A hearty round of congratulations to all my students in China who passed their Public Speaking and Verse/Prose exams with Merits and Distinctions across the board. Despite my lengthy blog post highlighting some of what I didn't enjoy working in your country, I nonetheless treasured the opportunity to work with you all, and found our classes to be one of the only things which brought me comfort during my stay. I hope your exam results will leave you all equally happy and with the breathing space and confidence to prepare for your next round of exams. Well done!
Thoughts, feelings, ramblings...
It seems a difficult task to let off a parting broadside against China (as had been my intent) as I sit opposite a family and their very cute baby girl on a train across Xinjiang from Ürümqi to Beijing. They are offering me food, encouraging their child to play with me, and are seemingly happy at having a novel/non-smoking/quiet/child-friendly adult to share their cabin with. This family are the exception to the rule in my experience, sadly. Though find most Chinese people in a setting where they will not be seen, and they behave much as you’d expect anyone else on earth to when interacting with strangers.
Let’s get the positives out the way (there are a few). In season, lychees are ubiquitous and relatively cheap. Children are extremely cute until the state education system gets hold of them. Public transport is cheap. I made a few good friends playing traditional Irish music (and there is a very good school for Irish dancing in Ürümqi). Taxis are the cheapest I’ve found anywhere in the world (but that’s only half a positive, as I can’t figure out how it’s possible for them to make a living).
I have been working here for the past seven months teaching public speaking and theatre in a private education institute. Upon reflection, it is clear that the majority of my grievances are with Beijing (my trips to Shanghai and Urumqi have confirmed this somewhat). There are however, some distinct parts of Chinese culture, and particularly business culture which appear to prevail across the nation. There’s also the infrastructure to deal with…
One day in the future, when humanity has barely survived the next influenza epidemic, nuclear war, or other means of mass extinction we cannot fathom; our descendants who have been sent back to the stone age will wander the land, and, on navigating much of China will think “What the bloody hell were they thinking!?”
Many towns and cities across China appear to be set on a similar model, and baked in dust or pollution often resemble scenes from the most recent Blade Runner film. Arriving in the dead of winter, it only took a few days of seeing the same appalling town planning everywhere to understand what had happened: when the communists came to rebuilding Beijing they rang up all the town planners and architects from across the Soviet Union and beyond and said “Hey, come help us rebuild Beijing… but before you start let’s all get drunk first!”. The lessons learnt from this epic binge clearly remained with city planners right through to the 1980’s and beyond.
The result is a sweeping mass of tower blocks and occasional, distinctly unimaginative, parks. Most standard roads are triple or quadruple carriageways - four or six for cars, and an extra one either side for anything smaller (but as with the direction of traffic this is seldom respected). Most people use electric bikes for anything other than a short ride, but in an effort to save batteries, ride everywhere without lights on (especially interesting when in a tuc-tuc driving against oncoming traffic at night). Roads, even in Beijing, are in an appalling state: pot holes, raised manhole covers, lack of markings, and anything else you can imagine. In many areas where the city is expanding sewers are large and open. Even where they are not, the smell of a mix between egg fried rice, soy sauce, and shit is omnipresent. Factories still weave into the fabric of residential districts meaning that although you may not have to commute far to work, the air you breathe is all the worse for it. The distance between different lines on metro stations is generally vast, so a commute may take as much time transferring as it does actually being on the trains. Railway stations are rarely in city centres themselves, and security across all these platforms is obscene, especially where the vast amount of time you get bottle necked into a long queue only to find security guards waving you through or asleep on the job. When they do their job properly, you can’t take aerosols, metal tools or a whole host of normal items on the metro with you; so good luck shopping any further afield than where you live. Lastly, and I hate to disappoint if you’re reading thinking “yes, but what about the ancient history and architecture”, but it was all seemingly rebuilt in the 1980’s on a distinct budget. The only thing left to impress you about these sites, as with China itself, is the scale of it – but once you’ve flown or taken a train across it that novelty soon wears off anyway.
Then there’s the nuances of Chinese culture to contend with, and believe me I tried! In one of my first professional meetings I remember being faced with a situation of western colleagues irritated by a Chinese way of doing something. “I’m not going to be a cultural imperialist and tell you how to do things” I intervened, “China has been doing well enough without the British or anyone else for thousands of years”. How naïve I was. Based on the sheer volume of people, and vastness of the country, it is surely justifiable by the law of averages that the society could progress and hobble its way to the situation it is now? It certainly wasn’t done without suffering, strife, and bloodshed that’s for sure.
