GCSE Music – The Rise & Fall

In August, thousands of GCSE students received their grades. For the media coverage, there were the usual pictures of leaping students and child prodigies.

There were also lots of statistics based on the results. One slightly worrying report was of a 7.7% fall in the number of students who took GCSE music. I realise that we shouldn’t start panicking. Students not taking the GCSE may still be involved in making music.

However, there are concerns that the fall in popularity of GCSE music is because the education system doesn’t see the subject as a priority.

Traditionally, music has been classed as a branch of the arts, rather than an academic subject, such as maths and the sciences. I understand that the core areas of the curriculum, like english, maths and science are important. The emphasis on academic subjects increased with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate in 2010, which is made up of a selection of different subjects, and music is not one of them.

It’s common for there to be a divide between academic and artistic fields, particularly over funding. When schools have their budgets cut, the arts will often be pushed to the fringes. This leads to a frequent argument that seems to pit academic subjects against the arts.

Aside from the English Baccalaureate, the government have put an emphasis on subjects that are seen to be helpful to the economy, such as maths. I am not denying that academic options are useful for employment in important sectors, but the arts are beneficial to the economy as well. For example, according to The Open College of The Arts, 1.9 million people in the UK are employed in creative sectors. Therefore, training students in arts subjects will help the economy.

It could be pointed out that the creative industries are sometimes difficult to break into. Yet, if students are being encouraged to take the same type of academic subjects, it will generate more competition between those pupils when they start working. Certain academic subjects are important for some very vital careers, such as the medical profession, so I understand why students are being pushed towards those qualifications. Still, not everyone can work in medicine and I think this is the problem.

If there was a campaign to get most pupils to be Grade 8 on an instrument by the age of sixteen, it would be seen as unfair. As music is not a core subject, it’s not viewed as an area where all students can gain success. Just because a subject is considered to be important, as valid as that may be, it doesn’t mean that aptitude in that area will become more common amongst students. Here is where I think the battle between the arts and core subjects has become distracting. There is much value in taking academic subjects, but there is also value in studying the arts too. When students pick arts subjects, that doesn’t take away from the importance of academic choices.

Arts subjects are deemed less important because they involve entertainment. Entertainment has a reputation for being frivolous, ignoring the fact that it’s possible for a subject to be entertaining and worthwhile.

Not all school students are the same; they have different skills and ambitions. It would be more constructive to cater for those differences and allow for varied subject choices. I’m not saying all students should take GCSE music, but those that have an interest should not be discouraged from doing so.

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Olly Murs, The X Factor and Paragliding

For this month’s blog, I thought I’d tell you about my latest live music adventure. On Friday 2nd June, I had the pleasure of seeing Olly Murs, at Market Rasen.

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It had all the ingredients which I expect from a great gig, hit songs, a Stevie Wonder cover and someone paragliding in the distance. Well, I don’t think that last one was technically part of the show, but it added to the experience anyway.

Early on in the evening, Mother Brien turned to me and announced, “ He (Olly) is good live.” There is a well-known saying, “Mother is always right” and in this case, she was. I was impressed by the quality of the vocals and musicianship.

Of course, it makes sense that Olly Murs would perform well live. The singer was runner-up on The X Factor 2009, which would have given him experience singing live for judges and large audiences.

I realise that The X Factor divides music fans. Some people see it as an opportunity to hear undiscovered talent. Others have a slightly less positive view.

The main criticisms of The X Factor are that the show is an easy route into the industry and that many acts on the programme don’t go on to make an impact in music. These criticisms are quite confusing because both can’t be true. I also don’t think either of them are.

For example, I wouldn’t say that the The X Factor process, of auditions, facing judges, live performances and public votes, sounds particularly easy to me. Appearing on the show may give acts some publicity, but being well-known doesn’t mean you are popular. Music is a notoriously difficult industry and there are no guarantees. There are plenty of bands and artists who are tipped for huge success, but seem to disappear. If any contestants from The X Factor do struggle , then that is not an issue unique to the show.

There seems to be a rule that you need a difficult route to success. If an artist’s path into the industry appears easier, then it is viewed as unfair. I can’t see what is wrong with helping undiscovered acts.

The first major X Factor -style show in the UK was Popstars, which was broadcast in 2001. Since then, there has been a drastic change in the way that we consume music. Back then, CD singles were widely available. Now, downloads have increased as a way to buy music and streaming is included when calculating the Official Chart. A couple of years ago, I witnessed one friend lending another a CD. I felt like I was watching a scene from a period drama.

At first, the inclusion of streaming may sound like it would help new and unsigned artists. If free plays of songs online can contribute to sales figures, then it should lessen the need for the backing of a record company.

