music

Discussion, Music

Music and Mental Health

Introduction

Today (3rd August 2019), the BBC reported that the UK Government is increasing funding to the existing £4.5m already assigned to Social Prescribing projects to allow Primary Care Networks and Trusts to hire additional practitioners.

Social Prescribing is a relatively new idea that is beginning to gain serious traction as its positive results are being more widely assessed. ‘…A doctor might give a normal prescription for a medicine, but they can also give a prescription for an activity. That could be singing, music, art, poetry, exercise or anything – but not a medicine…’ (Read the full article here)

The article quotes research from Australia that recommends around ‘100 hours of creative activities a year to gain a detectable health benefit – that’s about two hours a week’. Breaking that down even further, that equates to just under 20 minutes a day. Not a difficult target to achieve!

So What’s The Interest?

Let's get some perspective, so you can see where I am coming from. For several years, I have suffered from some fairly nasty mental health issues. Primarily, clinical depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. I have undergone Psychotherapy and am still on medication. Things can still be shaky at times, but on the whole I am much better.

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Frankly, if I had to sum up the experience, I would have to say it sucks. It was compounded by the onset of constant pain caused by 2 disc prolapses and a work environment about which I will make no further comment. ‘Nuff said. When I initially drafted this article, I was in hospital awaiting the results of a neurological review of my latest MRI, after I’d collapsed at home (and again when I was being examined by the GP). I won’t go into the possible diagnoses but they may have contributed to the deterioration of my mental state over the last few years. Kinda makes you think that maybe I had something to be depressed about…?

All in all, I’m fucked, right?

So when I talk about the value of music to people's mental state, I am a primary source.

Is There Any Scientific Evidence?

Actually, along with reams of anecdotal evidence, there is a fair bit of research on the subject and you can see the NHS evidence base collated by NICE here. One of the more recent attempts to assess and summarise the findings of those studies came from the Cochrane Library.

Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews - ‘Music Therapy For Depression’ (2017) reviewed 9 separate studies of the effects of music therapy on patients suffering from depression and compared the results to answer 2 key questions:

  1. ‘Is music therapy more effective than treatment as usual alone or psychological therapy?

  2. ‘Is any form of music therapy better than another form of music therapy?’

They concluded that ‘music therapy plus treatment as usual is more effective than treatment as usual alone. Music therapy seems to reduce depressive symptoms and anxiety and helps to improve functioning (e.g. maintaining involvement in job, activities, and relationships)’. They could not say whether receptive music therapy (i.e. listening to) was more or less effective than active music therapy (i.e. participation) - both seem to be effective.

Mr Smith is clearly still at a very early stage in his therapy…. (Image credit:  Peter Fischer )

Mr Smith is clearly still at a very early stage in his therapy…. (Image credit: Peter Fischer)

To summarise: ‘Music therapy for depression is likely to be effective for people in decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Music therapy also helps people to function in their everyday life.’
https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD004517.pub3/full

How Does It Affect Me?

I suppose it all goes back to emotional literacy really. I used to joke with my students that I was an ‘emotional cripple’ and only had two emotions: ‘vaguely amused’ and' ‘incredibly annoyed’. Many a true word spoken in jest, and all that. I genuinely do have trouble expressing emotion in a positive way - words have always felt like a cop out. I would rather let my actions speak for themselves and hope that people ‘get’ what I mean. This is, frankly, pretty unhelpful.

However, music has a way of opening up feelings that I cannot adequately express. The best way I can describe it is that, when it really hits me, it feels like something bursting through my chest - like a huge pressure wave forcing its way out. Certain types of music have more of this effect. For example, recently I went to see The Skatalites. When Doreen Shaffer took the stage and began to sing ‘My Boy Lollipop’, I honestly thought I was going to break down and sob.

Seriously. A little old Jamaican lady, singing a ska standard nearly broke me.

I don’t know why it has this effect on me. Even now, I can’t think about it without wanting to break down and cry. But I feel better for feeling something. Anything, in fact! It doesn’t require words and, for me, it is a transformative and authentic experience. Cathartic really.

Toots and the Maytals - ‘Pressure Drop’. Always gets to me.

With regards to playing music, I find it quite a therapeutic process, especially when playing with the band. We called our first EP ‘Headspace’ because we all recognised the importance of the music in helping us frame the issues we were facing at the time. Making music engages a different part of my brain and I can effectively just ‘sink’ into it. I suppose it is a form of active meditation, removing all extraneous inputs and allowing for a focus on the interconnected nature of the music, finding that harmonious balance where the bass bridges the gaps between rhythm and melody. Either that or I just really enjoy making a racket.

