Thursday, May 24, 2007

today : guitar week pt2 "The gaps"

The second category of amateur guitarists are a completely different bunch. Of course, as I am placing myself in this group I am going to use words like maturity, subtlety and taste.

But don't get me wrong. As I have got older, I am still slightly possessed by an inner rock-star. The leather trousered groupie-ravishing, coke-shovelling, foot on the monitor, big haired finger tapping plank spanker lives inside my balding middle aged, semi-acoustic soul. I still want a guitar shaped like a spaceship, an infinite horizon of Marshall stacks behind me and a basketball arena of baying leather-jacketed, bandana- wearing tit-flashing sign-of-the-devil waving fans in front.

But these days the guitarists that trip off my thoughts are Amos Garrett, Barney Kessel, Ray Herndon, JJ Cale and any number of the people who appear on Steely Dan records. Basically I am not interested in speed as much as I used to be. Subtlety is the key - the beautifully placed chord inversion, the lovely caress of a well placed string bend, a clean tone rather than a raucous noise, tasteful use of counterpoint. There is a saying amongst guitarists "It's not about the notes; it's about the gaps between the notes" - a saying I'm not so sure that Yngwie Malmstein has ever heard.

Many guitarists of taste cite Amos Garret's solo in Maria Muldaur's Midnight at The Oasis as their favourite solo. It glides around the chords and Garrett almost nochanantly constructs, over a mere sixteen bars, a thing of natural beauty. It even includes what some would call bum notes, or at least misplayed notes. But that is the point.

Me, I can agree. Garrett's solo (serious mature guitarists actually refer to these things as work, as in 'the guitar work in this piece is subtle and sublime') is laid back and lovely. These days I prefer guitar moments, rather than half-hour wigouts. The solo in Good Intentions by Lyle Lovett is another great example. This time over eight bars Ray Herndon constructs a melodic solo that is nothing short of unimprovable - accelerating the song from a quiet section into an upbeat one by his sheer and simple choice of notes.

I could go on for hours like this: The slide guitar bit at the end of Torn by Natalie Imbruglia - 5 different notes in total - is perfection in the context of the record; the interlocking tones and parts woven by Johnny Marr in Some Girls are bigger than Others by The Smiths, the 'work of the late Robert Quine on Half of Everything by Lloyd Cole, in fact the greatest one-note solo by Neal Clarke on Perfect Skin all reflect tone and melody over sheer speed and technical panache.

But I won't, as I won't get to my main point, which time means I will discuss in my next installment.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

today : guitar week pt1 - KERRRAANNGG!

My nephew walks around these days with his electric guitar practiacly glued to his front. He's sixteen. The thing is, he plays it upside down. When he got it it was a right handed instrument and strung for a right hander. It just felt natural for him to play it left handed- and so he did. An adult guitarist that he met was horrified that he wasn't playing 'properly'. As a guitar player myself, I am less bothered.

Us guitarists can be pretty nerdy creatures. Like trainspotters and, actually, anyone else who has that peculiar nerd gene that seems to belong mainly to men in their thirties, we can witter on for hours over the nuances of different makes of guitars, technique and all the variables of being a guitarist - never mind the qualities of other guitar players. With all our talk about vintages and hammer-ons we talk in a language that is somewhere between engineering and wine-buffery.

But the real pleasure of being a guitar player is..well...playing the guitar. The other day I was thinking about this topic and it prompted me to pick up my acoustic guitar and spend a couple of hours simply playing along to myself. It was a sublime couple of hours. I kind of got lost. Some people take drugs to get a similar effect.

One thing I do notice is that there are two types of amateur guitar players. The first I will call the guitar shop loiterer. These type of people are not really musicians as such, but have guitars and guitarists as their hobby in the same way as other male 'collectors' have trains, scale models or toy soldiers as their hobby. They are rarely technically gifted - or even competent and idolise those million mile an hour rock guitarists like Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen. If I were to be cruel I would categorise these folks as 'adolescent' in their view of the guitar, rather like people who fantasise about fast cars and never really think about the journeys they may take in them

The second are the people I will write about in my next part.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

today : I endure a trial

It's nostalgia that made me buy a DVD of Murder One. In 1996, when it was broadcast it was considered ground-breaking. The first time that an American Law or Police show had followed a single case throughout a whole season.

