The story of ‘What if?’

PSA NSA Professional Speaking Association convention stage

My stage. That massive screen dwarfs the guitars!

Last Friday I opened the 12th Annual Convention of the Professional Speaking Association in London. I’d planned to do something different there for some time. I’d already worked out that my talk was to be called ‘The Power of ‘What If?’. But I’d had this idea to write a song called ‘What If?’ and not only to perform it live on stage with my guitar but to record a full band backing track and have a video synced too. I knew that the venue had the largest projection screen in London so it would be a shame not to take advantage of that.

But time passed and the date of the convention grew closer. I was also involved in support for other aspects of the event and almost forgot that I’d have to get a move on to be able to work out my own quite complex idea.

Two weeks before I discovered that my normal stage suit was unusable. It had just worn out. There was a particular outfit I’d always wanted so decided now was the time to get it. I spoke to a tailor in America who had Paul McCartney’s original 1965 Beatle suit that was worn at Shea Stadium, the Beatles most famous and biggest gig, and the world’s first stadium rock show and he made me a facsimile suit, stitch by stitch perfect.

It was now a week before the gig and I still hadn’t written the song. Maybe it was too big a task? To come up with a new song that was good enough to open a show, record it, learn it AND do a video in just a few days?

I wrote the song in an evening, or at least the tune and a few words (the two words were ‘What if?’, so no great lyrical creative leap that day). I spent the next day splurging out dozens and dozens of phrases and words and selected the best to form the lyrics. I only needed 90 seconds worth, but it still wasn’t easy.

Then I started working out how to record it. I didn’t have time to get my drummer in, I’d have to do it myself, and I’m not that great a drummer. Even to keep a constant time over 90 seconds would be tough. I pulled it off by recording a few batched of 8 bars and then duplicating them to create the drum track. The next day I overlaid the main acoustic guitar, then the complex bass line (I’m quite proud of that), then two tracks of 12 sting Rickenbacker, one track of lead guitar with a wah-wah pedal and one without. Then I laid down the main vocal and two extra vocals creating a three-part harmony. All the tracks were first or second take – I knew I didn’t have time for perfection.

I then mixed the recording to create the backing track. I turned off the main vocal and the lead guitar as I’d be playing these live. Then I had to figure out the video…

I wanted the video to feature the same outfit as the one I’d be wearing on stage. The only problem was that the new suit was being held in customs. It arrived on Wednesday (the conference was on Friday, and I’d be setting off to it on Thursday). As soon as the suit arrived I filmed various segments of me playing the various instruments and synchronised it to the music, putting footage of the Earth from space in between. By late Wednesday night, it was done.

All in all it was about 30 hours of work that went into 90 seconds of performance that opened the convention.*

You can see the finished video here (this version has the main vocal turned back on).

It seemed to go down well at the event, but of more importance to me was that it served as a reminder of what can be done when you put your mind and your passion into achieving the ideal outcome for something. To my mind, I’d achieved the impossible. And although the audience would have never seen or guessed the effort that went into it, I feel it was worth it.

So my question to you is this: what idea outcome could YOU actually pull of if you put your mind and your passion to the test? What if…

The lyrics are:

What if you were brave?
What if you took flight?
What if after trying hard you got it right?

What if you had time?
What if you had cash?
What if you could find that inspiring lightning flash?

And see, realise
As your dreams came back to life before you eyes
What would we see, what would we find?
With opportunity laid out before your mind?

What if you had hope?
What if you were great?
What if you find a way to escape your certain fate?

What if you had skill?
What if you went wild?
What if you still had the imagination of a child?

(* I was pleased to have the ‘subtle’ Beatle reference in my act as it was 50 years to the day that the Beatles’ first record, Love Me Do, was released.)

Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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How to write songs (or create just about anything)

John Lennon and Paul McCartneyThere’s an important difference between most classically trained musicians and self-taught musicians that gives us an interesting clue into our creativity. It’s to do with the difference between prescriptive practice and trial and error…

Few self-taught musicians play classical music, they tend to play more popular styles. The reason for that is that classical playing is difficult and requires dedication and discipline that, in most cases, needs tuition to get right. Pop music on the other hand has few rules and it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what they are.

