Music Blog

What I Learned from Studying for my Grade 8 Exam

posted 26 May 2016, 04:01 by Chris Morris   [ updated 22 Sept 2016, 04:47 ]

Update: I passed with Distinction. Hooray!
This Saturday I'm sitting my first ever graded exam, and I'm diving straight into the deep end with Grade 8. I suppose you could say this is unusual for a number of reasons, the biggest one being that I'm skipping grades 1-7. But when you consider that I've already been teaching pupils to play at Grade 8 (and beyond) for the last few years, it starts to look like I probably should have sat the exam a long time ago.

And that's another unusual thing – the grades are sort of designed for younger people (school-age) who want to go on to study music at university or elsewhere. I've already studied, but then there is one more qualification I'd like to add, and for me that's what this Grade 8 exam is all about; next year I'll be taking the LTCL exam with Trinity Guildhall (an instrumental teaching diploma) which requires you to have already achieved a Grade 8 in your instrument. 

It's as good an excuse as any to finally sit the Grade 8 exam – people often ask me if I'm at Grade 8 standard, and I usually reply that I'm hopefully at least Grade 8, so taking on the challenge of preparing for the exam was a good way to find out. I approached it not really knowing how easy or difficult I'd find it, and over the last few weeks it's certainly been an experience! So I thought this blog would be a good way of documenting my experience and hopefully helping others who are preparing for graded exams of any level.

The exam I'm taking is with RSL Awards, and I have to be assessed on the following:
  • Three pieces of music of different genres, with a backing track, lasting around 3 minutes 30 seconds.
  • A range of technical exercises including rudiments and a stylistic study.
  • A “Quick Study” piece: a short piece of music with a backing track that I've never seen before.
  • Ear tests.
  • General musicianship questions.

I'm going to break down all parts of my exam and tell you what I've found challenging, and what I've learned.

The Pieces

Piece #1 – Mind the Gaps (Funk)

This piece almost immediately introduces two concepts that are featured throughout this syllabus; sextuplets and rim-shots. The sextuplets are easy enough when played all using your hands, but in this piece we have a couple of sextuplets which also use the foot. Lots of my pupils have trouble with using the bass drum in a fill but it's all about staying relaxed and not bringing it in too early – something I've had to repeatedly tell myself while practising!

Something I've understood about notated music from higher grades for a while now is that if a groove looks easy, you're probably not looking hard enough. The main groove of this piece appears simple enough, but must be played with accuracy and flow. I often say that feel is something that can't be written in notation, and this piece is a good example of that.

The chorus-of-sorts in this piece is very fun to play bit requires complex four-way coordination, and if you're not careful, you could easily miss something. After that comes the part I had to work on the most – the drum solo. There are solos in every piece in Grade 8 but I think I found Mind The Gaps one of the most challenging. It's a blank canvas apart from the “hits” by the rest of the band which are notated, and must be played within your solo. I drew ideas from several different sources and have chopped and changed what I'm going to be doing quite a bit but I think I'm finally settled in my solo!

The “develop” sections of this piece proved to be areas where I tended to over think. It's easy to assume that the examiner is looking for something spectacular in these areas, but after watching several others play these pieces on YouTube, I found the ones who kept a consistent groove with maybe one or two little fancy fills thrown in to be a lot more effective than the ones who did second and third drum solos in these sections – that's not what drumming as about!

Piece #2 – Lead Sheet (Rock)

Ah, here's a piece that's only 98bpm, must be easy. The kind of attitude that will beat you from the start! I've always found the slower paced songs to have more complex notation within, and this one is no exception. The snare and tom-tom patterns at sections B and D proved to be pretty tricky, and even in the simpler sections there were some difficult bass drum patterns to get used to. 

The big challenge in this piece is once again the solo, which stretches over a massive twelve bar section and crescendos from piano to fortissimo. My thoughts on this section was to keep it simple at first and develop into more complex rhythms as the volume increased – you have to keep a few cards up your sleeve and don't give away all your tricks at once!

Piece #3 – Nosso Samba (Samba)

This is an interesting one because I found this the most difficult of the three pieces and yet I feel like it's the one I'm going to get the most marks in on Saturday. This is all about control as it constantly shifts dynamics, beginning with the drum solo then immediately going into a mezzo-piano groove which features a quick 2-4 bass drum that must be kept under control. 

Intense four-way coordination is a strong feature in this one as well as a pardito-alto groove which shifts the snare drum to a constant off-beat rhythm which thankfully locks right in with the bass guitar but is nonetheless difficult to get used to. 

The coda is one of the most difficult yet satisfying to play parts once you've cracked it. It relies on your ability to play very accurately and convincingly, and ends with a couple more of those pesky sextuplets with bass drums!

An important thing to point out before moving on to the next section is that in the exam you must choose three of six pieces. So the pieces I've not went with were from the following genres:
  • Metal
  • Blues
  • Jazz

I came to the conclusion that I should play to my strengths, and while I enjoy those three genres, when stacked up against funk, rock and samba, it was a pretty easy choice for me.

Technical Exercises

Out of the whole exam this was the part I was most worried about, because I feel like I need to prepare these to perfection before stepping into the exam room! All of these exercises must be played to a metronome and feature advanced rudiments in tricky places.

Group A: Single Strokes

This exercise involves playing from crotchets to double quintuplet 32nd notes and literally everything in between. I found the odd numbers, particularly the sevens and nines to be a bit tricky, but overall if you are relaxed and focussed enough, it's not one of the more difficult parts of this section.

