Of Geist & Grooves

From Music & Psyche Journal 2002

In the last 6 years I have developed a skill in teaching children the piano. This began by accident, a request to teach a neighbour’s child in the village where I live; but I realised it was a perfect opportunity to experiment with ideas of child-centred learning I had developed during and after my 17 years’ progressive disenchantment with the system of pedagogy at the Royal College of Music Junior Department.

My subsequent observations of what accelerates and what ‘stalls’ a child’s musical development have confirmed my view of the wrongness of the grade exam system as a way of measuring musical progress. It’s very hard to say what I do differently, but it involves attunement to each student’s individual needs, and ‘negotiation’ in a choice of repertoire that balances the student’s cultural environment with drawing hir out towards a wider horizon.

Exams are desirable and necessary in subjects where there are quantifiable factors or a possible risk to life — but none of that applies to music. "Now then, young master Steveland Morris, please explain to the panel in words how the horn riff in Sir Duke works …?" Music is spirit, is feel, is grooves

The argument I am putting forward is that music only becomes Music when the experience of performers and listeners synchronise within an archetypal state which might be called geist — one wherein all can recognise, if not verbalise, that something has occurred which evokes a sense of something exceptional in everyone present. And I argue that an essential building-block of this experience is groove, rhythmic coherence — which need not be a pounding or even metre, but will almost always be a sense of dance-like energy in the performance which quite literally enchants the audience, whether in the St Matthew Passion or African drumming, and whose affect is to create a psychic sync-lock between all parties wherein, I believe, the healing power of music ultimately lies.

The adjective is groovy certainly applies to Stevie Wonder [Morris] but essentially it denotes a spell-binding or talismanic performance in whatever style. While this magic /power /’fluence can transmit in live or continuously recorded broadcast (the Proms would be a particularly good example) it is hardly ever captured in studio recordings except by artists who completely understand its mysteries. Yet the point of this article is to say that actually its so simple that even, or especially, children can understand it.

This isn’t a piece attacking exams, it’s an exploration of an alternative methodology: however, the exam-based mind-set has so thoroughly colonised the vocabulary of musical pedagogy that it’s extremely hard to set forth the educational values of a different approach, and to differentiate ‘new’ ideas (even if they’re only old ones rediscovered) from the prevailing structure and agenda, given that, to most musicians, the words and dialectic are deeply imbued with the conventional patterns.

This attunement to the mindset of young people in my neighbourhood was a gradual process in which the less sophisticated pupils played the greater role. Many do not come from a home background where cultural assumptions are based on knowledge of classical music, and if ‘relevance’ is the criterion of all successful teaching, then introducing someone who is never going to music college to the abstract considerations of conservatoire æsthetics can paralyse their natural imagination, by distracting pupils from their primal relationship with the lingua franca of contemporary mass-market music. For instance, I have two pupils with learning difficulties who have no interest in reading music; and discovering how to create structure in non-literate memories has been a fascinating process for me. I fully support the ‘conservatoire æsthetic’ in its place, but the days are long past when the classical tradition can be as-it-were a monotheistic summum bonum for musical aspiration.

My beginners’ repertoire includes a significant proportion of pupils’ own compositions. It started when a very shy girl, who has since given up music under GCSE pressure, started to impro-compose, and I would computerize and print them for her as a way of encouraging her to see when her ideas had reached their apogee. It seems a trivial thing, but the effect of encountering the notion that they can Compose really does seem to infuse kids with a sense a) of being listened to (ah, perhaps that’s all anyone ever wants) and b) of being part of something happening now, which is so important to an adolescent psyche emerging from its natal burrow and casting about for ‘belonging’ in an indifferent world. By constant revision of my sequence of teaching pieces I’ve come intimately to know the pinch-points and glissades of the cataract down which each learner must pass, and so can predict each individual’s pace with a fair degree of accuracy. I can’t make them play the right notes, but I can do an awful lot to help them avoid wrong ones.

