As I sit down to write this article I realise that I may not be qualified to do so. On paper my musical credentials stopped improving at 17. Grade 8 Drum Kit, Grade 5 Theory and an A-level in Music but no BMus (Hon) Degree or Music Education MA. In the hypothetical league table of musicians’ honours and distinctions I sit somewhere near the bottom.
The pivitol moment in the story of my education was at 18 when I sat down with my friends Joe and Adam in a lawyers office off Oxford Circus and signed a 5 album record deal. Mainstream education was, in the stroke of a pen, relegated to a distant curiosity. The decision wasn’t a difficult one, it was in essence made for me by an unusually charismatic, enthusiastic (and wealthy) record company executive. 5 years later, when the party was over, the small issue of the ‘real world’ was hurtling towards me and university presented itself as a tempting adjournment. This time though I did consciously reject the academic route. The decision was motivated by regular conversations with friends who had recently graduated from music colleges. The prevalent feeling among them was simply ’Was it worth it?’. Having given so much to their qualification they, understandably, wanted to know what it would give back. I drew their attention, in an only partially astringent way, to all of the great ‘social’ and ‘life’ experiences that only the modern collegiate route could provide, as well as the qualification itself. But what does a degree in ‘popular music performance’ actually mean? And did they want to be the kind of musician that these courses produced? We’ve all come across the archetypal ‘music school’ player: oozing a proficiency and versatility but lacking some key ingredients.
This article isn’t meant as an outright denunciation of mainstream musical education, after all, its the route chosen by some of the worlds greatest players and composers. What is it though that so many students resent about the process? One element that seems to dominate the music school curriculums around the world is, for me, both its great strength and weakness, namely: versatility. How can versatility ever be a bad thing? Widening your horizons and understanding can surely only lead to a greater mastery of your craft? Well, yes and no. In my view the kind of versatility that these institutions champion is detrimental. The all encompassing span of knowledge that the modern student is expected to achieve can actually suffocate the embryo of individuality that we all possess. For an example of this we can look back a few decades before the institutionalisation of music education. Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, James Gadson Ginger Baker, Ringo Starr, Stevie Wonder. The list of what these drummers couldn’t
play is vast. It’s my assertion that it’s exactly these deficiencies that defined who they were as musicians. Ringo Starr hadn’t studied John Bonham, Bill Ward or Dave Grohl. That meant he had to find his own way of expressing himself rather than looking elsewhere. If someone decides to become a drummer today it’s probable they’ll end up sounding like a diluted version of the names above. We can’t unlearn our influences or un-invent genres but we can govern the way
My advice here is not to learn less. I believe it’s the way we learn something, the process itself, that defines who we are musically. When I have a drum lesson I often want the teacher to show me something note for note. It’s a testament to their excellence that they resist. They remember that the most beneficial moments in their own education were when they discovered something for themselves. Here we arrive at the nub of the matter: The key to individuality is in the moment of discovery, how you react when you come across these discoveries, which parts you discard and which you keep. I find this revelation an exciting and quite liberating prospect. Having been for a longtime anxious about finding my own individuality I realised this isn’t something that needs ‘development’. As long as you’re committed to asking your own questions, in your own way, individuality will develop completely naturally, even unconsciously. Conversely, If you’re being spoon-fed this same information, whether in music school or private tutoring, you don’t feel ownership of the discovery and your musicality will become an impersonation. This is why we end up seeing a throng of homogenous music school graduates with little or no idea of their own character. My point here is not that education in music is futile (although certain kinds of creativity certainly can’t be taught) but that the wrong kind of education is. Also just as common is the trap of becoming the wrong kind of student. I believe that music school can be a breeding ground for fantastic musicianship but the question is whether or not you’re willing to be brave enough to take the harder path; to resist the instantly gratifying route and instead ask your own questions in your own way.