Ensemble Manifesto

(For everyone, including leaders, participants, and collaborators.)
  • Ensembles are made of artists. The work/performance/art undertaken requires everyone’s input to happen.

  • Art happens in the space between people.

  • All ensemble members have the potential and responsibility to instigate creative change.

  • An ensemble needs to trust itself, and the constituent members trust each other.

  • Music making depends on respect.

  • All ensembles are pedagogic opportunities. Those who feel they aren’t learning or being challenged aren’t engaging with the ensemble enough.

  • If something isn’t working in an ensemble, look first to yourself.

  • It’s hard to be creative if you don’t know the notes. Everyone is responsible for their own part.

  • Rehearsals should positively impact the quality of the performers and the performance.

  • The evolution of a piece of art is unknown. Be open to change.

  • It’s called ‘playing music’ for a reason.


(Debate, discuss, and disagree.)

University Lecturing: One Year On

I have now officially been lecturing at York St John University for one year. It’s been a remarkable experience, and I’ve had a lot of fun being here. At the same time, though, I don’t think I’ve worked harder in my life. Here are five things that I have taken away from this year:

  1. Work doesn’t always feel like work. There are many times that I stop and wonder how I’ve managed to finagle my way into a position where I get paid to talk about and make music. Even some of the most arduous tasks such as editing modules for revalidation are still, at their core, based around helping people become better musicians. Perhaps I am slightly biased after working within a Further Education environment (which has significantly more paperwork involved than in Higher Education), but I’m going to try to hang onto my admiration of life in HE as long as possible.
  2. Play doesn’t always feel like play. I had forgotten what it was like to fully dive into a university music department. Going from rehearsal to class to a meeting to yet another rehearsal can be really tiring, particularly as the year progresses. I am increasingly realising the benefits that can arise when making music with my students, and firmly believe that music lecturers should spend a decent part of their time actually making music. However, adding rehearsals for concert band, big band, samba band, brass choir, electroacoustic ensemble, and occasionally chamber choir, klezmer band, and a Rush tribute act to teaching and administrative duties can drain one’s energy rather quickly.
  3. Teaching music is not just teaching one thing. I am part of a fairly small and well-integrated department. This means that we are each involved in a wide range of modules and are expected to cover a range of subjects. This past year, I have taught about everything from conducting, dealing with performance anxiety, performing contemporary music, and improvisation to national anthems, Pauline Oliveros, music criticism, music and social oppression, social networking, and what covers can tell us about musical identity – all in addition to my ‘official’ specialism of ensemble performance. This next year could find me teaching similar topics, but there is a significant likelihood that there will be a few new things thrown in there as well. I can’t imagine trying to tackle this job if I dogmatically restricted myself to one area of expertise, and am thankful that I had the support in my own education to explore such a wide range of topics.
  4. I have to be on my toes all the time. Individual tutorials can allow you to help students the most, but they require you to be the most sensitive to how each person learns. However, there is rarely time to prepare for the topic of a tutorial unless it has been agreed beforehand. You never know what will be on a student’s mind when they walk through the door. Often, it is something that has been bugging them for a while, but they haven’t spoken to you about it yet because of scheduling or (as happens more often than not) they assume the problem will go away. For any students reading this: it is better to book a tutorial and not need to use it than to bottle everything up! I’d rather talk to someone about how they’ve successfully dealt with an issue than try to cobble together a battle plan with deadlines looming.
  5. I’m actually interested in… music education? I never thought that I would be very bothered about how people learn music. For longer than I care to admit, I brushed ‘music education’ off as something found in primary schools. However, being up close and personal with so many people who are trying to become better musicians has forced me to reconsider how people learn. This has not only driven a lot of my harebrained ideas throughout the year, but has actually had an impact on my research interests. This year, I will turn some of my experiments with the YSJU concert band into a full-blown collaborative research project, exploring how musical play can help musicians work better together. I’ve always wanted to be better at what I do, and what I do now is teach music.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Disappointing Feedback

