Musical Theatre – Out Of Tune?

In an article in the Christmas edition of ‘The Spectator’ Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys puts forward the argument that musical theatre has become divorced from popular music culture; that musicals contain the sort of music you only find in musicals; that it has no relevance to contemporary music and it exists in a creative ghetto. He puts forward a strong case and, from an artistic point of view, it is hard to disagree with his analysis but there are wider issues here he does not address.

As someone who classes himself as an amateur musician but a professional businessman I do feel a tension between art and the need to make a profit (or at least not to make a loss). In the 21st Century and especially in our current economic climate if a piece of work seems unlikely to be a commercial success then the chances are it will not gain funding and will not be made. The businessman in me fully understands the imperative of this but my artistic nature worries that this rules out the possibility of a risk being taken on cutting edge work and it is this, I believe, that can be said to be largely responsible for the West End musical making no attempt to be part of contemporary music culture that Tennant is unhappy about.

Theatrical producers need to convince investors they will make a return; as a result productions only gain backing when there is confidence they will be popular with the public. For their part the public can book (generally expensive) seats for a show in the knowledge they will have an enjoyable evening’s entertainment without any surprises. The outworking of this is that consistently theatres produce musical theatre rather than straight plays (unless the play contains big names from the large or small screen). Furthermore to ensure commercial success those musicals are likely to be revivals of vintage shows with a proven track record: The Sound Of Music; Oliver; Joseph; South Pacific etc; stage versions of popular films: Lion King; Beauty and the Beast; Legally Blonde; Ghost etc or based on old pop hits being given a second ‘career’ in musicals: We Will Rock You; Mamma Mia; Tonight’s the Night etc.

Cutting edge artistic endeavour it may not be but in the end analysis we need to decide whether this state of affairs is a good or bad thing. On the one hand if we continued with the milk and liquidised food we ate from birth we would miss the culinary wonders of steak, grilled fish, smoked salmon, barbecued chicken etc so, in the same way, if audiences are only ever given musical fare with which they are familiar or comfortable how are they to expand their taste and find new and exciting theatrical experiences. On the other hand successful and popular musical theatre in the West End gives gainful employment to thousands of musicians, stage hands, lighting/sound engineers and costumiers etc not to mention theatre staff and other businesses in theatreland that benefit from the influx of theatregoers.

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The Importance of Getting Value For Money

In recent years there has been a worrying trend where we all go to great trouble to obtain things we need/want at the lowest possible price.  I say ‘worrying’ since it is seems obvious to me that the cheapest not only is rarely the best but too often turns out to be not the cheapest option at all.

I came across a quotation a few weeks ago that absolutely summed up my angle on this.  On first reading I thought it had been written by some 21st Century business guru but was stunned to see to whom the quotation was credited and when it was written.  I give the quotation in full below; in my opinion we would all do well to heed the advice.

‘It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money — that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do.

The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot — it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.’  Attrib John Ruskin (1819-1900)

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Matching music books for albums by major artists and bands

In recent years we have noticed a fall in the sales of Piano, Vocal Guitar (PVG) or Guitar Tab (Gtab) music books that match albums even those by really popular artists or bands. The only notable exception has been the matching book to Adele’s ‘21’ but then that album is a class apart having been at number one for most of 2011.

It would seem that our experience is not unique but is part of a much more general trend. Having spoken with the senior managers of two of the major music publishing companies, who between them have the majority of the UK market in popular music, there seems to be a real difference of opinion on the cause and what, if anything, can be done by the publishers and retailers to reverse the trend.

The internet has led us to expect that so many things should come to us free or almost free of charge. One of the two publishers believes that the illegal downloading of music is the principal factor in the decline but we have consistently argued that price is the main reason with many matching folios currently costing £14.99 or more – significantly more expensive than buying the recording.

Unlike recorded music most printed music that can be downloaded is often not particularly accurate and will certainly not be artist approved. However, even with recorded music where an illegal copy can be as good quality as the official one, the public will pay for a legitimate copy so it seems to us that if the price is right the official and accurate music books will sell.