I suppose this is why I find music so important. Thanks for listening.







Discussion, Music, Advice

A Greener Option?

The Environment & The Music Industry

I don’t know about anyone else but the recent Extinction Rebellion Climate Change protests in London and, to a lesser extent, in Shaftesbury last Saturday (no, really) got me thinking about some of the ways the music industry addresses the issues. For example, the go-to material for dark wood guitar fingerboards was, up until recently, Rosewood. This became protected on the CITES list in 2017 and restrictions placed on its trade across international borders. In response, many manufacturers, most notably Fender, switched to alternatives such as Pau Ferro or Walnut.

Image by Niklas Pntk

Image by Niklas Pntk

As the regulation was actually aimed at halting illegal logging in the furniture industry, there is a feeling that, in this instance, musical instrument manufacture was caught up in the crossfire. Industry leaders are debating whether to lobby for Rosewood to come off the CITES list for finished musical instruments, instrument parts and accessories at the CITES meeting in Sri Lanka in May 2019. For more info, click here to read the report from the Musical Industries Association.

The response from Fender to remove Rosewood from their manufacture shows that even the biggest names in the industry can and will take environmental issues seriously. The Canadian manufacturer Godin (which includes Arts & Lutherie and Seagull) source their materials from the Canadian forestry commission: trees that have to be cut down as part of forest management, creating fire breaks and so on to protect the forest, are used in the guitar manufacture. It is a sustainable by-product that allows the natural habitat to remain healthy.

Local Musicians and Music Stores Doing Their Bit

Shopping Locally:
Buying an instrument on-line might seem like a sensible thing to do to cut emissions, however, it may not always be the case. For example, if you buy an instrument from your local supplier, it can be done as part of your planned shopping trip. Buying that same instrument on line might actually increase the number of traffic movements significantly as the delivery firm has to collect it from the retailer, return to the distribution hub and then move it back out for delivery to the customer. Also - I always advise people to buy the instrument they have actually played rather than the picture they’ve seen on line!

Not saying it’s the best option but worth considering… (Image by David Mark)

Not saying it’s the best option but worth considering… (Image by David Mark)

Bands:
How many times do you see bands arrive at venues in 4 cars rather than the minimum number required? Drummers, I am not necessarily aiming this at you - you have enough kit to actually need the whole car! No, I am thinking about when you are playing at a venue that already has PA and yet we still turn up with one musician per vehicle. I know it’s not always possible, but there are times when we can do better so it’s definitely worth considering.

As musicians we can do more than simply write protest songs: it’s got be worth a go, right?

Music, Composing, Recording

Review - Writing Music With The Wiretap

I don’t know about anybody else, but I find writing music quite tricky at times. For example, I’ll be noodling around on the guitar or bass and come up with something that sounds like it might be a riff or a middle 8.
’Sounds good’, I think to myself, ‘I must remember that…’

…And then the phone rings or I go off and do something else, instantly forgetting this earth-shattering, million-selling hook that would make my name forever. (Or so I like to tell myself).

I have tried recording things on my phone but it can be a fairly ramshackle affair. My field recorder app seems to have a gain setting so high you’d need a step ladder to adjust it. This is obviously a problem that affects a fair few of us out there. However, help is at hand!

TC Electronic Wiretap Riff Recorder - 8 hours of CD quality record time. Get the riffs down and use them later

TC Electronic Wiretap Riff Recorder - 8 hours of CD quality record time. Get the riffs down and use them later

The TC Electronic Wiretap Riff Recorder is designed to solve that problem. First up, it is able to store 8 hours of music. 8 hours. Frankly, that’s enough to store a Wagnerian opera let alone a few 20 second riffs. It fits into your pedal train and is activated by the usual Size 11 stomp.

All good so far, however, TC Electronic aren’t finished yet. The pedal comes with the free Wiretap App. Pair you pedal up via Bluetooth to your device and it will store and sort your recordings - even suggest names for them. The app also acts as a stand-alone recorder (for getting ideas down on the go) and you can play back your riffs through your live rig via Bluetooth. Editing and clipping tracks make it easy to send to other people or to use in larger recordings.

I can see this pedal having another use - practice. If you are struggling with a piece, jotting it down on the Wiretap and listening back to it or even sharing it with your teacher, will help give you a good idea of where you’re going wrong and how to fix it.

I know it’s adding another pedal to the crowded real estate of your pedal board but, if you are writing your own work - and there are a lot of musicians in the area that are - this might be a game-changer for you.

