Talks with Rebekah: Matt Mars

As one of the UK’s oldest youth and community music organisations, Community Music offers a diverse programme of courses, live events and professional training. Although lockdowns and social distancing aren’t great for the live events industry, the downtime has allowed Community Music to develop new educational strategies to stay in contact with students. Rebekah caught up with Matt Mars via video chat to discuss how the industry is adapting to a new future.


Rebekah: It’s great to see you again. How has the last couple of months been for you?

Matt: Well, we’ve had to change to groups of seven, so we had to devise a new system because we were limited to seven people in the studio. We had to work out other things for them to do for the rest of the day, which was a challenge, but we did some good stuff.

So we bolted on some extracurricular, but relevant stuff, be it guerrilla business techniques, vocal performance and preparation of voices. So it was quite hectic in terms of the organization in that it was very small on numbers and with small numbers you get a very different vibe, you don’t get the buzz of big numbers. But what we did get was a really great connection with students who were very able to talk quite intimately about that: fears that they had, things that they felt were holding them back in front of a small group, in a room, whereas in a large group, that dynamic doesn’t happen because people are keeping their cards to their chest.

So it was really interesting, different dynamics, new dynamics. And my last day of teaching was on Friday so it’s now finally kind of the delivery phase is complete. So it’s good.

Rebekah: Congratulations. That’s a really interesting outcome. What you said there about the small classrooms and then having a different dynamic, and also that you have to come up with different new concepts to teach to make up for the fact you can’t be teaching all at once in a big classroom; are those things that you think you might carry forward?

Matt: Definitely. I think we can carry forward the small group activity, and one huge lesson of the online experiences that you cannot just map out what you would have done in a classroom to online. That would be repetitive and you lose the attention. So you have to break it up.

I can see that changing the group sizes is a great way of switching things up. And that could happen from one week to the next, where it’s a different format for a couple of weeks, smaller group sizes. So definitely I think that’s something that we can use to make the whole delivery a bit more elastic and fit it to the kind of curve of the development of the learning over the two semesters.

Rebekah: Interesting. So working with this pandemic and the last year, it’s changed a lot. You’ve had these small classrooms and then I understand also you’ve been working remotely with some of the students.

Matt: Absolutely. It was a baptism of fire for a lot of the world entering this new age. And I think because because the option wasn’t there to have an alternative, everyone embraced it. So a lot of barriers to online which had been here – a lot to do with job protection and teachers in physical spaces not wanting to be replaced by someone in a room anywhere in the world replacing you and doing it much cheaper – because you’ve got 2000 people online – and I think all those fears were swept away. And also from the student point of view, there wasn’t any other game in town. So again, if you give the students a choice, ‘You’re paying for this course, how do you feel about it being online?’ That would be a very different game. So I think because we’re thrown into it together, that was one of the really good, positive things about this pandemic, which is that a lot of barriers are broken down. So what it meant was that there was more acceptance, both from a teacher perspective and a student perspective of the new reality, and I commend everybody in just taking that in both hands and doing what could with it.

Rebekah: Was there any previous experience that you or other teachers had had with remote collaboration before the pandemic that may have helped transition

Matt: None whatsoever actually. We had a platform which is a Google workspace, which we were using, which allowed us to have materials in one place. I think that helped because it was a familiar territory. It wasn’t going outside to another service like Zoom. So I think the fact that it was within our kind of education website here on Google web space, that was good.

But in terms of experience, not really. So there was a lot of very last minute trialing of applications and testing. So going back to March 2020, just over a year ago, it was a bit of a cold bath, but again it went much better than we had had expected. We had very basic tools. The big problem was high quality audio. For more seminar based stuff it wasn’t an issue because we didn’t need to be streaming through a third party. So definitely there was a big gap in our understanding and knowledge of the different applications that were out there. And of course in due course that led to a particular conversation that we had.

Rebekah: Did your students drive any of this adoption? Was there a collaboration there? What were they asking for?

Matt: No, the students didn’t ask for anything apart from say, ‘The audio is crap, we can’t hear you.’ This was a bit of a wake up call that the Google tools are brilliant, but they are for conferencing and not for high quality audio streaming.

Rebekah: Yeah, I think that’s something that all the music educators have discovered as a group around the world.

I just want to go back a little bit into your position, where you are and how Community Music came to be. So tell me how you got into the studio. You see, just for people who are reading this and can’t see the video, Matt’s in his studio with a great analog mixer, what is that behind you?

