Guest Blog By Mike Green
No-one is born as a musician. We all have to start somewhere, as you would start any journey, and then progress along the way towards your final destination, hopefully enjoying the trip as you go.
My own musical journey started when I was six. The small school I attended engaged a part-time music teacher to teach basic classroom musical skills, such as singing and percussive rhythms. As I walked through the main hall one day, the music teacher was coming in the opposite direction. Obviously with one thought on her income stream, she asked, “Michael, would you like to learn to play the piano?” I was too scared to say “no” to a teacher, so I meekly replied, “yes, Mrs Young.”
And so the die was cast. My parents were cajoled into forking out for piano lessons. They even managed to find the money to buy an old piano, an upright, black monstrosity that was so old that it even had candle holders fixed to the front! I had lessons from Mrs Young for many years into my mid-teens, growing to respect and like her along the way, and somehow managing to achieve piano grade six, even though my piano playing has since been likened to Les Dawson on a bad day!
Learning to play the trumpet was equally as strange a beginning for a journey. I was lucky enough to attend a minor public school as a day boy. When I was about 13, the newly appointed assistant head of music, John Geddes walked up to me out of the blue and said, “Ah … Green. I’m short of a trumpet player for the school orchestra. You’re the right shape. Be at the music school at 1.00 pm” and walked off before I had a chance to protest!
With John’s brilliant tuition, I did rather better on the trumpet than I had on the piano (also achieving grade six). But when as a 20 year old, I joined the Fire Service with its commitment to constant shift work, and later as a senior officer, to being on call for up to 78 hours a week, it became virtually impossible to commit to being a member of any ensemble such as a band or orchestra - especially as I was also heavily into sport which took up what free time I had.
I didn’t play my trumpet for over 30 years. But in a chance meeting with another musician after I retired from the Fire Service, I was persuaded to pick it up again and go along to a local brass band. That was probably the best thing I ever did for all sorts of reasons, including meeting the lady who is now my partner.
Playing in an ensemble of any sort is like playing for a sports team. The other members of the band rely on you to play your part as well as you can, as you trust that they will play theirs. Thus, it is both an ‘individual’ thing as well as being part of a successful team effort.
Of course, it can be quite daunting to start playing a musical instrument, especially in later life. But it needn’t be.
With their Caribbean origin, steel pans are the ideal for learning how to play in an ensemble. Playing the pans is not about striving to produce a good tone, as you do with a brass or woodwind instrument, where the tone depends on factors such as breath control and lip shape (embrasure). The steel pan has the tone. All you have to do is hit the right notes at the right time.
And it isn’t even necessary to be able to read music. Playing the steel pans is about learning patterns and timing.
It is so satisfying to be able to produce a simple tune, in the company of others, within a very short space of time on an instrument that is so unfamiliar, knowing that your part is an essential element of the way that the tune is put together.
Playing steel pans is ideal for creating that balance of individual reliance and team trust. They are particularly an excellent ‘first instrument’ for those wishing to enjoy the benefits of playing in an ensemble. It is a great deal of fun.
Enjoy your journey.