Monday 30 January 2012

Pantomimes at King David School, Liverpool 1974 – 76

Once upon a time, in a strange dark land, there was a Prince Charming and a Dame, some goodies and baddies and lots of terrible jokes, all strung together around songs and dances of one kind or another.
It could have been anywhere, but it was at the King David School in Liverpool. I have already written about my experiences taking part in music at the school and these thoughts came to mind as a result. The moving spirit behind the pantomimes was Mr John Smartt, later to become Headteacher, who at the time was a young teacher in the science department. He was aided and abetted by many teachers, especially his head of department, Mr Kitt. I know that all the teachers who took part committed lots of their own free time without extra pay to make these pantomimes happen.
I am not sure exactly when the whole thing started. I remember my sister Deborah played Prince Charming very well, and enjoyed it immensely, so that would have been 1973, but I don’t know if that was the first one or not. I don’t mean the first Prince Charming, there always has to be a Prince Charming, and I don’t mean the first Prince Charming played by a girl, it’s always like that, and for anyone interested in more serious research, the whole thing goes back to Elizabethan theatre, as described in the film Shakespeare in Love, which reminds me of a great joke by the writer Sir Tom Stoppard. The plan was for this to be a team building experience for Lower Sixth students, called Year 12 now, and US equivalent of 11th Grade; not talking in Elizabethan terms, now we’re back in the gloomy 70’s. I think more or less the whole year group took part, as there was plenty to do, between set building and painting, administration, acting, music and dancing.
In 1975 it was my year group’s chance to take part, and I got involved in the band to play the music for Robin Hood and his Merry Men. We had great fun and this was a very different experience from playing orchestral parts or in a recorder ensemble. This was a much more spontaneous activity, making up bits of music to cover walk ons and offs, and finding the right song to fill a particular moment in the script to cover a costume change or a scene change. Vamp until ready…  Yes, we learnt a lot about not being prima donnas because the music was certainly there to support the rest of the show, not always as the main attraction. There even moments when we sat out, while a dance group chose a recorded song because they thought that suited their dance movements better… not of course we weren’t offended… promise.
I remember Mr Smartt let me include a couple of little songs I wrote and this was a special treat, getting to hear your own music performed by your friends and for a large audience. One of Mr Smartt’s great strengths was bringing out the best in his students and encouraging us to have a go.
I am not going to list names of pupils who took part in the pantomimes so it would be great to hear from those past pupils who took part. I hope you will fill in some of the blanks in my memory and correct any twists which have crept in over the years.
Now, tell me children, where on earth is Mr Smartt? He’s behind you, behind you!

How to choose a university Part Two

In  Part One of this post   I relate the experiences of a number of students known to me who, for one reason or another, decided to take a year to repeat their university applications.
I would like to recommend students considering this option to keep in touch with their school. This can be a bit disconcerting: it can be embarrassing to admit that you did not get that cherished place at your dream university; maybe the school adviser/counselor gave certain pieces of advice that you did not follow; maybe you think the adviser/counselor did not provide all the help you think they could have; perhaps you think you have grown out of school now.
Whatever the case, it is important that you are in contact with the school, and I suggest you keep in touch with more than one person in case the person who processed your first application changes job or leaves the school.
Why is this important?
Firstly, because of the timing of your applications. If you start a new activity or project after you leave school, it is likely to start in September or later. Bearing in mind the applications need to be written and ready before the end of December, and even in October in the case of certain UK and US institutions, your supervisor in your new project is not going to have much time to make an evaluation. The last thing you need is a reference or recommendation that is so lukewarm, vague and noncommittal that it is worthless as support for your application.
Secondly, because it is possible that the requirements of the application process are not going to be very well known by your supervisor in your new project. If it is a long time since this person made their own university application, or if they made it in a different country, or never applied to university, it will be difficult for them to appreciate the importance of what they write and the need to keep to deadlines in the application procedure.
Thirdly, the project/activity you devise for yourself in July with great enthusiasm and youthful optimism might not work out in the cold light of day, and you will be left having to justify the way you are spending your time when you complete your application.
Imagine how much easier all this will be if you discuss it fully with your school adviser/counselor in advance. I suggest you ask them to agree to be your referee for your repeat application, and they can make clear on the application form that this is the case. You need to ask them to make contact with your new project supervisor: if the project works out, your school adviser/counselor can write the recommendation by describing what you are doing and where, and including comments which they garner from your new supervisor. That way, your adviser/counselor will make sure the procedure is followed correctly and on time.
If your planned project does not work out, your adviser/counselor can confirm that you had explored your plans with him/her earlier in the year, and can help explain the reasons why things did not work out.
Finally, you never know if there will be a moment in the application process when the selectors arrive at a decisive point and they need to clarify something at short notice. I know of a case where an international student had a message from his first choice institution, where he was applying for the second time. The message asked him for proof of his level of English. The candidate had studied in English medium schools and had passed all his IGCSE’s and AS levels and A levels all in English. He had not thought it necessary to take any of the English language exams. In the event, he contacted his old headteacher, who immediately phoned the university and, on top of confirming the candidate’s excellent level of English, took the opportunity to reaffirm all the reasons why the candidate should be offered a place. Thanks to this intervention the story ended happily and the candidate is now studying at the university of his choice. I am convinced the headteacher’s call was decisive in this case, and it would have been much more difficult if the student had not involved the headteacher in his plans from the beginning.
While we are talking about level of proficiency in English, I suggest you take a recognized exam to prove you level of English. For many universities, just knowing that you have studied at an international school is not sufficient, they need evidence of your standard in use of English. So, get organized and take an exam. One of the very worthwhile alternatives is TOEFL
This is what their web site says:
"The TOEFL test is the most widely respected English-language test in the world, recognized by more than 8,000 colleges, universities and agencies in more than 130 countries. Wherever you want to study, the TOEFL test can help you get there."