In every other society I’ve worked in across the globe, the two top priorities in relation to work are generally:
1) Are you competent in your role – can you do the job?
2) Are you respected in your field – does your output or aptitude garner respect?
A possible third may be if you are likeable, but certainly in many companies this doesn’t take any precedence over the first two main points. Not so in China, where “face” and “guanxi” play a role in not only all professional interactions, but most personal ones too. The fact of you being able to actually do your job, much less be respected for it, barely register.
Face is a concept based around not allowing people to lose it – to lose face is to be embarrassed, or put in a position where you should be. A Chinese person will generally lose face if they are put in a position which requires them, or may create the situation where they may possibly have to say “no” to you. This is all well and good for polite conversation, if you’re out having a cup of tea or something – the British attitude of “come on mate, it’s your round” would be a distinct no-no, for example; but when it comes to anything practical (try as I might), I can’t see any practical use for it. When negotiating a contract for example, one needs straight yes and no answers in order to move forward. Thus you will be told “yes that’s no problem” in order to save face, when in reality someone is actually thinking “not in a million years, do you think I’m an idiot”. Thus be aware that even when a deal of almost any kind is reached in China, it is rarely finalised in the mind-set of your Chinese counterpart, as they will almost certainly continually contemplate or act upon the desire to get more out of the deal than what you’ve agreed/signed for.
When you need help with something technical or linguistic and ask for help, the reply may be “yes of course, let me help you”, where the reality of the thought is closer to “oh shit, I don’t have a clue what to do here, I hope they don’t find out” (the usual result of such situations is that help will be given, and the original small problem will become something much larger). But not asking for help, much less offering it is all too plain to see in daily life as well: I witnessed an old woman who dropped her shopping as dozens just walked past (I didn’t), I saw people struggle with huge luggage cases where the muscle bound and able literally looked the other way, and I witnessed several cases of borderline domestic abuse on public transport to which nobody said a word. Perhaps this is a hangover from darker days when stopping to help could cost you your own life? In any case, on every occasion in which I asked why help was not abundantly at hand, face was always listed as a factor in the response.
The concept of face is detrimental in education too. I had to do full lessons with new students (including adults) on how to ask for help, or question something they didn’t understand. You also have the parent’s Face to contend with. A partial result of the one child policy, though now defunct, is that having a child anything less than “perfect” can cause a serious loss of face for parents. Thus I had students squinting at the board only a metre away, and upon enquiring where their glasses were was told “my mum took them away, she said I don’t need them” (and that example is the thin end of the wedge).
I trained some students in interview technique for getting into international schools, and was constantly met by the same two problems. Firstly, a lack of understanding as to what function an interview actually holds/how it is valued by the inviting party, and secondly of a deep rooted fear of appearing to be wrong, to not know the answer – to lose face. The standard model of preparation for an interview is much the same as it is for sport in China. Repetition – over and over, to the point you blindly regurgitate that which you have practised. All well and good in sport – but in a learning environment, where an expression of self is paramount to not only understanding work but your relation to it, such animatronic behaviours are distinctly counter-productive. In sport, the rules of engagement are set – the same task will be required of you again and again. But in life, much less an interview, different questions will be asked of you all the time. Repeating the same answers parrot fashion as a default response (often to the wrong questions) serves nobody.
A teaching of critical thinking, let alone getting students to ask for help is an uphill struggle. In state education in China, one of the rudest things a student can say to a teacher is “I don’t understand” because the implication is that the teacher therefore can’t teach properly and will lose face. When the teacher then comes round and sees the student hasn’t done work, or has done the work entirely wrong, they will respond in kind and not make the student lose face by being told what they’re doing isn’t correct. The result is a vast swathe of students, maybe 15 – 20% (I guess, though could be higher) at the bottom end of state education who need additional help - be that from modes of learning, disability, or anything else - are left by the wayside, and I assume become the security guards asleep on the job if they’re lucky. It appears that the society in its current state, particularly in education, is aware of this anyway: all focus is put on the top 1%, the best and brightest, because 1% of 1 and a half billion people is a LOT of geniuses. Who knows if this is the fastest way for society to progress? It certainly doesn’t seem the nicest or fairest in any case.