Group B: Paradiddles

Paradiddle-diddles and alternative paradiddle-diddles in sextuplets around the kit with accents. This one was the thing that was stressing me out about the whole exam. I find I spend my whole week telling pupils to relax and the forgetting to do so myself. Once I relaxed and realised that the exercise wasn't impossible, it became a lot easier!

Group C: Triplets

Another tricky one involving going from Swiss Army Triplets into pataflaflas. Again, once I relaxed it was a lot easier. I found I wanted to ignore the sticking in this one and do it my own way, but then this wouldn't be a challenge would it?

Group D: Ratamacues

A nice easy one really, as long as you don't take it too lightly and concentrate while playing it's a satisfying one to play.

Group E: Rolls

For this one it's easy to want to go into a buzz roll rather than controlled, open stroke rolls, but I'm sure the examiners would notice that straight away. And anyway, getting the exact right amount of double strokes makes these exercises sound much better.

Group F: Stylistic Study

For this section you must choose one of these:

  • Rock/Metal: rhythmic displacement, 5/4 coordination
  • Funk: linear funk with 32nd notes, stepped hi-hat
  • Jazz/Latin/Blues: 3-2 and 2-3 clave

The choice you make here decides what style of music you'll get in the Quick Study Piece in the next section. I should have started looking at these a lot sooner, as I've chosen the one I feel is the easiest, in a genre that I'm more suited to. Which will of course mean a harder Quick Study Piece. I would have loved to pick the Jazz/Latin/Blues study as it's a complicated one I feel I could master given enough time. But my mistake was leaving it too late and now having to go with one I'm more confident with, so I've chosen the Rock/Metal study.

But I've looked at several examples of Quick Study Pieces from Rockschool's brilliant companion guide, and I came to the conclusion that the Quick Study Piece will be nowhere near as complicated as the stylistic study, as it's just that: a study which is meant to be looked at over a longer period of time than three minutes. Let's hope the decision pays off this Saturday.

Quick Study Piece

Basically a sight-reading exercise. Like I said in the last section I've looked at several examples of these and even the genres that I'm less suited to are okay. There is quite a bit of improvisation involved though so it's important to know several ways to play in different genres, and it's all about using those three minutes to study the piece wisely.

Ear Tests

Test 1: Fill Playback and Recognition

My wife helped me practice this one using the companion guide, and at first I was surprised by how tricky I found it. But after a few more goes I realised that these fills are all build on the same kind of  ideas and that you really just need to listen carefully and make sure to visualise what the notation would look like. I'm going to make a bold prediction that I'll get full marks here, unless I'm not concentrating hard enough!

Test 2: Groove Recall

For this one you're required to play back a complex drum groove after hearing it twice and then identify the style of the beat. There could be some tricky ones involving time signatures that you're perhaps not expecting. I've found it's important to stay relaxed throughout and of course, the listen very carefully. A more difficult test than Test 1, but certifiably do-able if you're paying attention.

General Musicianship Questions

Four theory questions and one question about your instrument. These cover pretty much anything to do with drumming and will relate to one of your performance pieces so it's important to study up on genres and any markings in the notation you may not have seen before. Thankfully for me I teach this stuff every day so I'm expecting full marks!

And that's the whole exam. So what have I learned? I've learned not to take anything too lightly, to focus on parts of the music that I may be skimming over and getting wrong, and to do the thing I'm constantly telling my pupils to do: relax!

Perhaps more importantly I do feel I've grown as a musician and I've enjoyed playing the pieces. I'm aiming to get as high a mark as I can on Saturday, would love a distinction but would be happy with a merit. I've taken the exam seriously and not just seeing it as a stepping stone on the way to the LTCL. It'll be nice to have a Grade 8 qualification so I can finally say with confidence to people who ask that I have indeed sat and passed my Grade 8.

But more excitingly, there are at least four young pupils who look set to pass graded exams this year, including Nikhil who sits his Grade 3 on the same day as me, and who may well get more marks than me. I'll be keeping a keen eye out for those results and they will be celebrated on this blog in due course.

Inspiring Confidence Through Music Lessons

posted 21 Aug 2014, 01:53 by Chris Morris

What is it that you really learn through instrumental tuition? Of course, you're learning how to play your instrument, and good tutors will also be teaching you how to read notation too. You might even learn a lot about the history of your instrument; how it came about, the influences it has had on historical events, and some of the players who have been considered over the years to be some the greatest. But is this all that instrumental tuition has to offer?

This, for me, has to be a resounding no. Speaking from experience, I would say that one of the most important things that happens through instrumental tuition is that the pupil will find the confidence needed for everyday life. Before I began instrumental lessons at school, I was one of the shyest boys in my year. Teachers would ask questions in class and I would avoid their eyes in desperate hope that they wouldn't ask me. And whenever they did pick me out, my voice would shake as I answered their questions. If you could ask my percussion tutor from school, he would tell you that I'd often go through entire lessons without saying a word, unless I was asked a question.

So what happened? I'm clearly not as nervous or shy as I was when I was thirteen. Part of it, I suppose, is that I simply got older, and (a little bit) wiser. But as someone who works with mental health groups, using music to inspire confidence in others, I've been looking back more often at exactly what it was that gave me the confidence to open my own drum school, or to volunteer in Rwanda, or even just to be a drummer in a band.

