Opinion: It’s showtime on campus

Stage experience is vital for budding performers, says Luke Scott, who enthuses his students with a hands-on approach

November 9, 2009

When asked what it was like to play in a rock band for 25 years, The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts famously replied that it was more like “five years playing and 20 years waiting around to play”.

I, too, find myself waiting around, for what seems like 25 years, for the drummer to fly in from Greece, for the guitarist to fly in from LA, while trying to find a UK power adaptor for US FX, assessing student practical recordings and comforting, via email, a student who has broken up with their long-term boyfriend. Charlie Watts had it easy.

I am a member of the band Babybird (you may remember You’re Gorgeous being inappropriately played at weddings by people who hadn’t listened as carefully to the lyrics as they should have) but I am also a senior lecturer in performance and professional practice.

Some may consider this an odd coupling, but to me it is a natural and symbiotic relationship. Many times I find myself using experiences and examples from my professional music career as a basis for a practical session or lecture. I often ask students what they would have done in my place and their answers are always entertaining, if not always insightful. And they roll their eyes when, once again, I tell them: “When I was your age I had already lost my first record deal.”

There can be odd moments too. I once opened a textbook that cited “Cool Britannia’s” defining moment as Ginger Spice wearing her Union flag dress at the Brit Awards ceremony; at the time it certainly didn’t seem to be defining anything to us – we were sitting at the table opposite. But these moments offer a rich harvest for my lectures these days, analysing performance, pop culture and the industry. My students’ responses suggest that they enjoy and benefit from such primary source material.

The collision of two worlds is sometimes exhausting – the 9(pm) to 5(am) nightly grind of the music business can leave you a little bleary eyed – but stay hydrated and the adrenalin rush of the teaching “performance” gets you through. There are many similarities between teaching and performance for the stage: the preparation, the nervous excitement and the audience who have paid to be impressed but don’t always do their homework.

I am often asked what practical skills performance students gain from their time with us. I tell them to sharpen a pencil before I recite the long list of skills: communication, listening, self-reliance, teamwork, creative learning, knowledge transfer…

When working as a performer you quickly learn many practical and transferable skills. Finding yourself standing in the rain by a broken-down van in a foreign country where no one speaks the language really focuses your teambuilding skills. And settling your bar tab knowing full well that your royalty payments haven’t cleared yet certainly promotes creative thinking!

Joking aside, I believe that undergraduate and postgraduate courses need industry muscle as well as academic sinew to provide the strength students need in the current employment market.

While researching and developing this performance course, some industry practitioners expressed a reluctance to hire new graduates, who they felt lacked appropriate practical skills.

Here at Sheffield Hallam our solution was to locate some of our teaching within the cultural industries in Sheffield. Every week, students record and perform in the splendid Steelworks Studios owned by Eliot Kennedy, one of the most highly regarded producers on the international scene. This means they get to work closely with professionals and gain from their advice, perspective and experience. Working in real-world environments helps focus goals and targets, making the step from classroom to workplace more manageable.

Enthusiasm, passion and confidence really grow in such an environment.

Now Babybird is touring again with a new video directed by Johnny Depp and, prefacing our new album, the papers are full of the possibility that Depp will join us on stage in London (Hoxton Square Bar). Naturally, my students are following this story with healthy scepticism. Hopefully this will also prepare them for their own adventures in the music industry.

Luke Scott is link tutor, performance and professional practice, Sheffield Hallam University.

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