Recently, I went for coffee with one of my friends from Birmingham Conservatoire. Over the course of catching up with him, conversation drifted towards his reactions to Tangents. Whilst he thought it was interesting (or, at least, was polite enough to feign interest), the largest piece of criticism he had was about how quickly the musical ideas developed within each improvisation. He wished that we had dwelled upon the ideas for a longer amount of time, exploring each in more nuance. Previously, I had heard a similar comment before, again from a composer from the Conservatoire. Admittedly, I was rather surprised at this feedback, as each track was already rather long. After living with the recording, I had personally felt satisfied with the pace of the tracks, and I would be wrong to admit that I was disappointed by this critique. In addition, the length of the tracks themselves may be a deterrent to listeners. According to the statistics which are provided from bandcamp, most people, when streaming Tangents online, stop listening before 90% of the track has finished, and that roughly one third of all listeners stop listening before 10% of the track has passed. This is particularly evident as the album progresses, with the total play count of the final track only 4% of the first. As I am very much invested in each track, it is disheartening that so few people make it all the way though. However, there are lessons to be learned in this. Given these (seemingly contrary) pieces of feedback, how can I prepare for future recording projects?

It is tempting to argue that whilst it may have felt natural to follow the development of ideas over the course of twenty minutes while performing, it may not feel natural to do so when listening. Thus, a large amount of my audience may simply not have the stamina or the attention span to listen to improvisation for that amount of time. However, there are significant issues with this argument. First, it is important to remember that bandcamp's metrics only measure the listening habits of those who are streaming the album online; there is no information about those who have downloaded the album. Listening through a website is a distinctly different social activity than listening through some other device, and may not reflect how all audience members are experiencing the recording. That being said, twenty minutes may be beyond the threshold for the subset of my audience (and, importantly, my potential audience) who stream the album. Second, extended tracks are not unheard of, particularly from within Western art and ambient traditions. Although my friend has had experience with such long performances, those performances may have different characteristics which allow them to take more time. His complaint was not necessarily with the length of each track, but the rate of change of musical ideas. Therefore, it may be worth slowing down the evolution of my improvised material – at least, to allow it to mature and develop at a rate which may feel more appropriate to audiences familiar with contemporary classical music.

Based on these thoughts, it is worth experimenting with the following: longer ideas, shorter tracks.

Rather than creating vast landscapes with many different features, my next venture into ensemble improvisation may focus on vignettes – crystallised moments of performance that explore the nuance found within musical ideas. Whether or not this approach is successful (however you choose to define it) is somewhat beyond the point. What I feel is most important is that I continually challenge the way that I craft my performances.

As my audience, what are your thoughts? What reactions have you had to the album? Do you have a preference for the rate of change in music – or do you even notice?

The Caveat.

It would be easy (and not entirely unexpected) for me as an artist to ignore elements of feedback which I do not necessarily agree with. At some point, we have to draw the line and perform what  and how we feel compelled to do. Otherwise, we run the risk that our artistic decisions become democratised to the extent that they become insipid. That being said, I vainly like having people listen to me. I want to please people, to make them happy, to make them want to be my audience. Within our attempts to strike a balance between these two motivations, we can find art and, possibly, humanity.

Playing the Fool

Over the past few weeks, I spent a large amount of time preparing for a musical in which I (and several of my unwitting music students) became increasingly involved in the action on stage. The original thought of having two bands for the show – one electric, one acoustic – turned into my acoustic band being fully costumed and on-stage for the entirety of the two-hour show. I suspect that, had they known that they would end up portraying members of the Bohemian revolution, my students may have been somewhat more hesitant in signing up. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that this production allowed for the development of an important skill for musicians. One evening, as I was sambaing around on-stage with an accordion strapped to my chest while sporting a rather pointy moustache, it occurred to me that there is something to be said for standing on a stage and, knowingly, making a fool of yourself.