Advice

Building Your Rig

Making It Work For You

At its best, live sound should reproduce the sound in your head.

There are any number of reasons that this might not happen. Some of the easiest to remedy are the ones that are caused by the space in which you are performing.

For example, trying to force your rig to do too much in an outdoor setting. I attended an outdoor live event a couple of years ago, at which the sound was nothing short of diabolical for the simple reason that the rig was just too small. The event organisers kept pushing the sound to the point where the bass simply broke up and the vocals distorted. This was especially galling as the acts I saw were brilliant!

Some noise, yesterday (Image by Yatheesh Gowda)

Some noise, yesterday (Image by Yatheesh Gowda)

My basic rule of thumb is this: ‘you can always cut a bit off but you can’t cut a bit on’. Having more power than you need is simple to remedy: turn it down. The PA I described earlier would have been excellent for an indoor show but was inadequate for an outdoor event.

Clear Vision

So what’s my point here? Well, over the past couple of years I have spoken with a number of people who have been looking to upgrade their live rigs but who have not been clear in their own minds how this is going to be used. For example, it is highly unlikely that an acoustic duo is going to need a 24 channel desk, separate power amp and 10,000W per channel cabs in order to play coffee house gigs or small pubs. By the same token, if that duo needs to play a larger venue, a pair of acoustic amps might not cut it either!

Building your live sound should be done with a clear idea in mind of how it is going to be used, in what sort of venue and with what level of flexibility necessary. Try to future-proof your rig by considering what you might need to do in order to adapt it should your requirements change. For example, have you got channels on the mixer to mic up the drums, if necessary?

CAD Touring 7 percussion mics

CAD Touring 7 percussion mics

Having a clear idea of how and where you are going to use this kit will allow you to ‘buy once, buy right’ with regard to the core of your PA, letting you scale it up or down as needed, and save you money. I’m always happy to chat things through, if you’re stuck!

Advice, Music

‘Is That A Good Instrument?’

Sounds odd, but I've been asked that question many times and it always makes me scratch my head a bit. I mean, from a sales perspective, I doubt anyone would expect a negative response! I suppose it is the perennial question about whether price equates to quality.

Does Expensive = Good...?

Cards on the table, I am a bit of idealist. I believe that music is a great leveller, cutting across social class, language, culture and age groups. I also believe it should be for everyone not just those that can afford it. When I set up Underground Music, I made a conscious decision to limit the price headroom to a fairly arbitrary £500. I did this because I believe that there is huge value for money to be had below that price bracket - if I am selective about which lines I choose. For example, the Gretsch Streamliner range:

The brand new Gretsch G2622 Streamliner, launched at the 2019 NAMM Show

The brand new Gretsch G2622 Streamliner, launched at the 2019 NAMM Show

A few years ago, Gretsch made the decision to compete in the under £500 market and launched the Streamliner range of centreblock and hollowbody guitars and they have taken the guitar world by storm! Suddenly, it was an affordable option and players who had been looking for a classic, F-hole double-cut guitar had a real choice to make: go for the Epiphone Dot or the Epiphone Sheraton and grind your teeth that it doesn't say 'Gibson' on the headstock, or buy a Gretsch which says 'Gretsch' on it? You can pick one up for £435! 

The brand new Korg B1 digital piano launched in October 2018 - twin 9W amps, full 88 key weighted keyboard, 8 voices plus reverb and chorus, metronome, sustain pedal et al all for only £335.00. In store now.

The brand new Korg B1 digital piano launched in October 2018 - twin 9W amps, full 88 key weighted keyboard, 8 voices plus reverb and chorus, metronome, sustain pedal et al all for only £335.00. In store now.

What about the Korg B1 Digital Piano? A weighted keyboard, the full 8 octaves and some cracking piano samples. Simple control system and light enough to be portable. £335. Seriously. 

I guess what I'm driving at is this: I spend ages selecting the lines, making sure I can stock the instruments that give the best quality and yet remain within my self-imposed price ceiling. The instruments I stock are affordable because I am selective (and a bit of an idealist!).

So, is that a good instrument? I should jolly well hope so! 

Is it the right instrument for you...? Ah, well that's another matter. :) 

Music

Music And Schools

One of the things that drives me slightly (more) crackers is the way that Music is treated by the Government with regard to education. In the light of OFSTED’s recent holistic changes in their assessment criteria, isn’t it time that education had more of a think about the place of music in the curriculum?