However, it has become clear that many online playlists favour established artists. In 2016, there were only eleven different number ones, and many of those were by internationally recognised acts. If breaking into the music industry was difficult sixteen years ago (when Popstars aired), it is possibly even more so now.

With the rise of streaming, many have questioned the relevance of shows like The X Factor. Yet, if streaming has made the situation harder, then any show that focuses on new artists is of great importance.

Various circumstances will stop some of The X Factor contestants breaking into the industry. Still, some do and find themselves on a summer tour, providing fans with a fantastic evening of entertainment.

Glass Swans and Wooden Boxes

The subjects of my title, ‘Glass Swans and Wooden Boxes’, have featured surprisingly frequently in my life. My Mum’s parents are Ukrainian and the front room of their old house was like stepping into a mini-Ukraine. There were many different Ukrainian ornaments and decorations, including quite a few glass swans and wooden boxes.

Having hosted last week’s Eurovision Song Contest, Ukraine has received more attention. Therefore, I thought now would be the perfect time to give you a handy guide to Ukraine.

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 1. There’s no the in Ukraine– Ukraine is often referred to as, ‘The Ukraine’, which is a dangerous thing to do, especially if you are talking to a Ukrainian. Many Ukrainians find, ‘The Ukraine’, offensive because it gives the impression that Ukraine is a region of another country, rather than an independent nation.  With Ukraine’s history of losing independence, being seen as a country in its own right is of great importance.

2.Слава Україні! – Aside from avoiding, ‘The Ukraine’, another way to endear yourself to Ukrainians is to say, “Слава Україні! (Slava Ukrayeanee)”, which means, “Glory to Ukraine”. Should you ever find yourself in a room full of Ukrainians and you are unsure what to do, just shout this phrase. People will shout back, “Героям Слава (Heroyam Slava)”, translated as “Glory to the heroes”.

3. Cabbages and Gherkins– If you would like to sample some Ukrainian food, then you can try Голубці (Holubtsée). These are cabbage leaves stuffed with mince (or a meat substitute), rice and onions.

Gherkins are part of the buffet at many Ukrainian gatherings. A get-together with my family is not complete without gherkins. Though, there is a slight problem for me in that I really don’t like gherkins. Still, from a young age, I’ve never been able to escape them. I’m traumatised. Perhaps, I’m not actually Ukrainian…..

4. The Ukrainian Alphabet, its as easy as А, Б, В– Interested in learning Ukrainian? A good place to start is with the alphabet. Ukrainian uses the Cyrillic Alphabet and there are a number of letters that look like those in the Roman, but are pronounced differently. For example, an H has an ’n’ sound and P is said like an ‘r’.

5. Talk like a Ukrainian– One day you may end up in the middle of Ukraine. In order to communicate with the locals, here are some simple words and greetings (written phonetically).

Hi! Privéet

Good Morning- Dóbroho Ránkoo

Good Afternoon/day-Dóbriy den

Good Evening- Dóbriy Vécheer

Thanks- Dyákooyou

Cabbage – Kapóosta

6. Dress like a Ukrainian– To look the part, you can wear an embroidered shirt/blouse or Вишиванка (Vishivánka) as it is known. The embroidery depicts geometric patterns, flowers or animals.

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7. Famous Ukrainians– There are a few famous Ukrainians or people with Ukrainian background:

Sergei Polunin– Ballet Dancer.

Steven Spielberg– The director has Ukrainian Grandparents.

Mila Kunis – Actress.

Leonardo DiCaprio– Some sources say the actor has Russian ancestry but others report that his Grandmother was born in Odessa, Ukraine. We are then onto the sensitive subject of territory, so I think it’s best to leave it there.

Ruslana– Singer and winner of Eurovision 2004.

Denis Stoff – Singer and musician. Former frontman of Asking Alexandria.

Andriy Schevchenko – Ex-Footballer and current manager of the Ukrainian National Football Team.

Sasha Cohen–  Former Ice-Skater, whose Mother is Ukrainian.

Yevhen Konoplyanka – Footballer.

Olga Kurylenko – Actress.

Elina Svitolina– Tennis Player

Now, there is only one way for me to end this post, with a Ukrainian Folk song!

Guitars- Are they not for girls?

I am interested in doing some research. The research would be into how many other people read Cheryl’s book Through My Eyes for their Dissertation.

My Dissertation addressed the question of whether there is Gender Equality in the Music Industry. To cut a very, very long piece of work short, I argued that there isn’t Gender Equality in the Music Industry. While I acknowledged that men are the victims of sexism, I found that women faced prejudice, with a lack of females in Management positions within Music businesses.