Another very worthwhile resource for online guidance is i-student, which I have written about in an earlier post: 

I hope you find these suggestions useful. I know that at the grand old age of 18 the last thing you want is to rely on your old school, but when it comes to the complex and competitive process of university applications, the more help you get, the better, and especially when that help comes from persons who have known you for years, and whom you know and trust.

Friday 27 January 2012

Guided tours at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

On a visit to Amsterdam recently I had an unexpected free morning so I made the most of my chance to visit the Van Gogh Museum 

As I got to the entrance I found a large group of pupils from a local primary school, not altogether attentive to their teacher’s requests for quiet and to form an orderly line. In fact, it was clear that some of them wouldn’t even have been there, given the choice.

What a delight it was to see the same children, half an hour later, as they were given their guided tour by the museum’s expert educators. Here was one group, open-eyed at the guide’s explanation of painting techniques and brush strokes as they stood in front of the sunflower field painting; there was another group obediently raising their hands to answer questions about the artist’s last works, and here were the children of another group copying the guide as he half covered his eyes to gain insights into yet another masterpiece.

I have written before about the great work at another museum, the CaixaForum Museum in Madrid 
where I was impressed by the wide range of activities on offer. I have also noted in another post how the Netherlands are working hard to fund arts institutions to promote social inclusion in the arts 

For families who take their own children to the Van Gogh Museum there is plenty to do, including a free treasure hunt, a children’s audio tour and workshops for children at the weekend. According to the museum’s brochure, children can even celebrate their birthday party there.

For myself, I was pleasantly surprised to see works by a number of Van Gogh’s friends and colleagues, including Paul Gaugin and Henri Toulouse Lautrec.

So, for full information visit the website, or follow the Van Gogh Museum on Twitter:  @vangoghmuseum

Thanks to the Van Gogh Museum for a great exhibition, and congratulations to their expert educator/guides for bringing the greatness of this painter into the lives of young children. 

Thursday 26 January 2012

Teenage fashion in 1975

In an earlier post I wrote about a language exchange which I did in 1975 with a German student.
 Guido Block-Küntzler was my host then when we were both 17. I am very happy to be back in touch with him thanks to him stumbling upon me on the web.

 Here we are on a day out which Guido’s parents very kindly organized for us. Note the matching tops and trousers which were de rigeur, and just look at the width of those trousers: bell bottoms they were called, and with good reason. My suit was beige, and yes of course I am embarrassed to look at it now, but then it was well, also embarrassing. Please do note the platform shoes: this photo should be encouragement enough, if any were ever needed, to avoid a return of platforms at all cost.

 Another jewel, here we are visiting a writer’s house. The anoraks are timeless, just the dingly things on the end of the pull through string are amazing.... but I think special mention must be made of the wing shirt's tip collar, maybe not easy to distinguish in the photo, but it’s definitely worth a try looking: those points could slice a coconut at 50 paces.   And the hair, just long enough to be really irritating, neither 50’s short back & sides nor sixties shoulder length!

I must have paper copies of these photos somewhere. For those readers who are digital natives, I apologise for the picture quality and I should remind you there was a time when you had to take a film of your photos out of the camera and take it to a shop, pay an extraordinary amount of money for each one to be processed and printed, and then get told off by your parents for taking so many photos where the light, the colour, the shadow, the trees or whatever it was had come out wrong: usually most of your photos didn’t work out the way you hoped and were an expensive waste of time. Yes, that was when Kodak ruled the photo world, and now they are filing for bankruptcy, apparently…..

Guido has very kindly been in touchy again to update me on his family’s health and to send me these photos from those long gone days. Here is the beautiful town of Schlitz in the province of Oberhessen, where he lived at the time:

The other part of the exchange took place in my home town of Liverpool, but that’s a different story.
Thanks, Guido for the photos and the trip back to the 70’s. To other readers, hope you enjoyed seeing some genuine teenage fashion from the 70’s.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

A short story: Great bike, no brakes!

There are nearly 100 posts here and they are all fact-based. I suppose it’s about time I took a little diversion and used my blog to post my first fictional piece. A blog can be many things, including a way to publish your own short story for free. Happy reading!

Great bike, no brakes!