As I've already mentioned, before I started learning to play drum kit, I was extremely shy. In second year at high school we got a new music teacher who was the opposite of shy. He was eccentric, boisterous, very very funny, and an all round nice fella. His lessons would always have me and my classmates in stitches, howling at his various antics, and we always looked forward to music lessons. One day, he brought in a drum kit to let us all have a shot. I don't remember much from that day, but I do remember thoroughly enjoying my first bash at the drums, and being quite impressed with myself that I'd actually managed to play “Hey Micky” on the kit. My classmates and I enjoyed the session so much that we all agreed that we'd ask him if he could give us drum lessons after school. Of course, me being my shy thirteen year old self, I was more than happy to just tag along as my friends did the actual asking.

Our teacher seemed interested in teaching us, and he told us he could do a sort of drum kit club on a Wednesday evening after school, but we'd have to pay for it, buy a pair of drum sticks, a practice pad, and Kevin Edwards' book Practical Percussion. Only about three or four of us showed up that next Wednesday, and we all had the gear that our teacher had requested. It turned out that he was only joking about having to pay for lessons though – he said he wanted to see who was actually serious about learning.

Even this initial process of finding a good tutor and actually asking for lessons can be a big confidence boost for some people, young or old. For me, I had to have the confidence to ask my mum to buy all the stuff for me (not an easy task, let me tell you!), and she did. Sometimes, when I receive an email or a phone call from a parent, it has been because a young person has asked the parent if they could start lessons. Parents of course play a huge role in inspiring confidence in their children, and in these cases they act as supporters to get them from the safety of their normal lives and into something new, where the real confidence building begins.

As the weeks went on, our tiny little drum kit group enjoyed learning about constructing basic drum kit beats, using crotchets, quavers and semiquavers, and helping each other out. Each week we'd be asked to play a rhythm on our practice pads, alone. For a shy young teenager, this was initially terrifying, but as time passed I began to relax more, especially when our teacher praised me for being able to play something difficult. This type of motivation is essential in the confidence building process; no longer was I an amateurish learner, I was a musician. I could do things that not everyone else could do. Something that was alien to a lot of my friends and family. Now I could go around showing people what I had learned with a huge smile on my face.

Eventually, our little drum group had to disband because our teacher had to leave. It wasn't the last I'd see of him though, and I've often wondered what I would have done if it had been. I certainly would have kept playing drums, but I'm not sure I would have really done anything with it. Those early sessions in our little group had been fantastic and had certainly given me a confidence boost, but it was really the events of the next few years that helped me.

My teacher returned as a peripatetic instrumental instructor, meaning that now I could get some incredibly valuable one on one lessons with him. As I learned more, my teacher insisted that I get involved in the school's orchestra and wind band. This of course, involved more interaction with other teachers and pupils, increasing my confidence even more. One of the real joys of being a musician is having the opportunity to meet interesting people, but first of all you have to not be afraid of getting out there. At school, the opportunity to play in these bands helps pupils to get over their fears. Eventually, I was involved in the Dundee Schools' bands at the music centre too, and this of course done even more for my confidence.

This is something I wholeheartedly encourage in my own pupils today – getting out there and playing in any shape or form of band or ensemble or quartet or even going out and performing solo is a wonderful opportunity to not only express yourself musically and to show off the results of your hours of practice, but also to build your own confidence and tell people “Look what I can do, I am a musician, and I'm not afraid”.

Maybe there should be some sort of event where we get all of the brilliant Dundee Drum Academy drummers together to show off what they could do... watch this space.

While I was studying for my degree, I opted to write both of my dissertations on the subject of music education, particularly within schools. I had the opportunity to do some fascinating research on how children who excelled in music also did well in subjects (sometimes considered more “important”) such as maths, languages and science. I couldn’t possibly claim to be any good at maths or science myself, but I did do quite well in French (which really helped when it came to volunteering in Rwanda, a previously French speaking nation). And while I can't go into a lab with some scientists and prove that it had anything to do with music, I do believe that I made certain connections between music and language that helped me to understand French. 

Learning to read music can be a lot like learning to read, write or speak a foreign language. At first, it's a jumble of strange signs and dots and lines that have no meaning. But as you learn what crotchets and quavers mean in a practical way by performing them as you read them, it becomes clearer, and you've learned to read something foreign. In my French lessons, I learned the language in a practical way by speaking out the words and writing down the translations. The connection between the two subjects was so similar to me, that it was almost the same subject, just taught in a slightly different way.

This only helps fuel more confidence in a person. Now they can learn how to play an instrument, and they can learn to speak foreign languages, suddenly there's a whole world of opportunity to explore. What else is possible? 

In recent years I've even compared learning a language to doing sport. I've ran a couple of marathons, and last month I somehow managed to complete an ultra-marathon. You might initially think that this has absolutely nothing to do with learning an instrument, but I have two conclusions as to why it has everything to do with music lessons.

  1. Learning to play drums opened many doors to me, one of which led to a place where a person encouraged me to run a marathon.
    It's all about opportunity. When you learn an instrument and you gain more confidence, suddenly, all of these weird and wonderful things come your way. I volunteered my music skills with a charity where I met someone who has since become one of my best friends. He ran a marathon, and - “suggested” - that I do the same. And I did. Music led me there.