Most songwriters and music composers are of the self-taught pop music kind. In fact, being a self taught pop musician almost always leads to composition, whereas much fewer classical players write their own music. (Just about every fledgling rock guitarist has written a batch of songs within 6 months of learning to play. The average member of any orchestra, no matter how accomplished, may never put pen to paper).

The reason is that the two types of playing, or rather the journey that arrives at the types of playing, use different kinds of learning and result in different types of creative expression.

With the classical musician, the task is to master the instrument in the proper way, to learn the language of music to be able to read it and perform it with accuracy and then hopefully, with personality.

With a pop musician, the task is to knock out your favourite tunes to entertain yourself and others as quickly as possible.

With the classical musician, the task of learning heads towards perfection through practice. Mistakes are corrected and eventually eradicated.

With the pop musician, mistakes arrive quickly due to ignorance or lack of technical ability on how the favourite song should be played. But instead of correcting, some of these errors are kept in to give a deliberately imperfect performance of the song. Getting ‘the gist’ of it gives a much quicker result.

With the classical musician, the task of playing does not naturally lead to original composition whereas with the pop musician, original composition is the natural destination. When the pop musician strikes the wrong chord, or sings the wrong note or lyric and that mistake sounds ‘interesting’ they have, due to that mistake, become a songwriter.

The thing that first impressed Paul McCartney when he first met John Lennon when John was playing with his band The Quarrymen at the school fete on 6th July 1957, was that John clearly didn’t know all the words to the rock and roll songs they were performing and because of that he made new ones up that sounded roughly right. He was already a proto-songwriter.

The driving force for many pop musicians isn’t that different from classical musicians: they both start off wanting to perform a particular piece with perfection.

With Paul McCartney, he wanted to sound like his heroes such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. His early inadequacies meant that he could get close, but not all the way. Those performances that were close, but slightly different then easily became modified into new songs in their own right. They sounded similar to the inspiration but had a different personality. This inability of Lennon and McCartney to write songs exactly like their heroes is what gave us that amazing Beatle sound and those brilliant new songs.

As the sixties progressed and McCartney became such an amazingly proficient musician, he could replicate his favourite songs exactly and easily so had to draw upon new sources and methods to create new songs. You can hear the transition in 1965/66 with the songs like Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby. The reason he could move on to write in a different way was because of the way he had learnt to play, by trial and error. The resulting connections in his neural pathways gave rise to a whole new direction for his composition.

With a pop musician, most new compositions arise from the happy coincidence of unusual chord progressions, melody or rhythm combinations. This is because the way they learnt to engage with music was in a way that allowed errors, and, allowed those errors to be incorporated and developed.

In business we need to think more like the pop musician rather than the classical musician. Our aim is not to aim for a prefect rendition as an end in itself, but to aim for perfection as a method that throws up interesting diversions that could very well lead to a fantastic innovation.

Creativity and the Beatles

This is adapted from my forthcoming book, Creativity and the Beatles.

Read more here.

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Why HMV will die and how they could have survived

hmv oxford

Not much music in the window. They filled it with a display for Oasis' Don't Look Back in Anger single in 1995. Those days are gone.

HMV is the last recorded music retail outlet left in the UK high street. Over the past few years we’ve seen the demise of Our Price, Woolworths and Virgin Megastore/Zavii. Now, for the very same reason HMV are closing around 60 stores.

People usually blame the demise of our record shops on technology and the rise of iTunes and Amazon. But I believe there’s a deeper reason why the high street shops have failed.

The fact that it’s more convenient to buy music online is a misnomer. We’ve all fallen into the trap thinking that ‘convenience’, speed and price are the only factors involved in a purchase. That is of course true with a commodity. With a purchase that is not a simple commodity, price has little baring because its the buying experience and the added value that is important. This is how the music industry has played the biggest part in it’s own death, by stupidly turning music into a base commodity.

The rot started in the mid 1980s when the music industry began the great compact disc swindle. They persuaded us to buy all the music we already had on vinyl, citing the better quality (which wasn’t quite true) and the better durability (which wasn’t quite true) and the fact that the new medium was smaller and therefore more, ‘convenient’. Because it was smaller we lost the experience of the album cover art. Because CD singles and albums were the same size we lost the specialness of both mediums. Because it was so handy and cheap it was quickly devalued and able to be given away free with magazines. The digital nature of the encoded audio and availability of CD burners meant it became easy to duplicate. By removing all the awkwardness and weaknesses of the vinyl record, they had transformed recorded music into a cheap, valueless commodity.

