As well as being PMZ’s ‘Integenerational Coordinator’ I have the privilege to lead PMZ’s weekly Open Zone percussion workshop ‘Baton Beats’. It is a very diverse session with a broad age and ability range. I find that there is usually a vibrant buzz to the session, lots of friendly banter and jollity. It has also been commented that people feel okay to be as they are in sessions, no need to ‘put a face on’.
Baton Beats is more than just a place to learn and share musical experiences, there are also opportunities to get to know other people, what makes them tick. What does music mean to them in the context of their lives.
Dave Harris has been coming to Baton Beats for just about as long as it has been running. I think it’s fair to say that he and I have similar senses of humour to one another, rather dry and droll – somewhat sardonic. I think it may also be fair to say that underneath what can appear to be a somewhat imperturbable, sceptical exterior that we are both, in truth quite compassionate and caring people. Dave has kindly shared a bit of his story with us, about how a professional sceptic ended up being ‘got’ by music.
When I was young, shortly after the War, I was an optimistic person, but going to university and working in academic life soon stopped all that. I developed a critical take on all sorts of popular and famous academics or institutions. In the trade, the approach is called ‘immanent critique’. In my home town of Portsmouth, we would probably say it just meant ‘Come off it, mush!’ (where ‘mush’ means ‘mate’).
It led to modest success as a critic, but also to a habit of permanently doubting absolutely everything. I couldn’t switch it off. I was even sceptical about African drumming at Baton Beats, and nearly ignored the card I saw in the chip shop.
But now, I am here to tell you, my children, that I have seen the light! I pick up stranded earthworms on the pavement! When we go shopping, I beam at babies, and not always nastily! I even smile at those neighbours who I know vote a different way from me.
Overall, it is possibly not excessive to claim tentatively that I am quite probably a slightly nicer person.
I’m still weird. Instead of just enjoying it, I read some research about the pleasurable effects of music. It seems music can ‘take you out of yourself’ if you get just the right level of challenge. Ideally, it should be challenging enough to help you forget your everyday worries but not so challenging that it causes performance anxiety. Elderly men are haunted by both, of course.
It helps if you have a really skilled tutor, like we do, who can help you adjust the level of challenge for yourself. Rob showed me the African triangle, for example, and I imagined you played it like the triangle in classical music – count 148 bars and then go ‘ting!’. Trying to play eighth notes at a manic pace in baião was an eye-opener. I never suspected I would ever get to try to play Baião, Candomblé, Maracatu and a Malinke style piece call ‘Toro’. In Plymouth!
You also get pleasure when you anticipate the future – where is the melody or rhythm going to go? Not just the stuff you are playing, but the contributions of other players? When you guess correctly you feel pleased. When you don’t, you have a pleasant surprise because the alternative is just as good if not better.
Particular bits can also remind you of the past and give you a laugh. Playing the shaker, I flashed back to my attempt to join a local band when I was a kid. They wanted someone to shake maracas (it was an R’n’B band) and do backup vocals. Local bands were forming everywhere and were called Thunderflash, Scarlet Leather, or Desmond and The Disappearing Dromedaries. Local posh college kids formed The Posturing Nincompoops or Queer as Folk (because they liked folk as well). We decided to call ourselves The Teapots. We sank without trace. Happy days!
Having taught them for a couple of decades, it was nice to meet and chat to students without having to spoil things by bashing them through some of the more tedious bits of a quantitative methods course, or grading them. Everyone had a mixture of talents and specific needs. The old ‘community’ stuff really worked (remember I am a professional sceptic), and after the inevitable initial hesitation and fear of mutual embarrassment, the specific needs became just irrelevant for everybody. Our tutor demonstrated how to proceed. Some of those with visible specific needs were especially good at breaking the ice. Mark, who has particular communication difficulties, just walked over to Florence and shook her hand. Then he admired the rings on her fingers. Then they compared shoes.
There is something about music, of course, drumming especially. I know few who can sit in front of an inviting drum and not want to hit it. You focus on getting your own bit right at first. Eventually, you can hear how the efforts of others weave in too, especially with what we learned to call polyrhythms.
Calls and responses still make me grin. There are the informal ones when you just find yourself jamming with another player. There are the organized ones where we obey the calls then respond as agreed. Mostly. I also like the ones where is a signal to stop, we count silently and then crash back in together after 4 (or 3, or 2).
It’s got to me, I admit that. I was in Derriford a while back, having an ECG. I was waiting for an operation for irregular heartbeats, and feeling a bit fed up. I sneaked a look at the print out when the technician turned away and was delighted to find a region of my heart was beating out that hesitating clave rhythm we were playing two days before on the African bell.