In Be Brave, I wrote about how musical performance gives us the opportunity to build uniquely personal and human relationships with our audiences. However, there is nothing to say that these relationships need to be serious. Some of the most memorable performances I have seen have been those given with a twinkle in someone's eye and a quick flash of a grin. The stakes are raised in such performances, however. Looking silly when you perform is one thing, looking incompetent is another. As performers, our egos may be easily bruised when others question our technical proficiency. Thus, in order to reach the stage where we can have the comfort of acting absurdly, we need to play well enough that we aren't worried about hitting the right notes at the right times. As Amy Poehler has said,

There’s power in looking silly and not caring that you do.

That power is twofold. First, you have the power to deliver that performance with a certain level of technical control – you know what you're doing and can almost go on autopilot if need be. Second, you have power over your own ego. You can temporarily release your insecurities to allow you to pursue a greater artistic goal. If we commit to a performance enough that we simply don't give a damn how silly we look, then we help pull our audience in. Whether out of amusement, fascination, or simply curiosity, they will watch simply to see what happens. Likewise, as was the case of the misadventures of my Bohemian band, the audience may watch – and mirror – your joyful immersion in making music.

The question for me is how far you can take this concept. What do you think? Have you ever acted the fool for an audience?

Cognitive Friction (Part 2)

My latest musing on Cognitive Friction has led to a few different reactions, which I think could be usefully explored here.

First, my friends James Bollocks and Stuart Stevens shared their own experiences employing cognitive friction, albeit in vastly different contexts and for differing purposes. James, an avid skateboarder, writes:

For the last couple years whenever 'Travelling' on my skateboard - i make the very conscious choice to spin it 180° and ride in switch [with the dominant foot at the back of the skateboard instead of the front]. It costs me a lot of enjoyment - riding naturally i don't need to think at all and I can really enjoy the ride - but riding switch is heavy on concentration, and much more dangerous. So, why do i do it?...
Two reasons:

  1.  I want to become better at riding switch - I want it to become more natural for me - and to end up feeling as comfortable as when I ride my natural direction.
  2. Practicing 'travelling' in switch , as opposed to doing 'tricks' in switch (which I do also admittedly do) gives me a tolerable and just about safe enough level at which to experience this cognitive friction - whilst still being able to occasionally flip back round 180° (for example at dangerous road crossings) and assume soooo much more comfortable control over the board and riding experience in general.

I really can't emphasise the discipline required to do something you can do fine the one way the other. The temptation wins out more than I am proud to admit - and thus the purposeful friction (/learning) goes on. [revised terminology – 29/05/14]

Likewise, he writes that applying cognitive friction becomes pedagogically important in that, when working with beginner skateboarders, it helps to

remove the comfort and effortlessness in what you're doing and return you to a state of cognitive effort and awareness - in order to remember/re-understand exactly what your beginner skate brother or sister is going through.

From a musical perspective, my friend Stuart writes

In my exploration of melody using 31-edo temperament I have returned to my most familiar instrument - the electric guitar. After years of practice and doodling I am able to play the instrument with my eyes shut and my fingers instinctively know how to "land" on intervals (frets) in known relationships. Re-fretting the guitar with 31 frets in the octave has created a cognitive friction. While all the playing techniques around fretting, strumming, picking etc can still be applied, the new layout is forcing my mind to re-visit a process I obviously undertook many years before in my early guitar learning - that of matching interval relationships and fret positions to the pitches I am hearing and getting to "know the notes on the guitar" through improvising. As a consequence, when scoring, I find more and more that I think naturally in 31-edo as well as 12-edo. The one factor changed is the fret positions, and I now see that as cognitive friction applied to my well-established guitar-playing.

The means by which actions are learnt and habitualised share common features across a variety of contexts. Cognitive friction is a disturbance introduced into already-functioning systems.

