In this interview with UAL, Clod Ensemble Co-Artistic Director Paul Clark shares how our Ear Opener programme supports young people to develop their composition skills.
Ear Opener is a series of short video masterclasses, created by Clod Ensemble, that demystify the process of writing music, combining simple, accessible explanations of the tools that people who write music use every day. Featuring honest discussions about the creative process with artists including Brian Eno, Carly Paradis, Cassie Kinoshi, Lowkey and Isabel Waller-Bridge.
This interview was originally published by UAL, ahead of a CPD workshop for educators.
UAL: What are the Ear Opener videos and who are they designed for?
Paul Clark: Ear Opener is a YouTube channel with 7 hours of content about the process of writing music – with contributions from an array of prominent (sometimes world-famous) musicians – sharing their very different experiences of making their own music and offering practical advice based on that experience.
Five years ago, I began mentoring A-Level Music and Music Tech students in a college near where I live – coaching them on composition. This cohort of students was talented, but most didn’t have a lot of classical or jazz theory, and usually listen to other genres of music. Ear Opener videos are for young people like them; people who want to write music without getting bogged down in theory, but drawing on it if it’s useful. Since we launched, we’ve had a lot of positive feedback from older musicians, especially people taking songwriting and producing courses (including the lecturers themselves). So the videos are for anyone writing music in any genre, and also anyone who teaches them.
UAL: What would you say was the trigger for launching Ear Opener?
Paul Clark: It all stems from everything I learned from working with Music students over the years. We have been getting incredible results from our workshops – our average grade has been an A. However we don’t have the capacity to expand the programme to more colleges, so it seemed like a good idea to put the material online and share it more widely.
UAL: What would you say are the most common issues young people face when writing music?
Paul Clark: Mystifying the process!
A lot of young musicians presume that writing music is all about natural genius. And of course, natural genius helps, but actually getting your hands dirty – making something – that is the indispensable thing.
There’s some truth in the famous 10.000 hours rule. It bugs me when some artists – say, Michael Jackson – talk about how blessed they are to be so gifted. Jackson was gifted, but so are a lot of people. He had the enormous advantage of being surrounded by music growing up, he was jamming with Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney and learned about production from Quincy Jones when he was still a teenager. Michael Jackson was EDUCATED, he just wasn’t educated at a college. Everything must have seemed possible to him.
I think most of the main issues for people starting out are probably about attitude rather than skill: believing in yourself; learning to not be discouraged when things work out differently to how you imagined; having an instinct for what skills you need to work on; how to deal with writer’s block; keeping your ideas fresh; knowing who to listen to for feedback. We try to make sure we talk about all this stuff too – it’s not just about crotchets and quavers.
Most musicians have huge holes in their musical knowledge – I certainly do – but this needn’t stand in their way as long as they know how to use the skills they do have, that they can see ways of developing them and, crucially, don’t trip themselves up with unhelpful ways of thinking.
UAL: Ear Opener stresses the importance of supporting young people from ALL backgrounds. Can you tell us more about this and the ways you do so?
Paul Clark: We are agnostic about genre. There is no single ‘way’ of writing music. Ear Opener doesn’t presume what music you know about or what music you like. We use all kinds of genres – sometimes in counterintuitive ways. For example, we discuss counterpoint using Reggae and 70s Disco rather than Baroque music. One video on chords name-checks Kendrick Lamar, Doo Wop, Fela Kuti, Mozart, Death Grips, Kate Bush and Frank Sinatra.
We have a motto that what we are offering is ‘tools, not rules’. People can be themselves, and use or discard whatever is useful.
Musicians are so different from each other. Some are under-confident, some are over-confident. Some young artists get bogged down in detail, others never even get to the details. Some love theory, some hate it. Some people don’t know how to start, some people don’t know when to finish. We wanted to get real about this – a lot of our videos are more about psychology than music: we’ve made one episode about Originality, one about mental health, another about receiving criticism.
UAL: Ear Opener videos draw on over 15 years’ experience of working in secondary schools… How would you say the place of music in the curriculum has changed over those years? How has Clod Ensemble and Ear Opener responded to those changes?
Paul Clark: Good question. Writing music is still, I’m glad to say, important in schools at GCSE and above – the syllabuses we work with have composition modules that can be 30% of a student’s score.
However, school teachers are often under-trained and under-confident in teaching composition, in my experience. This is a shame because studying composition is a big advantage for a lot of students who may not want to do some of the more traditional ‘classical’ options, like Bach Chorales.
For music generally, the situation it is pretty bad in schools. As we know, all arts subjects have been squeezed by government over the last few years. Luckily for us, a lot of young people are making their own music on their phones, on Garageband or whatever. So, there is, I would say, unprecedented interest in composition and how that interfaces with production. The more teachers can harness this interest and use the technology within lessons the better – we hope that Ear Opener can be used as a tool to support music teachers to do this, and leave students better prepared for further education or the real world. It’s such a shame that government policies aren’t capitalising on all this.
UAL: The Ear Opener videos are billed as ‘conversations with musicians who are very different to each other – different genres, different ages, different education, and different profile – from world-famous to up-and-coming’. Was this a conscious choice and, if so, why?
Paul Clark: Absolutely – I knew I didn’t have all the answers. And some viewers may not relate to my way of seeing things. In the YouTube universe, where ‘the muso monologue’ is king (and, more rarely, queen)
I felt it was especially important to have different voices in the discussion – to make it 100% obvious that there are many, many ways of making brilliant music. So, we wanted to interview people who see the world differently, leaned about music in different ways, and don’t necessarily agree with each other.
The youngest interviewee – Cassie Kinoshi – is only a few years out of college, although she’s already been nominated for a Mercury Prize. The oldest – Brian Eno – is in his 70s and worked with some of the most successful artists of all time.
People like Brian, Ed O’Brien (Radiohead) and rapper Lowkey have no formal music education at all. And others, like film composers Isobel Waller Bridge and Carly Paradis have studied to postgraduate degree level. We have a specialist pop writer, Tristan Landymore, who has written for boy bands, an improvising artist Yazz Ahmed who uses Arabic influences extensively, and a classical composer, Errollyn Wallen, who has written a piece for the last night of the proms.
UAL: How can our tutors integrate your videos into their teaching?
Paul Clark: I can think of three ways tutors could use our videos. Firstly – simply recommending individual videos to students, perhaps you have someone who has problems getting started – in which case share ‘The Beginning of the Process’. There are over 20 episodes to choose from. Or you can make a task. Teachers have already used the videos as the framework for a project. For example to write a track with a melody – then to use 5 of the tips for our video “ 28 things you can do with a Tune” and see how the students’ work develops using these different tricks. Finally, a few tutors have got in touch to say how they found the channel refreshed their own palette, and gave them some new ways of thinking about old subjects. We can all learn from each other, and hopefully, Ear Opener is useful for teachers as well as students.
UAL: Why would you recommend the Ear Opener videos to FE music teachers?
Paul Clark: FE tutors are much more likely to write their own music than school teachers. But they may have similar issues – a cohort with radically different skill sets to each other, who may like/dislike very different genres of music. So, we try to go pretty deep, but without relying on excessive jargon, and have tried to pitch the videos for this age group.
Maybe it’s impossible to come up with lectures or projects that everyone benefits from equally, but Ear Opener is an attempt to make the task a little easier.