At first the slope was gentle and it made pedaling easy and then unnecessary, then the gradient became more pronounced and it made the ride exciting, and then the hill became a steep descent and I felt the bike was just going too fast and it was time to slow down and it was then that I realized the difference between English and German bikes.
My German hosts were charming, caring and generous. My exchange partner and I got on well and we enjoyed a relaxing summer as 17 year olds do. When he suggested we use his and his sister´s bikes to go to spend the day out in the countryside I readily agreed. Could I ride a bike, they asked, of course I could, I replied, have been riding since I was five. I did take a quick look over the bike as they brought it out of the garage and it struck me that there was something different between this German bike and the bikes I had ridden in England but I didn’t work out what it was at that moment: obviously it wasn’t important.
Obviously yes it was important: the difference between English and German bikes was that the second kind had no brakes on the handlebars. Yes it was important and yes I was hurtling down an increasingly steep gradient and it was the second kind that I was riding and why why oh why were there no brakes on the handlebars? There had to be brakes, all the bikes I had ridden in England had brakes on the handlebars, my bike my brother’s bike, even my friend David’s bike, a very fancy one which I had managed to scratch by riding it across the school sports field. Anyway, they all had brakes, expect this bike I was riding now. Because it was German. I could hear my friend, he was shouting something very loud in a very concerned voice a few feet behind me. Yes, I suppose he would have calculated the distance in metres not in feet and yes, safely was the word. But not me, I was feeling increasingly less safe and yes I could  hear the words but no I could not understand the meaning because I was only working towards my A level, I had not actually taken it yet. Maybe if we had got past chapter 1 of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice I would have had the necessary vocabulary to solve this ever nearer Death In Small town in Germany.
Down I went, faster and faster and closer to the bottom of the hill. This should have been a relief, but getting closer meant I could see the STOP sign at the T junction where one road was a minor one and the other was a major one with very fast traffic, cars and lorries which were not required to, and which had no intention of stopping. Faster and faster I went and closer and closer I got to the T junction and its STOP sign and its fast cars and louder and more insistent became my friend’s exhortations to stop, or whatever it was he was saying, I guessed it by the context, which is what our excellent, expert and kindly German teacher had taught us, if you’re not 100% sure take a guess by the context. But she was back in Liverpool, or maybe in Ibiza or wherever it was she spent her summer holiday and I was on a bike bound for Hell.
Whoooooosh, I passed the STOP sign at the side of the road, I crossed the thick white line with STOP in large letters on the ground and I whisked past in front of a car coming at me from the right and I just missed the rear end of a car which had just gone by on the left and I rode on until I came to a stop in a ploughed field on the far side of the road. Stop, I stopped. I can still see the face, and above the scared wide eyes of the driver in the first car, an innocent German, minding his own business one sunny summer afternoon driving in an orderly way along a major highway, only to be stunned by the sight of a Liverpool youth on a girl’s bike flashing past his windscreen. A German girl’s bike, and that is the point. Had it been an English bike, boy’s or girl’s I would have stopped. But most certainly it was not an English bike, it was a German bike, and on German bikes, at least that bike that day in that German small town, you slowed down not by squeezing anything on the handlebars but by back pedaling.
How could I know that? I thought. How could I not know that? He thought, as he looked on ashen face, still safely and obediently stopped at the STOP sign on the other side of the road. And how could he know that I did not know?
We cannot always ask the questions we need to ask because sometimes we don’t know that we don’t know something. I know that I learnt a lot from this experience and I am grateful that my bike ride stopped short in a ploughed field, before getting to you know where…  

Tuesday 24 January 2012

How organisations improve

Why improving what we do is not enough
There are organizations which are cursed with the culture of IMPROVING WHAT WE DO.  Of course, we all have to always be actively engaged in improving what we do. The virtue becomes a curse where the culture of IMPROVING WHAT WE DO  is a tagged by the culture of NOT INVENTED HERE. Not being willing to receive ideas from outside, closing our minds to opportunities and proposals because they are introduced to us by someone outside our circle, this is a summing up of the NOT INVENTED HERE mindset.
I know of an organization which has been active in its field for just over 60 years. A  certain group of people joined the organization at a moment of great change in the late 1980’s and several of them have lodged themselves in positions where they exercise a power which is disproportionate to their level of seniority.
At the moment in question, more than 20 years ago, the organization was a market  leader   and a point of reference for all competitors as well as being a firm favourite with its customers. During this time, this group of people have dedicated themselves to improving what the organization does and they are now doing those things much better than ever before.
Yet this group of well intentioned staffers have actually been undermining the organization and bringing its continuity into question. There are several reasons:
What made the organization so successful 20 years ago was that it was offering services which none of its competitors had the human capital to implement.  However, competitors have trained their staff or brought in external expertise and the organization has lost its unique character which is what gave it its competitive advantage.
Many of the features which made the organization a leader 20 years ago are not actually current in the sector concerned, so, by concentrating on IMPROVING WHAT WE DO, these workers have perfected a range of products/services which are obsolete. It’s as if they have made a perfect manual washing apparatus. They love it but nobody wants it.
The staff as a whole is becoming disenchanted and morale is through the floor. Productivity is declining and with it the index of customer satisfaction. The IMPROVING WHAT WE DO  has driven away talented staff who were open to innovation and has stifled the initiatives of those were ready to bring in those necessary changes when they joined the organization.
Lastly, the staffers have been so busy IMPROVING WHAT WE DO  that they have had no time or inclination to take a look around at the changing nature of their market and they are simply not now able to offer the services which their competitors offer: the situation has now gone into reverse, and this organization has a human capital deficit which requires urgent attention with external expertise.
When a virtue is contaminated by a vice, there is little hope for an organization, and the following formula is a recipe for disaster:
IMPROVING WHAT WE DO + NOT INVENTED HERE. Simply doing what we do better is not enough.

Do Germans use social media?

Yes of course they do, you already know that. I know that now too, because of an email that made me very happy and which resulted from a link to my blog at LabforCulture LabforCulture exists to promote networking between persons working in cultural activities around Europe. I registered there a while ago and have been pleased to make a small number of contacts. Then, out of the blue I had a message via LabforCulture asking me if I was THE Timothy Jones from Liverpool who had been involved in a student exchange with a certain German youth.
The writer was in fact  Guido Block-Künzler, the 17 year old from Schlitz who visited my family in Liverpool and who then welcomed me to Germany. Neither of us are 17 anymore, in fact that was all more than 35 years ago. Sadly, we did not keep in touch after the exchange, and this has been the first news of Guido. I will not tell you his personal details, but I will say that he is a publisher of travel books for the German market, specialising in Spain and above all its islands. His interest is in conservation of areas of natural value, so the (over)development of the coastline on the Spanish islands has kept him busy writing. How interesting that we have both established such strong ties to Spain!
 In 1975, the year before visiting Guido´s family I went to Berlin with the Liverpool Youth Jazz Ensemble, led by two brave and exceptional music teachers: Mr Ray Mulholland and Mr Brian McAllister. We performed in homes for senior citizens and at a youth music event at the recently built Berlin Philharmonic Hall. Yes, I said 1975 and we did cross the border and yes armed guards did check our passports as we entered and left the eastern zone.  I had a family holiday in Berlin in 2008 and took a group of students there in 2009, and we got to know a generation of young Germans who have never known a divided country.
You can read a report on the studying of German by the Spanish and Spanish by the Germans
 Thank you, Guido, for getting in touch, and my apologies for not having done so during the last 35 years: what have I been doing all this time?
And thanks to LabforCulture for making it possible for us to be in touch again. 

