and distributing, and I have to say it is the most refreshing and rewarding experience I have had for a long time.

So get yourself out of your digital bubbles and ask someone to collaborate, ask someone else to mix your tracks, get a pro engineer to have a look at your setup.  It might not be as cost effective, but the results will speak for themselves.

BJ

Preparing for Live Performance in 2013

For the last couple of days I have been salivating at the prospect of buying some new gear for live performance.  MIDI controllers, decks, mixers, PA’s, even karaoke machines have all been considered as a way of earning a bit of extra cash on the weekend.  The choices these days are mind boggling, and I think the technology has surpassed people’s capabilities. They have certainly surpassed mine for the time being! The question of how to perform electronic music live in this day and age is a hot potato, with the lines between a classic DJ mixing setup and the new controllerist, ‘live’ performance setup becoming more blurred with every new device.

Apart from a few exceptions, there isn’t a great deal of virtuoso controllerists yet: people who perform electronic music by themselves using MIDI controllers, synths and laptops to control every single part of the performance, from percussion to bass, melody, harmony and beyond.  I can think of a couple of examples, and maybe these people are way ahead of their time.  They must certainly have a lot of time on their hands to get that good.  Like every new development in the technology of music, it takes a while before people figure out how to use (and abuse) them properly, just like the humble turntable and 2 channel mixer, which the world of hip-hop transformed into a new instrument for performance.

There has been a huge surge in the development of new instruments recently, most of which are MIDI based, and owe a lot to the recent surge in live music.  I am confident that in a few years’ time turning up to a gig with just a laptop, a small MIDI device and a microphone will become the norm, and may replace the good ol’ singer songwriter who turns up with just a guitar and their voice.  Well, we’ll see.

For now though, I’ve got to decide which little flashing, LED laden device to choose to purchase and master!

BJ

DIY & Free Music

This week Adele’s independent label XL Recordings reported annual earnings of £41.7m. It makes me wonder why on earth my music, and that of thousands of other musicians, is freely available to download on sites such as Soundcloud.  Why are so many musicians simply giving away their music for free?

Is it because it seems so futile to try and sell albums in this age of mass piracy?  Is it due to some artistic or philosophical shift towards free culture?  Are artists expecting to reach a wider audience by doing so?  Or are we simply being misguided in our over-generosity?

One of the many consequences of this age of digitisation has been the explosion of DIY artists.  And unless you’re Radiohead, going the DIY route and being successful in this business will require a lot of blood, sweat and tears.  And unlike Radiohead, you can’t afford to give your music away.

With overall album sales dwindling, downloads not quite filling that gap and income from streaming sites being even less and far more confusing,  it’s little wonder that more and more DIY musicians end up giving away their recordings.  When you end up earning more from live performance than you do from album and singles sales it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of making your music available for free, in the hope that you will attract more fans to your gigs.

But giving it away doesn’t mean that more people are likely to hear it. Good focused promotion, building contacts in the right places, and concentrating on getting your main product – your music – sounding as brilliant as possible are the factors that still matter in getting heard.

The trouble with DIY musicians is that we tend not to have great business heads.  Our minds are more preoccupied with some great artistic vision.  But developing a professional, business-like approach is just as important as nailing that harmony. The biggest mistake is to blindly wade in unprepared.

Richard Russel – CEO of XL Records

XL’s secret to success isn’t about having a giant back catalogue available in every outlet for free, it’s because they are very selective with who they deal with, what they release and who it gets sent to.  They take their time and develop their ideas fully.  They break a lot of the rules of the business, and do things their own way.

This is the lesson I am slowly beginning to learn:  DIY doesn’t mean Do It Alone for free.

BJ