Music makes us one… but not the same

I’ve just read @puffles2010’s latest blog (ok, ok, his bestest buddy, we all know dragon fairies can’t play musical instruments – or can they??) about learning to play a musical instrument and exams. Having studied music up to degree level I knew I’d have some feelings of my own on the subject, and was interested to see how my experiences compared.

In the main I agree with the sentiment expressed that studying music can utterly rip the joy out of it, but the experiences that lead me to that feeling were very different, and I certainly don’t think that this is the case for everybody.  For me, it wasn’t taking grade exams that almost ruined playing a musical instrument (or in my case, singing and composing), it was university.

I loved music at school.  I didn’t start learning until I was 11 (which was ancient compared to my other musical friends) but once I did, I made up for lost time and then some.  My school had a fantastic music department, and the Head of Music became my singing teacher and mentor (and a fantastic one to boot). I skipped most of the grades, doing Grade 2, 4, 5 and 8 on piano and 5, 7 and 8 on voice. Exams were targets for me to work towards, and I was always well-prepared (apart from one exam, which fortunately was counterbalanced by a wealth of positive experiences).   I also enjoyed studying for my GCSE and A Levels in music, again, positive targets for me.  As I finished school I was very much looking forward to studying music at university.

This is where my experience falls into line with Puffles – basically, doing a Music degree sucked the life out of it.  It wasn’t fun anymore.  I know that some people would argue that you go to university to study and that is serious, however, when you start to hate the thing you once loved, something has clearly gone very wrong.  I became withdrawn (which most people who know me would find extremely surprising) and eventually developed an eating disorder, which I overcame only after leaving.

So what went wrong?  Well, I may be reading between the lines in Puffles’ blog, but the sense I get from it is that he was basically subjected to some bad teaching.  Which I’d say was exactly the same as my experience at university. It was utterly demoralising.  I was made to feel that my voice type was not de rigeur and I felt actively discouraged by the university in pursuing performance as part of my studies, which was the main reason I went! A successful year of composition study (in which my tutor told me I was one of the most natural composers he’d taught in years) was followed by a year of “composition through analysis”. Analysis has its place in music, but I’ve always felt that if you go too far you find things in pieces that aren’t there, or weren’t intentional on the composer’s part. I liked my tutor’s compositions, I just didn’t want to write like him.   I didn’t want to be a musicologist, I wanted to be a musician.  I left university feeling that I had failed miserably at both. I still haven’t picked up my pen to compose since I left university, and I’m not sure I ever will.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking that perhaps I simply wasn’t good enough to embark on a musical career and that I should accept that instead of blaming others.  I’d agree with you, if it weren’t for the fact that a few years ago I finally bit the bullet and took up lessons again.  Like a dragon’s best friend, I too had to overcome emotional and mental barriers to pluck up the courage to try.  I had sung in bands and choirs, but hadn’t dared to approach solo classical repertoire and training. But I wanted to set myself some targets, give myself something positive to work towards in the same way that exams at school had been (unlike Puffles).

And I was in for a shock.  A good one.  A fantastic one, in fact.  My teacher informed me that my voice was bigger than I thought it was and that in trying to suppress it I had done myself a disservice. Fortunately, no major damage was done, unlike this poor girl, whose story also shows the importance of having good teachers around you, and as I studied more, the voice that developed was quite a revelation to me.

I’m now doing bits of performing, mostly for fun at the moment but hoping to develop it further.  I can’t help but feel, like Puffles, that there are lost years that I’ll never get back, and wonder what could have been.

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Culture Shock

This is the view from a friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous. But I think it’s rather good.

To blame the current troubles on any one aspect would be short sighted and naive. Each individual is out on the streets for a different combination of reasons. At the end of the day some of them have been let down by society whether it be family, local or national government policies including education and benefits. Some by changes in culture and technology. Some have become involved in the current troubles through peer pressure and a group mentality enhancing the levels of risk individuals are willing to take beyond their normal personal limits. Some really were out to protest at the death of a local man and the way the police handle themselves within that comunity. Some are just little shits with no regard for others.