Monday 23 January 2012

Job vacancies in the cultural sector

Q: When is a jobs listing site not a jobs listing site?
A: When it contains so much information that the listing of vacancies represents only a part of the site’s interest.
This is true of two European sites: LabforCulture and FábricaCultural 
LabforCulture describes itself as: The networking platform for information on European arts and culture. Linking you across borders
Among the job vacancies currently listed here are a few:
·         Event Manager / Dancer / Choreographer: Interested in any organisation 
Denmark , Denmark / Danmark
·         EU funding expert in culture: Civil Association CODE 
Belgrade, European Countries outside the EU
·         Actor and clown : Risos e Sorrisos 
Porto , Portugal
·         Short Term Experts (cultural policy): Regional Monitoring and Capacity Building Unit 
Not fixed; Armenia; Belarus; Moldova, Austria / Österreich

LabforCulture serves as a platform for campaigning in favour of support for the arts, it offers a forum for young researchers and promotes a responsible debate about climate change and the place of the arts in that debate. The great thing is that membership is open, making it possible for persons from disparate backgrounds and workplaces to contact each other. LabforCulture provides updated information on festivals, conferences and events of interest around Europe. All of this is thanks to funding from numerous public and private sources, all of which are identified and acknowledged.
Among the current crop of writing on the site is a piece highlighting Ludmila Petrova´s work in The changing dynamics between artistic creativity, economy and cultural policy, based on her research for her PhD at the in Rotterdam.
I enjoyed Ludmila Petrova's article  very much as she tackles the difficult questions of public finance of the arts, how accountability in the arts needs to be approached differently from other areas of public support, and the extra challenges faced in the light of the economic problems. Hers is an extensive article in a Q&A format: I will just highlight a few points here and hope that you will go directly to the source to read on.
Ludmila Petrova is clear that lumping all artistic activity together for the sake of bean counting is not a satisfactory approach: the creative industries, which undoubtedly generate revenue for private profit and the public purse, and which New Labour used to crown Cool Britannia (squirm), need a more refined critique. Quality is an absolute pre-requisite:
 With my research I suggest that creativity and innovation are characteristics we cannot take as granted for all art, instead they show themselves only when they yields qualitative changes within the existing art domain, succeed to transform an old one in a new one or to create a new one. “
At the same time, quality and outcomes have to be promoted and measured differently from other areas of public life and spending. The very nature of genuine artistic creativity depends on an environment of freedom and is unpredictable in its results, all of which places more hurdles on the difficult path to meeting official targets and statistical analysis.
“What plays a critical role here is the fact that on one side, policy instruments are constrained by clear objectives and norms, derived from specific institutional settings including administrative procedures. And on the other, artistic creativity is driven by values of freedom, nonconformity and authenticity.”
She has some practical suggestions for cultural organizations faced with the task of finding increased financial support:
 “to rethink their marketing strategies to attract new audience and extend the old one; to reassess their price formation; to discover possibilities for additional support from donation, sponsorship and income from merchandising of products and services.
Ludmila Petrova´s work in the  CREARE Summer School in Cultural Economics with Arjo Klamer is also detailed in this article, and will be of interest to many.
You can read another perspective on arts funding in the Netherlands featuring Janneke van der Wijk,  Director of the Muziek Centrum Nederland  in my review of a conference which took place in Madrid on Social Inclusion.
I also have written a review of a recent European Union paper on culture

I have written before  about Fabricacultural, the Spain based site. 
I mention it again because it is related to the work of LabforCulture, its dual funding is also similar, and because there are so many interesting things to read there. The latest jobs vacancies bulletin includes posts not only in Europe but also in the USA, and  there is an updated list of courses and workshops to browse.

Both Fabricacultural and LabforCulture offer a fascinating range of contacts, news, research and opinion pieces over and above what so many persons in Europe and around the world are interested in at the moment: job vacancies. 

How to choose a university

Several former students have been in touch with me recently to give me an update on their progress at university, and I was intrigued also by a couple of references in Niall Ferguson´s latest book: Civilization, The West and the Rest. Here are a few thoughts.
One Spanish young man is studying at Boston University  and says he notices two distinct groups: those who are there to have 4 years of fun, and those who are there to study to the limit. Of course he is in the second group and, although he finds himself working very hard, he feels confident that he is among the highest achievers on his course. I expected to read on something like: so I am happily settled here. In fact, he wrote that, as he was doing well and in such tantalisingly close proximity to the leading institutions which he applied for last year, unsuccessfully, he was going to apply for transfer to Harvard or Princeton or MIT 