Guanxi is a mixture of your reputation, connections, and credibility with a side dose of talking (where necessary) complete bollocks. It is it’s own special form of currency, and can move mountains where money will not. Curiously then, it is created rather than earned; and in this manner is distinctly different to respect. It can be fabricated out of thin air, as long as you have the strength of conviction and aptitude to carry off your claims as truth. I met several westerners in my time here who talked such rubbish that they’d be laughed out of any similar situation in their home country – “I only have to send one message and two BMW’s with strong men will be here in minutes” or “You can’t afford not to give me a table, do you realise who we are?”. Yet in Beijing, gullible people lap it up wholesale seemingly thinking “well why would they lie?” or “wow, their guanxi must be immense”. To be sure, it is a bullshitter’s paradise!
It seems the vast majority of Chinese people are on a permanent quest to improve their personal, professional, and collective guanxi (family/company/ethnicity) etc. Thus a problem may arise, something small – a logistical or planning error for example – something which is relatively easy to fix. The first thought through the minds of most people would be “how do I fix this?”. In China, there is a first step before this however, which is far more active/conscious than it may be elsewhere. That is “How do I micro manage this situation to improve my guanxi? How do I ensure I will look good and X will look bad? If I cannot fix this problem and it lies within my sphere of responsibility, on whom can I assign blame?”
Such thinking is prevalent across the vast majority of China, as far as I can tell from conversations with colleagues. It ensures that progress is stifled, and what may otherwise be small fixable problems often mushroom into far larger issues whilst the original responsible party continues to search for ways to improve their guanxi.
Atop all of this is the fact you are a foreigner or “laowai”. The translation is literal – “constantly foreign”, and though some may say it’s not used with malice, you can believe me that it is. China is one of the most racist countries I’ve ever been to, though perhaps with a slightly different bent on proceedings. Rather than being actively against one race or minority, China is a Han supremacist state. Of all 56 recognised Chinese ethnicities and languages, Han sits atop everyone else and you are judged accordingly. This stretches from the tedious attitude of patronising those from the south of China who may have Vietnamese or Cambodian ancestry to the point of them having to accidentally drop their I.D. card to prove they’re Chinese, all the way to the brutal crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang province by mob attacks, or the police cutting skirts of Muslim women for being “too long”.
In Beijing, where ethnicities from across the globe can be found, racism against black and white can be found in different modes as well. Only a few years ago there was a much loved TV ad for washing powder in which a Chinese girl brings her black boyfriend home, puts him in the washing machine, and he comes out white. I read a blog post from a couple of years ago of a teacher in Chengdu who did a lesson on inspirational people with his class of 11 year olds – upon showing a picture of Michelle Obama he was greeted with hysterics and calls of “too black!” and “next picture, she is too ugly”.
For white people, you are sold for your skin colour whilst simultaneously being chastised for it. “The sooner you accept you’re a white monkey, the easier your time will be here” I was told. "White monkeys" are hired by companies to increase their guanxi, but are not expected to contribute actively to output or productivity, past the functionality of their skin colour. Parents will gleefully demand to film classes to “check progress of students”, only to share them on social media when given the opportunity to do so as a means of saying “look how amazing my child is, a white person is teaching them”. You can also get free entry and free drinks in nightclubs, regardless of how ugly you are... but the same white person will be charged more in shops, chastised as a dirty foreigner coming here taking all the jobs, made deliberately unwelcome in social situations, suffer base mistrust and the ramifications of it (“no more than 5 foreigners in this shop at any time” signs and the like), and be generally treated as a disposable commodity to be seen and not heard. In Hong-Kong we’re called “ghost people” not only for a seeming lack of colour, but apparently for a lack of content/soul as well.