  2. I never would have had the confidence to attempt such a feat if it hadn't been for the confidence built up during my music lessons.
    Let's assume I never learned to play an instrument. But let's also assume that I somehow still met my friend who ran that marathon. I'd have still been quite shy and quiet, and I certainly wouldn't have thought I was capable of anything close to running 26.2 miles. But I did, and it's because of the confidence I picked up when I learned to play drum kit in school.

There's literally no limit to what a person is capable of, with enough confidence in themselves. Human beings are incredible things, and are capable of extraordinary feats. While I was in Rwanda, Felix Baumgartner jumped from space and landed safely on Earth. In the same year, Usain Bolt ran 100 meters in 9.58 seconds, breaking a world record and becoming the fastest man on the planet. People have survived months at sea after being shipwrecked, or fought with lions and survived. I don't know if any of these people ever had music lessons, but they certainly had the one thing that made it all possible: confidence.

Music lessons at school or from good independent tutors can be invaluable to the contribution of who someone is as a person. As I've already mentioned, if it weren't for the outstanding lessons I received as a teenager, I wouldn't be teaching drums today, Dundee Drum Academy wouldn't exist, and you wouldn't be reading this blog. I often wonder what I'd be doing with myself today, and I can never answer that question.

I want to finish this blog with one final story. In my job with Tayberry, providing music groups for individuals with mental illnesses and disabilities, I often encourage public performances, which always go very well. There is one person I work with who suffers from terrible stage fright, and who, over the years, has had a severe lack of confidence. We never force or demand that anyone has to play in front of an audience, but we do encourage them as much as we can. This person refused to take part in these performances for several weeks, until one day, he gave it a go.

After a fifteen minute performance of all the African rhythms he'd learned over the past few months, I asked him how he felt, and I will never forget his response. He said:

'That was the greatest day of my life.'

That's how important music lessons are. And that's why I firmly believe in them. Oh, and by the way, he now takes part in all of our public performances.

Are Musicians Underpaid?

posted 1 Jul 2014, 07:41 by Chris Morris

We've all seen those images that float around the internet. Someone else's recycled opinion, often plastered onto a scenic background, and shared on Facebook by someone who simply says “so true” or “damn right”.

About a year or two ago, a friend of mine shared a certain image on Facebook about how musicians are underpaid for the gigs that they play. The image annoyed me for two reasons; firstly, I thought it was untrue, and secondly, I thought it gave a bad impression to people about the egotism of musicians. However, at the time I simply had a little giggle at it and moved on.

This week however, the image resurfaced on my Facebook news feed as another musician friend of mine felt the need to share it. The image looks like this:

I said I had a little giggle, but really, this is no laughing matter. As someone who makes a living from being a musician, you'd think I'd be the first to share this with my obligatory “so true” flying proudly above it. But I'm afraid I'm in the opposite camp for this one. Before I break down, point by point, why this image is so ridiculous, let's start with the fact that whoever this disgruntled and frustrated musician is, he or she is making $300 per gig, which works out roughly to £176.15.

What does that work out to per hour? Well, usually a band won't play any longer than maybe three hours, so that would work out to £58.71. Sometimes, of course, bands and artists will play for longer, so let's give them the benefit of the doubt – at the rate that our frustrated musician has claimed, a four hour gig would pay the musician £44.03 an hour. And let's just go overboard for the heck of it, if the musician somehow plays for six hours he'd be making £29.35 an hour.

Now, considering national minimum wage is just £5.03 for 18-20 year olds and £6.31 for over 21s, that's not half bad. In fact, while I was shovelling popcorn and cleaning up sick for just £4.81 a few years back, I would have killed to be making £29.35 doing something I'm supposed to love.

So $300 doesn't seem so bad now does it? But a musician is a special skill, and usually jobs have to pay more for these special skills, yeah? Well, again, I make a living as a musician myself and I have a degree in music (Something not all of these frustrated musicians complain about getting paid to play have), which makes me a professional. A quick crunch of Dundee Drum Academy's figures from last month shows me that I earned roughly £8.91 an hour. That's a whopping £20.44 difference. And my job involves a little more than just playing my instrument for fun.

Anyway, enough about numbers and figures and horrific memories of cleaning up vomit in the cinema to the tune of “Slipping Through my Fingers” by ABBA during Mamma Mia's lenghty run in theatres. Let's get through these items that the frustrated musician claims the money has to pay for.

1. “Equipment and instruments”

At this point in the list, I was still willing to hear it out. But unfortunately, it begins with one of its most ridiculous points. If you call for a plumber to come and fix your sink and he demands extra money for the spanner he bought twelve years ago I think you'd likely throw a fit. And you'd be right to. Lots of the musicians I know around Dundee use instruments they've been playing with for years. Some of them were bought by their parents years ago when they were just learning. And I doubt that they were bought for the specific reason of going out and earning money.

And equipment? I assume this includes such extravagant items as microphones, stands and a PA system, all of which can be bought in great condition second hand online or in local music shops. I wonder if my barber will start to charge an extra £10 for the use of those shiny scissors...

And besides, these days most venues have their own equipment for musicians to use. In a recent gig with my own band, we supported a much more established band who had come up from England. Even though the venue always offers the use of its own drum kit, the drummer still brought his own gear, and let me have a bash at his ace Jalapeno drum kit. He didn't charge me, or the venue. Nice guy.

