Ten Year Challenge

Ten Year Challenge

It feels like only yesterday that I wrote a ten-year retrospective, looking back on a decade of working in music. But that was, in fact, a whole two years ago!

But over on social media, the #TenYearChallenge is all the rage. Clearly, I have always been ahead of the times… But I thought I would jump on that particular bandwagon, of an evening, and see where it takes me.

It’s actually been a lot of fun, looking for photos from gigs and sessions from ten years ago – just marginally before smartphones were ubiquitous, and everybody began to photograph everything – thinking about what has changed in that time, and what has stayed the same.

I still have the t-shirt I’m wearing onstage with Witchers at the Cambridge Haymarket in 2009 (although the arm tattoo visible in the 2019 picture is a much more recent addition). The orange Premier Series kit moved on a couple of years later, when I became an official Carrera Drums Ambassador in 2011 – but I’m still rocking the unusual ‘equilateral triangle’ drum kit setup on the majority of my gigs, and I am still a proud endorser of Pellwood Drumsticks.

Playing with Cardiem was the first time I ever sang with a band – backing vocals, and then some lead vocals too. When the other guys decided that a song I had written for the band, Tongue-Tied Lullaby, should be one of the five we selected to record for our first EP – and that I should sing it – I was both flattered and extremely nervous, and I think the photo from the session in 2009 captures that.

I never intended to sing with Cardiem at all, or to write lyrics, but Jamie was insistent that every member of the band should sing and more-or-less bullied me into it.

Fast-forward ten years (although the photo above is from November 2018, as we’re only a month into this year and no photos of me on vocals currently exist), where lead vocals are a regular part of most of my gigs – and, although we haven’t gigged together since 2015, Jamie is still sending me song demos he wants me to write lyrics for – and I am very glad that he did.

A lot has changed in the last ten years. But underneath it all, everything feels the same. From the desire to keep learning, keep playing, keep singing, and keep moving forward – to the bizarre array of faces I apparently can’t stop myself making when I play the drums.

In 2009, I was still wondering whether this crazy idea of making my living from music would even work out for me at all. I dreamed of doing gigs and tours all over the country; of having my own recording studio; of having students with their own success stories.

I remember talking to seasoned pros about life in the music industry, and hearing their tales of how touring wasn’t all glamour and fun – the late nights, the bad load-outs, the travel, the food… I remember wondering how anyone could possibly complain about living the dream! These were problems I wished I had.

“God, if I can one day prop up a bar telling impressionable, wide-eyed young musicians who want what I have with every fibre of their being that gigging every night ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, then I’ll know I’ve really made it!” I thought.

A year later, in 2010, I got to see probably my favourite band of all time – The Hold Steady – live for the very first time. They were touring the UK promoting their latest studio album, Heaven Is Whenever. The fifth track on the record was the spookily apt Rock Problems.

She said I just can’t sympathize
With your rock and roll problems
Isn’t this what we wanted?
Some major rock and roll problems

The Hold Steady – Rock Problems

Ten years on – and only a few weeks out from going to my fifth The Hold Steady show – I still come back to Rock Problems any time I’m driving home late at night; or being woken up too early in a budget hotel; or tucking into yet another overpriced motorway service station sandwich; or sharing an airing cupboard-sized dressing room with eight other performers, a tarantula, a lizard and a meerkat. “Isn’t this what you wanted?” I ask myself.

Here’s to ten more years of rock and roll problems.

Lack of updates…

I don’t generally make ‘New Years resolutions’ – but one thing I did want to do as of the start of this year was to update this page more, and be more active here. So far, not so good…!

So what has been going on? Lots of work with Sistema in various local schools, which I am still enjoying and finding really rewarding. And lots of gigs with Ultra ’90s – in all it’s various flavours (Original, Fresh and Jam), both on drums/percussion and as a keys player and MD.

And in between all of that, we have had the eleventh annual Keyboard Camp this year, just one week ago. (More on that in a later post…) And I have been trying to get my studio setup and fully functional at my new house!

Beginnings of the new studio
Beginnings of the new studio

Having moved house at the end of summer last year, it has taken a little while to move all my gear across and start to get myself familiar with the new studio space. The big plan for this year is to get my recording work properly up-and-running, so I am going to try and start pushing that online a little more as I get everything finalised. Expect pictures and sound clips from the new studio sometime later this year!

Soundtrack recording session on marimba
Soundtrack recording session on marimba

There are also a few other exciting gigs and other opportunities coming up soon, which I shall be writing more about due course. I am currently writing this in a Costa just off the M5, on my way to another run of gigs in Devon on drums with Ultra ’90s – I’ll be home on Thursday night for a day or so, before heading straight back out on the road.