Is culture shock is an aspect of this current violence? A child educated to pass exams, brought up by television, without stong parental input into their emotional well being. Bombarded by advertising ‘you should have this, you need this, you’re nothing without this’ Maybe there isn’t enough ‘managing expectation’ in the education process. You might become a top scientist, a world class sports person, etc. On the other hand you might become a bin man with a happy family life and a loving and supportive group of family and friends. Both have their positive and negative aspects and neither makes you less of a person. A big telly and shiney trainers doesn’t make you anything in the world.

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Mindless Scumbags?

In the last few days there’s been a lot written about the riots. Some good, some bad, some ugly. I’ve lost count of the number of different reasons given for the riots and solutions. Unfortunately it already seems to have become politicised (even as people are saying the looting and rioting itself isn’t political), which makes it impossible to even begin trying to understand what’s caused this, let alone know what to do going forward. Please don’t mistake that for me condoning what has happened, but I do worry that if we dismiss it as solely mindless thuggery and looting that it will happen again. We all need to remember that no one is born a “mindless scumbag”.

Following the death of Mark Duggan, which was the flashpoint for the beginning of the trouble, people spoke of racial motivations, poverty and lack of community spirit. And yet as violence has spread those committing it have not been solely confined to certain ethnicities, nor are they necessarily poor. They’re not all young children on holiday from school, or on benefits and living in council houses. So we can’t neatly pin it on poverty and start talking about social justice. There is perhaps a discussion to be had about the poverty gap and the death of aspiration that comes with that, but I’m not convinced that is as major a factor as some believe.

A lack of community spirit certainly seems a fair assessment – people invested in their communities don’t generally go around vandalising and looting it – but then I find myself asking why don’t they care? Have they learnt only to be selfish and not respect others? And where have they learnt this? Many would say “blame the parents”, which is understandable, but then I wonder where their parents learnt those values? When did the degradation of community start?

A possible link to this loss of respect for the community may come from what looters stole. Many have commented on the looters stealing not food or basic items for living, but trainers and plasma screen TVs. It does rather jump out at me that these looters and rioters do not care for people but for things. And we can’t ignore that the message of things bringing happiness and fulfilment is one that has been sold to us here for a long time. “Greed is good”, said Gordon Gekko nearly 30 years ago, and it would appear that the looters agree with him.

Some people look towards the education system, saying that teachers are not allowed to discipline pupils and are not allowed to be negative towards them, creating unrealistic expectations for their future and a sense of invincibility – in a sense, kids can do what they want without consequences. I’ve certainly seen that in action, watching my mum’s career as a teacher go from being someone respected to having chairs thrown at her and being sworn at.  This behaviour went completely unpunished. How can we then be surprised when that behaviour becomes the norm for that person?

Many have called for the police to introduce water cannons and rubber bullets as well as curfews. This worries me, for two reasons. Firstly, I’m not convinced it’ll work. The kind of person who is intimidated by such things isn’t the kind of person who will go out and engage in looting and rioting in the first place. Bring out the rubber bullets and the looters bring out guns. Bring out water cannons and disperse the rioters, who then only move on to another location. Secondly, I am concerned at the government having the power to tell law abiding citizens what time they’re allowed to be out on the streets. I understand that it is for my safety but I would imagine that people who haven’t been involved in criminal activities haven’t been in a rush to hit trouble hotspots after dark. Also, would a curfew really help me if rioters decided to set fire to my house?

I’m also dismayed that the government wants to use this as an excuse to start policing social media.  Riots happened before social media, and if society doesn’t change they’ll probably happen again.  If people want to cause trouble, they will find a way to do it.  How many of us who are advocating this policing also expressed dismay when Google agreed to censorship rules with the Chinese government?

I do, however, find myself in the unusual position of wishing that the police had perhaps been a little more involved earlier. Watching footage of disturbances breaking out in Hackney, it appeared to me that the police were standing by and watching, with a few half-hearted attempts at chasing them off every now and again. Some have mentioned that police are afraid to be heavy handed in case someone “cries human rights”, but that rings slightly false when I think back to the police activity around the student protests.