2. “Hours of rehearsal time”

This one almost does have a valid point. It can be pricey for bands to hire a rehearsal room, especially if they are trying to make a living from playing gigs. There are great rehearsal studios here in Dundee, but here's the thing – they aren't expensive. Especially if you're in a band with lots of musicians, splitting the cost between all of you never amounts to very much.

I also doubt that bands are in rehearsal studios learning songs for hours on end. Most established bands have a catalogue of songs that they have been playing together for years, and could (and do) perform them on command. As for smaller bands and artists, some of them will never see a rehearsal studio in their entire span as a gigging musician. I'm not a terrific guitar player, but in our rock group for mental health service users I've been able to learn a good few songs in less than a minute. A professional guitarist would do even better.

3. “Rehearsal space”

I'm struggling to see how this differs from point 2. My first instinct would be that our struggling musician simply wants to beef up his list to make it look more impressive than it actually is. Unless there is some sort of difference in paying for time and paying for space? It's all getting a bit Doctor Who now...

4. “Transport to and from the venue”

This is where I really started to laugh. When I worked at the cinema, they never paid me for transport to and from work. In fact, I was never paid for travel expenses by B-Wise, Tesco, Currys, Bodman School of Music, Tayberry, or any company I've worked for, ever. Why? Might have been something to do with the fact that it's ridiculous.

If you're getting paid for travelling to and from the venue, maybe you should be getting paid for new shoes after you stood in a puddle and got them dirty.

5. “The amount of money spent of lessons and training to become the musician that they are”

I don't even know where to start with this one. I was lucky enough to never have had to pay a penny for any kind of music tuition, ever. And admittedly, this was very lucky. I learned drums and percussion at school through a phenomenal teacher, and because I came from a working class family who didn't earn enough to pay for lessons, I got them for free. This still happens in school – lots of people learn their instruments at high school free of charge. If you go on to study music, which is free in Scotland, you will receive tuition as part of your course.

Of course, others have to pay. Here at Dundee Drum Academy, my biggest age group is currently early-mid high schoolers. By the time they leave high school I'm strongly confident they will all be terrific drummers. At which point they will probably go on to college or university. During which time they may still come for lessons or they may move on. Whatever they decide, only a handful of them might want to try to make a living out of drumming. I seriously doubt that any professional, gigging musician is still receiving professional tuition. So are people seriously expected to reimburse them for the lessons they received years ago?

Also, how many musicians these days actually go to lessons? The number of “self-taught” musicians has risen rapidly over the last few decades, and I suspect that our frustrated musician may be one of them.

6. “Costume for the event”

Really? Do I really have to explain why this one is ludicrous? Do musicians have to buy a new suit for every gig? Are they setting their “costume”s on fire after every gig in some sort of rebellious rock'n'roll act? Personally, whenever my band plays I just wear whatever I happen to be wearing. Maybe I should start coming in to Dundee Drum Academy in fancy dress and charging a couple of extra quid for it.

7. “Promotion costs”

Cost of promoting a gig on Facebook: £0. Cost of promoting a gig on Twitter: £0. Cost of printing out 100 promotional posters and hanging them up around town: £5. Yep, there's a place that'll print out one hundred posters for a fiver. But usually, the venue takes care of this themselves. And anyway, the band have already been offered the gig, and are getting paid $300 for it, regardless of whether they promote it or not. Is it the responsibility of the band or artist to promote the gig that the venue are paying them to play?

8. “Website fees”

Dundee Drum Academy has a website (You're on it right now, unless this blog has ended up somewhere else). It's a address and it was free of charge for the first two years and now I have to pay an annual fee of:

Wait for it.

Wait for it.


Move on.

9. “GST to give the taxman”

I'm about to stir a whole different sort of pot here. Not pointing any fingers here, but I do know a handful of musician friends who don't declare any of their earnings to HMRC. As a partly self employed musician myself, I have to do my own taxes, and it's increasingly surprising how many of my fellow musicians don't even know that they also must do the same. I fear for their pensions.

And anyway, what job in the world pays you even more because you will get taxed like every other hardworking person in the country? My wife is a teacher, and she gets taxed more than I earned altogether while I worked at the cinema. Should she be given extra money for that?

10. “Phone and internet bills spent on organising the gig and telling others”

In this wonderful 21st century, most of us have contract phones and pretty generous wi-fi allowances. I doubt the combined use of your phone and computer is amounting to anything more than about £1. Jings, that plus your annual website renewal fee would only give you £1 change from a fiver, no wonder you're charging nearly £30 an hour.

11. “Manager fees/agent fees”

This has to be one of the most laughable items on the list (excluding the costume one). If there's a band out there that's hiring a manager which is organising gigs where the promoter doesn't promote the gig, doesn't have any of their own equipment, and is only paying a band the unbelievably low rate of £175 then that band needs to either get a new manager, or do what all the other bands in the world do – don't have a manager.

12. “Not to mention the payment also has to cover food, a roof over the musician's head, bills, a car, and every other living expense”

What, you mean like every other job?

So there you have my breakdown of everything that's wrong with that image. One baffling fact about it is that the two people I have seen share it are not musicians for a living. In fact, I think both of them barely play any gigs at all, and when they do it's less about making money and more about promoting themselves and generally just having fun. And that brings me to my next point:

When did playing music become all about money?

When I started playing in bands money was the last thing I thought about. Too many musicians these days have forgotten why they play gigs. What happened to playing for enjoyment? When did these people become so arrogant to think that they are owed money to do the thing that most likely started out as a hobby?