And as the year goes on, I hope that I’ll be able to stick to my ‘non-resolution’ of writing here more – and uploading ‘on-the-go’ a bit more! And, most importantly, that I’ll keep playing, keep teaching, and keep learning.

'Loading' the van – on tour with Axel Loughrey, 2010

Ten Years, No Day Job

March 2017 is something of a landmark for me, so here is a short piece of writing (and a few old pictures) all about it.

Cardiem live on BBC Radio Norfolk, 2009
Cardiem live on BBC Radio Norfolk, 2009.

It was back in March 2007 that I officially declared myself ‘a professional musician’. Nothing materially changed for having said it, of course – I was still doing one gig every few months, teaching two or three private students, and earning very little – but it meant something to have said it, to have ‘made it official’. It was a line in the sand.

'Loading' the van – on tour with Axel Loughrey, 2010
‘Loading’ the van – on tour with Axel Loughrey, 2010.

I registered myself officially self-employed not long later (although it would be another couple of years before I was earning enough for that to have any real tax implications), and I joined the Musicians’ Union. And I resolved not to give in to any of the pressures to get a ‘real job’ (even just while I was building up my income from music).

In the ten years since then, I have gone from intermittent gigs and two or three students to having a thriving business gigging, recording, teaching, writing and arranging music (and – yes – doing actual tax returns).

Crystal Bats at Norwich Arts Centre, 2013
Crystal Bats at Norwich Arts Centre, 2013.

I have had some amazing opportunities, and met – and worked with – some incredible people. From my work with the Sistema programme, and the chance to travel to Europe and perform at iconic venues like Milan’s La Scala, to touring with Axel Loughrey, Ultra ’90s, Crystal Bats, etc…

I have learnt a lot, improved as a person and as a musician, developed new skills, and done things I never expected I’d be able to. And along the way, I have played some huge shows, made some really fun records, I have recorded tracks at my own studio, and seen my students go on to study music at university and start to build their own successful careers in the industry.

Showing the Carrera Cherry Custom at London Drum Show 2014
Showing the Carrera Cherry Custom at London Drum Show 2014.

Obviously, I am hugely grateful for everyone who has been supportive over the last ten years – especially right at the start…

Too many people to mention have helped me, supported me and given me advice in that time. But a few who deserve mentioning in particular are Rory Marsden, Simon Dring, Chris and Kelly at PXP, Ivan at Pellwood Drumsticks, and Dave Carrera.

Recording keys for Jamie Roe Band, 2015.
Recording keys for Jamie Roe Band, 2015.

There is so much left to do, and so many more goals I want to achieve… The last ten years have been hard work, incredibly difficult at times, and the whole thing has often seemed hugely daunting – but most of all, they have been more fun, and more rewarding, than I could have ever hoped. Which is why I can’t wait for the next ten years.

SEYO Day 3: tutti rehearsals

We’ve now been in Milan at the SEYO Summer Camp for three full days (and when I say ‘full’, I really do mean that – they have been three long, intense, full-on, exhausting days!), and it really is a fascinating experience.

A few things have mainly struck me so far…  The standard of the students participating is very high – in the advanced orchestra, where I am working with the percussion section, we have been able to focus on little details, points of technique, performance advice, and other minutiae, almost right from the start.  The students are all excellent players already, and this makes for very interesting, dynamic sectional rehearsals with a lot of ideas being thrown around and a real rehearsal process being very much in evidence!

The incredible passion and enthusiasm of all the teaching staff is also plain to see.  Given the number of different countries participating, and the fact that as a team of tutors, many of us had never met each other before and we have just been thrown together from different Sistema-inspired projects across all of Europe (each with their own, slightly different, customs and ways of doing things!), I think we have gelled pretty well.  From my point-of-view, I feel privileged to be working alongside a fantastic percussion tutor in sectionals, and under conductors in full rehearsals who really know what they want from a piece of music and have a vision for the performance.  I think this mix of nationalities and backgrounds is perfect for an experience like this, and means that we (the tutors) end up learning lots too.

The full Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra playing together for the first time in Teatro degli Arcimboldi
The full Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra playing together for the first time in Teatro degli Arcimboldi

Finally, it is abundantly clear what an amazing opportunity this is for all the students who have come on the course!  The chance to learn from some top professionals from all over Europe, and to play big, exciting orchestral music, is enormous.  As is the chance to be inspired by the National Children’s Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (part of the El Sistema programme, with some children as young as six), performing in the breath-taking setting of La Scala.

Thanks to the hectic schedule here, this is the first time I’ve been able to post any updates – bar uploading a few iPhone pictures ‘on the fly’! – and I don’t know when I’ll be able to write anything properly about it again.  I shall try to post more details when I get an opportunity, though.  So after another very long day of rehearsals, and with another early start tomorrow morning…  Goodnight!