Beijing food is horrendous. Everything is fried – even vegetables are boiled and then fried afterwards, almost always with chilli and meat. When you get to the stage of craving an undressed salad on a daily basis, you know something is amiss! Quite how a culture so famed for cooking pork belly can be wholly incompetent at making or cooking any other pork based product is quite beyond me (hint: the worst ham/sausages/bacon in the world are made in China). Spitting is prevalent everywhere; if you are brave enough to cycle in Beijing you can expect to have people spit in your face several times a year (unintentional, but it is that common). Everywhere is dirty, people don’t give a damn about clearing up after themselves. Crisps (potato chips) are inedible and combine what must be the worst culinary ideas in existence into a cacophony of epic taste failures. N.B. Despite how innocent they may sound, cucumber crisps are NOT a good idea. Milk and eggs often aren’t real, beer whilst cheap is dreadful and watery, bread and cake are the worst in the world (lighter than the lightest sponge cake you ever had and minus the taste). Sugar in everything, sugar on everything, tea costs more than alcohol (£8 - £10 for a pot of tea is fairly cheap). Animal rights don’t exist, human rights barely exist, exploitation is rampant (Chinese staff often work 60 and 70 hour weeks for no overtime, convinced that if they put their head above the parapet they will be replaced – which they probably would be). Not being able to get a cup of tea with an ice-cream because Chinese people think everything cold is bad for you and mixing cold and hot is the worst thing you can do – if you go to the doctor the first thing they will say is “drink more hot water”. Beijing winters are a mix of extreme cold and extreme dryness – there was zero precipitation for four months when I arrived, yet with temperatures of minus 10 Celsius or less that means there’s no ice but the wind can cut through you like a knife. In such conditions your skin is drier when you get out the shower than when you go in. The skin on your legs, hands, even your eyelids all peels/sheds. There’s no deodorant unless you go to an international store, and bureaucracy screws everything up from top to bottom. E-mail barely exists for many companies, and god-knows the amount of hours of labour wasted as people swipe through group messages on WeChat (the Chinese WhatsApp) only to discover they need a file sending again because they didn’t read it the first time you sent it!? Then there's obsession with Hitler (memes and gifs abound on social media) as if it's kitsch rather than just wrong...
In short, what’s not to love?
I know I should be careful writing this, it’s not nuanced, referenced, or fair. It is my experience, nonetheless. I was once told a story of a friend of a friend, a teacher, who wrote a blog post critical of some aspect of China and nearly lost their job after being reported by a student. “If you don’t like it then you should go back where you came from, bloody foreigner” was the general theme of the student’s angst...
Well, I didn’t like it (in Beijing at least), and as I have the luxury of being able to leave, I shall. So long China, and thanks for the education: you made me recognise the imperialistic tendencies within me, you nearly turned me racist at one point, but I leave feeling as though I have fought to a fair stalemate, which is better than losing completely I guess!
P.S. China is a big place, and I'm assured it's not all like this.
It's been several months since my last post, and much has happened!
I presented at the VASTA conference in Singapore last summer, my first time to visit anywhere in Asia. It was great to present my work to other professionals, and get some perspective on not only where my work has come from and can go to, but also in confidence and ownership over it. I was pessimistic about surrounding myself with a lot of, mostly American, voice teachers for an intensive week or workshops and seminars, but it certainly paid dividends. It was also a relief to discover that many of my misgivings about current voice practise are shared by a great many other practitioners across different sectors. Those who loathe guruism and doctrine fear not - we are not alone (albeit we are in a minority)!
I don't generally fly very much. I didn't fly anywhere until I was 25 years old, and only then because I had to because getting to Bahrain otherwise would have meant travelling through Iran (long visa process), Saudi Arabia (very difficult), or Sudan/Eritrea/Djibouti (very dangerous). If you can afford the time to travel by land I'd certainly recommend it. Aside from meeting people in a very different manner (usually for longer and more relaxed), you also get a much better sense of how far you've gone. Sometimes seeing the changes in physical landscape can also aid other knowledge, history for example. I remember always knowing about the siege of Leningrad in terms of hard facts, for example, but it wasn't until I travelled from Helsinki to Moscow by train that I understood how the physical terrain hindered the fascist advance and supply through Russia during WWII; the surrounding land being either swamp or immensely dense forest (or a combination of both) for many hundreds of kilometres. There's a great website in English at www.seat61.com which tells you how to get anywhere in the world without flying, mostly by train. It's very detailed, and well worth a look. Train travel can often be cheaper than flying on short or long journeys, and you don't have baggage allowances to worry about - let alone falling out of the sky!