Yes, there are professional musicians out there who have spent years honing their craft and are very serious about what they do. But I'm afraid that for the most part, the music “scene” is filled with amateur musicians who have other jobs but have become so egotistical to think that they must be paid more per hour than a doctor or a teacher because they can play chords or bash out some drum rolls.

So are musicians underpaid? Absolutely not. In fact, some bands and musicians are sickeningly overpaid. I've seen wedding bands who charge up to £2000 for a single performance. And some of them aren't even great musicians. A friend of mine joined up with a company who sends musicians out to venues to perform for money. They had her stand and mime the guitar along to a backing track for the first night because she hadn't learned the songs yet. Any person reading this blog could have done the same, and she was paid for it. Did she deserve that money?

With every like and share of that picture on social media, more non-musicians are reading it, and more musicians are getting away with murder. If it still sounds strange coming from a musician who is paid for being a musician (actually, I see myself as more of a teacher than a musician, but a musician nonetheless), I suppose what I want to say is that if more of us worried less about money and more about their own integrity, the music scene would be a much fairer place.

The Importance of Notation in Music Education

posted 6 Feb 2014, 05:24 by Chris Morris


Those who can't do, teach.”

The origins of the above quote are unknown, and while I would argue that the quote is also untrue, it is true that for many struggling musicians, music education is probably the first thing that is jumped upon in a moment of panic. A quick Google search will reveal that in Dundee alone, you can find countless musicians offering tutoring services – some as part of bigger businesses, along with some private tutors. And at first glance this seems like a good thing – more choice, more opportunities. However, having been a part of the music education scene for the last several years, I've sadly seen many music tutors come and go, and I've developed an understanding that there is a difference between being a good musician, and a good tutor.

Of course, this particular blog is focused on talking about notation, and I'd like to make it clear from the very beginning that I believe it is entirely possible to be a great musician without being able to read a note of music. However, herein lies the difference between being a musician and a tutor – all good tutors must be able to read notation. This is the only strict principal I stick by in Dundee Drum Academy. All pupils learn different pieces of music and in different ways, but every pupil at Dundee Drum Academy must be able to read music. Any of my pupils will tell you that before they have so much as tapped any of the drums, I have written out some basic notation and explained how to read it.

So, why? Why don't I just give them examples and tell them what to do? There are a thousand reasons for this, but I will give my three main reasons:

  1. Homework

  2. Exams

  3. What's the difference between paying for instrumental lessons and sitting at home watching YouTube for free?

Let's start with that last point. Instrumental lessons are expensive. At Dundee Drum Academy I try to remain competitive and offer great deals like DDA Unlimited, but – and it pains me to say this because I've never considered myself a “businessman” of any description – Dundee Drum Academy is a business. Businesses have to make money, and private tutors are also expensive because they are giving up their time, and unfortunately most of them have quite large egos to feed (Sorry guys, but we are talking about musicians!).

So with the price of lessons being so high, you would surely expect the quality of lessons to match the price. In a tutor you want someone who is both an experienced musician, and also someone who understands the process of learning an instrument, the needs of individual pupils, how to assess how far and understand why a pupil has or hasn't progressed. And notation plays a huge part in that. For example, at the top of this page there were several “BOOM”s and “BANG”s underneath the title. Without looking back up, can you possibly relate back the exact order of those words?

My guess is that you can't. I certainly can't, and I wrote it! So then, how could a tutor expect a new pupil, who has never played the drums before, to remember all of those alien concepts they spent half an hour waffling on about? However, if they were taught how to read some basic notation at the start of the lesson, their tutor will have written it down for them on a piece of manuscript paper to take away and study.

Thus, we arrive back at the first point – homework. It's possible to learn an instrument with just half an hour or so practise in your lesson each week. But I would think that every tutor would encourage practice at home, and this can't happen without notation. While I was studying music we had a drum tutor who was an incredible musician, but unfortunately not a good tutor. And yes, the reason was because he couldn't read notation. He'd show us how to play something extraordinary, and then he'd leave us in a room to get on with it. I didn't learn very much that year.

You may be thinking that the middle point only applies to school pupils, and you'd only be half right. Of course, in SQA exams, our school pupils have to present a piece of written music to an external examiner and perform it for them. So, an instrumental instructor within the schools that can't read music would be a ridiculous situation. Thankfully, I know some of the instructors, and of course they are all very comfortable with reading and teaching complex notation.

So if instrumental instructors in our schools have to be at such a high level, why aren't all music tutors at such a level? Because after all, exams aren't just for school pupils. Graded exams are available for all ages through places like Trinity Guildhall and Rockschool (and I will take any and all opportunities to remind you that Dundee Drum Academy currently holds a 100% success rate across all exams!). Notation is once again vital in this situation. You are even asked to sight-read (play a piece of written music that you've never seen before) a piece in order to test how well you can read notation.

Besides these three points, a musician who decides to learn without the use of notation is limiting themselves to a great number of fantastic publications that are available which serve only to assist them on their musical journey. One of the reasons it's called Dundee Drum Academy is that I offer an academic way of learning drum kit through books. There are several great drum kit books out there which are unfortunately unavailable to a musician who has never learned to read them.

For those points alone, I will always believe that a good tutor is one who can teach you to read notation. Of course, it doesn't simply stop there – good tutors have to know a variety of things in order to see success in their pupils, but notation should be the first concern of any good tutor. And it doesn't take long to learn; my pupils learn to read basic music within the first couple of minutes of their first lesson. On other instruments it can be a little more difficult because they have notes to learn, but with patience, everyone can and should learn to read those dots.