12” long playing records or a three minute 45 rpm single are completely different objects to the equivalent CD. They are bigger, heavier, have bigger almost poster-like artwork. They are fragile. To play a vinyl record you have to remove it carefully from the sleeve, place it on the spindle, lift the needle into place. After 3 or 20 minutes or so you have to lift the needle again and turn the disc over. With vinyl you are engaged and that’s the key: listening to music is an experience, not a commodity.

In the mid 1980s, Our Price Records changed their name to Our Price Music because they were now stocking tapes and CDs. They somehow felt they weren’t ‘records’. A small point but a relevant one in the separation of ‘music’ from the medium it came on and at the same time from the experience. It’s interesting that new bands, even today, stubbornly refer to their product as ‘records’ not CDs. A compact disc or vinyl disc is the medium for the ‘record’, which is the important thing.

At this point in an argument like this people usually cite the old chestnut of the ‘march of progress’ and the ‘advancement of technology’ and that we shouldn’t live in the past but embrace the future. This is rubbish. If technology was more important than experience we would not have restaurants or cooking, we’d just take a variety of nutrition pills. We would not have clothes fashion, we’d all wear silver fabric jumpsuits. The experience is important and that’s what we cling onto. That’s what we pay for. That’s why cinema attendance has never been so high even though it’s more convenient to watch DVDs at home on your 40” TV. That’s why music concert and festival attendance has never been so high when we can all put our iPod headphones on an listen to whatever we want whenever and wherever we want.

The irony is that the secret to the safe survival of the music industry was right there all the time, inside the music industry with the songwriters and musicians that make new music. The technology involved in recorded sound has advanced unimaginably since the early 1960s and yet all new rock bands that start making music aim to make that music using methods and technology that goes back 50 years. That’s why rock bands play guitars that may be newly manufactured, but their design and set up is a facsimile of the instruments that the Beatles, the Stones, or Led Zeppelin all played. In the 1990s VOX amplifiers brought back their old fashioned looking range of amps because all the bands wanted their stage to look like what all the classic bands stages looked like. Amplifier manufacturers ditched the advanced electronics and transistors to return to the values and tubes of the 60s because the musicians wanted that authentic value sound. And of course every rock band wants their records to be released on vinyl.

Of course not all new music follows this pattern and amazing sounds and new forms of music have been created with new technology too. The point here is that the music industry failed to realise that all music is not the same. The dance halls are filed with electronica, young girls fill their iPods with the latest pre-fab teenybopper and festival goers want their bands to be live and authentic. These are just three types of music which are created and consumed in completely different ways by different types of people for different types of people. And yet HMV and the like tried to sell it all in the same way, and when that started to fail they filled their shops with DVDs, computer games and iMacs, betraying the music audience they used to serve and appealed to no-one.

It’s probably too late for a single company like HMV to recover, but it’s not too late for the music industry. They need to re-discover that music is an experience. Some of those experiences can be packaged and sold at a profit and some cannot. They need to stop treating all music as the same thing. The genres are consumed in such different ways and yet the only way they’re differentiated in a music shop is by having their CDs in a different rack.

High street shops have something that iTunes doesn’t have: a physical shop that you can walk into. Music shops (and bookshops) seem to moan or panic as if such an advantage is a noose around their neck. If retail was dead, how come Apple Inc. opened their hundred or so shops worldwide and get a footfall of almost two million people per day for products that is easier to buy online. The answer is that they have created an experience that you can’t get online.

If the music shops realised that certain genres of music have an audience that would relish having a shop experience they could have transformed their retail units to accommodate them. By getting rid of all products that people would rather buy somewhere else they could have re-stocked vinyl records (a niche but growing market). They could have hosted classic album listening sessions. They could have hosted live bands. They could have built a model around the long-tail (selling many different obscure materials rather than stocking just few obvious titles). They should have realised that the markets these ideas would appeal to have the money and inclination to want it. It would mean abandoning the X Factors, Pop Idols and the charts (you can’t compete with the commodity of the download) and embracing an older audience. It would mean only the music genres that have the strongest experiential and lifestyle elements: possibly including new emerging urban sounds, some types of dance, classic rock, blues, jazz and folk (basically all the music forms created from the ground up by people, not manufactured to a formula by music industry management).