One area that I didn’t cover was Music Education and Training. It is useful to look at Gender Equality in Musical Training, because this is the time when individuals prepare for the Music Industry. Many people start their training when they are children, which is coincidently the age when beliefs about gender are first formed. Therefore, looking at Music Education can help explain the Gender Inequality within the Music Industry.

Musical instrument choice is one aspect of Music Training that shows an apparent relation to gender. Studies by The University of Florida, The University of Washington and in The International Society For Music Education Journal, found that more boys learn the electric guitar, bass guitar, trumpet, tuba, drums and trombone. More girls choose the clarinet, flute, violin, harp and vocals.

Findings of gender differences for instrument choices is not enough to show evidence of prejudice. We also need to look at why there are disproportionate numbers of males and females learning particular instruments. It is possible that the gender differences are just coincidence. However, the research by The University of Washington also found that children’s music instrument choices are influenced by exposure to Gender Stereotypes.

The study used instruments that adults had previously categorised as typical for males or females. Some of the children were then shown videos of music performances that featured musicians playing ‘Gender – Typical’ instruments. Another group saw videos that went against these stereotypes. When the children were asked to pick an instrument, those who had seen the Gender -Typical music performances were more likely to pick a Gender -Typical instrument.

Though stereotyping seems to lead to gender bias, the good news is that the power of watching others could have benefits.  Those children who saw videos that did not conform to Gender Stereotypes were less likely to pick a Gender-Typical instrument. The gender bias we see for instrument choices can be changed.

In trying to combat Gender Inequality within Music Education, it is important to consider another finding in The University of Washington study. Boys in the Anti- Stereotype group were less likely to pick a Non-Typical instrument than girls, which suggests boys may find it harder to go against expectations for their gender. If we want to abolish the gender bias, it is these gender expectations that we need to change. The discussion then goes beyond Music and onto the question of what causes these stereotypes in the first place.

You Can Sing But You Can’t Talk

So far in this blog, I’ve managed to avoid Politics. I wrote about tips for music practice and composition diaries…but then 2016 happened. This past year has certainly been ‘eventful’. By eventful, I mean that the world seems to be turning into one of the Dystopian Young Adult books I read and my Social Media feeds are full of people (including myself) basically just going, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!” 2016 was a good year for anger at least.

Now that awards season is underway, the various shows have been used as a platform for stars of Music, Film and Television to express their views on last year’s political events. The comments from famous people have been met with some criticism.

One accusation has been that the celebrities are out of touch with most people. They are the Privileged Elite who have fame and money, which keeps them in a bubble, away from reality. Many point to the fact that a majority of celebrity opinions on Brexit and Donald Trump are against the result, proving that famous people are out of step and think they know better.

However, while it is true that Brexit and Trump won, 16,141,241 people voted Remain, and Clinton won the popular vote in America. When famous people reveal disappointment at the Referendum or US Election result, they are in agreement with much of the general public. Yet, when famous people are in line with popular opinion, it is seen as a move to gain more popularity. We are then left with a situation where, if famous people agree with the general public, they are charged with seeking publicity, but if they don’t agree they are out of touch. Whatever celebrities say, it seems they will be criticised. If we are truly committed to Free Speech, it should be applied to all, including famous people.

Celebrities have the profile to speak out about causes but some question whether they have the experience. It comes back to the accusation that famous people are sheltered. Admittedly, having money can solve certain issues, but it doesn’t make you immune from all problems. Many of the difficulties facing the world today, such as Global Warming, affect everyone, regardless of how rich and famous we are.

Even if celebrities speak out on an issue that doesn’t directly impact them, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The world of celebrity is often labelled as shallow and self-obsessed. We should respect when famous people use the attention they are given to help others. Instead, many famous people are derided for having the audacity to give their opinion. Of course, it is wrong to marginalise those who are poor or don’t have status, but a society which targets the rich and famous is no more fair. We must guard against inverted snobbery.

We must also guard against cynicism. The impassioned acceptance speeches that have referenced recent political events, are easy to mock. If someone appears emotional, it can make them appear irrational. Then, factor in that these celebrities work within the Arts, an industry associated with a ‘creative personality’. Critics can make these famous people look shrill, hysterical and uninformed. It is a manipulative argument because any response will confirm the assertion of ‘hysterical’ reactions, thereby shutting down debate.

Mocking famous people as ‘hysterical’, is also a way to undermine any valid arguments they may have. Obviously, we want to pay attention to facts, but it worries me when people want to keep emotions out of a discussion. We all have and experience emotions, it is naive to think we can be completely neutral. Furthermore, I think it is healthy to experience emotions when we hear about problems in the world. Emotions motivate us to act.

