Why string quartets could be the new rock n roll

The world is full of aspiring secondary school rock bands. Look at the timetable of school instrumental lessons and the list of guitarists and drummers will outflank those playing violin by a margin of at least 3-1. In the words of Thom Yorke, ‘anyone can play guitar’. But to be honest, he might have been more accurate to have made Radiohead’s debut single ‘everyone wants to play guitar’.

So what is it about rockstars and bands that make them so appealing? I can think of two immediate reasons…

Identifying with your idols:
Elvis Presley, Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain all died unusual deaths. They lived fast, they died young / eating-a-sandwich / on-the-toilet. They were free spirits, they made their own rules, they forged their own paths. Or else they lived the life of the Romantic hero, suffering under the wait of their genius until they shoot themselves in the head in the loftspace above their garage. They are the perfect role models for teens trying to find their place in the world.

I used to teach in a classroom with a large poster of Cobain next to the whiteboard (reader above a certain age, note the change from black to white – I suspect there will be a change to ‘board-of-no-colour’ soon for pc reasons…). There to inspire young people to find their own voice through music, for all the right reasons. A quick walk around a music department after hours will show you this is best done by playing Nirvana songs over and over in the pursuit of authentic grunginess.

The thing is, classical music has its heroes too. Putting aside the 70% or so who died of syphillis (an obvious connection to the life-fast die-young motto), there are the troubled martyrs. Enrique Granados missed a boat from the US to Spain, and ended up going to England. Enroute to France his ferry was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Anton von-Weburn went outside for a cigar without noting the time, and was shot by a Nazi sniper for breaking curfew Рsurely a cooler way to die than eating a burger sitting on the toilet?

It’s a small group activity:
I’ll declare something now: I too played in a school band. It was fun. You get together with a group of your mates, find a room, play a cd and then recreate that sound with your instruments. You play the verse a few times to get the timing right. You rehearse the instrumental break and the middle-eight to within an inch of its life. And why? So you can record it and put it onto MySpace (if you’re reading this a year or so after the day of writing – ‘MySpace’ was a website for musicians that was once successful before Facebook started). If you get it really good, you play it in a school concert, or as part of a band night somewhere else. You play alongside groups of your peers and there’s a clear line of success.

The thing is, you can get this in classical music too. Think of school music and you think of the school orchestra, unless you’re a government education advisor in which case you think of whole-class music or ‘wider opportunities’. In any case these are large-scale activities and for most people the choices are a) practicing in a room on your own, or b) practicing in a room with 100 other musicians playing music someone else has chosen in the way they dictate, and not being allowed to talk.

A suggestion:
Why not encourage less large-scale music-making and more small-scale. There, I said it.

The music’s out there – for free (whereas guitar tab books are ¬£12 each). You can play it over and over on Spotify without the need to look for dodgy music downloads. Ultimately the experience is the same – you and a few of your mates in a room, play a cd and recreate that sound with your instruments. Rehease the opening theme, and then rehearse the development to within an inch of its life. And why? So you can record it and put it onto MySpace, or whatever. If you get really good, you play it in a school concert. Then find a local church – they’ll give you somewhere much nicer to play than the rock geeks who I guarantee will end up in a dark and smelly hole somewhere. And most importantly, it’s something you’ve achieved. You can make a good living out of it too, trust me!

I’ll doubtless be proven wrong, but most activities for young musicians involve large ensembles. Maybe, just maybe, some musicians would be more inspired playing music in small groups. Perhaps with less teacher-led learning.

So there you have it. Weburn’s string quartet – the Nirvana track of years ago. No? Nevermind.


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