They say you can make excuses or you can make money, you can’t do both. The problems any business faces today can’t be blamed on technology or changing markets, or government policy or the world banks. They can only be blamed on an inability to creatively change the business model to follow the money. The reason businesses can’t cope with change is that their stuck in one way of thinking with an inability to be more creative when solving business problems. That’s way those record shops have gone. It’s not because people don’t want music or don’t want a shop, but because the shops failed to supply the experience the audience wanted through stubbornness, greed, ignorance and by keeping on doing what they’ve always done and expecting different results.

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Pipedream – the song I wrote in my sleep

This is one of my favourite songs that I’ve written. My subconscious wrote it. Many songwriters have described how their songs were ‘transmitted’ to them and all they had to do was write them down. Sometimes they had to leap out of bed to catch the tune that played in their head before it was lost.

This has happened to me quite a few times, the first and greatest was this song, Pipedream. I awoke in the night with the song fully formed, with music, lyrics and title complete. I jumped out of bed and played and sang it on the guitar as quickly as possible. It shows that creativity is something that can happen in your sleep and that you should always keep a notebook or some recording device to hand as you never know when inspiration may spark a wonderful idea.

Paul McCartney said that about the creation of ‘Yesterday’, (which became the most recorded song ever). In early 1965 he woke with a melody in his head. It was so powerful that he was sure it must be an old jazz tune. He played it to a few people, but no-one knew it. At that time he didn’t have the words, and as it was breakfast time it came out as “Scrambled eggs… oh how I love your legs…”.

He later worked out the real lyrics and the song was released on the Help! LP in the UK and as a No.1 single in the US. (At the time the Beatles found the song too sentimental to release as a single in the UK). Paul McCartney nearly always wrote about other people in his songs, unlike John Lennon who nearly always wrote about his own feelings.

It wasn’t until 1995 that Paul realised, while compiling the Beatles Anthology that his 1965 song about the loss of a lover was actually about the very real loss of his own mother a few years earlier from cancer. Have a listen to the song again with this context in mind and you’ll hear a pain coming directly from Paul’s unconscious that he wasn’t aware when he wrote it.

Pipedream became my second music promo from the 50 minute film ‘Ayd & Jase – The Visitation’. Filmed on cine Super8 in August 1991 in and around Odiham and Hook in Hampshire by John Bloor. Like ‘The World Turns All Around’ it was featured on ITV’s ‘Freescreen’ programme in 1992. The song was written and recorded that same month, again with me playing all the instruments.

See the Pipedream video on YouTube here.

Pipedream became a live favourite and I perform it to this day. There are other recorded versions (some with mandolin instead of harpsichord) but this is still the definitive. Perhaps in 2021 I’ll suddenly realise what it was really about…

You can see the other song from the film, The World Turns All Around, here

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For the Record: Paul the Psychic Octopus

Click here to watch the video: Paul the Psychic Octopus song

Every now and then I manage to think of an idea good enough to turn into a slightly funny song and see if people on the internet want to run with it. The last one was about the MPs expenses scandal. My new song about the World Cup oracle, Paul the Psychic Octopus has eclipsed that. At time of writing the hits on YouTube have passed the 1200 mark.

For the record, here’s what I did.

I was bashing around some chords on the guitar on Sunday night and had the idea, but no real lyrics. The next gap in my schedule when I could work on it was Wednesday 14th. That morning I got all my recording equipment set up: guitars, amps, mic and stand, cables etc. This was the intent: I was going to write, record and film a song today. Nothing else. So I sat down with the guitar and wrote the first two verses and chorus. When you tune in your creativity, set the intent, it can flow. I called my good friend and football expert Jeremy Nicholas to make sure I didn’t cause a faux pas by using the incorrect pronunciation of vuvuzella (which nicely rhymes with paella). After a coffee I finished off the last verse, typed it up and printed off the lyrics. I then had a think through about what video footage I might be able to shoot that day to illustrate the lyric. I jotted down a few ideas; the egg, the boxes with lids and the saucepan.

