Susan Boyle – is a voice enough?

The UK has produced many musical stars over the last couple of decades who have each contributed their own special talents to classical music. Charlotte Church – the child star, the ‘Voice of an Angel’: great voice, great face, iconic rise to fame. Charlotte Church the teenage Hell’s Angel (great voice, great face) reformed and became the much loved family girl we know now, proving to be a multi talented yummy mummy with gorgeous dresses and her own chat show (oh, and a great voice.) Hot on her heels is Katherine Jenkins, great voice, great face. There’s a pattern emerging here.

Susan Boyle – great voice…er….and now we begin our inner struggle with each of our personal demons. Because, unlike the aforementioned, she has no looks, no charisma and as she has proved many times in recent weeks, absolutely no fashion sense. The real question is does art have to be pretty? It is a question that painters and sculptors have been wrestling with for years but it becomes very pertinent in the music world for people like Susan. There is a practical element to this question of course, based on the fact that the large majority of leading lady roles require a young and attractive damsel. However, the sad fact is that even when the role does not require it, 9 times out of 10 the director will choose a young beauty who then spends 3 hours in make-up every day striving to look older or uglier.

Should her looks affect her art? Is there a niche in music for girls who don’t look as though they have stepped out of the pages of Vogue? And should older ladies feel such pressure to keep their looks or figures? Clive James talked to the BBC about how the attitudes of the judges on Britain’s Got Talent proved that we tend to expect beautiful people to be talented and vice versa. I’m sure you, like me, can think up many cases which do not bear out this theory.

You can see Susan’s performance on Britain’s got Talent on YouTube. Tell us what you think. Is her voice beautiful enough to overcome our prejudices? And which mediums could do more to showcase the talents of musicians like her? Or should she just accept that for the people we look at on stage or in concerts, beauty is part of the package – an essential element of the overall experience.

This story seems to have touched women everywhere – their looks never stopped the likes of Pavarotti and Paul Potts. But gender stereotyping in alive and well in the music world.  Cosmopolitan told Susan’s story from a woman’s point of view and leads me to ask whether a make-over is really what she needs or should she continue to stand up for women everywhere who have a talent but happen to look like the back end of a bus…

Why choose Fairtrade Musical Instruments?

There are still many places in the world where workers and crafts people do not earn anywhere near a fair wage for the work that they do. We can all help to stop this by trying to buy fairtrade products wherever possible. It’s not necessarily just supermarket products that are fairtrade. Some of the best and most interesting percussion instruments are produced outside of factories. They are often made in Africa or Indonesia and offer great quality at a fraction of the price you can pay for more standard instruments.

Many fairtrade instruments are made with materials including seeds and coconut shells. They have many sounds and shapes which are unusual to us and children love them. Each instrument is unique as they are usually hand crafted. They are often carved, etched or painted and the symbols you see may have been handed down through each family for many generations.

How can you ensure that the instruments you are buying are really Fairtrade?

A lot of Fairtrade products carry the Fairtrade Foundation logo. There’s loads more info on their website. The other leading Fairtrade organisation in the UK is the British Association of Fairtrade Shops. They only admit shops whose products are at least 70% fair trade and who can meet all of their stringent guidelines.

Even if you don’t see this logo, it doesn’t mean you aren’t buying
fairtrade. What really matters is how the product is made, what environment the makers live in and whether they receive an acceptable wage for the work that they do. It’s also important that children are not forced to work long hours and that they have the chance to go to school. If it isn’t clear what makes the product ‘fairtrade’, have a chat to your supplier. They should be able to explain exactly where they get the products from and, if they are from a distributor, they should have information about what that company does to ensure that they are offering fairtrade products. Our suppliers Rainstick Trading work with the sources they use to develop new lines which will help the business to become sustainable. They also visit the producers at least once a year to see that everything is going well and to get involved with local community projects.

Fairtrade instruments are exciting and different. By choosing them we can help other musicians in the world to have a better life.

Click here to see our great selection of fair trade musical instruments.

The secret of the Strad

Strads (or violins made by Stradivarius in the early 1700s in Cremona, Italy) have been in the news a lot recently. An uncommon number have come up for auction, with some surprising results. (The record price paid for a Strad was in 2006 when the violin nicknamed ‘the Hammer’ went for a massive £1.75 million pounds.) An equally unusual number have had some surprising adventures in taxis and trains. (I mean, losing your umbrella’s one thing but come on…)

And now someone else thinks they’ve discovered the root of the unique Stradivarius sound. There have been some interesting theories over recent years including the use of secret wood treatments or varnishes and using wood from extremely old structures such as ancient churches.

This time it’s a mini ice age (seriously!). Apparently the density of the wood from this period of the 1700s is very even, whereas modern trees grow faster in summer than winter, making a less uniform pattern which one can see would make a difference to the sound production across the instrument. This idea was floated back in 2003 but this month, researchers in the Netherlands have used CT scan analysis similar to that used on emphysema patients to create clear comparisons with modern violins.