But so I went to Singapore from Dublin via Helsinki and back in the space of 10 days. Was it a dream? Did it really happen? Thus feels my body. The country was certainly interesting though, one of the first places I've been where multiculturalism seems to genuinely work/gel. Singapore has four official first languages - Malay, Mandarin, English, and Tamil. School students have to take at least two of these languages, and all state services are available in each language. Of course there are areas where specific communities come together - Little India, China town etc, but these areas don't feel as ghettoised as other metropolises I've been in.
It also has an incredibly easy relationship with it's colonialist past - all the Singaporeans I met were either indifferent or positive towards the imperialist Raffles. "Well, he made the country really - it wouldn't be so prosperous if it wasn't for him" was the general run of things. All of this says nothing of course about the vast migrant worker population mostly from the Philippines, whose language does not enjoy the same rights, and whose citizens clearly do not enjoy the same benefits as the people they work for or serve...
Unfortunately, my return to Ireland did not a great bounty of work afford and so I set about looking for stuff abroad. I'm now living in China, teaching Public Speaking, Theatre, and a bit of Debate for a specialist education agency in Beijing. As much as I dearly love Ireland, I wasn't making a comfortable living there and so I've jumped ship for a bit. More on China in another post (or perhaps a book haha), but it is certainly an adventure and has already allowed me to visit Vietnam for a holiday, and to see and learn many many new things. Funny old life ain't it?
If you're up at 4am, you may as well be productive, right?
Teachers, of great knowledge and none, can perhaps be divided into three different types:
1) The Dictator
2) The Guide
3) The Facilitator
The dictator is a dying breed, perhaps even alien to some of us. They are the teacher who thinks "Do what I say, when I say it, and not before. Only ask the right questions. If you don't get it then you must be stupid". Sometimes they will say these things as well. These are the school teachers of our past, and in some places, our present. I remember an English teacher at school once dictating to me "You'll never amount to anything. I'm a genius: I have a degree from University which certifies me as a genius". I thought it was bullshit then, and low and behold - it was!
The good thing about Dictators however, is that their system inevitably leads to one outcome: Revolution. Sometimes the revolution is against their pedagogy, sometimes against their knowledge, occasionally against them personally. It is no walk in the park learning under a dictator, but unless you're crushed under their heel, then your drive in acquisition of impartial knowledge going forward is often greatly increased.
The Guide in mainstream education is a relatively new phenomena , though it's routes are perhaps the oldest of all methods of teaching. They take the student by the hand and lead (sometimes drag) them through their amassed knowledge, or the doctrine to which they subscribe. They think "Do what I say because I know this shit and it will be good for you. There may be many ways of doing things, but my way is right/the best. If you don't get it then you're not ready to receive this wisdom". These teachers are everywhere, in many different forms. They think because they are leading the student, as a parent with a child, that they are nurturing them; though their love is not unconditional, and they can drop you in a heartbeat if not happy with your progression.
The usual indicator of someone being a Guide is that you often remember what they've said/the soundbites, but have little to no grasp of the knowledge unless you stuck with them to the end. They love having a "big reveal" at the end: this might be a secret key which unlocks the whole of your learning, it might be their approval or acceptance of you as an equal who is ready to lead others, or it may be a revealing of who they actually are "I was mean/nice/cryptic/specific/distant/close so that would would amass this wisdom the right way".
Often, you might think they're a complete bell-end, but you respect them for the knowledge they have and their desire to (sort of) share it.
Then we have the Facilitator, that's who many of us aspire to be or think we are already. They think "Do and say what you want, I have my own ideas but they might be wrong... I want to do this with you today, but again my ideas might be wrong... I'm not going to judge you based on your ability to embody of regurgitate the knowledge I've shared". It's a big ask to be a facilitator, and there's precious few of them around. People really have to pull some big shit to be taught by a dictator and become a facilitator, because subconsciously they're always battling against the repression they were taught under. The danger is they end up in Permanent Revolution, and whilst established power structures are eradicated, progression is largely down to chance rather than established pedagogy.
There is a middle ground for the Facilitator of course; one in which they can be strong enough to lead in a space where they know they might not be right, or in which they are confident that the student will find their own way if supported - that they will learn to walk on their own.
Are you thinking "Hang on, you've written three paragraphs and haven't mentioned Guruism once..."? Don't worry, we're on track!