Then the recording began. I fired up Logic Pro on my MacPro and recorded the acoustic guitar (my Rainsong WS1000) in one take, leaving a gap for the did-did-did-did break I planned to play later on bass and electric, inspired by the Vanilla Fudge rendition of ‘You keep Me Hanging On’ which I felt suited the song.

Then I recorded the main vocal, again in one take with an SM58 mic and pop screen. I decided that I should only apply harmonies to certain lines in the verse and the chorus so rehearsed a few variations and recorded in two takes for the first backing and four takes for the second harmony.

Then it was time for the bass. Spent 30 minutes devising a suitable bass line and then recorded it in two takes. Then it was the turn of my Epiphone Casino. I miced up the amp set to a mild overdrive and worked out and recorded a lead line in four takes based in the twidle I’d played one on the acoustic at the start of the song. Again, I didn’t want to make the recording sickly by covering it in a wall of sound so I played the riff every other bar.

The hardest part was the drums. The first time I’d every played drums was at Christmas so I knew I’d have to do something really simple. I worked out a rhythm first for the verse and chorus and then started playing along, trying to keep in time and get the changes right. But I couldn’t get the MIDI to work properly. It wasn’t registering the closed hi-hat, no matter which sound bank I used, there was also some ‘latency’ – an annoying delay due to the digital to analogue conversion. So I gave up on that and took a stereo line out from my Roland TD4 and that worked fine.

So the song was finished. I left it for an hour before mixing it, then started on the video. The first shoot was me miming to the song in front of the camera. But since the song was so new I hardly knew the words so actually only gained a small bit of footage. I made up for it by shooting the previous ideas I’d had with the toy octopus and Ferrero Roche boxes after printing out flags for the containers, plus a few extra ones with a football. I didn’t have any mussles so used gurkins for the octopus food. The only part of the whole process where I needed help was with throwing the ball at my head which my wife gladly did.

Then I converted the footage to Quicktime and used Final Cut Pro to put it all together. By the end of the day it was ready and was uploaded to YouTube first thing Thursday morning.

You can hear the finished song, read the lyrics and download the mp3 here.

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Why I hate music

I don’t like music. Shocking isn’t it? Well it’s true if you were to use any accepted method of analysis to see that out of all the multiplicities of music available I like such a tiny proportion that I almost like none of it. I’d rather it be that way, I’d rather be discernible as to what I spend my time enjoying. If I ask someone what sort of music they like and they reply ‘oh, all sorts, everything’, what they’re really saying is that they basically like ‘sound’. Few may agree with my taste, but I’d rather have some kind of taste than be that random.

Maybe it’s because I write music, I analyse music, I perform music but most of all I ‘use’ music for a purpose and I know what that purpose is. It’s probably the same purpose that we all use music for; mood changing or mood enhancing. I use music as a drug – to externally control my emotions.

And that’s why I’m so discerning about what music I like, because I’m discerning about what emotions I want to feel. I choose emotions that serve my purpose and therefore choose music that serves a purpose.

That’s why I rarely listen to music radio. I don’t want a station’s playlist randomly shifting my emotions. (That’s not to say I don’t want to find new music that I might like, as I do. To me finding new music is like panning for gold though a lot of dirt. When I find something it’s wonderful.)

This is why I object to out-of-place music.

The sauna/steam room I visit has started playing music. The health club already pumps music into the bar area, the changing rooms, the toilets and the gym. There is now no escape from other people’s choice of sound. The music they play in the steam room is classical. That is the wrong choice. People generally go to the sauna/steam room to relax. Classic music is stimulating, it is not relaxing. Anything with a melody excites the brain and stimulates it. Classic music is all melody. Without this music we would hear the rushing of the water from the spa which is almost pure white noise. Sounds like the crashing of waves, humming and buzzing sounds are made up from all frequencies just as white light is made up from all colours. At low volumes white noise allows brain waves to slow down, to relax and then enter meditative state.

If I go into a cafe, restaurant or pub it’s usually for good conversation. So I don’t need loud music drowning out voices. I also don’t want beat music. Music with a beat forces the body and mind to adopt its rhythm. That’s perfect for dance music, but I don’t want an external random rhythm forced on my conversations.