After all, the pen is mightier than the drum stick.

What Popular Musicians Can Learn From Classical Musicians

posted 7 Mar 2013, 05:55 by Chris Morris

With the Scottish Brass Band Championships coming up this weekend, and my band Vanishing People entering another Battle of the Bands style competition this summer, I thought it would be good to touch on a few points about the ever raging classical music versus popular music debate. Before I start, if you’ve never heard of these terms before “Popular” music is anything from Jazz to Pop to Rock to Dance to Blues etc. “Classical” music covers pretty much anything involving an orchestra, brass band, wind and string ensembles etc.

For me, I imagine fans of popular music are the ones who gave the label of “classical music” and vice-versa. Most of the time, musicians from these types of music don’t understand each other. Perhaps one reason could be that very few instruments appear in both classical and popular music – drums, saxophone, brass, piano and not much else. When I studied at UHI most of my co-students were guitarists, bass guitarists, vocalists and of course, other drummers.

But it’s not even just any drummer who can play in both a popular music setting and a classical music setting. For instance, I am a member of Dundee Instrumental Brass Band, where I play as the percussionist, which actually often involves playing in both a classical style, and also a more modern drum kit style. But it always involves reading music. Many of the students in my year (And dare I say even a few tutors) couldn’t read music. In fact, I have a student who currently studies music at Perth College helping out as second percussionist for the upcoming Scottish Championships, and he is really struggling to follow the music. So much so, that I literally have to guide him through each bar and tell him what and when to play while also concentrating on my part. And this is someone who is currently studying music. One has to wonder what exactly the study of music actually involves.

Now, I suppose by now you could call me a snob and say that by my opinion is that every musician should learn to read music or they are not real musicians. That isn’t the case – some of the best popular musicians in history couldn’t read a note of music. But I do strongly recommend that every musician does learn this valuable skill, because if you can’t read music you are limited to both what you can learn as a musician, and what you can do as a musician. For example, being a “session musician” seems to be all the rage among young instrumentalists these days. But the best session musicians are ones who can be asked to record a part in a studio by sight-reading music they have been given two minutes beforehand.

So apart from learning to read music (Every classical musician must be able to read music) what exactly can popular musicians learn from classical musicians? Before I go any further, I’d like to point out that I consider myself both a classical and a popular musician. But if I had to choose one, I’d say I’m more of a popular musician, so I would like to think that my opinion on this is pretty un-biased.

One major difference between the two styles is how they decide which groups of musicians are good ones, and which aren’t so good. What jumps out at me right away is the UK Music Chart – usually filled with machine produced electric drumbeats, a very common and repetitive chord progression, more machine produced bass, a singer who has songs written for him/her and is made to be the star, more machine produced string sounds and so on and so on. The fact that these songs are in the top ten means that we as a nation think that they are great songs because we are paying money to buy the CDs or download the songs (Or maybe just streaming them for free).

On the other hand – I’ve never heard of a bad orchestra being hired to record Hans Zimmer’s latest film score, or being asked to perform at the Royal Albert Hall. In fact, this goes back to my earlier point; many orchestras are handed the music to film scores on the very day that they are to record them, a recent example being Howard Shore’s score for the first Hobbit film, recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Anyway, so let’s go back to talking about what makes a band a good band according to either popular or classical musicians. I’ve mentioned the upcoming Scottish Championships which this year take place at Perth Concert Hall. The popular music equivalent would probably be a local Battle of the Bands competition. The differences in the ways musicians win these contests are vast.

Firstly – The Scottish Championships. This competition is an annual meeting of Scotland’s competing brass bands, where they are organised into five sections. The fourth section is the bottom group and the Championship section is the top group which showcases Scotland’s top brass bands. The groups work a bit like football divisions – if you come top or second in your section you will move up to the next section. Likewise, if you come bottom then you will be relegated into the section below. So how do you come top or bottom?

The competition is regulated by the Scottish Brass Band Association (SBBA) who send out professional adjudicators for each section. Two adjudicators sit through each band in one section and award points for how well the band is playing the music. They each write a critical evaluation of the performance (Which is given to the band’s conductor) and total up the number of points. The bands are then shown in order from top to bottom.

Sounds fair to me, especially when you compare this to how a Battle of the Bands is judged. My band, Vanishing People played at a Battle of the Bands competition at The Doghouse in Dundee last summer. Similar to the way the Scottish Championships work, there was a panel of judges and they scored the band certain points for things like originality, whether the songs were memorable etc. Another big set of points could be awarded for... Popularity.

For me, this is when these competitions start to lose credibility. Each band were given a number of tickets to sell for the event, and if they sold them all, they stood more of a chance of winning. Which of course is great for the venue (I completely understand this from a business point of view), but also means that the band with the biggest number of mates could win, even if they are pretty rubbish. We didn’t win the competition, and I’ll say no more than that...

It could be argued however, that this kind of nonsense can go on at an event like the Scottish Championships. That is however, if the SBBA regulations didn’t have something up their sleeves. Now, I warn you, this might sound a little silly but hopefully, like me, you understand how this is fair.