Matt: There’s an AMEK desk and a quarter inch mastering deck.

Rebekah: It’s very comforting.

Matt: Yes. Hardware! Give me hardware! Well, actually, Rebecca I’m in my own personal studio here actually, which is, I’m floating on a canal! In London! This is a 60 square meter space which we converted into a studio space. So yeah, there are ducks and stuff around me. I’m within a stone’s throw of the Metro station here, so it’s a great place …and the natural daylight! So I have my five huge skylights here. Which takes out that sort of claustrophobia of studios. I don’t know. We are all used to being in heavily soundproofed and darkened rooms.

It’s basically a steel box, so it’s a pretty good basis to start with stopping noise from coming in from the outside, apart from the odd crow who is dropping the seafood on the decking!

So this is my studio, but how I got into Community Music, how I met them was I was pointed at the fantastic job of work they do in Community Education.

I’ve been noticed as someone who, when I was a studio engineer and before I became a teacher, I was a performer, a writer, a bandleader, a touring musician, and I also worked in studios. And when I was in a studio – and we are going back to those analog days and, before the first parts of digital multi-track and that kind of thing. And I always felt that my job was partly educational: I had to explain what was then not well known: what the Automatic Double Tracking might be or whatever effects might be possible to my client, my paying client, because how would they know what to ask for if they didn’t have an idea?

And of course this is pre universities about the subject and everything. I often tell my students, ‘I’m here to prevent you from making the same mistakes I made. I can shortcut you a bit on some of the mistakes that I clearly did make in my more trial-and-error kind of training.’ I always felt it was part of my job as a communicator to tell people about what was on offer. So it became fairly natural when I was invited to take part in a training course of Community Music in 2000, which was a two year course: one day a week for two years. And it was designed for practicing professional musicians so that they could fit it in amongst the other work I learned about the theories of teaching, and teaching in groups, which is where all the fun begins as we know, and all the real challenges begin. And it was an amazing experience and led me to start working for the company. The actual company was started in the 80s by the best known British jazz drummer, John Stephens and David Donal who set up this organization basically to teach jazz theory to street kids. And that strand of the work is still part of our work today. So it was a community nonprofit. It was designed to change the world through changing society and using music as the title suggests: community music. As you know, music is one of the unique communal music activities. Music is part of community. So we probably say nowadays it’s part of society – that all societies need music. They use it for the important moments. They mark their most crucial moments with music. It can be solemn. It can be joyful, it can be political, it can have a message. So it was an ethical ethical program set up by these two geniuses with a new idea.

And we’re happy to carry that tradition forward with the programs that now we’re able to fundraise for and put out, which range from eight year olds all the way up to maybe 50 year olds we have on our HD program. So the idea is to have a network of different programs that can feed into different communities, different demographics, different parts of society, but all bring people together as a community and allow progression routes right up to degree level. We often pinch the best students to come on our teaching program and become members of staff. I’d say that almost all our staff have been trained by ourselves, myself included, and the brightest sparks, we obviously keep close as we expand.

Rebekah: It’s good practice for sure. In regards to expanding, that might be a good topic in terms of how – after the pandemic – will remote collaboration be something that seems to be useful to you? Are there questions like if you should think about expanding, if you think about working with people who have moved away or people who are already away that you want to work with?

Matt: Absolutely. We are active in seeking to put forward a program. We already have that teaching course as a fully fledged online offering at the moment. And we are thinking we are acting on making more material available for distance learning. We’re talking to partners about possibilities where we’ve been approached by people who would like to us to basically deliver material for those universities.

Our core remit is for people who cannot normally afford the route to learning. So there is a balance here between what we can do and what is practical. And we have demand for paid courses, still low cost courses, still definitely with an eye to them being great value. And, for example, courses that pay for their delivery and a small amount of profit: I mean, they’re basically covering delivery costs in order to increase and make the program bigger.

But yes. I think we have a balance in terms of those different mediums, but also we’re going to incorporate the distance learning and the ability to access positive people in different parts of the globe to be able to enrich our actual delivery and make new partnerships.

Rebekah: All right. This is like a blended learning I suppose, in that you can work locally and also being enriched by those not near to us. That’s really fascinating. That’s great. You’re answering all my questions before I ask them! I’d like to go back to the comment that it sort of started with teaching jazz theory.

That’s very interesting too in the moment, because working with a few musicians on developing some language that might work for remote performance, it’s is very different than what you could have in the same room.