I enjoyed watching it again, not least because of the parade of recognisable actors. There was
Mary McCormack - Kate Harper in her previous incarnation as Justine Appleton. There was Gregory Itzin as the slimy DA, before he ran for governor and then ended up the slimy President in 24 season 4. There was Toby Ziegler as a suicidal outed professor. There was Stanley Tucci before he made Big Night and joined the ranks of the fascinating and reliable supporting actor in any number of films and TV shows.

I also enjoyed the
plinky-plonky Korg M1 faux baroque music and the computer graphics in the titles.

Before Murder One the idea that people could concentrate throughout a whole season was unheard of. In this way it was a landmark in that it paved the way for the fantastic
longform drama that we see today. It even, arguably, changed the landscape in that it took risks and shattered previously orthodox formulae sacred to TV. The idea of taking risks became an orthodoxy.

Yet all the way through you can see
Bochco and Milch tweaking, making mistakes and sometimes making it up as they went along. I don't think, for example, that they knew the ending when they started. There is also a really noticeable shift from a long-form tale that still encapsulated the parallel one-hour case in the early episodes. Around Chapter 10 the focus zoomed in on the Avedon case alone, leaving some loose ends from previous chapters. It was like a decision had been made to go with it and see what happened. Hey! the show was popular and feted let's see what it can really do. Even the voiceover changed to a recap of the whole case thus far and from then on each episode starts with a recap that allows people to join up late and still have some idea of what was going on.

Dramatically there are aspects to the show that are wooden and repetitive. The action is too often confined to Ted's office, with people parading in and out to enact exchanges with our
tonsorially challenged hero. It is pretty hard to set a talky law based plot anywhere other than lawyers' offices and courtrooms, but later series took on the challenge of mixing up locations and moving the action at a much quikcer pace. It's also fairly quaint how the recaps of the plot get longer and longer as the series goes on. I guess at the time it was thought that people needed help to follow a convoluted plot. What the people behind 24 have learned is that the more complexity the better, and that people positively enjoy the knottiness. But I guess they learned that, in part, from Murder One.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Thursday, May 10, 2007

today : seconds before the climax, I am denied

Complaining about other drivers is easy. Lazy even. Like shooting large fish (like a pike) in a very small barrel (like those worn by St Bernard dogs on Swiss postcards). Anyway, I'm tired, have a cold (a proper old-fashioned cold with itchy eyes, headaches, runny nose and everyfink. As I said to several people today who looked at me and rolled their eyes, there is nothing more annoying than a cold when the weather outside is quite warm, perhaps it should be renamed a 'quite warm' (yes, this was the level of my comic imagination when, late on this afternoon, I began to suffer that particular kind of total brain death that you get when you'e gone to work with a cold and simply run out of useful functionality) and stoically (Marcus Aurelius didn't write his Meditations by not putting quill to papyrus every time he had a little sniffle) and defiantly determined to keep to the discipline of posting on my 'umble blog regularly. After all , I cannot let down my (as of writing) 1188 listeners, even though today they will be left feeling they have wasted a few seconds of their precious lives and learned almost nothing. So here goes.

The turn off to my house is close to a very busy traffic island, located at the confluence of two main roads and four minor roads. The upshot of this is that almost every time I am returning home from anywhere I have to queue, sitting in the car crawling at 2 MPH. Which I don't mind per se.

But I turn off about 100 yards before the main junction onto a side street that leads to my house. And the thing that I do mind is that moment when I am almost at my turn off. Invariably the driver in front sits over the junction, ignoring the fact that I am about to exit the main roadway and denying me the joy of the final moments of my journey towards the sanctuary of my 'umble but cosy abode. Tonight I crawled for minutes towards my turn off and, as I approached it, I sat behind someone who, rather than move forward about 6 feet, allowing me space to turn off behind their car, proceeded to make a call on their phone. The other evening I sat behind someone who pulled down their sun visor and proceeded to put make up on, using the vanity mirror.

