Things I've Learnt Part 2

I actually thought long and hard before posting my previous blog post “Things I’ve Learnt”, because if there’s one thing which isn’t lacking on the internet, it’s opinions. I try to avoid giving too many opinions on social media, so I was a bit unsure about publishing a list of things I’ve learnt in the course of my career as a performing musician. 


But I’m so glad I did it, as it immediately initiated responses from some of my very favourite musicians. I’m grateful and genuinely touched that there are musicians which I respect greatly who are eager to discuss both music, and what it takes to be a performer. 


It was remarkable that, although all hail from different musical and cultural backgrounds, each of them mentioned one important aspect I had failed to mention:


The Intangible Connection


“Feeling fellow musicians’ vibrations through our skin.” 

“Watching our sounds, not through our eyes but using some kind of sense”

“Listening to the spirit as well as the music”


My friends have clearly thought about this deeply, and are able to touch on something intangible. They have set me thinking and I wish I could express exactly what this elusive element of music making is. 


If I had to try to express it in words, I would say it is related to my previous point about listening. But it’s as though we listen so deeply that we go beyond sound, beyond just the vibrations entering our ears. Just as many of us learn to read the atmosphere in a room full of people, really opening ourselves musically to our fellow performers enables us to feel something of their musical intention and of their spirit. 

And that can lead to amazing moments of deep communication. I’ve managed to feel that sense of communion in duets, in small groups, in bands playing to thousands of intently listening fans, and sometimes even stronger energy with large ensembles and symphony orchestras. 

I don’t know if I can really express this intangible element of music making. But I hope we can discuss it more, as it’s really fascinating. 


Last time I backed away from discussing SOUND. I’m still a bit reluctant to get into this, because it is a huge subject, especially for tuba players. 

Sound is everything.   

There’s that old song, “Silence is Golden”. That is so true. Silence is one of the most beautiful, pure things we can ever experience. Silence is so good for the heart and soul. But here we are, living on a crowded planet, full of noise. 

So what I want to say is, if you are going to break that silence, it had better be for a very good reason. And therefore, let’s consider the sound we are making. 

I am continually trying to create the sound I hear in my mind, and I’m constantly thinking about it when I play. Of course, there are many types of sound I want to use in different situations, but in terms of my personal “voice” on the instrument, I want to play with a warm dark sound , but also with lightness in the right situation. Many things influence my sound. For instance, recently I find myself thinking of the sound of the actor Mark Rylance’s voice when I play. I wish I could have tone and phrasing like him!


That brings me on to my final point, for the time being. 


Have you ever considered what your job is, in completely simple terms?


Even with the amount of careful consideration which I try to put into playing music, I often stop and remind myself of the absurdity of what it is I do. My job, indeed my life’s work, is to blow raspberries down approximately 4 metres of metal tubing. If, in the process of doing this, I manage to make the air vibrate in a certain way, it can provoke an emotional response in the listener. This can be desirable, and people can pay me money for providing this service. 


Life on this planet can be truly strange and beautiful!


Things I've Learnt

I've been playing music since I was 11, and professionally since I graduated from university. That was quite a long time ago. Over the years, there are a huge amount of things I've learnt about performing music. And I think many of them also apply to lots of other areas of life, which makes sense, as music is not isolated, it's intertwined with life and the universe. 

Not wishing to point fingers at all, or to be overly negative, but I am so often astonished by professional performers I meet who don't adhere to some of these absolute basics. That's not to say that they aren't contributing artistically in some other areas, they surely are, but their contribution is definitely limited as a result. 

Anyway, here's my list of what I consider the absolute basics. These are the things I try to consider every time I play, in the hope of making myself as useful as possible in any given musical situation. Of course, it's not definitive, and neither am I here wishing to preach. I'd love to hear other people's lists and thoughts. I've always felt a little disappointed at how few musicians actually talk about music together, as though it's not cool or something.


Obvious, right? It's just astonishing how many performers don't listen, both to themselves and to their fellow musicians. I feel it's essential to try to listen to everything which is happening, at every moment. I think it's safe to say that if you aren't listening, you are messing up in some way.

(Listening to lots of diverse live music and recordings also goes hand in hand with this.)


Sounds odd when we're talking about an art form which is essentially about sound, but eye contact, or even just watching fellow performers makes such a huge difference. If you aren't watching, you can't follow leads, and you are missing out on so much important information.


I believe that we should be serving the music, not the other way round. As a performer, I think it's vital to be constantly questioning the choices we make. This becomes particularly apparent in styles of music which contain improvised elements. There's some connection here to point number 1 above, and also to my next point.


Thinking critically about what it is you are doing at any given point, how you are contributing, and what is needed from you in order to create a successful performance, these are real basics. 


Everything in the universe has it's own phrasing, it's own nuance. In the same way, I believe every element of music should be phrased. Probably 30% of my playing involves two notes per bar, "oompah" if you like. Even this very simple element of bass line playing needs to be phrased throughout a piece. Where has this note come from? Where is it leading? Every "oom" and "pah" deserve different weight and nuance. 

