I want to write about the return of music performance to my life, and think a little about what it might mean for education and the world of work.
For the last couple of years I’ve been playing violin in a band with a Mozambican singer, Maiuko. The rest of the band, drums, double bass, and piano, are seasoned jazz professionals. We play a kind of hybrid Afro-blues, with Celtic overtones (that’s where I come in). We played a successful gig on Friday at St George’s The Martyr in Borough, London, the beginning of a busy summer of planned recording and along the way a mini-tour to celebrate 40 years of Mozambican independence.
I played last night in another quite different band, again with a group of skilled musicians (guitars, drums, bass and trombone). The Kismet Collective performs only original material, mixing diverse pop, rock and folk influences. We’re focused on recording demo tracks at the moment, though we’re also honing the material live with a monthly residency at a great music pub in Dover.
I started playing violin in my mid-teens, teaching myself when I found I could (I’d learned piano for a couple of years and had some music lessons at school, so I had some helpful background in notation, scales and other basic bits of theory), jamming along with folk, jazz and rock records, playing in some bands with schoolfriends.
All this persisted into college but not much further. Music had always been important but it was a side interest. Friends went their separate ways. There were no longer any obvious opportunities to perform. Back then live music was much more restricted. There were no open mics, no obvious opportunities to meet new players and jam along informally. In any case I had other pressures. I had studied English literature at college and I was working in business as a writer. I was married and soon I also had children, so I was busy with the demands of parenthood, and making enough money to sustain a family. I’d pick up my fiddle from time to time, just to re-assure myself I could still get a noise out of it, but for the most part it sat in its venerable wooden case, gathering dust.
The children got older, and my marriage ended. I’d argue that mid-life crises, although they sometimes manifest themselves in pathetic ways (chasing younger women or men, fast cars or whatever) are in themselves a reasonable response to the realisation that you’re beginning to run out of time, and need to address the things you always wanted to do. Music had remained an important part of my life, as a listener and spectator, but I found myself wondering increasingly what it would be to practise again, and take a place among others in the blossoming local live music scene. My girlfriend at the time encouraged me. There was a great Sunday night session in the Man of Kent in Rochester, always welcoming to players whatever their ability. I got over my nerves and started putting bow to strings in public again.
I was lucky. I met some lovely and talented performers early on, so picked up a lot of pub gig experience quickly. At that stage all I really wanted to do was have fun in pubs and bars, but I found myself in demand, I think because being self-taught but with some grasp of basic theory I could improvise fluidly and fit in with whatever the other performers were trying to do. There are plenty of classically trained violinists in the area with better formal technique than me, who can do things I can’t, but few of them can move comfortably away from a score, and that’s a problem when you’re not playing within the disciplines of classical music (which I still love and respect).
My own technique has improved a lot (that’s what happens when you practise) and some bigger dreams have taken at least a cautious hold of me. The music I’m making now has become necessarily more ambitious and demanding, and I think it deserves a bigger audience.
With luck this might happen, since experience has taught me that financial reward for creative work depends as much on luck as talent. But all this is just the background to a bigger, more important point.
The return of music making to my life has transformed that life. I’m fortunate that I’ve found I have some ability in doing something that’s so close to my heart, but then I believe most people have that capacity to a greater or lesser extent.
My first real job as a commercial writer involved (among other things) interviewing people on the verge of retirement. This was a generation that had lived through extraordinary times, many of whom had fought in the Second World War, or survived the dangers and privations of that war at home. Perhaps they had been glad for the subsequent stability of routine work but for me it seemed vaguely depressing that so many of them regarded their looming retirement rather like an extended Sunday afternoon, a chance to catch up on some sleep and gardening. Perhaps in reality it proved different, perhaps they found some new passion to animate their days rather than a pastime that dulled their senses, but I doubt it.
In any case the worlds of work and the arc of a normal life have changed so much even in my (incomplete) lifetime. Now most of us can reasonably anticipate living longer, healthier lives. In economic terms alone we can no longer expect to slip into a kind of sleepy inactivity at 65. Biology still dictates the ages between which we are likely to have children and raise them, but beyond this the shape of working lives is already changing, necessarily becoming more fractured and diverse, demanding as we grow older that we find new ways of deploying what we’ve learned rather than prematurely winding ourselves down, and to develop creatively.
I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to pick up a guitar or a violin. Indeed when I speak of “creativity” I’m not just talking about art forms: I mean whatever it is in us that can take us beyond the ordinary, the mundane demands of feeding ourselves and keeping warm; to explore and exploit whatever potential we have to think around whatever we’re given, to make more of our lives whether in our work or outside it. Of course there will still be jobs that require little beyond repetition, even if their numbers are shrinking under the weight of automation, but those stuck in such work will have all the more need of something satisfying beyond it, and they’ll need to be able to adapt to new conditions, new work as the world continues to change.
So it becomes all the more important that we re-imagine and restructure how education can work in our lives. Partly this means thinking past the traditional limits of higher education, to reconfigure how schools and colleges function in their communities (at the same time accommodating the supportive role online resources could play).
But it also means reversing the movement to de-emphasise the importance of creativity in education, in schools and outside them. Whatever else successive governments have claimed they want to do, this is the reality of what they are doing, both directly in the pressure on subject timetabling, and indirectly by restricting the scope for autonomy and creativity in teaching itself.
All this sits in a bitterly ironic relationship to their apparent belief that what they are doing will better prepare students for the “world of work”. I’m not suggesting for a second that we don’t need good mathematicians, physicists or engineers, but we might stand a better chance of getting them if we started with the recognition that the “world of work” cannot be insulated from our other worlds, from the changing arcs of our lives.
I’m not suggesting that we should ignore basic skills in literacy and numeracy. I’m saying that we need better ways of engaging children in their acquisition. In the process we might also find that we’ve given our children better abilities and resources to meet the diverse demands not only of their work, but their changing lives. If we fail to do this we’re not only wasting valuable human capacity; we’re nurturing unnecessary and dangerous frustration.