Some people like to work in silence and some people like babble or the radio on. It does depend of the type of work and whether you are able to disengage from the sound for it to become for you white noise or not. I can’t do that with my work of writing or designing. If there is spoken word going on around me I can’t help but to listen to what is said. If music is playing I cant help but listen to it.

I have to engage with music. I can’t help myself. The wrong music in the wrong place will make me angry but the right music in the right place is amazing. So I love music after all.

Have a think about what you listen to, when, where and why and ask yourself what you engage with and what you don’t. See if you are controlling your emotions and therefore your decisions or if you are in fact surrendering control to someone else.

What music do you use for certain activities? Do you have different music for exercise, motorway travel, creative time, for relaxing or for confidence?

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Don’t turn your back on your hits!

I was delighted to find out that media expert Alan Stevens broadcasted one of my songs in his radio show this week. I knew it was a possibility as he’d announced that he’d feature an artist every week and had a batch of my songs. But which one would he choose? He chose ‘Suzy in the Sun’ from my band’s first EP. Perhaps it was because the song just feels lovely and ‘sunny’ with the sixties style arrangement, backing harmonies and 12-string Rickenbacker. It’s not the best song we ever did. It’s got possibly the simplest lyric. But it was by far the biggest selling.

John Lennon said he didn’t want to be playing ‘She Loves You’ when he was 30. Supergrass were heard to moan about their biggest hit ‘Alright’ and dropped it from their set. Oasis stopped playing ‘Wonderwall’. Actors often moan about becoming famous for playing a certain role. Leonard Nimoy’s autobiography was entitled, ‘I Am Not Spock.’ There always seems to be something that we become best known for, our ‘hit’.

I think it’s safe to say that without exception, we never choose our ‘hits’. I have hundred of songs that have cleverer lyrics, more impressive solos or more original grooves. But I didn’t choose my hits, my audiences did.

We set up and proliferate our brands, products and services in business – but that is only ever half the story. The other half is provided by our audience/customers. A brand is a two-way creation What they see may not be quite what we intended them to see – but if they like it, and buy it – who are we to tell them they’re wrong.

If you get a good reputation for something, or people start explaining to others who you are using different language than you’d use for yourself, listen to what they have to say. They may have spotted the hit making potential that you might just have otherwise overlooked.

Leonard Nimoy published a followup to his autobiography. It was called ‘I Am Spock’.

Listen to the MediaCoach Radio Show here.

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Music for Pleasure

A colleague of mine, Alan Stevens, recently wrote in his (excellent) newsletter that he’d been converting his old vinyl LP records to digital files on his PC and commented on his nine year old daughter’s astonishment that they had music ‘on both sides’. It reminded me of the fact that new technology and new ways of doing things are usually more convenient, but not always better, or more fun. Listening to a vinyl LP (or 45 rpm single for that matter – which can be exhilarating) is a totally different experience to listening to a CD or iPod. I would say that it’s a better experience and this is why:

First of all the sleeve is bigger. At 12″ the photos are nice and big and the sleeve is satisfying to hold as you listen to the recording. Care is needed taking the record out of the sleeve impressing upon you the value of what you hold in your hands. You need to slowly lower the needle into place, it can’t be rushed. The sound of a vinyl record is an analogue of the actual sound that was recorded. That means it’s almost exactly the same. This is not true with digital playback which is a sample of the original, it misses data out. True audiophiles can hear the difference and will tell you that CDs sound ‘cold’ compared to the truer, warmer sound of micro-groove vinyl.

But I haven’t mentioned the best bit yet. The record only lasts about twenty minutes or less, even though these are ‘long players’. Then you have to get up, walk across the room and pick the needle up and turn the record over. This has a massive impact on how music was presented and listened too. Artists had to arrange the records with a great opening track and closing track on both sides, like two acts of a play. It also means that you don’t put a record on and then wander off, you actually have to be there and listen to it. You’re involved in it, it’s interactive.

When the record industry sold us shiny CDs they were interested in making a lot of money in the short-term, by re-selling us what we already had, more than they were interested in the quality of the music or the concepts of the album and single . But by changing the listening habits and making music more convenient somthings were lost.
For example, it’s only now, with the concept of downloads that the idea of buying one song (ie. a single) has come back into play.