I have been guided by two principles: first, that the customer is never wrong. As my ‘customer’ is not a school music department or LEA I’m not hindered by rules and precedents from altering the learning environment whenever I consider ‘the customer’ would benefit. The second principle is my view that if a pupil can’t play something, they don’t have a problem I have a problem. I am merely the sight on their rifle: they choose the target, and it requires only for me to be clear, focused and accurately calibrated for them to hit their own bullseye.

Shinichi Suzuki said "first I taught myself never to show any impatience with students: then I taught myself not even to feel it" — but, psychologically, no problem is likely to ‘hook’ a teacher’s psyche and inflame hir frustration unless the stuckness is also an issue for the teacher. Thus a teacher who has analysed and resolved hir own issues is best placed to help a student over a hurdle because hir response won’t ‘infect’ the student’s own ‘wound’.

Maxwell Steer and pupils at their Christmas concert 2002

If my success as teacher is attributable to any one ‘technique’, it is to imbuing the notion in my kids that everything they learn needs to service their ability to communicate with an audience. On a metaphysical level, my pupils’ principal motivation arises from the confidence that I am willing to take responsibility for their progress; while on a practical level they respond enthusiastically to bi-annual concerts that take the place of exams. The concerts are video’d and each pupil’s segment compiled onto their own personal VHS. This constitutes a cumulative portfolio of their progress which delights their parents — and will become a source of nostalgic amusement! But additionally, the experience of being recorded really opens students’ ears, and as the whole performance is available for objective study and self-assessment, not just a couple of sentences from some flaccid examiner, minor technical flaws can be addressed by pupils without the paralysing self-consciousness which comments on the superficial aspects of musical performance often produces.

Where the life skill element comes into it is that pupils are using music for the reason nature gave it to us — to entertain family and friends, not to (dis)please indifferent strangers. They are ‘negotiating’ their own entry into the wider world on favourable terms, for in acquiring a transactable skill and earning applause from it they are building a stable ego, which will be their greatest asset in adulthood. ‘Before you learn how to fly you gotta learn how to fall’ sang Paul Simon sagely. Playing your best in front of family and friends puts the right kind of currency in your emotional bank, and provides a safe environment for the odd tumble. Knowing it’s okay to fail gives pupils a courage to reach out for the really high notes.

I believe with all my heart that if you want to look for reasons behind the widespread disaffection of conservatoire-trained musicians, you need look no further than our training system, which is to kindle their ‘love’ by submitting them to a youth-long set of peak nervous experiences playing their hearts out in miserable damp church halls to someone who’s only there because s/he’s paid to be.

— — —

As I have said, my beef with the current craze for formal tests is that Music is not about quantifiable phenomena: it’s about magic and making magic. To flourish it requires conditions of belief and mutual acceptance which demand that everyone is treated, and listened to, as having an equal right to speak. Does that happen in exam-driven schools or universities — where the customer is not the student but the DfES?

Like Eros, that other magical condition, Music exists in as many forms as there are human-beings; but capital-M Music can only truly be said to exist when two metaphysical conditions are present: Geist, an identifiable (if indefinable) feeling or spirit which all present experience: and Groove, a rhythmic coherence whose pulse and feel take its heartbeat from the emotional aspirations of all participating. Those two qualities I believe to be inalienable and common to all musics which really touch our feelings. In their presence we sense power: in their absence we take away little or nothing of value from the encounter.

It therefore follows that all music-making must needs aspire to this condition if it is to communicate anything meaningful. So to make music successfully requires a culture of music where this kind of sensibility is held in common. The nature of the sensibility may vary tremendously -Malian musicians are not likely to have the same æsthetic as a European string quartet- but what matters is that each share the same feeling-understanding about what they do. In the case of music-in-education this feeling-understanding is an extraordinarily delicate seedling which requires careful nurture over a long period before it can take root in the emotion /knowledge /skill-base of students.