Touring setup with Ultra ’90s

I wanted to write a little bit about the gear I am using on the road with live ’90s dance music show Ultra ’90s this summer, and share some of the reasoning behind why I’m playing this setup and why it suits this show so well.  Here we are in setup at Golden Coast in Woolacombe, Devon, from behind the kit:

Ultra '90s at Golden Coast
Ultra ’90s at Golden Coast

The kit I’m using is my Carrera custom ‘Sound’ kit with an 18×14″ bass drum and 10×6″ and 14×10″ toms; it’s perfect for touring, as it’s small and lightweight (which helps in reducing the strain on the stalwart Ultra ’90s van which has to carry to the entire rig from place to place!) thanks to the thin birch shells, but the toms still have good projection despite their shallow depth.  The toms are also close mic’ed with Sennheiser E604 drum mics.  The bass drum is fitted with a mesh head, and all the bass drum sounds are triggered with a Roland RT-10K, going into an Alesis DM5 module.

I’m using two snare drums here – my 14×5.5″ steambent maple Carrera Tunkan Ingan prototype is my main snare, but I also have a 12×5″ Mapex hammered steel snare as an auxiliary snare.  This drum is tuned up very high and snappy, and it also has a Roland BT-1 trigger bar on the rim; this triggers a massive dance music clap sound from my Roland SPD-S.  There’s often little variation in dance music drumming, so all the contrast and interest in the parts comes from adding and taking away layers of sound; playing a rimshot on the auxiliary snare means I can layer an electronic clap with an acoustic snare sound with one hand, and still be free to play the hihats or the ride cymbal with my other hand, so I can switch to this from my main snare going into a chorus or anywhere where the track feels like it needs to ‘lift’.  Both snares are mic’ed with Shure Beta 57s.

The SPD-S itself (on the right, next to the floor tom) I use to trigger various samples – as well as the electronic snare and clap sounds, I have rising sweeps and bass sub drops to use when appropriate in the music.  Also on the same stand is my iPad, which is running Presonus UC Surface – a remote control app which communicates with the mixing desk for the show via a closed local WiFi network.  The whole show is run to a click track, so being able to have full control over my own foldback mix for my in-ear monitors directly from the iPad is fantastic!  I use ACS T3 in-ear monitors; playing sets of (sometimes) up to two hours without breaks, I really appreciate the T3s’ clarity of sound, and the comfort in my ears.

I like to vary the cymbals I use quite often, so I don’t always have an identical cymbal setup to this.  I quickly get bored of using exactly the same configuration of cymbals every night, so it’s fun to switch things up every so often and get different sounds out of the kit.  The combination of cymbals in this picture, however, is one I really like and have been using quite a bit recently…

The hihats are 14″ Paiste 2002 Sound Edge hihats, which are great for this type of gig as they are bright and cutting with a lot of definition.  The main (left) crash is a 17″ Paiste Signature full crash – it has a bright, glassy crash sound which really cuts through the mix (even with all those layers of synths!), but it’s also great for sensitive washes on quieter sections and build-ups.  The ride is a very new acquisition, but one I’m really liking – a 20″ UFIP Bionic ride, with lots of stick definition without being too ‘gongy’ and overpowering.  The second (right) crash is rather an interesting one; starting out life as an 18″ Dream Contact crash/ride, it has been modified and repaired by the very talented Benjamin Camp at CymbalMagic into an explosive, trashy ‘effects’ crash with dark and complex tones – it’s great for accents, and introducing a bit of contrast into the sound of the show.  All the cymbals are nicely picked up by the overhead mic, which is an SE Electronics SE4a.

On this show, I also use Pellwood Rock Classic Short sticks and Axis X-series pedals – both of which feel just right, and are comfortable for playing for long periods with no breaks, without getting tired.

The Ultra ’90s gigs are always really fun, and touring with these guys is something to which I really look forward; having the right gear to take on the road makes sure I can always do my job to the best of my ability, and put on a good show for the crowds every night.

Sistema Europe Summer School in Milan

I am delighted to have been chosen to be one one of the tutors going to this year’s Sistema Europe Summer Camp, which is being held in Milan, Italy; a colleague from Sistema in Norwich and I will be going with a delegation from Sistema England, to work for eight days with students and other tutors from Sistema-inpired projects based across Europe.

This is a very exciting opportunity for me to work with some fantastic music professionals and to learn from them – and to be more involved with the Sistema movement as a whole, to just here in Norwich but throughout Europe.

Keep checking back here after 21st August for more updates on my time working with the Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra in Italy, and all the wonderful activities we get up to!

Grade exams and musicianship

I have thought about doing this for a while, now.  I want to write a little bit about music exams, my approach to them as a music tutor, and why I feel they are a valuable part of music education.