Guruism in teaching comes from two distinct strands:
To address the first, this blog post is not an attack on traditions or our learning from them. Our cultural makeups are built on tradition. However, guruists (I make the definition of "guruist/ism" as I am addressing something specific in pedagogic terms, not attacking Gurus of particular faiths/ideologies - this is much more about people who think they're gurus than those who actually are), so reliant on the esoteric idea that there are universal truths only to be revealed by hidden knowledge, forget that traditions EVOLVE. Traditions keep that which is pleasurable or helpful (for whom is another matter), and replace or renege those which are not.
The second is obvious - to believe that your shit is absolute and that you have all the answers you've got to be a billy-big-bollocks or at least believe you are. The reality often of course is that this air of "master", the idea you are the keeper of hidden knowledge to impart to the faithful is often covering MASSIVE personal insecurities, and this is painfully obvious to the students, regardless of how much the teacher thinks they're hiding it.
Fundamentally, it is the Guide who is most guilty of guruism in the teaching world. They are actually the direct result of, and are extremely close to the Dictator; it's just that their methods have varied. The Dictators love Guides, because although they might seem a bit hippy-dippy, they nonetheless continue to cement knowledge and snub evolution, moreover revolution. The tragically hilarious thing is that Guides often believe they are actually Facilitators, and even publicly profess to be so.
The main point to all this is not that guruists annoy me personally, it is that they are actively DANGEROUS. The voice world is awash with them, chiefly because there are so many (and growing) numbers of "established" practices/methods, all with their own doctrine, all with their own brand of esoteric nonsense supposedly backing it up. Don't get me wrong, these are to greater and lesser degrees, and some practices are evolving; but if the political and philosophical thinking underpinning them are only capable of bending but not changing, then it's all just still just farting in the wind. Let me give you some examples of what I've heard, seen and witnessed. I won't give names but will separate different methods by numbers...
Top Tip 1: Spending 10 minutes guffing about how amazing old master X was (don't get me wrong, I'm sure they were lovely: a good teacher, and a knowledgeable person), does little or nothing to support your teaching or my learning, especially if you make an extended point about how lucky the few of you who knew them personally to be affected by their teaching were. Principally it makes your student feel a) There is a master whose shit does not stink and whose level of understanding we can never attain b) That hero worship is helpful or necessary in order to engage with this work c) Not to question any of this because it came from a lovely old person who was your friend who has since died (i.e. how could you be so heartless as to say/ask that?).
Top Tip(s) 2: When being an authority on where the jaw should "naturally" sit, try checking your student physiologically and cross referencing your understanding with a dentist before acting like your knowledge is gospel. When giving out instructions for massage techniques from other disciplines, check they're not only for skilled professionals as they include a risk of inducing miscarriage. Don't tell young women who you are training "You're only speaking like that because you think you're sexually attractive to men, but you're not, men don't find that attractive" - I mean, what the hell do you know, and how is that even within your remit? Don't publicly infer that laughter and/or fatigue at your ballsology is a mark against the student's commitment to engaging with your work.
Top Tip 3: Don't define what language your student uses to define their experience. You stray back into the land of the Dictator, and serve no one but your own ego. "This is the level of language we're using at this level" is not an acceptable reasoning, it just makes you an oppressor, despite your guruistic veneer.
Top Tip 4: Never laugh off a student's experience because it doesn't conform to your methodology or world view. "Hahaha, don't be silly" would likely result in physical violence in another setting, don't believe it's ok to get away with it in a classroom because you're far less likely to get a pool cue wrapped around your head.
Top Tip 5: If you genuinely think a client or student is "unteachable" or "not worth bothering with" maybe question why you took them on? If you can't teach them something, is it their problem or yours?
All the above come from certified "Master" teachers in their different methods teaching in top institutions in the UK, and USA. And the reason all the above happened (the thinnest edge of a very large wedge)? Guruism. The belief that you know best and your method has the ultimate answers. Guess what? It doesn't.
Ultimately the sun is going to supernova and gobble up our little planet. Eventually gravity will crush everything in the universe into dust. Nothing is forever. In 200 years, nobody will even know we were here, short of a few nerdy historians, and far less who we were. If you believe in everything making sense in the end/an afterlife/the big reveal/esoterics/hidden knowledge, then all the more reason you should stop being a complete toss-pot and let it all go and SHARE your knowledge freely whilst seeking to EXPAND the knowledge you have currently amassed. Just think: although it works for you, everything you say and how you say it MIGHT be (and probably is) COMPLETE TOSH.