Second, my friend Joe Scarffe raised the question of whether or not cognitive friction is another term for Daniel Kahneman's System 2? In a nutshell, what Joe is referring to is the dual ways of thinking proposed by psychologist Daniel Kahneman (the 2002 Nobel recipient in Economics):

  • System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
  • System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

This division in thought processes is similar to that found in the work of management theorist John Heron ( Mode 2 and Mode 1 knowledge, in reverse numbering from Kahneman) and even as far back as Gilbert Ryle (procedural and propositional knowledge). What I'd like to make clear is that cognitive friction, as I envision it, is not necessarily mode of thinking itself. Rather, it is the process by which you shift from intuition to concentration. This resembles what psychologists have named task set reconfiguration, although I do not know the extent to which the practical uses of this concept have been explored.

The process of moving from intuition to concentration does slow things down, making you generally less efficient and more uncomfortable. However, the benefit is that it forces conscious re-engagement with the processes and actions at hand. This is not to say that consciously 'thinking' when we are 'doing' is always better: both systems/modes of thinking serve their purposes based on context and experience. Cognitive friction is the process by which we realise how much we have forgotten that we know. That realisation may then be used to learn about ourselves, adapt and improve our actions, and to teach others.

I am intrigued by this area, and would love to find out more about it (and how it may be usefully applied pedagogically and within my own performance). If you have suggestions on where to look, please let me know!

Cognitive Friction

Try an experiment. The next time you put on a belt, put it on backwards. Not so the buckle is at the back, mind you, but so that it goes around your body in the opposite direction it does normally. What happens? Unless you are extraordinarily dexterous, you may find this somewhat challenging. Years of repetition have subsumed the finer points of this motion into automation, freeing your mind to contemplate loftier subjects than making sure your belt goes through the right loops. Changing one element – namely, the direction of the belt – throws this automation out the window. For the first time in a long time, you may have to consciously think about putting on your belt.

Having to think about something we don't normally think about may not necessarily be a bad thing. Although we all accumulate a wealth of knowledge through years of experience, we may not believe that we consciously 'think' about any of it at all. As philosopher Gilbert Ryle wrote, overtly intelligent actions 'are not clues to the workings of minds; they are those workings' (1949: 57). Sometimes, however, we forget how overtly intelligent our actions are. The more we become adept at tasks (or series of tasks), the more we focus on the purpose of that task (see Elsner and Hommel 2001). Likewise, the more adept we become, the more we may downplay exactly how much thought had originally gone into our learning of that task.

One thing that I find exciting about conducting research is the opportunity to be surprised. In my particular area of research – how musicians create performances, either by themselves or with other people – I can dredge my own experiences playing music for inspiration or clarity. Merely writing down and contemplating my experience performing does not spark my curiosity, though. What is most useful is an element of cognitive friction: a small tweak to one element of a system which forces us to reconsider the entire operation of the system. In other words, putting our metaphorical belts on backwards. On a mundane level, this could include events such as realising that you can't open your front door if your keys are in the wrong hand and trying to discover the best alternate route through town to avoid being stuck in traffic. On a larger level, though, cognitive friction may be a beneficial means by which we can cultivate and encourage reflective practice. Introducing such friction into tasks or contexts we are researching may allow us to more fully understand the systems within which we exist.

Whilst I can envision many ways that I can introduce cognitive friction into my own work, I am curious to see if anyone else has encountered this concept and/or applied it in their own development, either as a musician, researcher, or otherwise. What do you think you can learn through cognitive friction?

I Sing the Body Electric

In the past month, things have changed dramatically for me as a bass trombonist. After years of talking about it, I broke down and bought a Silent Brass mute not to practise with, but to use in combination with effects pedals. Upon experimenting with a variety of bass pedals borrowed from colleagues, I experienced a sound world completely unlike anything I had encountered before. This new set of equipment forced me to reconsider not only the technical strategies needed to play my trombone, but also my approach towards performance in general. Whilst there are many complexities inherent in this new system, I have an immense feeling of freedom about my playing.