Perhaps that is the problem. Deep down many don’t want to hear celebrities share their views, because it forces them to hear opinions that contradict with theirs. People might be forced to question what they believe and then have to act. Some have spoken about how divided the UK and America are following 2016’s events. I am growing tired of certain groups receiving blame, through an ‘us and them’ attitude. Currently, we are facing many problems and I don’t think having a go at famous people is going to solve them.

To do or not to do Music Exams- that is the question.

This September, some of my students started working towards their Grade 1 Piano. They and their parents made the decision to take the exam after I’d suggested it as an option.

If you play an instrument or sing, you don’t have to take music exams. There are plenty of great musicians and artists who haven’t ever taken a music exam. Still, there are good reasons for doing music grades.

  1. Providing a goal- Exams give you material to practise, a timeframe to work within and a particular event to perform at. It is easier to organise your rehearsal time if you have something to work towards.
  2. Knowing your level- Achieving a music grade gives you some idea of what level you are on your instrument. If you know what level you are, you can make better decisions over what pieces to play. Music exams increase with difficulty at each grade, from 1-8, which can help with pacing your development as a musician. When you move through the grades, you are at less risk of attempting pieces that are too difficult or too easy.
  3. Feedback- Most of the time, the examiner will write comments on a marking sheet. The feedback is useful because it highlights areas for improvement and positive attributes to your playing, which can increase motivation and confidence.
  4. Challenge- Many exams require you to choose pieces from a list. Therefore, you may play compositions in styles that you wouldn’t normally pick. It can be helpful to try new styles because you may have to use unfamiliar techniques and play in a different way. Working on new techniques and character for pieces, will broaden your range and improve your playing.
  5. Performance Experience- For an exam, you will play in front of another person, who will be assessing your playing. The exam gives an opportunity to perform and experience the nerves that can come with that. If you don’t get many chances to perform, exams can offer valuable experience.
  6. Career- Music exams are important for those who want to work in music. Having Grade 8, or being that standard, is the basic entry requirement for most Music Colleges, Universities and Conservatoires. If you wish to apply to study music, it makes sense to take grade exams. Even if you don’t want a music career or to study it in further and higher education, taking music exams can be excellent preparation for many jobs. In working towards grades, you attain and develop a number of skills and qualities, like organisation, analysis and performing under pressure. These skills can be useful in industries other than music.
  7. Range- In addition to pieces, many exam boards include scales, listening tests and sight-reading in their assessments. These might be areas that you wouldn’t work on if you weren’t taking an exam.

Despite knowing the good reasons for taking exams, the idea of taking them can be quite intimidating. It is perfectly understandable to be nervous about performing in an exam situation. However, the fact that exams make you nervous is even more reason to take them. If you’re nervous about something, it represents a challenge and it will help you improve.

Music examiners are not horrible people out to give you a bad mark. Most of them will have taken grade exams themselves, so they will know what you’re going through. Treat the exam as a performance, with the examiner being your audience. Just try to enjoy it!

How to Practise Scales

My last blog was all about why we should practise scales. Now let’s look at how to practise them…

  • Start With Scales – It is a good idea to practise scales and arpeggios at the beginning of a rehearsal, because these exercises help to warm up (see last blog). For an hour-long practise session, five to ten minutes could be spent on scales. You will have long enough to warm up, go over the scales and arpeggios you are learning and still have plenty of time to look at actual pieces.
  • Old and New– Choose a mix of old and new scales/arpeggios to ensure that you learn them, but also keep adding to your existing knowledge. For example, in one rehearsal you could look at a Major scale and arpeggio, as well as a Modal scale.
  • The Circle of Fifths/ Cycle of Fourths – If you’re unsure which scales/arpeggios to start with, you can practise round The Circle of Fifths (for sharp Key Signatures) and The Cycle of Fourths ( for flats). This method helps you learn the theory behind scales because you’re going round them in order. You could choose a Minor and Major scale/arpeggio each rehearsal. Also, feel free to sing ‘The Circle of Fifths’ in the style of ‘The Circle of Life’ from The Lion King…..
  • Use a Metronome– Playing scales and arpeggios to a metronome will ensure you are not changing speed as you play them. Maintaining the same tempo is important when playing scales/arpeggios because it develops fluency and accuracy.
  • Composing- One of the reasons for learning something is to use it. Therefore, you could pick a scale and compose a piece in that key. It will improve your knowledge of scales and arpeggios, by providing another, more creative, way to practise them. Applying your knowledge of scales and arpeggios should also motivate you to practise them because you can see how a knowledge of scales and arpeggios is important.
  • Link to pieces – Find out the keys of the songs/pieces you are learning and practise that scale. The songs/pieces will contain the notes of the particular scale and may even feature certain scale and arpeggio patterns. Learning scales/arpeggios will then prepare you for playing the pieces. Linking scales/arpeggios to pieces is especially helpful if you sing or play an instrument that relies heavily on an ability to pitch when playing, such as a violin. You will become familiar with how different notes and intervals sound.
  • Play at random – Sometimes, it is good to play scales and arpeggios in no particular order, so that you can test how well you really know them. Write the names of the scales and arpeggios you are learning onto sheets of paper and draw them out of a hat (which might actually be a bag or box). Then, pick a scale/arpeggio and play it.