I guess this happens because people only have a kind of blinkered forward-only vision, unable to envisage that anyone else using the roads might be going a different way to themselves, or living their lives by the political rhetoric that dominates the times (the constant declaration of forward movement, never looking back, like sharks moving ahead instead of dying).

It is often only a few extra seconds on a 20 minute bumper to bumper rush-hour journey, but it is defiantly disproportionately frustrating. It feels like being the guy who flies all the way to the moon only to stay in the orbiter as more famous and historic colleagues get into the landing craft and drop those few crucial miles onto the dusty, cheese coated surface.

I am daily tempted by this cruel moment of denial, into buying a very large Bull-Barred Vehicle (one of those with a name like VIking or Invader or Rhinoceros) and gently nudging them forward to give me the room I need.

today : whatever happened to...

1980s ahead of it's time German eco-friendly cartoon series
Dr Snuggles?

Monday, May 07, 2007

today : I hang back from declaring a judgement

When Tony Blair finally retires as PM this week there will be lots of talk about legacy. In fact, there been lots of talk about it already: since he announced his intentions a couple of years ago the journalistas and commentatistas have seen almost everything in the light of it.

In fact, the documentaries have already been made and the satirical dramas will have already been written and pre-produced. We'll have the documentary about Blair's move from bright eyed Bambi to Bush's poodle. We'll have examinations of just how tough on the causes of crime he has actually been.There will be a fantasy satire on the lead up to Iraq, reruns of the David Kelly thing, a serious thing about The Good Friday Agreement like the thing about Bosnia with all the important players apearing in highly appointed Leo-style offices, and a 'frothy' pieces about the baby, the drunken son, the life-coach and the Blairs' house-buying habits. I even hope they'll replay my favourite bit of Blair footage which happened at his first EU summit in 97. Remember? Blair beating Chancellor Kohl in a bicycle race. Sheer hilarity and much better than beating the Germans 5-1 away.

But the fact is that legacy is a pretty vaporous concept. If we look a certain way (awry, perhaps), The Autobahns are a legacy of Nazism, The Cold War a legacy of Churchill, Droughts in California a legacy of FDR's New Deal.

Blair's legacy is unknown, as yet. People are too keen to interpret and conclude from history before it has happened and declare their interpretations and conclusions. It's as if they think their interpretations and conclusions matter. Even commentators have an eye on their own legacy.

Politicians are transient beings, connected to the past and the future. The best ones do the best job they can at the time - making decisions day to day in the hope that they are correct. Good leaders tend to make more good decisions than bad. Bad leaders are often focussed on their legacy rather than their day to day responsibilities; with an inflated sense of their own importance in the drift of history. All those prime ministers and presidents whose names we forget, I suspect did something right.

Whether Blair was one or the other - we'll have to wait.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

today: professional week part three (the final)

Credit where it is due. These last three entries were inspired by a converstion with my colleague Ibrar over at Holistic Educator. We were bemoaning the fact that our work seems to be more and more based on targets and how it was eating up our time to develop areas of expertise. It got me thinking. I keep telling Ibrar that he should be more disciplined with his blog and write more. But he's a busy man with fingers in many pies. His comments on the topic of deprofessionalisation should appear sometime soon (or are already there - depending on when you read this, and them).

The last thing I wasnted to say about professionals is that they should stick together. Through blogs like the much-missed Michael Berube and other, mainly American, academic sources I have followed various arguments made between the intelligent people of the world.

Although it pretty much occurs anywhere, even in the most routine discussions there are those who wish to be aggressive towards people they more or less agree with, finding slivers of disagreement and often ending up pouring bile and hatred on each other. I have heard many tales of rampant politicking and confrontation within academic departments which would make WWE storylines appear like a gentle roll on some fluffy overstuffed cushions.

In the more low-falutin' world of the school teacher, the most annoying thing I heard thoughout my time was the constant use of the world unprofessional to describe the behaviour and appraoch of others. Much of the backstabbing and undermining I put down sheer stress. When people are overworked, underpaid and appreciated, harangued and daily face physical threat and verbal abuse, they are bound to get stressed out. Which is when people lash out at others. I count myself amongst the people who sometimes indulged in this, although in my defence I must say that when I recognised that stress was making me act this way I tried hard to change my rhetoric and become more understanding and supportive of others.