Maybe all of these scientists have a point and the combination of all of these factors which have been researched individually play their part in creating the heart wrenchingly beautiful and entirely individual sound we expect from each Stradivarius creation.

By the way, if you don’t have a couple of million quid to spend, Antoni Debut Violin Packs offer great value for money. Violin is a great instrument for children to start on as it’s available in a massive range of colours and sizes and is relatively cheap. It also suits loads of different styles of music including classical, folk and pop.

My only remaining question is this – who lets scientists try out these crazy theories on their Strad???

Is Classical Music Boring?

So, Vaughan Williams ‘The Lark Ascending’ has entered the Classic FM Hall of Fame in the number one spot for the second year running. Call me cynical, but is it not possibly the most played/talked about piece on the radio, having won last year?? Not that it isn’t a very beautiful piece of music, but the British public has also in the past, been proven highly suggestible. (I’m thinking shell suits, Bros, moon boots..?)

It seems to me that part of the reason for the decline in popularity which becomes an ever growing issue for classical music is the stagnation of the ‘top favourites’ list. We hear them at concerts, on the radio, in TV adverts. Perhaps most annoyingly the same few pieces are churned out ad nauseamduring those frustrating periods of time we spend ‘on hold’. Linking a piece of music to the memory of these particular phone calls is not likely to endear it to anyone.

The pace of life is increasing at an alarming rate. Things like gadgets and pop music have barely made it to today before they become yesterday’s news. Hardly anyone had an Mp3 player before we were onto Mp4. And what the hell is ‘Blu-Ray’ anyway? The classical industry is making a serious error by not recognising that we need to reach people in more imaginative ways and try to break down the wall of elitism (real or imaginary) which surrounds it.

Sadly, classical music is often conveyed in a very conservative and old fashioned way. This definitely does not mean the music itself is boring. It is colourful, diverse and can convey any emotion just as well as the most moving of pop songs. The truth is that a very wide repertoire of beautiful music has been and is still being written, so let’s start hearing some more of it!!

Should bad role models be allowed to win awards?

There has always been a reasonable percentage of famous musicians (and poets) who have leaned towards drugs either to inspire their art or to escape from it. In the modern age, Ozzy Osbourne, Robbie Williams and most recently, Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse have been in and out of rehab like the proverbial fiddler’s elbow.

And it’s not just the odd spliff which is causing controversy. The increasingly popular genre of ‘gangsta’ rap is full of lyrics glorifying drugs, gun crime and suicide. Like violent computer games, it has been suggested many times that this type of music has more than a passing link to the steady rise in violent crime in the UK. So, is it still ‘music’ or ‘art’ or is it incitement?

Along with drinking excessively, particularly when photos of these antics appear in the press, these factors contribute to the picture of a yobbish ‘don’t care’ attitude adopted by the famous people who are, worryingly, held up as role models and even idols by young people. However, instead of being ostracised, they receive more press coverage, more fame and also, it seems, more recognition within the industry.

So should illegal or immoral behaviour affect the way we treat our music stars or is it entirely separate from their music making? If we decide to stop allowing these people to avoid taking responsibility for their behaviour, is this to be confined to certain ‘crimes’ or should they be banned from the Brits for jumping a red light?

What’s the right instrument for your child?

Or ‘Can boys play flutes?’

It’s great when children become interested in playing music. They may have seen something on TV that captured their imagination or a friend at school might be learning. For parents, it can raise a few things to think about, especially as instruments and lessons can work out expensive.

How are they going to learn? If you play an instrument yourself, you might teach them at home, you could send them to a tutor for lessons or there may be lessons available through school. Often, schools operate an instrument rental scheme so that you can be sure they will enjoy it before making that initial outlay for the instrument, so what’s offered will influence the choice you make.

Obviously, the size of the instrument compared to the child is an important factor. Many instruments come in several sizes, including violins, guitars and drumkits, but for things like clarinets and flutes, the hands need to have reached a certain span to cope competently.

If you have a young child who has expressed an interest in music, the recorder is a great place to start. It’s cheap and relatively easy to learn and should give you a good idea as to whether your child has more than a passing interest in learning a more complex instrument. For older children, many tutors offer taster lessons which are a very ‘hands on’ way for them to see if they’ve made the right choice. Ask your local music shop to put you in touch with a good teacher.