I think this young man has taken a sensible approach: he applied for several extremely competitive institutions, and he applied to others that were more accessible and would also provide him with a satisfying and challenging academic experience. This first year has made him more prepared, not less, to reapply to his dream colleges, and has been a year well spent. The win win outcomes are that he does achieve the place of his dreams or that he continues at Boston U, a worthy destination if ever there was one, in spite of Mr. Zuckerberg´s sly comment to his never-to-be (fictional) girlfriend in The Social Network. A visitor to Madrid from Boston U was delighted to tell me that many scenes from the film were actually filmed at BU.
For full information on applications to universities in the USA, visit the College Board If you are fortunate to find a branch of the Fulbright Association 
near you, contact their Education Adviser: they are not in principle set up to advise on undergraduate admissions, but their staff are very knowledgeable and can be really nice people to get to know. In my experience, one of the things they will tell you is to broaden your search to include more than the top ten world famous institutions. I cannot agree more with this premise: the important thing is to find the right fit for the student´s aspirations and leanings.
I recently heard a great concert by ensembles from  Shepherd University from West Virginia 
The Choral Director is Dr Erik Jones 
A Spanish young woman applied to a top British uni a year ago and was not successful, so she started a course in the same subject area in Madrid and applied again, slightly broadening her scope to include a more accessible uni in her list as well as the most exclusive ones. This strategy was also successful, and she is now settled in a very competitive uni studying exactly the course she wanted.
On the other hand, another Spanish young woman was disappointed by her grades and settled for a uni in the UK which was not among her first choices, neither is it recognized as being a challenging uni. The result has been three years of frustration as she has found her ambitious, serious attitudes to study ill-fitting with the relaxed pace of professors and fellow students.
For full information on application to UK universities, visit UCAS and Education UK
 The case of the IE University    in Segovia, Spain is really interesting. Here is a very new uni, less than 10 years since its foundation, which has an excellent programme of studies free of hangovers of tired traditionalists, and with an obligatory element of internships and a well established network of international opportunities for students.  While working at  my former school I was invited to visit and was delighted to meet some ex students from my school who were effusive about their experience there in Segovia. When the time came for my school´s universities fair, the IE University took the inspired decision to send their current students, alumni of my school, to represent the uni. The result was striking, and the number of students from my former school attending IE University has grown steadily. The curious thing is that IE Uni  grew out of the extremely highly regarded IE Business school in Madrid, and many of the current generation of parents are satisfied alumni of the business school. Needless to say, they are more than happy to enroll their own sons and daughters to make the most of the undergraduate experience that IE University has to offer.
The IE Uni has an exchange programme with top universities in China, and I was delighted to accompany a group of Visiting students from Beijing 
For extensive information see Universities in Spain    Google translator will help you if your Spanish is not great.
It is not by any means always a snobbery issue that drives students to apply to the most demanding institutions, and the cases I have cited are a key to this. It is vitally important that young people find an environment which satisfies their intellectual style and which challenges them academically to the maximum but not beyond their limitations. It has been a pleasure to follow certain young people through their uni, and to hear them say that this is the place they belong, with all the huge effort and pressure that goes with that, they have found their soul mates with the same passion for learning in general, and for their subject in particular.

A very worthwhile online guidance resource is i-Student, which I have written about in an earlier post:
Whatever you do, don´t let attitudes like those of Niall Ferguson guide your way…. In his latest book, Niall Ferguson makes a couple of references to the universities where certain characters studied. As the book is worth reading I won´t tell you the whole story, just to say that his attitude to unis is worth critical attention. In a footnote on page 273 he writes about a certain person from the entertainment business: “JK, (Charterhouse and Trinity, Cambridge)”. This person’s school and university details bear no relevance to the tale being told: it´s as if he´s saying, how could anyone from such an impeccable uni have got mixed up in what he did? Or is he poking fun at the Cambridge world because he is a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford?
Then, on page 290, he makes a comment when writing about a young man born and raised in the UK, and makes a snide reference to an institution that is providing for the needs of its local community. Does the uni deserve this treatment just because it is not among the most competitive in the UK? “(ST) was not uneducated, in so far as a degree in sports science from Leeds Metropolitan University counts as an education.”  For someone who spends his time taking cash from Harvard, Stanford and Oxford, writing a comment like that is not clever and it´s a pity the phrase survived the book’s editing process. 

So, when choosing a university or college, do make sure it is an environment that suits your learning style and aspirations, and also do give yourself a worthwhile Plan B, and be brave enough, if necessary, and if you are fortunate to have financial support, to consider the Plan C of taking a year to try again where you did not succeed the first time. 

By all means don´t be influenced by the Niall Ferguson style of snobbery.

Afrodisian Orchestra: Starting European musical history all over again!