Music In Schools

During their time at Primary school, most students will have been singing every day during Assemblies, whether they be hymns, choruses or, in some cases, favourite pop songs. In one school I worked at, students regularly sang Katie Perry's 'Roar' - to protect the innocent, they shall remain nameless! Still, could've been worse: could've been The Cheeky Girls. 

I digress.

Anyway, throughout their Primary schooling, students will have had regular exposure to music, through tuned percussion, recorders, ukuleles and even brass and strings supported by institutions like the excellent Dorset Rural Music Service. My eldest played recorder, guitar, clarinet, cello, tuned percussion and drums all by the end of Year 4! 

Now, when they hit Secondary School, that all comes to a crashing halt. Rarely, if ever, do they sing in groups, exposure to instruments is limited and music occupies such a small part of their overall curriculum that it becomes seen as an 'extra' rather than a valuable subject. This is not the Schools' fault: the relentless drive to improve results in STEM subjects and literacy relegates everything else to the sidelines. Effectively, the sub-text is that 'If it ain't English, Maths and Science, it ain't anything'. 

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This is probably not the forum to debate the philosophical purpose of education, that is to say 'Should education be used instrumentally by society to achieve a specific socio-economic purpose or should education be undertaken for the intellectual and spiritual enrichment of the student?' However, the teaching of music in Secondary schools is a prime example of how the powers-that-be, of whichever persuasion, view education. The students' rounded curriculum is sacrificed in order to cram the timetable with as much of the subjects that 'count' towards the School's performance measurement. For example, can you imagine a School proudly advertising it History results? Or value-added scores in Geography? Or RE? Or Art and Drama? No, it will always be the STEM subjects that grab the headlines, but...

... When it comes to showing off the School at public events, who do they wheel out? The Music department and their young proteges. The department whose subject is given so little timetable space and whose funding is cut whenever they need to save a few quid. If it grinds my gears, imagine how it feels to be one those teachers. 

Benefits of Music To The Student

Music has been proven in so many studies to have cross-curricular benefits to children of all ages. For example, this Bradford school chose to give up to 6 hours of music per week to students and went from being in Special Measures to 'Good' within 4 years:

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/oct/03/school-results-music-bradford

The School's SATS results went from being below national average in 2011 to 74% of students attaining expected standard in reading in 2017. Just to put that into perspective, the national average was 53%! 

Mental Health And Emotional Literacy

You want to improve STEM scores? Sure, why wouldn't you? But there are other ways to approach it. Music is an expressive art form, it requires a literate mind. It is mathematical in theory - you can see applied maths in composition and tab.  It improves emotional literacy and offers a non-verbal route to express one's feelings. The average human male teenager MkI normally expresses itself by grunting and hitting things but give them a set of drumsticks and they are the most eloquent person in the room. Music provides the soft-skills of team-work, listening skills and co-operation whilst simultaneously offering opportunities to open up friendships and new experiences.

Yes, this is a hobby-horse of mine but the benefits of a musical dimension to education are far more than you might expect. 

Advice, Music

Power Mixer or Powered Cabs?

I had a really interesting conversation with a customer the other day about his live rig. He was using a Yamaha StagePAs system, which uses a small powered mixer / amplifier and passive speakers, but wanted to get something a bit bigger.

In an ideal world, I think he would have liked to have a mixer with more channels, say between 8 and 12 stereo / XLR with separate USB or auxiliary channels for backing etc but retain the Yamaha speakers. In principle, there is nothing wrong with that idea, however, the speakers present a problem: they are powered by the mixer he wanted to replace. In order to keep them, he would need to either:

  • Buy another mixer amplifier, or
  • Buy a passive mixer and separate amplifier.
An example of a powered mixer - the Peavey XR1212 features 2 powered amps rated at 600W each. 

An example of a powered mixer - the Peavey XR1212 features 2 powered amps rated at 600W each. 

As we were chatting, it transpired that he already owned a 1000W powered cab that he was using as a monitor. This cab alone had more headroom than the entire Yamaha StagePAs. If he had another, he could have the option of using a passive mixer (which tend to be cheaper) and it would solve the mixer amp / mixer + amp problem.  So, the solution presented itself.

Which To Go For?

So are powered cabs better than passive speakers? I certainly feel that they offer huge flexibility for a live performer. You are able to amplify your sound simply and you can set the headroom on the cab itself without concerning yourself with the output of your amplifier. On the downside, they are heavier and require power to both sides of the stage but I feel the benefits outweigh the costs.