Matt: You know, by and large, our students are not from the jazz arena. And they’re more self producers or formost producers and writers. For us, I would love to enrich their experience by taking them further with repertoire which was designed by John Stevens called Search and Reflect, which is published and available, which is it’s basically a book of pieces that can be used to refine timekeeping, pitch stability, moderation of volume in an ensemble and also improvisational techniques without prior knowledge of music. So that’s the street part of it in that you don’t have to have gone to conservatoire to get this – because it’s didactic, because you actually do it by physical movement, by sound production, by body percussion, which can then be transferred, translated to instruments at a more advanced level. It is absolutely true that when we deliver this – and we do deliver this as part of our programs – this repertoire is still alive and well with us, we have all our teachers, for example, experience Search and Reflect. It’s true that whenever there have been competent craft musicians, for example in a room of mixed ability some of whom are people who’ve never picked up an instrument before in their life. The people who run for the door in tears are the ones whose apparent confidence in their technique just been overthrown by the fact that kids who’ve never, ever touched a trombone or whatever are doing just as well as they are. So it’s an incredible playfield-leveller and it has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Rebekah: That’s really interesting. I’ll have a look at that. Maybe it’s got some concepts we could take to working remotely together. What you say about people who have studied technique really strongly can often find it difficult to move sideways into another way of making music together. I wonder if there are tools and techniques here we can use to remove the barriers to remote learning to remote collaboration as well.

Matt: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one way of looking at that, I guess, would be to create structure and then allow freedom between people who may be on the more technical ability tip and people who aren’t, who are more just ear-trained musicians.

Rebekah: Yeah. One of the things that happens a lot with this remote music experience is, you need to be able to recover from failure. So I wonder if that’s part of John Stephen’s research.

Matt: Yes. I think there’s a lot to do with trust. And especially when you’re live in the room, I found that quite difficult: to interject with vocally produced noises in a structured way. But if the structure is clear enough, then it becomes something less personal and then you start contributing to a whole rather than being exposed as an individual contributor. But yes, trust and recovering from failure. What is failure?

Rebekah: Stopping by not continuing. 

Matt: Yeah, totally stopping is failure. Do you mean by failure in a session, or failure to commit to go through the program?

Rebekah: No, I guess the music fails in terms of performance when you’re playing with other people you have to stop and say, ‘Oh, I’m not sure where I am right now.’ That, to me, is failure.

Matt: Yes, absolutely. I often think of this and I think of the idea of self-censorship. I frequently experienced this myself. This is where that trusted collaborator can be so beneficial for you because they can educate you that your unintended performance was not a mistake, but it was actually your best work. 

And this happens so much. And it happens from top session musicians downwards. If it’s unintended to yourself, that’s a mistake, it’s not what you intended. But in fact, time and time again I’ll say to someone, ‘I’ll take that one again’  and they said, ‘No, no, we keep that. That’s the bit I liked best.’

So it’s to do with the reflective subconscious, the things that come out unaided and unbidden from our subconscious, I think, and express themselves in some way that we actually don’t have that much power over. Well, how would we be surprised about that? We know consciousness is so much made up of the unconscious side of our decision-making

Rebekah: Absolutely. Well, one aspect to that as well, I was just writing an article for a magazine, ‘what are some of the benefits of remote learning?’ And to me, one of those is about being comfortable and having trust. ‘I’m in my house, I’m safe here. I’m in a safe place.’ And if I have anxiety of any kind, then remote learning, I think, can also have a lot of benefits for students who need that extra little bit of trust to be able to work. And I’m wondering if you could touch on that subject of remote learning and anxiety.

Matt: I think distance learning has huge potential to cater for people with social anxiety, anxiety and depression, these kinds of things which are so endemic. It’s exactly the case as you say, being in your own environment is huge with training – or it can be, it should be, if it’s managed correctly. But also the transport people, a major challenge for some students is getting on a crowded train and dealing with that. I mean, who hasn’t found that a struggle sometimes? And so removing those two barriers, and then there’s the social discomfort of being in a room with people. But I would say that the use of cameras can feel okay. I don’t think it’s intimidating as intimidating being in the room with someone, but what I’m absolutely sure about is that …and this comes back to our our recent experience of small groups in-house: we’re all masked all day, there’s no masks coming off, new mask in the morning and it goes into bin on the way out. But I get more information from a student or a member of staff from the eyes up in two seconds about how they are, where they are, how their day is going to be, than two hours in a video conference.