However, under attack from outside forces, it is pretty crucial that professional people (whom I am assuming are intelligent, pretty studious and above all reflective) reflect on how their behaviour towards each other impacts their profession as a whole. Here is an example of this.

In my last school I had a colleague who happened to be my boss. She was clearly a driven and 'complex' individual but her professional skills were admirable. In fact she worked hard enough in a very difficult environment that she became ill, suffering a stress breakdown. Whilst she was away we discovered that in the months leading up to the breakdown, she'd dropped the ball in many areas. Things were incomplete, judgements had clearly been made under duress and with a skewed sense of perspective. As colleagues we felt sympathy and fixed as many of the errors as we could whilst covering the rest up. Presenting a united front against possible criticism when she was in no state to defend herself. When she returned to work the support continued in more subtle ways. We shouldered some of the resposibilities, taking on work and commitments so that she didn't have to.

For me, the effort of this was the start of a road that would lead, a couple of years later, to my own stress breakdown. In the final year before I hit the wall I struggled. The extra I'd taken on was not passed back over. Warning signs of my impending implosion were ignored. I made a mess of lots of things. Work was incompleted, judgements were made under the duress of illness and clearly without a decent sense of perspective.

After I crashed and burned, my boss took about half a day to get the knives out. Rather than sticking by me, as I'd done with her, she skewered me in my absence, weaving a story around my illness-affected work that abdicated her (as my boss) of any oversight and responsibility. Rather than made incompetent by illness I was painted as connivingly and wilfully unprofessional.

It led to me leaving my chosen profession, disillusioned with my treatment on all sides. I was a competent creative and committed professional yet I have now gladly left the frontline where my skills and energy were able to make a real difference. I am one of the huge number of school teachers who quit out after less than ten years.

What does it do to my proud profession when we turn on and force each other away from it? We are replaced with 'cover supervisors' and other cheap robotic devices.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

today : professionalism week part two

What I loved about The Trap was that it helped me crystallise the negative effect that target based cultures have on individuals within society. The issue is who decides the targets? Or more importantly, what are the things we target?

I don't object to improvement. For example, in my field - literacy teaching, there are clearly areas where institutions and individuals can improve. But what is 'improvement'? The fact is that pure statistical measurement in so many areas is a blunt and crude tool, and not the incisive analytical scalpel that it is portrayed to be by the Targetting Champions. If I am to measure the success of my teaching, then surely we must sit back and wait awhile. How far has my literacy teaching impacted on the students of mine who go on to become academics? Do some of them get a 2:1 instead of a first because I slightly failed to teach them to write succinctly and with clarity? Did some of them fail to get a crucial research grant that stopped them curing global warming and world hunger because their written arguments weren't put strongly enough?

What about those who go on to become dictators? Did my skillful coaching of them in the art of oratory contribute to their despotic rise? Was I Annabeth to their Toby: teaching them to address the podium, prescribing powder on their ever-expanding foreheads and thereby feeding their tyrrany?

The fact is that we don't know. The range and effect of my influence could be close to nil, or endlessly mutliplying logorhythmically even as we speak.

Yet as a school teacher I was measured by two pretty narrow and poorly framed sets of exams. Life success or my contribution to my students' over-all education didn't come into it. In a world where we are yet to explore and understand much of the infinite range of subtle influence on the development of people, how can we measure it?

As a professional, qualified and by implication, reflective worker I find that I am judged at every turn. The fundamental here is trust. My qualifications, experience and achievements are designed to inculcate this trust. We trust doctors on the basis that they need to be high achievers to even get into medical school and then study for years and years. Even then they go through a series of checks and finishing touches before we allow them to cut us open.