“Satie was, in a manner of speaking, starting European musical history all over again”.
Right, Alex Ross is way over the top, but then what else can you expect from someone who titles his collection of essays on 20th century music: The Rest is Noise I read this line, on page 49, on the way out before going to Madrid´s brilliant jazz bar  Sala Clamores
I went to Sala Clamores to  hear the Afrodisian Orchestra playing their latest offering,  featuring arrangements for big band of Satie´s works for piano. This was a classy gig by a classy outfit. Things took time to warm up, partly because, let´s be honest, we only really know the Gymnopedie piece, and the director held that back until the end of the second half, and partly because there were several  tunes in a gentle three four beat, which did not generate the most  energetic response.
Still, on these gentle tunes there was some exquisite solo work, above all on saxes. There was an extremely interesting use of clarinet in several of the tunes, giving a welcome touch of Ellington. In the second set the Afrodisian Orchestra played tunes from their previous cd´s, and this included an amazing screaming trumpet solo by Freddie Hurtado, which for me was worth turning out for all by itself.  The grand finale was the Gymnopedie, difficult to balance the major 7ths which Satie places often in the middle of the chord on the piano, and resolving this conundrum for a big band is not simple. Step forward Miguel Ángel Blanco, and you see his magic at work in this, as in all the other arrangements. 
Several years ago I saw him lead a wonderful big band in his superb arrangements created to showcase the trumpeter Jerry González  I am sure that many of us in the Centro Cultural de la Villa, as it was then called, expected to see the formation, fronted by Jerry, and masterminded by Miguel Ángel Blanco, sweeping across Europe to headline jazz festivals in one country after another. The musical material was excellent and the arrangements were fantastic, full of interesting voicings and exciting rhythms. 
So what happened to that project? I was thinking about this just now as I was reading a book about the band leader and trumpeter Harry James, world famous for his success as a crossover artist from hit jazz to commercial music in the ‘40s in the US. He is also (in)famous for his use of vibrato as an expressive element in his playing. The point is that, according to  "Trumpet Blues - the life of Harry James" by Peter J. Levinson, Harry James suffered 3 years of hardship on the road and near bankruptcy as he tried to make a go of running his own band.
Certainly it is not an easy business, but I would like to have seen more of the Jerry González project with Miguel Ángel Blanco, and I know I am not the only one. I must remember to ask my friend Kevin Robb who was among the excellent sax section that night, what became of it all.
Thank you, the Afrodisian Orchestra for a great concert, and for transporting many of us who have enjoyed playing the Gymnopedie alone at the piano into a different sound world, amplifying the expressive range of this beautiful music.
 For reviews of other jazz concerts, see these earlier posts:
 When all is said and done, maybe you have to forgive Alex Ross his hyberbole, because his heart is in the right place, and nobody can be all bad who describes the eccentric French composer’s impact as:
 “the supernatural poignancy of Erik Satie”

Digital branding guarantees success

Or does it? I was at a conference for educators recently and a speaker extolled the values of digital branding, firstly for schools, secondly for students and finally for teachers.
Reaction from the audience was entirely positive in the first case: we are accustomed to schools using a high quality web presence and social media   to develop the brand and strengthen links with actual and potential customers. Most teachers are happy with this and understand that it helps to fill our classes and keep our salary coming.
In the second instance most listeners showed some enthusiasm tempered with some reservations. Digital branding is seen by some as a means for students to enhance their college/university applications and/or to lay the groundwork for a career. As far as college/university applications go, students may well be able to impress selectors with their digital achievements once they get to an interview stage. Nevertheless, whether it be via the College Board in the USA or UCAS in the UK , the most important hurdle is the application form, and students will not do themselves any favours if they distract their energies from making their very best shot at that essential application.
Other worries relate to students wishing to change their pathways. Imagine a student who sets up a digital profile which professes a life long passion for Medicine and then decides they wish or need to change to, say Chemistry. Or then again, what about when the late teens turn into a twenty-something and find the content, mood or tone of their earlier digital brand no longer suits: while updating an identity is easy enough, it is not yet sufficiently clear that we can erase our digital footprint, which might have got fixed somewhere as a digital fossil.
When it came to the third example there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm: the idea of digital branding for teachers did not strike a chord with the listeners on this occasion. Here are three main areas of concern:
Firstly, it was thought that many teachers are simply too shy/modest/humble to establish a digital brand for themselves because they see it as an act of self promotion;
Secondly, for a teacher to promote their work involves showing and sharing work which has been done using time and resources of their employer, a school, and there is an ethical question mark about this. Does the work belong to the teacher, or can ownership be claimed also by the school? It will, in many cases, involve the use of images showing our students or their work and there are concerns about their right to privacy and the notion that students might wish later in life that they had not persuaded their parents so enthusiastically to allow their images/work to be used by that nice teacher Mr/s X.  A digital brand for a teacher is difficult to separate from that of their employer. Even if a teacher writes in the abstract and refers to “my students”, for better or for worse the teacher’s workplace will be known and s/he is actually identifying all students of that school, or identifying individual students and neither case is entirely problem free.
Thirdly, who is the audience for a teacher’s digital branding exercise?  If the goal is to further the teacher’s career, the target audience is a future employer, namely a Principal/ Headteacher. The listeners in attendance at the conference were certainly not convinced that all Principals would necessarily welcome a job candidate’s digital branding. The Guardian is currently running a campaign to correct what it sees as the inadequate understanding and use of information technology in British schools.
I know on good authority of a meeting where the most senior leader of a school asked senior staff to review and scale back the use of technology because over the weekend he and his wife had watched a video called “The Social Netting or something like that” and this person of many years experience in school leadership had discovered, thanks to David Fincher’s film, that “these people can find out all sorts of things using computers.” Do not laugh, that is absolutely true: a senior school leader basing his school’s IT development on a Hollywood movie  whose title he cannot even remember correctly! Is he the only one?
Against this background, who would wish to stake their future employment prospect on their digital brand? A brave soul, to be sure. 
If you want to pursue the idea, a great person to follow is Kathryn Corrick. I have written about a Kathryn Corrick training day  and on her own page she shares some advice which she gave recently to university students on a MA course at the University of East Anglia in England. She generously shares the whole presentation, and it is worth careful look. It will be best for you to go to the source: Kathryn Corrick - Marketing Yourself  In the presentation she covers Blogs, Marketing Yourself and Networking, among other topics, and Kathryn Corrick’s work has two great strengths in addition to really attractive presentation: her training always includes practical advice which is realistic to follow and is based on her own experience; secondly, her research is constantly updated and she shares with her trainees the most authoritative statistics and graphics currently available from a huge array of sources.
I am not convinced that digital branding guarantees success, and I will be on the lookout for teachers who are active in this area.