Why should I feel this way? What cognitive baggage has accompanied my prior approaches performance that has prevented me from feeling so empowered?

Upon contemplating these questions, I concluded that acoustic instruments exist within a realm of nuances. Every aspect of the music – even the most microscopic – regularly comes under scrutiny. Training as a classical musician demands an attention to detail which could be considered obsessive. Looking back at my education, I remember many days where I obsessed over making my 'ka' articulation match my 'ta' articulation so my double-tonguing would be even. I remember recording myself on my computer and looking at the resulting waveforms to make sure that my notes decayed evenly. I remember trialling different breathing patterns within a phrase to my friends, just to see which one helped carry the phrase more. These activities were normal amongst my classical colleagues, and it was expected that I used such techniques to fine-tune my ability to perform.

When I put my trombone through effects pedals, however, all of those nuances went out the window. Adding effects allows my performance decisions to shape the resulting music in vastly different ways. Exploration and manipulation of timbre has become a joy, and I surprise myself regularly by the ease at which I can make sounds that bear no relation to the typical 'vocabulary' of a bass trombone. With a few small adjustments, I can sound similar to a trumpet, an electric guitar, an electric bass, an organ, voices, percussion, a synthesiser… the options are seemingly endless. However, I do not believe I should make myself sound exactly like any of those instruments. If I want to use the sound of a distorted guitar in a recording or performance, why spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to use a trombone when I could just use a guitar? What is unique about the sounds available to use is that even though they carry superficial timbral features of other instruments, I still behave idiomatically like a trombone. This results in what is almost an aural uncanny valley, where the normal means of identifying instruments through recordings may be confounded by mixed information.

This isn't to say that nuances in timbre, articulation, delay, and so on do not exist when I use effects pedals. Rather, they become overshadowed by sonic variables of a much larger magnitude. These new variables have been thrilling to explore, and have provided the cognitive friction to spur on my creative output. To be honest, I'm starting to consider my trombone as more of a wind-powered synthesiser than a brass instrument. Why not?

The results of this exploration can be heard on my forthcoming album of improvised duets and trios with drummer Andy Edwards and electric bassist Steve Lawson, both fascinating and deeply inspiring musicians. Keep checking the website for further updates on this exciting project!


Creativity Through Restriction

A few weeks ago, I came across the following statement:

To which, I replied:

…encouraging the following dialogue:

Although it was certainly a challenge, I found that forcing myself to pare down my writing during my doctorate resulted in several outcomes. First, it became quickly apparent if I had clearly thought through the ideas I was writing down. Waffling about tangential subjects that only skirted the edges of what I actually needed to say was rather counterproductive, and forced me to question if I actually knew what I needed to say at all. Second, my understanding of the nuances of the English language improved dramatically. Capturing the essence of my message in clear, concise prose often took a lot more energy and creativity to do than to talk around the subject. Thus comes one of the key characteristics often attributed to creativity: the ability to approach a problem or puzzle in an unique way, to tease it out from a radically different approach than has been taken before. For me, the puzzle was to continually find more concise methods of expressing myself, resulting in me becoming occasionally rather maniacally brutal to sections that I had spent weeks or months preparing in the process. The use of constraint as a foil in writing is not new, ranging from poets fitting phrases into specific metres to Ernest Vincent Wright's novel Gadsby, famously written without a single letter 'e'.

At the beginning of last week, I spoke at Leeds College of Music's International Festival for Artistic Innovation, a week-long series of presentations, rehearsals, and performances exploring what 'innovation' may encompass within music. Within the same session as my paper was a presentation given by Mark Slater and Adam Martin about Nightports, a compositional project based upon the following manifesto:

Arrive. Move. Shift. Change. Depart.

Nightports inhabit the crossroads between song and dark electronica. A shifting, transient world of intense pulses and intimate lines. All sounds emerge from one voice, one body and pass through transformations, distortions, translations to produce a music of extremes. Delicate, powerful, fragmenting, flickering.

