Festivals as learning environments and the coolest instrument in the world – Emma Webster

The coolest instrument in the world is the electric guitar – or, at least, that is what was taught to twenty school children today as part of one of the EFG London Jazz Festival educational events. And after today’s wonderful concert by Chris Montague, I am fully inclined to agree!

Chris Montague and Jimi Hendrix
Chris Montague and Jimi Hendrix @ Rich Mix, 19th November 2015 © Emma Webster 2015

The first part of the event was the world premiere of the ‘Tower Hamlets Boogie’, written by Chris Montague, which involved the children (I’m assuming around 9-10 years old) performing a simple 5 minute piece with the backing of Chris on electric guitar, piano, bass and drums. For the ‘Tower Hamlet’s Boogie’, the children faced the audience, which consisted of both family and ‘ordinary’ punters, and then swivelled round to face the stage to watch the adult band, thus moving from performers to audience. The adult band, led by Chris, then took us through a brief history of the electric guitar, from Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, Chuck Berry, BB King, Jimi Hendrix, to Eddie Van Halen, ending up at John Schofield. As Chris said, Hendrix is so idiosyncratic he is difficult to emulate, but it was such a treat hearing great music played by seriously good musicians, particularly as the generically varied songs they performed would not usually be played as part of the same set.  There was a real buzz to the event and everyone I spoke to enjoyed it. Two of the children in particular were dancing in their seats for the majority of the set, and one of the adults sitting in front of me started punching the air, rock hero style, during the Van Halen track.

The EFG London Jazz Festival is not just about the music, then, but also includes a large educational element, including today’s electric guitar session, masterclasses, workshops, and talks. Directly after the guitar session, a group of what I’m assuming were event management students from Bournemouth University were treated to a fascinating (private) talk by Serious Director, Claire Whitaker, about the company, its events, and her career, including lots of advice for starting out in event management.  “You can’t ever be late”, “If you’ve been out late the night before, don’t let it show” and “You must be able to get your maths [budgeting] right” being just three nuggets of wisdom imparted.

Festivals, then, can provide important environments for learning, both directly (as with the electric guitar showcase and Claire Whitaker’s lecture) and more indirectly, whether hearing and learning a new style of music, or, for musicians, hearing new musical ideas or learning from seeing someone’s technique. One of my favourite quotations so far from an audience member I interviewed this week, usefully illustrates the latter:-

I’m a saxophone player so it scares me half to death most the time when you come to see the best musicians in the world and you’re not disappointed. Part of me wants to go home and play my saxophone forever and part of me doesn’t want to look at it – they’re very motivating and very awe-inspiring at the same time … I think that music is one of those things that, to a certain point, if you play, you can think ‘Oh, I know what they’re doing’ and then all of a sudden they go somewhere and you can’t follow it; they’re just too quick for you, and you’re just ‘Wow’. So the technical aspects of it, you go to learn and you go to be blown away at the same time, and so when they meet together, that’s quite nice.

Learning may not be about music, however, as festivals provide important spaces for learning about social interaction, whether it be learning how to deal with large groups of people, or perhaps just learning how to behave at certain types of concert. I have observed two instances of the latter so far at the Jazz Festival. The first was at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho for a lunchtime concert. I had spoken to a few audience members beforehand, and, while there were some jazz fans in the audience, there were also relative newcomers. There were a few small groups and some couples or pairs, but also a fair few people who were on their own to listen to the jazz. One of the behavioural conventions of jazz is that the audience applaud after a solo. At this gig, however, it took over half an hour for the audience to start applauding solos – I took from this that the audience were learning how to be a jazz audience together and were unsure as to when to applaud or whether it was OK to do so; it took a few attempts before the audience as a whole appeared confident in its applauding each player’s solo and by the end of the gig, each player’s solo received applause.

The second instance was back at today’s children’s event – the adults in the audience applauded each solo, as to be expected, but many of the children turned right round to watch us with astonishment on their faces – this happened four or five times. Perhaps they had been taught not to make any noise while music plays, and it felt as if they couldn’t quite believe that we were doing so, or perhaps they just couldn’t understand why we were applauding part way through a song. After a while, I noticed some of them applauding solos along with us. Through such events, then, or simply by exposing young audiences to performance situations, the audiences of the future are developed and the behavioural conventions of live music are learned and maintained.


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