As a teacher, I imagined that my employers, students and other interested parties trust me to know my stuff and to deal with the education of my students in the way that I, having studied and qualified and reflected, am able to judge. Yet in my final couple of years in school teaching it became increasingly difficult to make choices, because my lessons were subject to pressures from all sides. The exam boards abolished my choice of appropriate exams because they've corporatised the matriculation process to the point where it is almost solely a profit making exercise for the boards themselves and a decreasing array of large publishers, whose books were invariably set for study. The DfES have reached a point where they pretty much send out detailed lesson plans, support materials and bullet-pointed lists of things that must be taught. This is the ultimate conclusion to the process whereby in order to set and measure the targets, everything must be inspected and checked and rechecked against lists of things to check. Then the checking is checked off against a list, and the checking of checking is checked. Oh what the hell, rather than give professionals professional freedom, why don't we just tell them what to do? It's simpler and cheaper and easier to check (which is why I now operate in the ever-expanding private sector of checking and moderating). Lessons were turned into government issued power-point presentations (and the most boring species of these - the ones where you are expected to simply read out what is up on screen). All these things robotised the process, replacing the broad and organic notion of education with the narrow 'learning'; and the broad and human concept of thinking with the robotic and narrow idea of 'skills'.

So where does that leave the 'professionals' - micromanaged and ordered exactly what to do from above by, often, non-professional people, working at the fear of their jobs, to targets that are so closely defined that they restrict choice, imagination and the risk-taking advancement of practice?

This robotisation of professional vocations is partly a way of depressing professional pay levels. An example of this is the way that the bottom has dropped out of the supply teacher trade. Unqualifed staff are now emplyed as classroom supervisors at a fraction of the traditional costs of qualified replacement teachers. It is an idea that, in some ways I support - if used wisely and with the best interests of the students at heart. However, many schools are consistently using unqualified supervisors for long periods of time, focussing the advantages on the saving of cash rather than the education of their students. Which is always the case with targets. They are sloppy, inexact things, and when they cross over with other priorities it is the shortcuts to budget cutting that always win out.

We may as well not have studied, sacrificed and specialised in the first place: a path that led away from excessive scrutiny and suspicion into areas of freedom and trust. Now the path leads the other way and the deprofessionalisation of professional vocations continues apace.

today : professionalism week part one

I could be a doctor y'know. All you have to do is stand around in A&E and when a patient comes in you rush around a bit and ask for a CBC, Chem7, Blood GAs, Tox Screen, Psych Consult, Echo or whatever, and when the patient goes into 'defib', you get the paddles, shout 'charge', followed by 'clear' and then zap them back to life. Easy. In fact, if they don't come back to life it's an even simpler job. You look at your watch and solemnly say: "Time of death - eleven twenty four".

I could also be a policeman, especially a detective or a scenes of crime officer. Profiling - a doddle. Psychologist, Lawyer: no problem. Prosecution or defence, just tell me which. In fact I could run for D.A., even though I live nowhere near America. Goddamit I could even be a Presidential advisor or even the Prez.

Perhaps I am overstating just a little, but the fact is that TV and film is jam packed full of professional people whose jobs seem quite easy and repetitive. We also have access to the internet and can find out information about pretty much anything. Surely being a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher of a criminal profiler can't be that hard?

The effect of all these professionals on telly is that they make people feel that being professional is pretty easy. Which is a good thing in some ways. Why not demystify these previous closed areas and open them up as possibilities for everyone? But the downside is that it has become easy, even derigeur, to question professionals at every turn (which up to a point is okay - even required in many ways).

Yet what the TV shows don't show is the years of slog and study, the time spent keeping up with professional development, the sheer lonely hours of reading journals and books, the years of debt and the fact that many professionals ARE their jobs rather than do their jobs. We rarely go home, put our feet up and watch portrayals of professionals on TV all night

Which means that a couple of stroppy parents can question the entire basis of a national vaccination programme (like the MMR) without any understanding of the nature of medical studies, and cause a wave of panic. The payback for the mass avoidance of MMR is that the fight to eradicate measles, mumps and rubella has been thrown back decades. The price of people forever questioning whatever doctors say to them, which at the very least drains resources from the collective medical budget and at the most causes the very basis of a doctor's professionalism to be questioned and attacked.

As a teacher I found that a small coterie of parents were only too delighted to question me and my colleagues at every turn. Whenever their children failed to do their homework, it was turned on the teachers. When their children broke the rules and misbehaved, it was blamed on the teachers. When their children failed exams because they didn't bother to listen or revise or were just not capable, it was the fault of the teachers, who were not working hard enough in their easy overpaid jobs.

Because teaching is easy. Any idiot can do it.