I'll try and provide some solutions for combating guruism in your practise in another post.
Wow, what a roller-coaster since that weekend in Cahersiveen, which was a long and bloody brilliant weekend I have to say! I ended up going on a jolly up the west coast for a couple of weeks, handily meeting friends and seeing sights often inaccessible by public transport (I only learnt to drive earlier this year so my new found liberty of movement is all still a bit of a novelty)...
From Cahersiveen I first headed to Dingle, supposed home of some of the best trad in Ireland. The reality? One of the most over-hyped places I've ever been, the hitch-hikers I picked up en-route and when leaving being of more interest than the stay. I stayed at the Grapevine Hostel, which I'd recommend if you do go however - lovely staff, and clean/cosy beds made for some comfort at least. The main problem is that the town is wall to wall with American tourists and the whole economy apparently serves this. If you're not balling down a bar asking if you can bring X number of people in for food, you're unlikely to be served, and the music; far from the trad paradise I had been told of so often, was two or three to a bar bands through a PA. Few sessions, and the pubs are all empty by half 10 because the Americans seemingly can't handle the pace. I stayed on a Wednesday/Thursday night and only one bar was open after 11 - something distinctly unheard of in other such centres of population in Ireland.
Hey-ho, I headed up to Galway for a few days, stopping off for a bit of fishing in Listowel and taking the Tarbert ferry for a drive up through Clare. Galway is grand enough for the friends I've got there, but I find the music scene a touch pretentious - lots of people so awash with hero worship of musicians that they don't actually play anything, or they spend 20mins discussing a set to play, trying to gauge if their tunes are hip enough for whoever is sat in with them. In short, minimal craic! The great musicians of course don't give a hoot what's played, and would join anyone in any tune they play, but Irish trad breeds a selective clique of weirdos, otherwise known as "purists". I got some great tunes on the Sunday night at An Droighnean Donn in Spiddal however - definitely a friendly place worth visiting for good relaxed tunes. The herring fishing is good here in the summer too, it would seem.
From there, I connected with a family friend in Oughterard before heading up through Connemara for a few days in Westport, Co. Mayo. I lived just outside the town for a few months just over a decade ago when working with a somewhat questionable Children's Theatre company. Having loved it so much then, I've no idea why it took me so long to return. Westport is a great town, mid-sized/small but thriving - and with good independent shops too. Big enough to have everything you need, but small enough not to be overwhelmed. Community spirit is quite awesome in the town, volunteers can be seen regularly sweeping the streets or cleaning the river, and everyone has a "hello" for you. The music is great too, with sessions on every night of the week and enough variety to suit most tastes.
After a few days I headed to meet up with a friend and talented singer/musician Paddy Shannon in Enniskillen, Fermanagh. For the first time ever, approaching the border I found myself feeling a general sense of dread and foreboding. Coloured by my experiences in Armagh City and Belfast the previous year, and having done no research on the place, I feared the worse... My fears were allayed thankfully, the general vibe from the town and it's inhabitants being far more positive, and far less openly racist, than other areas I have visited in Northern Ireland. I also got some very tasty tunes in Blakes of the Hollow, with great lift and tremendous speed (ableit a little cramped).
I'd planned to stay in Donegal for a week or so, having only explored the northern part of it a few years ago after the fleadh in Derry when I went to Buncranna and Culdaff. After a day in Donegal Town, one in Letterkenny, and a few tunes on a back road to Glenties however, I'd had enough. "Where are you from?" is the same loaded and intrusive question (read "accusation") it is in parts of Armagh, Belfast, and elsewhere. This really saddened me, as it's the only time I've come across such behaviour in the Republic. It left a sour taste that even the welcoming of the session at Sandino's in Derry couldn't lift so I thought "ach well, what the hell, I may as well return to where the craic's 90, right"?
And so back to Westport for a few days for tunes, theatre, cinema, and new friends made. I realised what I'd been missing all these years and so have jumped with both feet and moved here. It's the best decision I've made for a long time - there's lots of work available and a commute to Dublin for the occasional client/audition/gig isn't such a burden. West Cork has been great - the first time I've lived in a village has been long enough to appreciate it, and long enough to realise it's not for me. Lovely people, and a beautiful place, but very little work (and no broadband makes it even more difficult to generate it).