Why is that? Well, we’re human beings to do with all that stuff, oxytocin release and all these kinds of things. Our empathy is based on chemicals, chemistry, quite literally; biochemical interrelations between two people through their biomes. And this is scientifically asserted. So I think sometimes the static camera and the grid of different boxes on the screen [eg: on Zoom] I think is a kind of barrier. But I think the more you come into a collaborative space, there needs to be some way where you can switch up the view or switch from the group to the individual or based on voice, more slickly monitoring the kind of movement that we have.

Interestingly, I know there are some technological offerings, highly expensive. This looks like a boom box and you stick it in your conference room and it’s got dozens of cameras and dozens of mics, like a giant Alexa basically, but it’s got several cameras, and it will automatically focus on the person in the room who’s talking and accommodate a screen as well over there. It’s probably quite clunky, but it’s a way of trying to address this. Interestingly, I’ve expanded a little bit with virtual reality. I mean by that, VR environments for my own fun, really, and with an idea to using it in teaching and stuff. Even though the graphics might be very, you know, laughable compared to game quality, even though it’s kind of clunky, the fact that you can just move around with your buttons, the fact that you can choose an angle to watch the screen somehow just gives you a little bit back of that naturalness. I think that’s very interesting.

Rebekah: Yeah. To ask about that representation of ourselves, where we have to go back to the question about, you know, anxiety before the pandemic, I hadn’t live-video-chatted with anybody. Now it seems like everybody, you have to, it’s expected. It’s a very different experience. I would prefer to have an avatar, you know? And so to me, I think that that will be a part of the future where we can really have like in the movie Ready Player One where everyone just makes their own avatar and that’s who they are. And you’re comfortable in your skin.

Matt: Yeah. I mean, I think I have actual mixed feelings about that. I do think that it is the ultimate anonymity in a space. I can see that actually being very useful in say an improvisational music space, for example, that this is your class or it’s your class in a classroom or the other side of the world.

But you don’t know who they are. You can’t judge them. You don’t know if that’s Fred and that’s Sarah, so you have to approach them neutrally, if you like, you can’t make any judgements about them. That could be very interesting. I hadn’t thought of that on the other flip. I think the ability to encourage someone who might feel anxious to have their camera on to begin with in a course, to get to the stage where maybe later in that session, they’ve got their camera on. That is a massive learning curve and they get real props when they put their vulnerability out there. That is a little piece of online curriculum learning which could be life-changing for someone.

Rebekah: One last question for you then I’ll let you go, and I’m sure you’ve spoken about this with your colleagues: How do you think about preparing for the coming years? In terms of this last year having greatly affected how we work together and what technology education means in the new world.

Matt: Looking ahead, I think I kind of touched on this, there are strengths and benefits I want to keep. I want to lose the plague, but I want to keep the strengths and benefits! How’s that? And I definitely think it will transform courses.

Also I mean, we’ve been running in our youth program. COVID isolation. Activities, music related. So even though the isolation of COVID, we were able to gain some funding for some innovative new programs to just put a toe out in the water to see if we could continue any of that youth program online. And there are some specialist uses where there and some limits to it, but it’s definitely a parallel tool that we will not stop using. And there is going to be an explosion – there already has been the start of it – an explosion of new apps and technologies. I’m thinking of these training apps where you can get your training up without anyone seeing your mistakes, just a private little resource that you can use to get yourself stronger in various areas, before you present your kind of newfound strengths to the world. These are going to be very important as well.

Rebekah: I guess also students having more equipment at home now, not relying so much on the central studio, now they’ve got maybe a microphone and a little sound studio, so they’re encouraged to practice more and create more at home.

Matt: Yes. The last answer was for our youth projects. They may have limited resources but you can do a lot, dare I say it, on a phone. Who would have thought it, you can do more and more on the supercomputer in our hands that is a phone these days.

Rebekah: My sister is a growing star in the band lab community on her phone. She doesn’t even have a microphone. It’s amazing what they can do these days.

Matt: In terms of people setting up and getting resources at home I think people who want to have studios will kind of do that. There’s a big difference between people who go for that route and people for whom a laptop is as much as they’re really prepared to go. And we do have these lovely studios in central London there to be used. So a combination of home study and study in facilities is ideal.

Rebekah: Cool. That’s a lot to take in for the coming years. And I’m curious to see how the landscape will change. It’ll be interesting post-plague to see what we keep.

Matt: Yes. A hundred percent. I do think that there’s so much for us to incorporate in our programs and we can make them so much stronger and cater for more people both in-house and at a distance with the right tools.


Learn more about Community Music at https://cmsounds.com

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