Living tradition, ‘feel’, plays the same guiding role in music that myth does in society as a whole — it defines the emotional epistemology within which activities occur. Understanding, or rather standing within, a musical tradition decodes a whole raft of meaning-sensations (to do with culture and life itself) which those who do not share it cannot possess. Tradition is by definition self-perpetuating — at its best it amplifies constructive values but, just as bad money drives out good, so bad or insensitive music tuition can undo in a term what has taken years to develop. But the real enemy schools face, in my experience, are educrats and their political masters at county and national level who are so terrified of the political implications of individual excellence that they have devised rules to make us all equally (ill-) educated. The form-filling mentality which currently governs education has been admirably calculated to extinguish every quality of true music and musicianship. To be sure the National Curriculum describes music and musical development, but it does so in the language of an anthropologist or a psychologist not that of a musician. It bears as much relationship to the experience of music as a MIDI file does to a performance by Demidenko.

Alas -and thank God- the anima doesn’t obey rules made by those who don’t understand it. Both music and magic depend on intuition — which, like inspiration itself, requires space for spontaneity, and thus does not respond to the diktats of the National Curriculum - indeed it flees to the darkest recesses of the psyche at the sight of such left-brain-itis.

For some years I have argued that Music isn’t the sounds we hear, it’s the experience we have when the sounds excite us: just as the heart of poetry doesn’t lie in the words but in the feelings we have when we read them. The point may seem fanciful, but how else do we account for the quantum difference between performances where ‘magic’ is present and those where it isn’t? To treat all music /audio as carrying an equal quality of intention defies experience, for it is invariably the presence of a projective intention that defines the memorability &/or magic of the musical encounter.

Given that broadcasters and musicians seem generally unable to discern this important psychic distinction between the qualities of different kinds of live and recorded music it is hardly surprising that music educators should be no clearer. But this confusion defines the common failure at the core of music education. For it follows that if we are not introducing children to the true, magical experience of music, we’re not introducing them to Music at all, but only to some mechanical activity which bears roughly the same relationship to Music that lap dancing does to Love.

Can we then alter this state of affairs, or must we just have to console ourselves with the thought that in time all tyranny passes? In The Guardian, 6/7/2, Prof Richard Dawkins said: ‘I have been horrified [by] what I have learned from the teachers … about the stifling effects of exams, and the government obsession with measuring a school’s performance by them.’ He went on to cite Sanderson, a visionary Head of Oundle School c1900 who ‘would have been aghast at the anti-educational hoops that young people now have to jump throu in order to get to university. He would have been openly contemptuous of … the accountant-driven league-tables that dominate modern education and actively encourage schools to put their own interests before those of pupils.’ And Dawkins concluded ‘Now let’s whip up a gale of reform throu the country, blow away the assessment-freaks with their never-ending cycle of demoralising, childhood-destroying examinations, and get back to true education.’

How might that gale be blown musically? Or put another way, how can we produce the wetness of magic in the heartless desert of contemporary education? The great tragedy, yet the greatest source of hope, is that until it’s squeezed out of them, all children have this quality of faith and trust naturally. (Hildegard of Bingen called it viriditas, greenness.)

The process of crushing it is a byproduct (a requirement, even?) of the socio-political paradigm that demands the uniformity of ‘standards’ according to a single measuring-system regardless of naturally occurring anomalies. To imagine we can alter one small part of this juggernaut is naïve — tho hope should never be lost! However, as an optional part of a young person's life, instrumental teachers are in a uniquely privileged position to contribute to that life’s richness by allowing pupils an imaginative dimension which the rest of our present education system seems designed to crush. The music teacher's true reward is helping people to real-ise something of their individuality which assists them to be healthy adults. ‘Education should be for life, not for a living,’ as the founder of many Indian schools, Sai Baba, says.

In music a structure of self-assessment, and thus self-empowerment, would be perfectly feasible. From 1987 to 1991 I created and ran an Electronic Music Faculty at the Royal College of Music Junior Department, and this convinced me that future musical education needs to integrate instrumental tuition with music technology to introduce students to the possiblities of extending their own instrumental or vocal skills beyond the rigid tram-tracks of conservatoire æsthetics, and into a multi-cultural future, as Nitin Sawhney has shown. Such a proposition doesn’t square with the macro-political ‘need’ for universal ‘standards’, but then what does? That is exactly where the problem lies.