This view is in line with that of the other major UK music publisher who has set out to prove whether this is a correct analysis by sending us over 100 books where the price has been slashed by 50% or more from the original price to between £5.99 and £7.99. These have been in our store for a couple of weeks now and so far our experience is that at these prices customers are willing to buy the genuine article with more of these books sold over the past month than in the preceding six.

All these books have been added to the Sale Books category on our website but are completely brand new so represent genuine reductions. Despite its unequivocal success this offer must end on 30th September so do visit the Advance Music website soon and look at our sale books to avoid disappointment.

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The popularity of the Ukulele continues to grow

The march of the ukulele continues! As discussed in our blog in November last year the ukulele is arguably the easiest instrument to learn to play. To test this for myself I started to learn a few chords just a few weeks ago and last night performed ‘Over The Rainbow/Wonderful World’ at a soiree after just two weeks of practice; it was not a professional performance by any means but I think I got away with it! To be fair I do read music and have played the guitar since I was fifteen so maybe it was not an entirely fair test but it did prove that it could be done.

On Saturday 12th February there is a celebration of this humble instrument in the first ukulele festival for East London and Essex at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch Essex with a performance in the evening by Essex based ukulele band D’Ukes starting at 8pm. See the Queen’s Theatre website for details.

In recognition of the festival and the growing interest in the instrument Advance Music has reduced the price of its Mahalo coloured ukuleles from £19 to £16 until the end of February – hurry whilst stocks last!

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Music – It’s good in theory

Generations of music students have struggled with music theory and, in our current climate with its desire for instant results, the need to bother with it all is constantly called into question. However music notation is the language of music and without an understanding of this language it is difficult to communicate musical ideas.

Until musical notation was developed it was pretty much impossible to have the notion of a composer since music could only be passed on from father to son, mother to daughter, master musician to apprentice. A novice monk could take decades to learn by rote all the chants required for services throughout the church year. Even after the development of notation most folk music across the world remained in an aural tradition with the result that the greater part of it has now been irretrievably lost.

Without the work of such visionaries as Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams who travelled extensively notating old folk songs we would not have as many as we do. The folk singer Kate Rusby has books of words for songs where, because the music was never written down, we will never know the original tune. She brings some of these old songs to life again in her concerts and on her albums by writing new tunes which are lovely but it is still a pity that the original has been lost.

Of course with our modern gadgetry it is possible to record ideas electronically and there are many musicians, mostly in the field of popular music it has to be said, who have enjoyed a very successful career without reading a note of music but, if they are to play their music with anything other than a small group of musicians, they still need to have somebody who can notate the music for other musicians to play.

Studying for music theory examinations, like learning any language, can be dull and tedious at times but it rewards persistence for amateurs and professionals alike. For this reason we believe it is good that the ABRSM examining board requires candidates to have achieved a pass in Music Theory Grade 5 before taking practical examinations in an instrument or voice at Grade 6 and beyond.

ABRSM publishes text books: First Steps in Music Theory or The AB Guide to Music Theory; Music Theory in Practice Workbooks (one for each grade) and Practice Papers containing papers candidates have actually sat in past years by grade and by year. The 2010 Theory past papers for all grades together with model answers have just been published and are now available.

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Fame and Celebrity vs Hard Work and Practice

Now X Factor is over for another year it seemed a good time to contemplate the nature of fame and celebrity. In a recent interview Sir Michael Parkinson said in conversations he has had recently with media students he has noticed a worrying trend where they seem to have a desire to be famous for its own sake rather than for what they can do. In our experience this desire for celebrity, coupled with our instant gratification culture, leads many youngsters to believe that they should be able play a musical instrument in a very short space of time and lose interest when they discover that to get real enjoyment from making music and playing and performing requires hard work and dedication over a long period of time and, in fact, I imagine our longest standing and most famous musical icons would all say that they never stop learning.