In their presentation, Slater and Martin described how the entire compositional and production process was governed by the rule that all of the sounds used had to have their origins in the singer, Emily Lynn. This restriction forced them to make practical and aesthetic decisions in the construction of the final recording. For example, in order for the original set of recordings fit within the genre of electronica, they had to possess appropriate musical elements that would characterise it as such. Thus, to create the palette of sounds familiar to electronica, the original vocal material had to be transformed, stretched, and distorted. The resulting sounds then impacted the process of arranging and producing the final recording. Slater and Martin's presentation illustrated a variety of these puzzles brought about by their manifesto, and allowed them to describe the ways that they had to find creative solutions to them.

These unrelated incidents made me reconsider how context affects artistic development. Which encourages creative thought more: freedom or restriction? Choosing one of an unlimited number of possible solutions to a problem may not necessarily demonstrate a high level of decision-making, as there is not anything to prevent someone from being guided simply by personal preference or ease of execution. However, as less solutions become available due to whatever restrictions are put in place, the more someone will have to critically weigh their options. This does not necessarily mean that they will have to compromise and choose a path that is not ideal. Rather, they may devise new solutions that allow them to abide by the restricting criteria yet still achieve whatever it is that they want to achieve.

Contemplating this issue in generic terms of 'problems' and 'solutions' is one thing: what about in other musical contexts? To a certain extent, any kind of musical performance – particularly acoustic performance – carries a host of restrictions brought about by the instrument itself. The application of extended techniques and electronics can certainly broaden my sonic palette, and inventing new ways of getting sound out of instruments is certainly an ongoing creative challenge. Even beyond simply creating sounds, however, improvisation may also relate to this issue. Years before having discretely considered the benefits of restriction for creative thought, I applied this concept toward working with improvising ensembles of students. I found that simply telling a group to improvise on their instruments and respond to each others' sounds resulted in rather dull and uninspired performances (not to mention unimpressed students). Given the opportunity to play anything at all, these young musicians either stayed completely within their comfort zone or didn't take the task seriously. However, this changed once the ensemble had a rule they had to abide by. These could range from instructions such as 'You cannot play any note longer than a second' and 'You cannot play above pianissimo' to 'You can only play using three pitches' or 'Every note must be lower than the previous'. Although simple, these rules provided foils which the students could wrestle with, posing a problem that needed a solution. Thus, the young musicians needed to strike a balance: to follow the technical restriction whilst still attempting to satisfy their innate urge to create an interesting and meaningful musical performance.

What do you think? Which encourages creative thought more: freedom or restriction?

Be Brave

As musicians, we shape people's experiences. We mould them, structure them, craft them into tangible moments within time. The better control we have over our instruments, the more they disappear, allowing our thoughts and expressions to manifest in sound without hindrance. To make music that people want to listen to is not good enough; we should make music that people cannot help but listen to. We should strive to make music that captivates, that transports, that lifts people into beauty.

The process of developing a performance is like constructing a house. As you begin to visualise what you want, you start structuring it and filling in the details. Rooms start taking shape, evolving from simply spaces for things to go into places where you want to live, places that have meaning for you. You start putting more time and effort into it, and along the way traces of you are left in the colour of the wallpaper, the way the window lets the light in just so. No one can build this house but you, and you can build no house but this.

When we perform, we make a promise to the audience: we will give you something special, something remarkable. We take them by the hand and lead them through the house, showing them around, pointing out the details that we are particularly proud of. There's no way that we could show them everything, but they can see our eyes light up when we lead them from one room to the next, excited to share the results of our hard work. Our performances should mirror that excitement, that intensity, where we open up ourselves and take our audiences on a journey through time. Even if you have spent countless hours preparing, if you lack intensity during a performance you only let the audience peek through the windows. They can get glimpses inside, and perhaps an appreciation that you have clearly worked hard, but they lose that personal connection. They miss you in your performance.