There often seems to be something of a divide in the music world about grade exams.  Plenty of people I know have criticised the system, saying that exams are unnecessary; I suppose this is true, insofar as it is possible to be an extremely good player without ever having taken an exam – then again, you could say it’s not strictly ‘necessary’ to insure your musical instruments against damage of theft either, but it’s still pretty useful!

Another major criticism I sometimes come across when talking about exam work is that the system is flawed because music – like all art – is inherently subjective, and so can’t truly be ‘judged’ by anyone else.  Again, there is some truth in this; the various exam boards (I currently use Trinity, ABRSM and Rockschool) do an excellent job of ensuring their examiners adhere to very strict guidelines about judging performances, and ensuring a high level of consistency of marking across the board – but yes, despite this, there will always been an element of subjectivity.

It is not true, however, to say that this results in the exam system rewarding technical ability but not recognising musicianship or performance skills, and thus producing carbon-copy ‘robotic’ musicians who lack feeling in their playing.  Of course, even if this were the case, grade exams would still be worth doing; technical proficiency is an essential part of being a competent musician, and encouraging those skills is a good thing – you can have all the feeling in the world, and if you don’t have the technical facility actually to realise it on your instrument, you’re stuffed!  But there are, in fact, several reasons why I believe that taking grade exams does actually encourage better musicianship.

One good argument for taking exams is that they push you to work harder, progress faster, and be better.  This is absolutely true, and something I have observed many times in my own teaching work – with the pressure of a performance on the horizon, an exam deadline to work for, students tend to practise harder, work better, and improve quicker.  But the exams push you and challenge you in other ways, too…

Without the structure of grade exams, there is a tendency to stay in your nice, cosy ‘comfort zone’ – playing music that you know, music that you like, music that you’re familiar with.  There’s nothing wrong with playing the music that you like, of course, but when you’re working from an exam syllabus you don’t necessarily get that choice – you end up being exposed to more different styles of music, to composers you might not have heard of before, to different ways of playing and different approaches to your instrument…  How anyone can say that this doesn’t contribute to developing musicianship, sensitivity, and an all-round better understanding of music as a whole is baffling!

As well as learning and playing the set pieces – often in styles of music you might not otherwise have considered playing, and in doing so broadening your musical horizons considerably – the grade exams system helps you to develop as a musician in other ways.  Learning scales may seem like a strictly technical exercise, designed to help fluency and technical ability on your instrument – but scales are so much more than that!  A good knowledge of scales and arpeggios begets an understanding of key structures and harmonies – things which are the very building blocks of how music is put together – and enables a musician to play with more feeling.  Musicianship, after all, is about understanding, rather than simply playing ‘by rote’.

The supporting tests, too, are designed to help develop all-round musical skill and understanding.  Sight-reading, an essential skill for any serious musician, encourages quick-thinking appraisal of a piece of music; aural tests develop the musical ear; improvisation exercises stretch creativity and also knowledge and understanding of different styles and genres.

Not only that, but preparing for an exam isn’t just about learning your pieces to a high level.  When I am entering students for their grade exams, I am always keen to stress that this is ‘a performance’ – playing in your exam is not about simply about how well you play, but how well you, as a musician, come across to the examiner.

A performance situation is very different from practising on your own at home – or just playing to your teacher in your lesson, or to your family, or your friends at school.  It makes you think differently, and it makes you play differently.  As well as simply being able to play, you have the responsibility to communicate this music, and what you’re trying to say with it, effectively to your audience.  How many other opportunities are there for someone who’s only been learning their instrument for a year (or even less!) to experience this kind of performance scenario, and the challenges which go with it?

Finally, as I’ve mentioned, the examiners are highly trained professionals who rarely make mistakes – but in the end, yes, their comments are still subjective.  Is that really such a bad thing, though?

If you believe, as I do, that the overall aim of music education is to prepare your students to survive in the real world of music (just as any education is designed to equip those being educated with the skills they will need out in ‘the real world’ – whatever and wherever that is!), it is important to get used to subjective comments about your playing.  If exams have relatively little worth because of the inherently subjective nature of ‘judging’ an artistic performance, then so too do critics’ reviews of performances and new recorded releases in newspapers and on music blogs and websites.  But such things are a reality for all musicians today, and there is no harm in students experiencing this also.

It is my belief – and something which I feel has been conclusively demonstrated in my eight years as a professional musician and music educator – that music exams are not just a great way to motivate students to work harder, practise more, progress quicker and feel a great sense of accomplishment which spurs them on to take on the next challenge, but also a fantastic tool to help develop all the aspects of being a musician; exposure to different styles, composers and techniques, experience of performing in front of a critical audience, overcoming nerves, gaining an understanding of the ‘building blocks’ of music, and honing essential musical skills.