Some subconscious influences strongly affect your child’s preference. There’s more info in this great article ‘Why don’t girls play guitar?’ where Prof. Sue Hallam explains that the physical aspects of the instrument can play a big part in the choice. Flutes, being lighter weight and higher pitched attract girls, whereas tubas being low and heavy are played overwhelmingly by boys. Is she right, or are we much more affected by gender stereotyping than we think? Clearly, it makes sense for girls not to lug around a big heavy instrument. But then, why are 90% of harpists female? What really affects the instrument we choose? Peer pressure and the lean towards pop music and ‘cool’ instruments means a bigger number of boys play guitar while the choices of girls seem much more complicated. What really matters is that the instrument you choose speaks to you and, most importantly, is suitable for the type of music you want to play.

Does music create intelligent kids?

Babies can apparently appreciate music before they are even born and we all have strong opinions about the type of music we enjoy, whether it’s Classical or Heavy Rock. But should music just be a hobby for children or is it a powerful form of training to improve young people’s abilities across the board?

It is only quite recently that some real research on the subject has taken place, with some interesting outcomes. You can read more on www.bbc.com where Prof. Raymond MacDonald asks:

Is music the key to academic gains?

Even if it doesn’t actually make you more intelligent, it seems music helps to focus the mind. Prof. MacDonald tells us that music stimulates different parts of the brain and even learning lyrics can contribute to learning to read and memory skills.

However, is there any real proof that music is the relevant factor to intelligence in participating children? Is it possible that music, often seen as the most elitist of the Arts, simply attracts more affluent parents whose offspring are more likely to have had a ‘better start in life’ and so achieve more easily? .

Perhaps most importantly, just like being on the school football team, an interest in music can definitely help with forming social connections and working within a group. Maybe this is the core of the subject which should never be underestimated as a development tool – that feeling of pulling together to make a piece of music work or of having something to strive towards as a personal goal and finally achieving something which sounds good.

So, just like ‘brain training’, music is here to stay and it can play a big part in the ability of children to learn and retain information, to concentrate and to become more well-rounded in their approach to study and to life. However, in using music as an educational device, we must be careful not to make it mundane and so reduce the enjoyment of this most wonderful of art forms.

How to survive music theory

And what’s the point of it anyway?

So, you got your Grade 5 on your chosen instrument – well done! And what reward do you get? Yep, you get to take your Grade 5 theory exam. The thing is, even if it’s the first time you have done a music theory exam, you already know a lot of the required information or you wouldn’t have achieved everything you’ve done so far. It’s just that getting it all down on paper can be a little confusing, especially as some of the words will be new to you.

How do you give yourself the best chance of passing? Mainly by being positive and open-minded. Theory is nowhere near as complicated as it first seems as long as you try to relate it to actually playing music. There are lots of past papers available from any good music shop to give you an idea of what it will be like and recently, model answers have become available too so you can test yourself.

Don’t let yourself be easily put off. Understanding all this stuff now is what will make you a stronger musician in the future. You won’t always have a teacher and knowing about the different periods of music, styles of composition and the descriptive words that tell you how to play a piece will be really handy later on, particularly as you’re approaching the top grades.

There is another way!

If you really cannot stand the idea of a written theory test or you are being held back by not passing, talk to your teacher about the Jazz Exams or Practical Musicianship. These are practical exams not unlike the ones you are used to and a pass at Grade 5 will allow you to go forward. There’s more info at the Associated Board website.

Why not tell us your music exam experiences and your tips for getting through them – we’ll post the best ones right here.

Did Sullivan need Gilbert?

Was the union of Gilbert and Sullivan a match made in heaven or the end of a promising career?

It’s G&S time again. It comes around every Spring as regularly as Christmas in December. Everyone has heard of them but few realise what a loss the musical half of this partnership was to the serious Classical musician. If you think you know Arthur Sullivan, take the time to revisit this composer, particularly through his incidental music which is sadly under used. ‘The Tempest’ has several hauntingly beautiful moments, mainly due to the choice of orchestration. Manipulation of the orchestra is where Sullivan always excelled, a skill which, in the main, goes unnoticed among the audiences of his comic works. His Irish Symphony is also definitely worth a listen, evoking so easily the Celtic landscape.
This freely expressive style (learned to a large degree from Mendelssohn) is hugely constrained by the format of the comic operas which stick mainly to a simple rhyming verse and whose content has been called ‘light’ and ‘fun’ but also ‘banal’. It offers a much narrower opportunity for the expression of his own complex feelings within the music.

Of course, there is no denying the appeal of the Savoy operas but one cannot help but wonder where this phenomenal talent would have gone musically had he not met Gilbert and what we have missed. Fans will insist that Haddon Hall is one of his best works, attempting as it does to marry the style of plot from the Savoy operas with the true style of Sullivan’s composition. But for me it does not capture that intensity of emotion so typical of the pre-Gilbert era.

Although other serious works were composed during and after the relationship, they clearly suffered from it as Sullivan became increasingly disillusioned and once they began to collaborate, many will say that he was affected so deeply that he never regained the prowess of expression which was so stunted by the ever popular works they wrote together.