Music at King David School Liverpool 1969 –76

An affectionate, if occasionally unintentionally inaccurate, appreciation of the legacy of Mr Maurice Shifrin.
Spring 1969, it was our last year in Primary before moving up into Secondary (equivalent to 5th Grade US). After all the neat, tidy and clever children had asked for violin, ´cello and flute, I put my hand up and asked for a trumpet. My teacher laughed out loud and said, “What do you think you are going to do with a trumpet?”
It was all as new and surprising to our teacher as it was to us: the chance for every child to be loaned an instrument and to receive free lessons on that instrument when we started the next term at the Secondary school. The details were not very clear to me, in fact very few things were clear to that little 11 year old whose main concern at school was there was never enough time to play football. All I knew was that I wanted to be like Louis Armstrong, whose playing I had heard in the film High Society. He made such a beautiful sound on the trumpet, he played amazingly high notes and dazzlingly quick runs, and on top of everything he seemed so happy. If playing the trumpet could make you as happy as Satchmo, I wanted one.    
The school orchestra was formed shortly after the tuition began in September of 1969, as the school was transformed by the number of pupils taking lessons and was in the fortunate position of having every part in every section of the orchestra covered. My sister Deborah played the violin. Orchestra rehearsals were held on Tuesdays after school, with a Milky Way for each student to boost our energy level. It was there that we often saw Mr Shifrin. He would come into the hall and sit quietly at the back, never interfering in the rehearsal, just occasionally greeting the players with a friendly wave.
It was only gradually that I understood how this had all come about. Mr Shifrin retired from the kitchen furniture business that he had successfully built up and sold out to a national chain, maybe MFI. He was committed to the local Jewish community, had a deep knowledge of and love for music, and valued education very highly.  When it came to making good use of the proceeds from the sale of his business, he wanted to combine all of these elements. In time he decided to establish a foundation which would provide a whole set of orchestral instruments and tuition fees for a seven year period for pupils at the King David, the school which had been founded by the Jewish community in Liverpool in 1957. There was also a strong Drama department at the nearby Jewish youth club but I had no direct experience of that.
The school orchestra’s founding conductor was Mr Jenkins. He had vast experience of youth orchestras and was an excellent violinist, making him an ideal choice for this role. It was while Mr Jenkins was conducting us that the orchestra was assembled for a special session and Mr Shifrin  brought along Sir Yehudi Menuhen, who spoke kind words of encouragement to us all and played briefly.
With Mr Jenkins we worked through the OUP school orchestra scores including Pictures at an Exhibition, among other repertoire. I recall that it was he who conducted the orchestra at our first public performance, on the stage of the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. I wish I could say that we had made such meteoric progress in one year that we deserved a billing at this magnificent concert hall, but there are too many people who were present then and who will remember that the reason for the setting was that the school prize giving, or Speech Day, was held there, and we simply had the wonderful good fortune to tag along. I recall that we played the English and Israeli national anthems as part of the performance.
The RLPO played a very important part in England’s musical life as a stable and well supported ensemble and as a permanent feature of Liverpool life. The principle conductor during these years was Sir Charles Groves: while he was not the most fashionable conductor, he had a profound affinity with music by the 20th century’s English composers and championed the works of Vaughan Williams, Delius and Elgar to such an extent that concert goers in Liverpool heard their music more than other audiences around the country.
I remembered this in 2008 when I visited Liverpool with my students from Madrid and we were given a guided tour of the Philharmonic Hall by a member of the RLPO education department.  The hall has been substantially renovated recently but the celebrated acoustic appears to sound as good as ever. In 2010  I attended a conference on Social Inclusion through Music Education in Madrid, and was impressed, along with the other listeners, to hear an admirable account of the RLPO’s contemporary work by Peter Garden:   
Conference on Social Inclusion 