The thing is, opening up through music (or any art, for that matter) in this way is a dangerous thing. We become vulnerable – not because what we have made is somehow inferior or substandard, but because we are scared that our audiences will see who we really are. They will see through the armour that we put on every day, past all of the things we do because we thing society will treat us better because of it. Buried within all of that is the little kid who finds happiness in the small things and wants other people to be happy, too. When we perform in such a manner, we risk the comfort of people passing us by. At the end of the day, though, isn't all art worth the risk?

Take your listener by the hand. Promise them something special. Make your playing irresistible in your own way, whether that means creating intensity of emotion, technical mastery, or just pure wonder. Practice will provide you the means to do so, the tools that you need. Connect to your audiences. Take their breath away. Be brave.

Conducting a Literature Review

A few years ago, I was asked for some advice from a friend on how best to conduct research. She was in the midst of working on a Masters in Trumpet Performance, and had never had to do any large-scale research before. In response, I wrote the following list of suggestions, reflecting on how I conducted a literature review. Given that I was only a year into my PhD at the time, I'm somewhat proud as to how sensible this list still appears to me. I would be interested to hear if this resonates with anyone else who has conducted this kind of research. Is there anything missing?

Take notes. This might be obvious, but it is vitally important. It could be as straightforward as a skeleton outline of what topics are talked about where. By all means, include page numbers! This will help if you need to find a certain quote, or reread something that didn't seem important when you first ran across it.

Keep a record of what you need to read. It could be as simple as a to-do list, or as in-depth as makes sense without being paralytic. I currently have three lists going, each on a different scale. One is a bibliography of books and articles that I need to read, taken from citations found in other sources. If something looks vaguely interesting or relevant, it gets added to the list. The second is slightly larger in scale, and is decidedly short-term. It deals with projects that are small and can be focused on over the next few days to a week. The third looks at the big picture, dealing with chapters, upcoming conferences, and so on.

Keep a record of what you've read. My system includes date read, location (library, file, online, etc.), full bibliographic citation, and relative importance of each source. There are fewer frustrations than discovering half-way through an article that you've read it before. Likewise, these records make life easier when reevaluating your progress. Further down the road, when you are putting the finishing touches on your thesis, you will thank yourself for having all of the bibliographic information you need already organised on your computer.

Make your own system. Theoretically, any organisational system will be helpful, but it's even more valuable to you if it's one that you've thought out and rationalised yourself. Even though it will take a little time up front to do, and will require tweaking as time goes by, it will prove to be the backbone of your research.

Keep an open mind. In the beginning, you very well might not have a very strong sense of direction – a perfectly natural feeling. As you read, keep note of things that seem odd, unique, interesting… essentially, anything that jumps out at you, regardless of if it seems like a worthwhile avenue of investigation. Balance out your reading with critical analysis, reflecting on what you've read, and compare that to your experiences as a performer, listener, and teacher. It is from those reflections that the really interesting conversation topics will grow.

Talk to people. Whether they're in your field or not, it's always good to bounce your ideas off of someone. They're brilliant for reevaluating your views, and force you to get experience overcoming objections at an early stage. Likewise, you need to be able to explain what you're doing to someone who knows extremely little about music. It takes a lot of mental flexibility to be able to do so succinctly, and will force you to distill all of your ideas into the most simple statements. These synopses, however, will most likely prove to contain the underlying ideas of your work, and are useful in checking your current smaller projects against.

Be critical of your own work. No one can write the perfect thesis from start to finish. There are bound to be sections that you slave over for days, then realise are irrelevant to your overall topic a month later. Don't get rid of them completely, but don't hang onto them simply because you put a lot of time and effort into them. Have several people read portions of your writing and critique it, and learn where your strengths and weaknesses are. From my experience, for every 1000 words I write, usually what I'm trying to get across can be said in 700. Distilling your ideas to their essence and being extremely straightforward in your presentation of them is a valuable skill to have.