It seems there is a general willingness to spend good money on Guitar Hero for the Wii or Xbox and many hours playing with it when the same money could buy a decent guitar and the time could be spent learning to play it which would give life long interest and enjoyment. Interestingly Sir Paul McCartney was asked if he had played the Beatles Guitar Hero;  he admitted that he had tried but wasn’t able to do it and this from the man who wrote and played on the original songs! This makes clear how different computer games are from playing for real.

With so many Christmas concerts currently taking place at schools and colleges and by amateur bands, orchestras, choirs etc now is the time for musicians to get out there to showcase the hard work they have been putting and hopefully to get enjoyment and a real buzz from performing in public and receiving praise and adulation from the audience.

So, whatever music making you are involved in this Christmas, we hope you get enjoyment from doing it and that (hopefully) you are also giving pleasure to others.

Everyone at Advance Music wishes you the compliments of the season and hopes that you will continue to enjoy making music as we move into 2011.

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Give The Gift Of Music This Christmas

It is about now that we are trying to decide what to buy our friends and family for Christmas. On thinking about this it occurred to me that the majority of presents we give are either unwanted and might remain totally unused or might be only used once; the latter applies even to things like books or DVDs which will be read/watched and then put on the shelf.

For some years we have used the slogan ‘Give the gift of music at Christmas – Give pleasure all year’ in our store. Having thought about how much we use the presents we receive I realise that this is not just an empty advertising slogan but is, in fact, actually very true. If we give a musical instrument, even something quite basic, reasonably cheap and easy to play like a Ukulele (see our earlier blog), and/or a music book this can be used time and again throughout the year with the added advantage that the recipient will be doing something active rather than the passive nature of so much of what we call entertainment these days.

So, once again, we say:

Give the gift of music this Christmas – Give pleasure all year!

Season’s Greetings from all at Advance Music

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Buying a musical instrument

This is going to be the most difficult blog we have written so far since I can quite imagine readers saying ‘as a music shop owner you would say that wouldn’t you?’ but I do have a serious point to make that has little to do with the viability of our business so I would ask you to stick with it until the end and please do let us have your thoughts and comments.

When there is an opportunity for someone to learn to play a musical instrument, whether as a child or an adult, the reluctance of the parents or the player themselves to spend too much money to begin with is quite understandable on the grounds that there is sure to be uncertainty about whether it’s going to work out and it could be a waste.  However I would suggest that if the instrument is too cheap, not checked by the retailer to make sure it’s working correctly or poorly set up there is a real danger that this uncertainty will quickly become reality and the player will give up almost before they get started.  This is not only extremely sad it’s almost a crime since that individual might not get another opportunity to learn or, even if they do, could be so disillusioned with their earlier attempt to play that they are reluctant to try again.

So are we saying you need to spend a fortune on a top of the range instrument before you can start?  Absolutely not!  What we are saying is that you do need to spend enough to ensure that the instrument is fit for purpose and that it makes sense to purchase from a reputable specialist music retailer who should have made sure that the instrument is fully working prior to sale and can offer advice to ensure the player makes the most suitable choice of make model and instrument within their budget.  Also, equally importantly, a specialist retailer will be there to help and support should the chosen instrument need adjustment or repair and there will be a ready supply of spare parts for a reputable makes to ensure the instrument will continue to give good service over the longer term.

Just in case you think this blog is getting a bit proprietorial let me quote from guidelines issued by the Federation of Music Services to their members on the subject of purchasing instruments:

  • Seek professional advice in selecting instruments (from approved specialist teachers, performers and musical instrument shops) and, where appropriate, use reputable brands and suppliers.   The use of local music shops that can give expert advice relative to the category of instrument to be purchased is recommended.
  • Ensure that all instruments are fit for purpose in respect of intonation and sound production and that they do not hinder the learning success of the pupils.
  • Purchase instruments that are of a type and brand that can be set up, maintained and repaired by local musical instrument shops.
  • Ensure that spare parts are readily available for the instruments by checking with the local retailer, since not all brands have a full supply of spares in the UK.