Mr Roy Watson followed Mr Jenkins and he worked  in a very different way. Mr Watson had recently left his post as Principal double bass player at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO), he was a very extrovert person and loved to perform at every opportunity. I remember him playing through movements of Beethoven sonatas at the piano as we filed into the school hall for assemblies. He produced endless hand-written scores for us of his own arrangements for the orchestra and he copied them on his very own personal photocopier: nobody had one in those days. He had this photocopier at his home, and we knew that because he very generously organized occasional parties for us at his home. He was a larger than life figure, a great musician, and a true artist who had no doubt about the value of the arts in his life, in his pupils’ lives or in society. He used to say that his godfather was the conductor Sir John Barbirolli, and he had an endless supply of stories from the lives of orchestral musicians which he told with great panache.
By this time, around 1974, musical activity in the school was prodigious in quantity and quality. There was a great range of skill levels along the pupils, but there were certainly many who were deeply committed to music making in school, and as well as the orchestra there were chamber music groups including a recorder ensemble, led by Mrs Lukasz, who was a very kind person and was generous with her time in giving my friends and me extra coaching for O level music. I remember she taught us how to remember the names of the dances in the Baroque suite using the acronym ACSOG: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte, the O standing for Others such as Minuet. I recently heard a performance of the Capriol Suite and I remembered how she encouraged us to seek out enough recorders to make up an ensemble with descant, treble tenor and bass: the Capriol Suite was one of the pieces we played. We played innumerable Renaissance pieces and she insisted on respecting the style and character of each period of music. Her husband Zoltan was a bassoonist at the RLPO and also taught at the school.
There were exceptionally gifted students like Maurice Chernick who is now I understand in a senior post in music education and a specialist in Kletzmer music, Dina Bennett who was a gifted pianist and cellist, and Gill Griffiths, a member of the recorder ensemble and a keen flautists. Then there was Russell Harris, who drove us all to distraction because he was a phenomenal bassoonist, thanks to Mr Lukasz’s tuition but also due to his natural flair, yet he never ever seemed to practice and took it all so casually. In one season Simon Rattle, not yet Sir, was conducting the Merseyside Youth Orchestra and contacted Russell  to invite him to play to guarantee a strong  solo at the opening of Stravinsky´s The Rite of Spring. It is my recollection that Russell declined the invitation. The incident did not stop him getting into Oxford a couple of years later.
David Adlington remains in my memory as a great example of a true music lover. He played the clarinet with real dedication and attained a high standard, while keeping his eye on his academic commitments which were to take him into engineering. I cannot hear mention of Schumann without thinking of David, as he spent months rising to the challenge of  playing the Fantasiestücke. Our Headteacher at the time was Mr Beebe, and his daughter Miriam played the piano and, I think, the oboe and was one of the very few among us who composed her own music. For some reason at one point she asked me to play one of her piano compositions at a music festival and I did try to play it, but in the end we all decided she would do much better performing it herself, which she did, very spectacularly. I hope Miriam is still composing and would very much like to hear her music now.
Among the brass players were Ian Rosenthal, Nigel Hiscock and  Julie Baker. In 2004 I met Nigel at a music education conference at the SAGE, Gateshead. He commented that his French Horn teacher, also an RLPO member, had started him on the way to a career playing in London orchestras and later in music administration. Nigel said that he was convinced that he made such progress because his teacher constantly reminded him that stories of the instrument being difficult were nonsense: the French horn is easy when you just do the right things. A masterstroke of educational psychology.
It was great to sit and play trumpet again next to Julie Baker, 30 years after our school days in 2010 when she was part of the Phoenix Concert Orchestra Liverpool tour to Spain, conducted by Jill Hyde. When I heard her in Madrid it was clear that Julie has kept a higher standard of playing than I have now, or ever had. Her tone in the Madrid concerts was just beautiful, full and round and with perfect intonation. It reminded me how it was the sheer beauty of the trumpet tone that first inspired me to play all those years ago. She must be very popular with her pupils, and be in great demand as a performer too. I wrote a few words about the LPCO Tour to Madrid

Of course there were many other pupils playing music at King David at the time, and I hope we can add to this brief summary with their help.
Into this musical maelstrom, with Ms Herman as Head of Music and conductor of the orchestra, stepped Ms Hyde, I think in 1973 or 74, but it could have been earlier. Jill Hyde made a great impact in the school, among other reasons because started a Concert Orchestra to explore light music. The repertoire included tuneful recent English music and film music such as the march from The Dambusters, and selections from musicals like Porgy & Bess. My recollection is that we got through a huge amount of music because we were so highly motivated. Jill has an encyclopedic knowledge of this repertoire, an eagle eye for detail, and an ability to pace the rehearsals to maintain the momentum. Her own work as an accompanist also means that she sees rehearsals and performances from the player’s and not just the conductor’s point of view. We responded with an enthusiasm that produced many really worthwhile concerts and I am convinced the standard was as high in reality as it still sounds in my imagination.   
We gave a seemingly endless stream of performances at school and in music festivals and at Speech Days. I think two words sum up our experience in those days: variety and quality.
Back at the beginning…“That note on the second line is G. Just hold it up, nice and straight, lad, like, level with the floor, blow as hard as you can, and that’s it…”. Gabriel did blow and for all I know he made a perfect G at the first try, but it took me a week just to get a decent sound out of the instrument. Nevertheless, Mr Cull (Albert) had great patience and led me through A Tune a Day week after week, and the note names, signs and symbols and their meaning all fell into place as we went along. I am very grateful to Mr Cull both for his kindly manner and for teaching me to read music in such a way that it never seemed difficult. Training in sight reading is an essential element of music education and sadly, too many teachers make such a meal of it that their students end up battling anxiety as much as crotchets and quavers. Mr Cull regularly told me inspiring stories about his students at the nearby school for the blind, and often remarked that if a blind child could read music with Braille it would be so much easier for me and my friends reading standard notation.
We were extremely fortunate with the team of peripatetic teachers assigned to the school. Several of them were members of the RLPO as was my second teacher, Robert Nicholas. Mr Nicholas was a most excellent player and simply listening to his demonstration was an inspiration to practise more and to refine the tone quality. Mr Nicholas was exemplary in his respect for a wide range of musical styles: he treated every piece he played and taught with the attention to detail, phrasing and sound that was appropriate. 
One of the woodwind teachers was Mr McAllister, and it was he who invited me to join the Liverpool Youth Jazz Orchestra, based at the city´s music centre. Brian McAllister’s first love was jazz and big band music and his skill as a teacher was matched by his skill as a performer, equally proficient on clarinet, saxophone and flute. I performed with his LYJO on numerous occasions, including a tour to Berlin, but that’s another story….
I was happy to return to King David in 2008 with my students from Madrid. The hall was still there, but was about to be demolished to make way for a brand new building, and the piano was also there, and playing it was a very moving experience for me. I know that over the years some extremely important musical personalities have emerged from the school, and I hope someone else with first hand knowledge will take up this story. I hope readers will accept my apologies in advance for the persons I have not mentioned, to add information and correct my mistakes: memory is a funny thing and this account is certainly not complete. 

You can read about pantomimes at the King David from 1974-76

There are many more people who made an important contribution to this story: the important thing is that they did succeed in making a reality of what Mr Shifrin set out to do. 

My thanks to all of them, and of course to Mr Shifrin, whose generosity touched and changed our lives.