 

These are just a few ideas for practising scales and you can always discover more. The most important thing is that you practise scales regularly, in order to get the benefits of learning them.  

 

Practising Scales…Why?

People will often say that a particular song makes them cry. Other songs make people want to dance. You don’t tend to hear the same thing said about scales ( unless it’s someone crying over the number of scales to learn).

We’re told to practise scales and they are included in music exams. However, scales are more than something we learn because we have to. One of the first steps to practising scales is to appreciate exactly why they are important.

Scales Help in …

  1. Learning pieces- With the exception of very experimental music, all songs will have a key and that key will use notes from a particular scale. For example, a song in B Major will mostly contain notes from the B Major Scale. If you practise scales and arpeggios, you will already have an idea of which notes are likely to be in a new piece, just by seeing the key. It is also common to see parts of a scale or arpeggio used in a piece. Therefore, scales are useful for learning pieces and for sight-reading.
  2. Being comfortable with the instrument/ your voice- The fact that scales and arpeggios involve ascending/descending patterns, make them perfect for covering a large range of your instrument/voice. Familiarity with the lay-out of an instrument/vocal range will give more confidence through a greater knowledge of where notes are placed.
  3. Warming Up – Scales move by step, meaning they feature less leaps and complex patterns than a song would. Arpeggios, though containing wider leaps, still have a fixed pattern. Practising patterns gets you playing/singing, with less risk of injury, which is perfect for warming up.
  4. Gaining an ear for music- If you practise scales/arpeggios regularly, you will get to hear the different intervals between notes, like a minor third. As a result, you will be able to identify these different intervals, which will improve your ear.
  5. Song-writing/Composing – As well as help for learning new pieces, knowledge of keys is beneficial when writing your own music. The more experience you have of scales, the more you can incorporate them into your own composing. For example, you could learn a Blues Scale and use it in your own music.
  6. Improvisation- Trial and error reveals which notes/chords work. To speed up the process, you can learn scales and arpeggios, which show the notes that will clash or create the desired sound.

Those are some of the main benefits of scales, we will look at how to practise scales very soon!

Practising Scales…Why? (An Extract)

People will often say that a particular song makes them cry. Other songs make people want to dance. You don’t tend to hear the same thing said about scales (unless it’s someone crying over the number of scales to learn).

We’re told to practise scales and they are included in music exams. However, scales are more than something we learn because we have to. One of the first steps to practising scales is to appreciate exactly why they are important.

Read the rest very soon…!

What I learned At Music College- Part 2

I learned a lot at music college and some of those lessons were unexpected. I don’t just mean spending rehearsal breaks translating pop songs into German (long story). I found myself realising the importance of…….music marketing.

Mentioning marketing in relation to music can be a dangerous thing. Music is an art form and any attempt to treat it as a business can be seen as greed. All of The Arts are about creativity, so to bring up talk of promotion, Target Audiences and Unique Selling Points seems like an insult to the inspiration and emotion that go into making music.

I can understand why people are suspicious of music marketing. I have to admit that learning about music marketing wasn’t high on my priority list, when I skipped through the doors on my first day of music college. However, I soon came to learn that my suspicions were wrong.

At college, music promotion wasn’t presented as a way to become rich and famous. Instead, promotion is sharing your music with other people, so they can enjoy it. It is as if you have an important message for people and promotion is making sure that message is sent.

Promotion may ruin the ‘romance’ associated with musicians. Yet, think of all the great ideas, ground-breaking inventions and beautiful pieces of artwork, literature, drama or music that we would not know about, if they had stayed just with their creator/s. Promotion is not the enemy of creativity, it helps in the spreading of it. In fact, promotion, the creation of trailers, artwork and new Social Media platforms can be an art form in itself.

It would be sad to lose out on some great and interesting music all because a performer was afraid of promoting it.