The 1600W HH Tessen TNE -1201 powered cab - only weighs 15kg

The 1600W HH Tessen TNE -1201 powered cab - only weighs 15kg

What about passive speakers? Well, if you are using a mixer amplifier you don’t need to worry about power to the cabs and it is simply a matter of ensuring that you speakers have enough headroom to deal with the amplifier. For example, if your mixer amp kicks out 1000W but you only have 100W speakers, you have a problem! Divide the amplifier’s output by two and you will need a minimum speaker wattage of 500W per channel (I’d go for a bit more for safety’s sake). 

When I started out, back in the late 80s, the band I worked with always used a passive, analogue mixer, with a separate amplifier driving the two front of house PA speakers. Frankly, there was nothing wrong with that set-up and, to a large extent, there still isn't. However, at the time, there really wasn't another option. As technology has moved on, it has given us more options. The wrong option is the one that doesn't work for you or in the situation. The band I'm in currently uses a passive mixer and powered cabs. We can scale it up or down as required and it means we can play in more places as a result.

Music, Guitar, Amplifier, Review

'Is It All That...?' Vintage Fender Super Champ

Well, you don't see many of these, do you?

I was recently loaned a Fender Super Champ amp recently to try out - but this one is a bit out of the ordinary as it is actually one of the prototypes for the Super Champ range. So this one is a real bit of history for you! 

Now, anyone who knows me will testify that this is way too much amp for me - my guitar work is certainly functional but I would never think of buying something like this myself. However, the guy that loaned it to me was very persuasive and, with a little trepidation, I gave it a go. 

The Vintage Fender Super Champ

Okay, first thing's first, this is a valve amp, running a 12AX7 for first and second stage pre-amp, a 12AT7 for the spring reverb and 2 x 6V6s for the post. A 6C10 compactron is used for extra gain on the lead channel. If this all sounds like gobbledegook to you then don't worry: most of the time this goes over my head too. Effectively, the amp uses a small tube to create the sound and tone you will hear, another to drive the reverb and a third to push the overall gain higher when switched on. The others are used to drive the speaker. The final output is 18W. 

This particular amp was hand-wired by its designer Paul Rivera and dates from 1981/82: it is the second of two prototypes he produced and he owns the other. Super Champ amplifiers were only produced between 1982 and 1986. Fender have since released the extremely popular solid-sate Champion and, recently, the Super Champ X2 which is a tube amp but with the addition of the Champion's digital effects. 

So What's It Like...?

From the outset, this amp is a lot of fun. The clean channel has a lovely warm tone which is what you would expect from a valve amp like this. The tone controls have a push-pull pot on the treble: pulling it out engages the 'Middle' setting. Reverb is provided by a spring reverb tank which feels really natural. Turning it up a bit gives some startling clear cathedral echo but you can get some great Johnny Marr-type sounds by balancing the tone on the guitar with the reverb on the amp.

But you didn't want to know about that, did you? 'Shut up and tell us what it sounds like cranked up!' I hear you cry. Well, if you put it like that... 

Up To 11...?

It sounds epic. Pull out the gain pot (push-pull, labelled 'Volume') and you open up a world of crisp, hard-edged gain that you can really go to work on. I used a Hagstrom Swede (twin humbuckers) and tried it in various different configurations. My favourite was to vamp on some classic ZZ Top* by using the neck pick-up on full with the tone rolled off: you get some awesome muddy, swamp-blues sounds. Trying it with a Telecaster on the bridge pick-up is something else. The clarity of that classic single-coil Telecaster twang was simply perfect. I know of harmonica players that use these amps on high gain to get that clear overdriven sound. 

All in all, this is a terrific amp that has a huge variety of tones that would complement a wide variety of styles but it is when you push it that the Super Champ comes into its own. 

 

* Before 'Eliminator'. Seriously, they are fantastic. I don't know, kids today... etc etc

Playing Around

We've been open for just over 18 months an it's been a bit of a rollercoaster. Throughout the first year, we were kind of muddling along, taking notes on where things need to be pushed and where we can pull back a bit. Getting to know the rhythms of the year really. Right now, it feels like we're in a decent place to develop.

We were finalists in the Blackmore Vale Business Awards 2017, category 'Start Up Business Of The Year', which was nice. We've had decent publicity in local press and the reviews are good. People have been absolutely lovely - that's one of the great things about having a music shop.

The only fly in the ointment has been getting the website up to speed. I never seem to have the time! Between family life, running the shop, recording, rehearsing, gigging etc, there's hardly any time left. I suppose that's why I've been focusing more on it recently. I know, it's a slow process but we're finally approaching something I would be happy to publish.

Keep the faith, people!