"You know all the words and you sing all the notes ..."
( May 2007 )

I had a visit from a joiner (carpenter, chippy, or whatever they're called where you live) the other week. He came to put in a new window frame.

Nice man. He arrived toting his toolkit in an extremely fine looking leather toolbag, kind of like a large sports holdall, and set it down in the middle of the floor.

"You like my toolbag?" he said. I expressed my admiration in appropriate terms.

He told me a story about how he'd gotten it, how it had been made, pointed out the shiny brass eyelets and the leather-wrapped rope handles, the thick stitching and the double-thickness leather base. Very entertaining story it was.

Then he said, "Wait till you see this", and took out a claw hammer.

"Isn't that great?" he said, displaying it proudly.

It was indeed a fine hammer, made from one piece of high-quality steel with an excellently contoured rubber grip. This was a serious piece of kit altogether, the kind any aspiring building worker would covet. I voiced my approval fulsomely.

"Aha, but you've seen nothing yet!" he exclaimed.

Out of the bag he produced cross-cut and rip saws and held them out for me to examine.

"Damn, those are fine saws!" I said, and he beamed with pride. They were lovingly set up and meticulously maintained, I could see that.

"Now, wait till you see these, you're going to love these", he continued and dived into the bag again. With a masterful flourish, he withdrew a cloth roll and unrolled it before me. It contained a set of chisels, their edges honed to perfection.

"How about them, then?"

"As fine a set of chisels as ever I beheld", I told him.

This display continued for another ten minutes then he did something extraordinary.

He packed up his tools and bade me good morning. And left. Without putting in the window frame.

Two days later I received an invoice for his time.

I used to know a guy who was a regular in my local pub. Tam, his name was.

Tam had only ever read one book and he had spent his entire life studying it, to the point where he almost memorised the entire thing off by heart.

It was the Shorter Oxford Dictionary.

Tam had an unbelievable vocabulary and had never been known to use one word where two dozen would do.

The only problem with Tam was that, as he had spent so much of his life developing this huge vocabulary, regarding the rest of the Universe and Life he had seen little and done less.

Start a conversation on any subject under the sun and Tam really knew nothing about it and therefore had nothing to say. But he used a hell of a lot of big words to say it.

What's the point of all this? Slow down, I'm getting there.

I saw a couple of programmes in a series the BBC have been running. It's stated purpose is to encourage people to take up playing a musical instrument, and like everything else on television these days, they attempted to do this by utilising some of those very odd creatures called "celebrities".

They take one of these "celebrities" and pick a particular musical instrument which this person has little or no experience of playing. They then select a moderately technically demanding piece of music, hire in some high-level tutors and try to get this celebrity to be able to play this piece before an audience at some prestigious event.

It may be a well-intentioned exercise, but the entire approach is fundamentally patronising and it is based on a series of elementary fatal errors and misconceptions. Not only does it focus more on "how to" rather than "why", it doesn't even acknowledge that there is anything more than "how to".

It is this phenomenon that was responsible for scrapping trade apprenticeships and trying to replace them with short-term "college" courses. It devalues true skills and understanding and replaces them with mechanical, formalistic ritual and instant gratification. It is the modern marketing imperative - "You don't need to understand anything about anything in order to do everything, just buy our pre-packaged solution and away you go!"

These programmes don't teach the victims to play an instrument, they teach them how to play the notes of one piece in the correct sequence. They are identical in substance to the modern approach to the driving test - most instructors don't even attempt to teach people how to actually drive, they teach them solely how to pass the driving test.

Given sufficient motivation I could teach anyone to play The Maid Behind The Bar in six months if they were willing to mimic every move of my fingers and practise making them for several hours every day.

What would it prove? The only thing it would prove is that under the right conditions you can teach anyone to make the necessary movements of their fingers to generate the sequence of sounds which make up the notes of the tune known as The Maid Behind The Bar. Get them doing it for long enough and they'd be able to do it with enough precision to convince the casual listener that they were fluent.

If you asked them to then play The Moving Clouds or The Moonlight Sonata, they would give you a blank stare.

This whole approach is obsessed with the toolkit without any reference to the job those tools are meant to do.

Giving a display consisting entirely of instrumental technique for no purpose other than to say, "Look at the clever things I've learned to do", is exactly like the carpenter displaying the toolkit I started out talking about. Or like Tam who had a massive vocabulary and nothing to say with it.

Mastery of technique is not the job of a musician, it is merely the basic toolkit for learning to do the job of a musician. The most essential element of the job of a musician is the skill to intelligibly communicate ideas and emotion from the musician to the listener via sound. The absence of that means it is not music, it is a programmed sequence of noises, regardless of however pleasant and harmonious those noises might be.

In the words of Mike Heron's Hedgehog Song, "You know all the words and you sing all the notes but you never quite learned the song . . ."

Celtic knotwork

Top of Page