We all seem to succumb to the marketing messages and the thrill of the new. New technology is like electricity, fire or money – neither good nor bad. It’s what you do with it that counts. Does a high-tech solution always add to the human experience? Or is it better, sometimes, perhaps on a sunny day with a picnic by the river, to open up a hand crafted wooden box to reveal a wind up gramophone which, without contributing any CO2 to global warming, will play a thick shellac disc at 78 rpm and the sounds of musicians and singers who knew nothing of mp3s and downloads, will fill the air. Let’s not give up on an experience for the sake of convenience. Keep your records, keep your CDs and keep downloading. There are times and places for them all.

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How to Play the Piano

I’ve had a piano for seven years and a synthesiser for seventeen years and I’ve just learnt how to play. I’d been trying the play all that time but failed dramatically. Then as soon as I stopped ‘trying’, within a week I could suddenly play.

It came about because I wanted to retain the ‘cool dad’ tag for as long as possible with my fourteen month old son. We’ve been filling his day with music since he was born and when he expressed an interest in the large wooden piece of furniture covered in ebony and ivory keys I wanted to be able to play a tune for him. So I did. Was it as simple as that, you say? Actually yes. And I’m not saying all this to impress you, but to impress upon you a strategy for learning which can be, and should be, applied to everything you want to learn.

Let’s have a look at what is going on here.

The first thing was that suddenly the motivation was there to learn. When I was at school my parents and the teacher were concerned that I was late in reading. The reason was that they had given me a load of old boring books to read. I wanted to be able to do it to please them and get away with it and I wasn’t motivated in the actual reading of such dull stories. But when I got me hands on the Dalek and Star Wars annuals with their comic strips I suddenly ‘got it’. Then I devoured the many Doctor Who novelisations of the television series, a couple I owned and the rest from the library. Remember these were the days before video recordings. A Doctor Who story was on television once and then never repeated so books were the only way of reliving the adventures.

Comic strips, pulp science fiction, novels of tv series and fantasy ‘choose your own adventure’ books were all decried by teachers and parents in the 70s and 80s. What they failed to recognise, as the author Philip Pulman has often pointed out, is that it’s the reading that is important for children. It doesn’t really matter what they read as long as they do read. (For Pullman it was the Superman comics). Children soon consume a range of books and then look to the next thing to satisfy their reading desires. It’s often those who started on the lesser appreciated literary forms that move quicker onto more advanced works.

What was going on with my early reading was that I was getting a result straight away. I was learning as I went along, but I was getting the result which was the understanding of the particular adventure story.

I’d used the same approach to learning the guitar. I was self-taught. I learnt that I only needed the chords A and D to play ‘Mull of Kintyre’. Add in an E and I could play Buddy Holly’s entire back catalogue. My goal was to sing and play and within a week I could do that. After a month I was writing my own songs.

So it was this technique that I applied to the piano. The goal was to be able to play and sing some popular songs. I didn’t need to start at the very beginning and learn the history and meaning of dots and squiggly lines on wires. All I had to do was to make a convincing sound.

All learning begins with self learning. A good teacher shows the way and needs to surround the student with the right motivation for them. The student then pulls themselves up, by themselves. The thrill of achievement then fuels the next stage; the desire to get better. This is where the teacher is needed as mentor, to guide the student through to mastery by showing technique and information.

So many teachers get this process back to front. They bombard the student with technique and information which goes over the heads of so many students who then feel disenfranchised and lose interest. There is a certain percentage of people who can learn this way but many will get quickly bored if the information is not relevant to their current goal. It’s all about finding the right teaching strategy to match the student’s learning strategy.

Now that I can convincingly play ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Let it Be’ I can begin to expand my repertoire as well as going back to look at the technique and information for reading printed music. I now have the motivation to be able to get there.

You’ll have your own learning strategies. They may be different to mine but they’ll be the same in the one vital way: you will always need less will power to learn something you want to learn and that you will enjoy learning. If you have to use will power then you are more than likely to just give up and do something more rewarding at the first sign of hard work. Build the reward into the learning. This will work whether you want to learn Mandarin, Chemistry, salsa dancing or piano. Ask yourself ‘why?’. If that ‘why’ is compelling enough you’ll be doing it in no time.

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