— — —

In returning to the main theme ‘of geist and grooves’ in a school context I want to say something about ‘Dr Beat’, whose healing powers are free to operate in a concert situation where they are hardly ever allowed past the door of an examination room.

Without the emotional response of an audience, Rhythm has as much psycho-kinetic power as sound in a vacuum. The exhilaration that fledgling musicians find in knowing that an audience is listening and responding to their rhythmic coherence is nature’s own training system. Marks awarded on paper are irrelevant.

I observed this happen in a remarkable way in my pupils’ Summer 2002 concert. Halfway throu the first half 14 year-old Tom played a piece of his own. It was in a fairly conventional Elton John-ish style yet, perhaps directly because of this (‘ah the potency of cheap music’) it absolutely hit the collective psyche and established a ‘sync-lock’ with the audience as clearly as if a switch had been thrown. The subsequent performers felt it too, and everyone’s quality of playing was transformed. This is a small instance, no doubt we can all think of one. but it illustrates what groove is — and it doesn’t matter if the music’s Schubert or Herbie Hancock. Once that sync-lock is established, the magic /geist /spirit /whatever-it-is, is palpable to everyone … and the true ‘re-creational’ nature of music can work its healing magic. Thank you Dr Beat.

In the Middle School to which I was recruited as a part-time music teacher in 2002, I saw the bitter fruit produced by the deliberate denial of a child-centred approach. The atmosphere devoid of any kind of aesthetic stimuli, and the music cupboard bore silent witness to the scale of the tragedy that had occurred since the National Curriculum and OFSTED drove all thoughts of play out of education. Once upon a time there had existed enough instrumentalists to play a wide range of arrangements often enough for the parts to be dog-eared — but now there was nothing but a sullen and resentful attitude to music. There was not even a hi-fi in the music room or a single music program in a lavishly equipt ITC suite. The second biggest shock for me was encountering an entire school in which only about six pupils could even name a single classical composer. It was vividly impressed upon me how our electronic age has created a self-erasing culture where each new chart release pitches itself at the same psychological target and, in succeeding, effectively re-records over the same mental tape — a permanent loop of erasure from which the odd tune escapes.

My strategy was to endeavour to graft a skill base onto the prevailing popular taste. The first battle was to get the children to appreciate that performance (of any kind, no matter how primitive) matters - or, rather that the musical results are in direct proportion to the performers’ commitment. Recording was a terrific tool in this context. At first the kids didn’t know what to do with the freedom to make their own sounds and tended to go doolally at the sight of the microphone, but by the end of a term with a mini-disc they began to listen to what they were producing, and to be aware of how quite small changes in their own approach produced quite big changes in overall feel.

Anyone who has done much recording will know that the bits around the notes often speak louder than the notes themselves. To begin to understand that is to begin to understand the concept of Geist, of mood, of feel, which is so integral to music. To understand how doing and not-doing have an equal effect is a profound life-lesson; and to discover how to use this action/non-action consciously does not require any great musical skill — indeed very often the intellectual and gestural processes demanded by musical literacy can be an actual hindrance. If the teacher is clear it can be grasped intuitively by almost all children aged 9+.

From a rudimentary awakening to Geist it is a very short step for children to the idea(s) of Groove. Here there is a little-remarked phenomenon that requires careful handling: I call it drum lust. This occurs when a young (generally male) drummer becomes so exhilarated by the bio-feedback loop resulting from the power of noise-making and the physical excitement of his gestures that he loses objective awareness. The immediate sign of this is acceleration of the beat. I believe that the ‘psychological infection’ which leads to racing pulses and acceleration of the beat is analogous to the way in which ‘blood lust’ operates in cultures with a strong feudal or tribal tradition where personal ego identity is subordinate to a collective identity.