At Advance Music we are enthusiastic about what we do and want to encourage both young and old to gain enjoyment from learning and playing an instrument.  OK, hands up, yes of course we have to earn a living from our business but the sale of a beginner instrument is only a small part of the equation since we hope to have every customer for many years not just for a one-off purchase.  If the poor quality of an instrument puts the player off and they don’t continue this clearly benefits nobody.

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Ukuleles

For many years the ukulele was considered as a slightly quaint historic novelty instrument irretrievably connected in our national psyche with George Formby (who, as it happens, actually played a ukulele banjo).  The ukulele languished in this wilderness and was not taken seriously as an instrument that anyone sensible would want to play.

In September 2003 Eric Clapton arranged a concert at the Albert Hall in London in memory of George Harrison.  Paul McCartney appeared onstage clutching a ukulele and told how, after dinner at George’s house, they would sit around singing and playing the ukulele and he went on to perform Harrisons ‘Something’ accompanying himself on the ukulele.  At the end of the concert after numerous rock songs with multiple guitars, two drum kits, percussion, Hammond organ et al Joe Brown performs ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’ accompanied by nothing other than his ukulele – you can hear a pin drop and there’s not a dry eye in the house.  For me this marks the beginning of the turning point for this much underrated instrument.

Then, in 2005, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain released their ‘Anarchy in the Ukulele’ DVD featuring such unlikely songs as ‘Smells Like a Teen Spirit’ and ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ the ‘Orchestra’ has gone on to build a huge following both at home and around the world.  More recently many bands have featured the Ukulele on their songs most notably Noah and the Whale on ‘5 years Time’ thereby bringing the instrument to the attention of a whole new generation.

The Ukulele is arguably the simplest instrument to learn to play; and is now being used by a number of schools as an interesting and easy to manage alternative to the recorder. Most people could learn three or four chords in under an hour and that’s enough to accompany the majority of popular songs.  In his book ‘How To Be Free’ Tom Hodgkinson puts forward ideas on how we can remove the shackles of life and be free.  At the end of each chapter he offers a practical proposal and at the end of the chapter entitled ‘Break The Bonds Of Boredom’ he proposes ‘Play the Ukulele’. As if to emphasise the point Tom is pictured on the cover of the book playing the ukulele.

The Ukulele would make an ideal and, at under £20 for a decent instrument, relatively inexpensive Christmas present that has the capacity to give hours of fun.  As a special offer until Christmas Advance Music is offering our hugely popular Mahalo coloured Ukuleles with a free How To Play tutor book worth £4.95.  Don’t delay this offer stands only whilst stocks last!

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Christmas Music

Arguably music is the artform with the greatest capacity to conjure in us feelings of huge emotion ranging from great joy and elation to depths of despair and depression. We all know from personal experience that hearing a piece of music has the ability to transport us immediately and with great clarity back to a particular time, place or event but this effect can lose its potency if we hear a song or a piece too often – as with many things in life we become desensitised by frequent exposure.

With its ability to connect with our inner being music is a big part of what gives us that ‘Christmassy’ feeling we often talk about but can rarely fully define. Whether for you it’s the famous and familiar carols, orchestral music like Leroy Anderson’s Christmas Festival or Prokofiev’s Troika or the singles chart number ones of Christmases past they all have capacity to rekindle in us the cosy fireside warmth of time spent with friends and family that is so much a part of what we consider to be a ‘traditional’ Christmas.

What worries me however is that when we are bombarded with Christmas music throughout the autumn season, it seems from September 1st onwards, we become immune to the effect of the music and in fact want to run out of stores screaming ‘not again’ and we should spare a thought for the staff who have to suffer it all day every day! Against this background is it therefore any surprise when we are unable to recover that Christmas spirit of times gone by?

For this reason at Advance Music we hate putting Christmas music books on our shelves too early but have just done so recognising that music pupils and amateur musicians, which after all is the majority of us, need to be starting to learn and practice it very soon if we are to be able to put in a good performance on or before 25th December. I can assure you however that until Advent you will not hear any Christmas music on our in-store sound system!

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