To stop the adjudicators knowing whether their mates are on the stage, they sit in the audience surrounded by a sort of box which has drawn curtains attached to it, so they can’t see a thing. The band enters the stage and the announcer simply announces them as “band number one” or “band number two” and so on. The draw for which band goes on when is done on the day, usually moments before the contest to ensure no cheating. And to top it off, each band plays the exact same piece of music, which is sent out by the SBBA a few months prior to the contest. Although it’s probably very boring for the adjudicators to sit through ten or eleven bands playing the exact same piece of music, you have to agree this is very fair.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that each band in a Battle of the Bands play the same music, but if the judges could actually assess each band not just on originality, but on the skills of the musicians, and be impartial, these types of competitions would have much more credibility at least in my eyes. Whenever we play this sort of competition (We have one coming up at Non-Zeroes this summer), I go into it thinking “I really don’t care if we win or not”. To win would suggest that we fit into this machine driven chart nonsense we hear on the radio, or that we simply had a lot of our friends come along and vote for us because it’s their social obligation. When I play at the Scottish Championships, I really want to do well because to win actually means that you played well and that your band really is a great band.

Even the way that individual musicians are assessed differs greatly between popular and classical music. For instance, graded exams. If you want to get say, a Grade 5 qualification on drum kit, there are two ways I always suggest at Dundee Drum Academy. There’s the Rockschool exam which is more for popular musicians, and there’s the Trinity Guildhall exam, which is more for classical players. Let’s start by looking at what you need  to do to pass a Grade 5 Rockschool exam:

·         Each Rockschool graded book comes with five pieces that should be played along to a backing track which is included on a CD with the book. You can choose three pieces to play in the exam which allows you to play to your strengths, although every piece is a different style (The book I have here at Dundee Drum Academy includes Britpop, Texas Blues, Funk, Stadium Rock, Rock and Roll, and a faster Funk).

·         Technical exercises - these begin fairly simply with quaver notes, quaver triplet notes, and semiquavers. Then it gets a little trickier with paradiddles and inverted paradiddles, some easy rolls, some even easier flams, drags and ruffs, then some easier yet triplets.

·         Next the candidate has an option to either perform the sight reading exercise which won’t have any rolls or rudiments that we seen in the technical exercise section, or improvise a groove in the style of funk, rock, blues etc.

·         The end of the Rockschool test is the trickiest part – The examiner plays a four-four bar of notes on the snare drum, and you are asked to explain what you just heard (Ie a crotchet, a set of triplet quaver notes, a set of semiquavers and a pair of semiquavers and a quaver).

·         The candidate will also be asked some “general musicianship” questions about their instrument.

A Grade 5 Trinity Guildhall exam on the other hand, involves:

·         Compulsory sight-reading for some fairly advanced drumbeats

·         Two rudimental studies which involve single, double, five, seven and nine stroke rolls, paradiddle, flam, flam-paradiddle, double paradiddle, paradiddle-diddle, flam-tap, flam-accent, flamacue, drag, drag and stroke, double drag and stroke, drag paradiddle, ruff, and single, double and triple ratamacues. The studies are played across the kit in the style of samba and jazz.

·         One piece chosen out of a difficult group of three to be played along to a backing track

·         One piece chosen out of a difficult group of three to be played solo

·         Supporting tests made up of aural and practical tests

So the only difference really, is that Trinity Guildhall is a bit more difficult, therefore a bit more credible.

That is what popular musicians can learn from classical musicians. Every popular musician today seems to wish that society took them more seriously. When I studied music at UHI, nobody thought it was a serious study. When I first got a job teaching drum kit at a music school, nobody thought it was a serious job. I started Dundee Drum Academy over two years ago now, and nobody thought this was something that would last. It has because I take music very seriously. And I think other people would take it seriously too if it was a bit more credible.

So am I saying that classical music is more credible than popular music? Not at all. I think the biggest difference between the two is that in the grand scale of things, popular music has existed for a very short period of time. Classical music has been around longer than any of our great grandparents can remember. Some of the rules for the Scottish Championships I was talking about earlier have existed for a very, very long time. When popular music came about it was adored by the general public as it is now, but the upper class at the time didn’t take it seriously, and that attitude has somehow clung on to popular music all the way into the 21st century. So much so, that even some popular musicians don’t take themselves seriously at all (while some take themselves far too seriously).

The philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno once described the two different styles as “popular music” and “serious music”. And to be quite honest, it’s hard to argue with him. Today we see classical musicians learning their skills to the highest potential, reading music by sight, involving themselves in serious competitions which require a great deal of critical analysis. Popular musicians on the other hand are entering Battle of the Bands competitions after they’ve learned a couple of drumbeats or guitar chords over the last two weeks (and winning), not bothering to learn to read the music settling instead for bad improvisation or tablature. If we want society to take us more seriously, we need to prove that there is something in popular music to take seriously.

And there is, of course there is. I’ve seen some incredible live musicians in popular groups, some who can read music, some who can’t. And of course there’s the emotional impact of both making and listening to popular music which not only benefits the average person but has been proven to help people with mental illnesses, learning difficulties and more. A lot of popular music has been very intelligently composed, and can be very difficult to play. There is a vast study of popular music which can be explored and explored, but the problem is that over half the population probably don’t think so.

My advice to fellow musicians would be to forget about labelling music – whether it’s classical or popular or all the sub-genres within each. It’s all music. All music can be written, all music can be improvised, and all music can go from being very easy to extremely difficult. What can popular musicians learn from classical musicians? If you want people to take popular music seriously, you have to take it seriously yourself.

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