Of course when children are seized by ‘drum lust’ they are quintessentially in the power of the negative aspects of Groove. The challenge to a class teacher is to channel this energy into constructive rhythmic and personal development. The standard teaching method is to ‘force-quantize’ everyone onto the beat. But helping children to decode the intimate sensations aroused by differing rhythmic feels, and learning to respond to them, demands great sensitivity from the teacher if the children are to be e-ducated into a personal engagement with, and feeling for, that collective experience of psychic unity which we call beat or pulse. This is even more true of the ‘floating pulse’ of classical music than it is of 20thC+ metronomic music.

At such moments even hardened children can be helped to encounter their own sensitivity, because once you’ve got them to express something personal in their rhythm you can help them to feel that they ‘own’ rapport which has been created by showing them how excess destroys it. I had this experience with three very ‘hard’ boys at the school who were so full of thwarted energy that they couldn’t control it enough to collaborate with each other, let alone the rest of the class. But by dismantling my hierarchical relationship with them I was able to bypass their normal bipolar response and, offered a free choice about rhythm, one of them at least discovered how to take responsibility for his own rhythmicality — and began to see that building a groove throu cooperation with other people was ultimately more rewarding than merely wrecking everyonelse’s efforts. I’ve found that most children of most ages can quite clearly understand the moral (intentional) aspect of collaboration if you succeed in helping them to feel the validity as ‘good vibrations’ rather than discussing them as language or æsthetics.

Below puberty a personal sense of ego is neither common nor appropriate, and in viewing this phenomenon in children I have come to consider that for a child -or adult- to maintain a steady beat requires an awareness that there can be an existential ‘otherness’ which is not bound up in one’s gestural proprioception (body-awareness). The ability to keep and interact with a beat may not of itself indicate a strong ego-awareness, but in my observation there is amazingly close correlation between the two. In this connection a most interesting linguistic link exists between the words grace, graceful and disgrace, disgraceful — the one indicating easefulness and natural rhythm, while the other is indicative of behaviour that is arhythmic to the accepted pace or timbre of a group.

When we think how the ego-complex can be threatened by the proximity of judgment and the fear of failure, and compare this with how nerves can make performers of all ages lose a coherent sense of beat, it’s little wonder that young musicians on the exam treadmill often have both weak rhythm and weak egos. During the time I taught at the RCM I observed a tragic correlation between high academic attainment and a poor sense of body rhythm, and how this created a vicious circle of personal disempowerment. Girls seemed to suffer less from it than boys. In subsequent teaching I have observed how, as a generalisation, the amour propre of the young male ego is disproportionately connected with dexterity, in a way that its female counterpart isn’t.

As an instrumental teacher there is not a great deal that one can do to correct this in half or three-quarters of an hour a week, but there is a great deal that can be done to prevent it building up in the first place by ensuring that students develop rhythmic (self-)awareness. ‘Dr Beat and Dr Feelgood’ are partners, you never get a visit from one without the other being close behind!

The case that I am making is that these essential properties of Music: Geist and Groove: demand a quality of approach which respects their mystique. The rationalistic approach of contemporary science-based education is wholly inimical to these qualities. It really doesn’t matter how many laws are passed to insist that the current approach is best, an element of ambiguity, of creative doubt, of duende, is always necessary to provide the ‘head room’ for true music to expand beyond its allotted confines in order to liberate the mind of its intellectual shackles.

The issue here is that in everything we do we are giving the future generation messages about the world it is going out into. If you work out a musical value system that matters to you (but don’t prescribe it) and build up their balanced ego-security as performers (not over-confidence) young people will acquire important life skills without your needing to do anything — but ‘examine’ their development in irrelevant and intrusive ways and you’ll breed nothing but alienation and despair. To give them the true message of music’s lasting value we must ensure that their experiences ‘value’ them and enhance their self-esteem. It’s so simple really, only those blinded by theory and job-security can’t see it.

Music does not, and never will, fit into the tick-box categories that educrats want. To them political uniformity and control is all — and the terror of failure is a marvelous stick to drive the brain-washing process at every stage until the terrified, rhythm-less students achieve a ‘qualification’ in conformity which entitles them to become a terrified, rhythm-less adults.

God forbid teachers, pupils or anyonelse should be encouraged to discover their own truth! Who knows where society would end up if everybody did that?

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