A variety of other “solutions” have been mooted. Strip people of their benefits, re-introduce EMA, stop the cuts, bring in tougher sentencing. I can’t help but think all of these have political motivations behind them. Removing EMA didn’t cause these riots, nor did the cuts – this level of alienation doesn’t occur in 14 months. There’s also a disturbing lack of logic behind calling for those on benefits who’ve engaged in these riots to lose them – with no job, no money and no home, are we really expecting them not to turn to further crime in order to stay alive? Tougher sentencing, well, yes for those who have committed these acts, but I’d be very surprised if it put others off. Charlie Gilmour is currently taking up a prison cell on a severe sentence for the crimes he committed during the student protests. If that was supposed to set a deterrent for violent behaviour, I think we can all agree that has failed massively.

I am concerned about the cuts to the police force; however it would appear that that has already fallen victim to politicking. And this is one of my biggest concerns. Our politicians have become so concerned with point scoring that many no longer see them as people who can help them. I would be interested to see how many of the people who engaged in violent acts over the last few days do not vote. Do they see themselves as “the little guy” who the system does not care for?

All this being said, I would like to challenge one viewpoint that has appeared to be quite popular. I’ve seen a tweet floating around saying that in Syria young people are rising up to demand democracy, whereas here they rise up for plasma TVs and trainers. Half a million people marched through London to protest against public services being cut in March, many of them young people, most of whom were entirely peaceful (and those who weren’t were condemned by those who were). They cared about more than themselves, even if you didn’t agree with them. Don’t write them off.

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The real questions to ask of Ken Clarke

So today Ken Clarke managed to upset a lot of people.  If you don’t already know what happened, then you can read a transcript of the interview with Victoria Derbyshire discussing rape sentencing here.

The main focus of anger appears to be directed at his response of “No it’s not” to Derbyshire’s “Rape is rape, with respect”.  And indeed, it certainly sounds very damning, although as many have pointed out, he says this in relation to individuals being criminalised by the age of consent- a thorny issue which deserves a debate all of its own.

However, in all the mud flinging (and yes, there’s been a lot of that from both sides of the argument) have some points been missed?

To deal with them in the order they arose in the interview, firstly is Ken Clarke correct to say that a rapist pleading guilty and getting a shorter sentence as a result is going to lessen their victim’s suffering?  According to figures from the Fawcett society (admittedly 4 years old now) between 75-95% of rapes are never even reported to the police, let alone brought to trial.  Does that not perhaps suggest that it is not just the trial element of the justice system that is seen as distressing to rape victims, and that more needs to be done throughout to provide support to victims?  To go even further, is it not vital for victims to have access to support at any time after their ordeal and not just whilst they are in the justice system?

Another important question to ask in relation to this is – would getting a reduced sentence make someone who would have previously gone to trial more likely to plead guilty?

To go off on a slight tangent, those of a more cynical nature may feel that the Government’s proposals on plea-bargaining are aimed at upping conviction rates.  In this particular area, would it actually be effective?

Moving on, the next point of concern is when Clarke rebuts Derbyshire’s figure of 5 years for a rape sentence by saying it includes date rape and 17 year olds having intercourse with 15 year olds.

Date rape?  What exactly does Ken Clarke mean by this?  And why is he putting it alongside the issue of consent? Does he mean that date rape sentences are lower and bring the figure down, and rightly so?  And what exactly does he think date rape is when he refers to it here?  According to Rape Crisis, only 9% of rapes are committed by strangers, so some clarity is needed here.  And if he is referring to rapes where the victim has been drugged rather than being physically overpowered, is it any less of a violation to be mentally overpowered?  While there may be a debate to be had about alcohol and sex, this sort of comment from Clarke was both unclear and unhelpful in this respect, particularly by putting it in juxtaposition with an example of statutory rape- many who commented thought he had confused the two or said date rape in error.

There was also a major emphasis on women as rape victims, indeed, both sets of figures cited in this blog post only refer to women.  The law still classifies rape as an act that only a man can commit but clearly states that rape is non-consensual penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth and therefore a victim can be male or female.  Clarke and Derbyshire focussing on women alone as rape victims is by no means uncommon, however it is symptomatic of the view in our society that rape is something that does not happen to men, which is not the case.

