I love to look at photographs, watch films, read books and listen to music. But while I take pictures, make films, and recently started to write for the first time since I left school, I feel like making music is off limits. I say that creativity is open to all and I think that anyone can learn to do anything better with practice (with certain headstarts conferred by innate ability or environment), so why don’t I apply that logic to music-making?
Let’s be specific about what I mean when I say that creativity and improvement are open to all. I don’t think someone can pick a discipline at random and ascend to its pinnacle with only hard work and good teaching. There are upper bounds imposed by life’s twin lotteries of genetics and life experience. If you’re 5’ tall, you’re unlikely to become the next LeBron no matter how much time you spend on the court. Likewise, if you begin to learn the cello at 50, you won’t be stealing work from Yo-Yo Ma any time soon. But that’s not what ‘open to all’ means — I’m talking about enjoying and improving at a skill for it’s own merit, not for plaudits or world-beating dominance. You don’t have to be the best at something to find it rewarding and it’s not too difficult to attain the level of competence most activities require for deep fulfilment. You can become more skilled than 99% of non-practitioners of an activity, like chess playing or language learning, with a modest investment of time and effort. And, if you increase your commitment, you can become better than the majority of keen amateurs with a program of consistent and intelligently designed high quality practice.
I don’t feel like my path to musical participation is blocked by gatekeepers or by means. I’m not waiting for permission, and my complete lack of credentials hasn’t stopped me yet. Equally, I could make time to practice; I have an electric piano, sound recorders, a laptop and access to open source music software — many musicians make do with less. If anything, these tools present an overwhelming number of possibilities to a beginner — I could spend a lifetime at a piano and still not exhaust its creative potential. So what is holding me back? I think it’s an identity problem not an access problem or a tools problem.
Fundamentally, I see people as either musicians and non-musicians. Musicians can make music, non-musicians can’t. Not only is this stupid, it’s inconsistent with everything else I believe about people and creativity. Sure, I use labels to describe people by their occupations for convenience, but I don’t split the world into writers and non-writers, artists and non-artists, photographers and non-photographers. More importantly, I don’t think that someone who isn’t being paid money to write, paint or shoot, should be excluded from these activities. If you do the verb, you can earn the noun.
If I look back, I think that the musician / non-musician distinction set in when I was at school. Everyone tries to define their niche, to deflect attention from the potentially embarrassing complexity of their personality and interests. When we say, “I’m a drama kid”, “I’m an athlete”, even “I’m a loner”, we’re seeking safety through simplicity. When your identity is one dimensional, there is less risk of misunderstanding as your role and place in the hierarchy is clear. Over time, I’ve tried to identify and remove these suits of armour, as they weigh me down more that they benefit me. Unfortunately these ideas of who you are and what you can and can’t do persist long after you’ve stopped clanking through the corridors of your childhood.
It’s not like my childhood was music free — as a young child I used to spend hours in my granddad’s office noodling on the piano, surrounded by dusty books and boxes of index cards. My parents would have to physically escort me away from the instrument to preserve the sanity of the other adults. My grandmother, incidentally the only person to praise my dubious keyboard skills, also taught me to play the recorder and to read music. This allowed me huff and puff my way through children’s song books on the rickety music stand in the front room and show off at primary school (the only venue where recorder chops are given their due). There were other instruments strewn around my dad’s childhood home in Canterbury, but the less said about my attempts on my gran’s out of tune violin the better.
I think that the beginning of the end for me was my experience learning the saxophone. The conventional wisdom at the time was that you should start with the clarinet if you want to play the saxophone. The theory being that it’s easier to get a sound out of a clarinet when your technique and embouchure are weak. I spent two to three years learning an instrument I had no interest in, while I looked towards a future where I would get to play the instrument I cared about. Eventually, this lead to a lackadaisical attitude to practice and a gradual loss of enthusiasm. I didn’t feel like a musician, just a person who could play an instrument. I was making the noises that were on the page, but I wasn’t creating anything. It felt empty.
When I finally got a saxophone, it felt like starting at the beginning again, rather than reaping the fruits of my work to get to that point — not the triumphal transition that I had been (naively) expecting. Unfortunately the final nail was yet to come — four weeks after receiving my prized instrument, before I had even learnt to play one tune on it, four older boys got onto my train at Clapham Junction station, pinned me against the window, threatened to punch me in the face and stole the sax. It wasn’t insured, we couldn’t afford to replace it, and the music stopped there.
There is hope for the future — I’ve managed to slough off some of these unhelpful identities before, so I can do it again. At school, I thought language learning was restricted to kids who were ‘good at languages’ — those mutants who pick up dialects and vocabulary with the ease of a toddler; leaving the rest of us muttering “bon-jaw” and “sylvie play” forever. At the time, I held back because I thought languages weren’t for me; and my lack of effort kept me at a level that ‘proved’ I was correct. Many people can still hoover up vocabulary and grammar more easily than me, but once I ditched the preconceptions, I improved faster than I had in years of school lessons. There’s no magic, all I needed was spaced repetition software, media in my target language, regular speaking practice and time. I’d refined my approach and found better tools, but the key was that I started to do it for the joy of the process, not because I had to.
Writing is a great tool for exposing sloppy thinking — it forces me to confront my reflexive stupidities or inconsistencies. In the course of writing and thinking about this topic, I’ve felt the shackles of self-critique loosen. I can feel an openness where there was a wall before. I’m going to get back to learning the piano and start experimenting with electronic music. You’re not going to see my EP gracing the music links at end of this newsletter any time soon, but outcomes are besides the point. As long as I’m making a racket and having a great time, I’ll be on the right road.
“You can’t do something you don’t know, if you keep on doing what you do know.”
— F.M. Alexander
Paths to Graceland Mixtape (Soundcloud only)
An incredible mixtape of South African music from the fities to the eighties that recreates the now lost cassette that inspired Paul Simon’s Graceland. Just over an hour of joyous grooves and raucous vocals. Guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
Howl by Rival Consoles
Deep, fuzzy synths and pulsing rhythms — moody and evocative.
Music for Detuned Pianos by Max de Wardener
A beautiful and atmospheric album that is by turns pretty and discordant. Often incredibly delicate and textural.
Sounds of Art + Attention
The rolling Spotify playlist for this newsletter.
Let’s Make Robot a Dirty Word
Striking Deliveroo workers, the etymology of the word “robot” and human dignity.
A lovely essay about seeking solace in the solvable puzzles of code when you feel depressed or anxious at chaotic, ever-changing and confusing nature of current events.
Slow Movie Player
How to connect a Raspberry Pi to an e-ink display (like a kindle screen) to make a picture frame that shows films one frame at a time, changing every few minutes, so that a film plays out over a year. This allows you to appreciate the individual images that flow together to carry the narrative. I really want to make one of these.
The Art of Self Defense
Dark, funny and at times brutal film about toxic ideals of masculinity and radicalization by way of martial arts personality cults. Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola and Imogen Poots are excellent and the artificially flat dialogue contrasts brilliantly with the increasing insanity.
Palm Springs(Amazon Prime)
Surreal, dumb and weirdly Buddhist rom-com. You need to go into this cold — don’t read anything, don’t watch the trailer, just go for it. I found the first ten mins irritating and the remainder fun and bizarre.
All the images in this issue are from the Piano Day rehearsals at The Union Chapel in 2017. Piano Day is a worldwide celebration of piano music, started by Nils Frahm, that takes place on the 88th day of the year (the number of keys on a full sized piano)