White (Other)

Throughout this past year, I have increasingly discussed identity within my classes. This has not necessarily been the product of extended research, by any means. Rather, I bump into the topic without warning. I haven't quite figured out where this newfound fascination has come from, but I am intrigued as to how someone or something's identity may be constructed, assumed, assigned, or contextualised.

During listening classes with my HND Music Performance students, we have focused on how the treatment of musical elements such as melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, texture, and form help contribute towards the classification of recordings into genres. In addition to historical and contextual information about a song, recognition of the nuanced variations found within these musical elements allow listeners to group songs with similar characteristics into genres. Acknowledging that there are not hard and fast stylistic boundaries between genres (and the philosophical issues surrounding applying such labels to songs in the first place), the process of categorising musical performances allows for listeners to make some sense of this ever-expanding sea of music.

The resulting categories can take a variety of names. A cursory glance at Wikipedia's (surely contentious) list of genres in popular music demonstrates the breadth of possibilities available. Many of these names are variations upon pre-existing terms: rock producing sub-genres such as garage rockglam rockmath rock, and art rockjazz dispersing into smooth jazzLatin jazzfree jazz, and acid jazz, and so on. In addition, there is also the convention of naming something not necessarily in terms of what it is, but rather what it is not. Alternative rock is, by definition, an alternative to mainstream rock; post-punk simply occurs after punk; indie is, well, independent of other genres. Whilst these names certainly provide some information about each style of music, they are, in a way, reactionary. Not only are these genres different than than others, but this disassociation from another genre supersedes whatever identifying characteristics the reactionary genre may have. To exaggerate, it is almost as if this style of music has only had one thing decided about itself, and that it is not [insert other style].

The more I explored this idea, the more I realised that the act of identification via disassociation is a seemingly normal part of society. As an American of Scottish and Irish descent, I spent over two decades of my life dutifully filling out Equal Opportunities surveys for academic and employment applications as 'Caucasian'. However, this all changed when I moved to the United Kingdom. When filling out such surveys now, I am presented the following options most appropriate to my skin tone:

  • White (British)
  • White (Irish)
  • White (Other)

With one plane flight and a visa, I became a minority – at least, within the United Kingdom. In the eyes of the government, educational institutions, and workplaces around the country, I am defined through my non-Britishness. I am still attempting to unravel what this means in terms of how I conceive my own identity; for as many qualities and characteristics that apply to me, there are an exponential number more which do not apply to me at all. Yes, I am some other variation of 'White' that is not British or Irish. By that token, however, I might as well declare any of the other multitude of things that I am not: I am not a Nobel prize winner, I am not a butcher, I am not right-handed, I am not a woman, I am not blind. To view someone by what qualities they do not embody is to mistake their silhouette for their picture.

Admittedly, applying this rhetoric back upon the study of musical genres may not uncover anything of interest. Audiences of post-punk can identify such music through a myriad of qualities without wallowing in existential crisis, wondering what the music is (beyond recognising that it comes after punk). That being said, what else do we encounter on a daily basis that is identified not by what it is, but by what it is not?


If you show someone something you've written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin and say, 'When you're ready.'

David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

It has taken a long time for me to build up the courage to post anything that I have written online. As a bit of a perfectionist (particularly when it comes to academic tasks), I am not comfortable with the idea of sharing anything that I haven't thoroughly proofread or vetted every single detail. However, there is no end point to that process – I could continually revise things that I write ad nauseum and never share it with others. Therefore, here is my toe in the water: an informal blog designed to air out my ideas about anything that fascinates me. That being said, a sounding board for my scattered thoughts is not nearly as interesting as the conversations that may ensue. If the concepts written about here resonate in you, inspire further questions, or otherwise, please respond in the comments or through my Contact page. I'm interested to hear what you have to say!