People have raised concerns about Ken Clarke’s ability to remain in his post, both in terms of his attitude and his understanding of the law. Others ask who would replace him if he were to quit, and what the impact of that might be.  And more have been seriously upset about rape being used as a “political football”.  All of these are valid viewpoints, and the consequences of today may have repercussions not yet realised.  And this blog raises more questions that it asks.  There are no easy answers.

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The AV Referendum

If you haven’t heard already, tomorrow is a big day for us voters as we get to choose whether or not we want to change our voting system.
You’ve probably seen newspapers and leaflets urging you one way or the other- I think both “official” sides of the argument have failed in choosing rhetoric over facts, and while I may be in favour of a Yes vote, I feel many people have not been given accurate information to help them make their decision.
In fact, quite the opposite.
 
Here’s an impartial explanation of how both systems work in case you didn’t already know – http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk/referendum_2011.aspx
 
I am going to say why I’m voting Yes, because of course I hope you’ll join me in that, but if you don’t, I hope you’ll feel you’ve had more information to base your decision on.
 
In the main, I feel the system we currently have no longer works for us.
FPTP works very well when there are only two candidates to choose from, but the UK is no longer that simple in its voting choices and it needs a voting system that reflects this.
Many people say that AV is not the system for this, and I will admit that it would not be my preferred choice of system.
However, not only do I feel that it is better than the one we have currently, but also that if greater reform is to come about, anyone who wants this should vote in favour of AV to demonstrate our desire for change.
 
I am also not advocating a switch to AV because I believe it will benefit the party I vote- for me this is about making everyone’s vote more meaningful.
 
I can already hear the arguments that those of you may have, so let me address them individually:
 
AV does not mean some people get more votes.
What AV means is that there is more than one round of counting- if your 1st preference is not eliminated in the 1st round then it is counted again in the 2nd round.
However, if your candidate is eliminated your 2nd preference is counted instead and so on.
 
AV does not mean that a loser wins.
This is actually more likely to happen under our current system- when an MP wins with less than 50% of the vote, they are basically the biggest loser.
We expect our Government to win more than 50% of the seats in the House of Commons, so why do we not expect the same of our MPs?
AV reduces the opportunity of an MP being elected who the majority of constituents hate.
 
AV does not mean more coalition governments.
We currently have a coalition government, which came about using FPTP.
The two parties which have previously dominated our politics have lost support over time, making coalitions more likely regardless of the system we use.
 
AV means the BNP will get elected
If this were the case, why would the BNP be campaigning in favour for a No vote?
However, I would also pose that our current system has encouraged the growth of the BNP, as supporters have turned away from the two parties which have failed to meaningfully address the issues that makes people turn towards the BNP- in part because of their complacency in thinking FPTP woud keep powerr swinging between the two of them.
 
AV is unpopular
There are stories about Australia planning to ditch it, which is not true.
Fiji is ditching it, but they are in the process of becoming a dictatorship!
In most cases, the reasons people don’t use AV is because they switched to something better- which was certainly not FPTP!
 
AV is expensive
Lots of figures have been thrown around about how much AV will cost, most of which are based on the cost of the referendum- which is happening whichever way you vote, and on the cost of counting machines which it has been claimed will be used.  Again, this is not true, there are no plans to use counting machines if we adopted AV in this country.
 
AV means that Nick Clegg would be Kingmaker.
That claim makes a lot of assumptions about how people will vote.
First of all that we’ll have coalition, which I’ve already spoken about.
If the Lib Dems have lost popularity, they’ll lose voting support regardless of voting system- either by not getting an X in the box or by being ranked very low on preferences or not at all!
 
AV will mean an end to safe seats
Whilst it certainly reduces the number of safe seats (which means us voters have more power) it won’t remove them entirely.
 
AV makes MPs work harder
As someone whose grandfather was a very hard working MP, I find this idea rather distasteful.
It might make them work harder to win your vote, but they already work very hard!
 
AV will end tactical voting
Theoretically you could vote tactically, but you’d have to be extremely certain of people’s many preferences.
And besides, why would you want to?
 
AV isn’t proportional
No it isn’t. It is more inclusive than the current system, and I feel a improvement on what we currently have.
A small one, but an improvement none-the-less.
 
So there you have it!
If you have any other questions about AV then do ask- aside from that all I can say is please go out and vote tomorrow!
 
Much Love
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