Articulation is another element with so many nuances. Yet so many players articulate the start of each note in only one way. A wide range of articulation, well-chosen, makes the difference between good and great musicians. It's an area of my own playing I want to work on much more. Talking about the start of notes brings me to the end of notes. That deserves equal attention, yet so many players don't seem to consider it, or even seem to notice when they finish a note at a completely different time to everybody else. That's part of ensemble playing, that magic feeling, not only in music, when a group of humans is working, breathing, and expressing something together. That feeling is something to strive for, and to achieve it takes all of the above elements, plus the desire to surrender oneself completely to the ensemble. 

Sound! I'd better not get started on this, or this blog entry will never end. Sound is everything. Maybe I'd better write another entry on sound alone.

So what do you think? Am i talking rubbish, or completely stating the obvious? I'd love to hear any additions, and would love some discussion!

New Release! 「坂道のアポロン」 Kids on the Slope




A CD arrived in the post this morning. The soundtrack for 「坂道のアポロン」Sakamichi No Apollon or Kids On The Slope, the new movie based on the popular manga series. The music was written by the supremely talented bassist, composer and nice guy Suzuki Masato, and I'm playing on one track. It was only a short piece, and I think we might have set a new record for the world's quickest recording session! But he wrote really nicely for the tuba, and it ends with a nice solo trill. The film is in cinemas right now. I hope I get the chance to see it soon!


Keith McMillen Instruments- TERRIBLE! A WARNING

When FU-CHING-GIDO began, we were finding ways to make the two of us sound like a full band. Fu-ching has an astonishing ability to play the key harmonica with her left hand, while playing complex drum rhythms with the rest of her limbs. I did my best to play as much bass, harmony and melody on the tuba as possible, but I soon wanted to provide more. I started searching for a foot keyboard.

At first I was imagining an octave of organ pedals, like the Roland PK-5, but the prospect of adding another bulky instrument weighing 8kg to my setup was not appealing. Then I discovered the Keith McMillen 12 step, advertised as a "road-proof", lightweight portable midi foot controller, and thought I'd found the answer to all my dreams, right? WRONG!!

My McMillen 12 step, back in the days before it packed in on me, in spectacular style.

My McMillen 12 step, back in the days before it packed in on me, in spectacular style.


Their website features the 12 Step being run over by a van. With hindsight, I should have smelt the snake oil right there and then. It worked well for 2 years, and we achieved a lot with it. And as it was immediately integral to our live performances, I treated it at all times with the utmost care.

Then, just as the warranty ran out, it began failing on me, mid-performance. As a professional musician, that means the instrument instantly becomes useless. What made it so much worse was that McMillen's customer service is absolutely appalling. After initially attempting to deny that it was the hardware at fault, they told me my only option was to buy a new unit. Finally, after seeking a resolution for 3 months, and experiencing some bizarre, rude and unwarranted communications from them, I finally lodged a formal complaint about the lack of customer support. It seems my complaint has been ignored.

The Keith McMillen 12-step is a good idea, very poorly made, overpriced, prone to malfunction, and unrepairable as the casing is completely enclosed. 

But, I'm glad to say that this story has a happy ending! Forced, by McMillen's attitude, to seek an alternative, I'm delighted to report that I've found a better solution costing literally 1/10th of the 12 Step's retail price here in Japan.

Korg Nanopad 2

Korg Nanopad 2


The Korg Nanopad 2 retails at around ¥3000. It has 16 pads, plus an X/Y pad with customisable parameters. This instrument is much easier to use for what I need and will add new elements to our performances. I couldn't be happier! Although it has more pads and a smaller footprint, the 12 step's pads weren't noticeably bigger, they just had larger gaps between them. It's not backlit, but glow-in-the-dark tape and a small LED lamp fixed that.

Glow-in-the-dark tape, no worries! (think I'll put another row along the middle too)

Glow-in-the-dark tape, no worries! (think I'll put another row along the middle too)


At such a cheap price, you might worry about build quality. But it feels really solid. And besides, I could have 10 of these fail on me before it comes anywhere near to what that piece of crap 12 Step cost me.

Sorry Mcmillen instruments, but you totally suck. Goodbye forever!


Right, in my next blog, I'll be telling happier tales! Lots of exciting stuff on the horizon, and also at some point soon, I'll show you around my current effects setup, which all works like a joy!




Here is some video of the Nanopad 2 in action, as has been requested. I'm using it to play samples of a modified mellotron. This is the keyboard part which I play in the FU-CHING-GIDO song, "Chili Klaus" 

Bear in mind that I have BIG feet, and I have no issue playing it. I wouldn't attempt "Flight of the Bumblebee", but there are no issues playing the parts I have been writing. In fact, I think this instrument will inspire me to write some more tricky parts in the future.