So here I am home in Mayo, and in that, somewhere I can genuinely see myself establishing a long-term base!
Heading up to Cahersiveen in Kerry for a weekend of music with friends old and new. In the meantime, check out the media section at www.dmgott.com/music to hear studio work on the folk track "John Joe" - a tribute to a father from his son, recorded at www.oceanstudiosireland.com last month.
Hello hive mind! This is just a quick note to say sorry I haven't been posting here, and to assure you there is much to follow. When I started this site I had grand ideas for my blog to be a pool of specific and intensive thinking, a space to demonstrate the nuanced prowess of my intellect (hah)! Clearly however, I'm either too slow or too lazy to churn out such info on a regular basis. So I've resigned myself to post things in a more free-flowing form: I'm not going to edit aside from spelling and grammar, I'm not going to shy away from the controversial for sake of appearing professional, and I'm going to allow myself to rant about voice, politics, music, and acting!
- Everything has been ticking over nicely in West Cork. Saint Patrick's Day was extremely busy, with several gigs in local pubs and a great party at Deer Park nursing home in Bantry. I was also honoured to be asked to sing as a session musician at Ocean Studios for top music producer Wayne Sheehy recently, on a nice little project commissioned by a fella writing a song to honour his father. It's a lovely space to work in, and Wayne is not only an exceptional musician and arranger, but a thoroughly lovely man to boot. So impressed am I by his workmanship, I'm even thinking about making an album myself at long last!
- In the voice world, I've been fortunate enough to be asked to present at the VASTA conference The Art of Story Telling in Singapore this August. Being awarded a scholarship by VASTA to help me attend is the icing on the cake, and I am indebted to the organisation for their financial assistance.
- May Day discounts! In honour of International Workers Day, I'm offering special discounts to trade unions and their members throughout the month of May on all voice and music services. Simply add your trade union affiliation and membership number to the form when messaging me in the contact section of this website :-)
I wrote this a few weeks ago. As I didn't receive a direct reply, I thought I may as well share it here...
Dear Mr Henderson,
I graduated in December and attended the ceremony at the Southbank. It was a good event, until the end, where a particular part of your speech (or lack of it) both amazed and offended me.
You spoke at length to give your thanks to the various institutions which help RCSSD by their continued and increasing financial support and contributions. You also made a point of thanking the assembled audience (who had payed through the nose to attend the event) for their support. Why then I wonder, where one may have saved the most important thanks for last, you chose to simply ignore the several hundred students sat in front of you? Have their financial contributions in fees not registered as noteworthy enough to feature in your speech? Has their commitment to being attached to what (for the majority) is likely a lifetime of debt not a big enough sacrifice to give thanks for?
Your contemporary from the University of London talked passionately for the need for us, we academics and artists, to be a "counter-culture" to the world's problems. I wonder if either he or yourself understand the irony of championing a counter culture to the ignorance in the world today, an ignorance expedited primarily by rich men over poor, disillusioned, debt-ridden people, when you yourself stand there and seemingly refuse to acknowledge the financial hardships endured by the students of RCSSD to fund, in part, your own six-figure salary?
From talk by guest speakers of working class people "bettering" themselves through academia, to the hypocrisy of other speeches as highlighted above, I am saddened to not be able to take pride in graduating from the institution, so much as relieved I have survived it.
I hope in the future you may more actively consider and acknowledge the financial burdens which students take on in support of their studies. Without doing so, and without seemingly recognising your own financial privilege, I fear your desire to spearhead a counter-culture will be short lived.
MFA Voice Studies
The last few months have been an interesting time for me...
After 12 years of London as a base I've decided to jump ship and emigrate to Ireland. Life in one of the best cities in the world through my 20's has been great fun, but I'm ready to tone things down and once again embrace the small town living which I longed to escape as a teenager.
To that end I've been back in Yorkshire for a few months, learning to drive (essential for life in Ireland) and spending some quality time with family and friends. Yorkshire has plenty of clean air and small towns, but to add great music and craic to the list I need to get to Ireland - and with Brexit around the corner, sooner rather than later!
From being back up north, the effect on my voice and spine have been noticeable. Both are essential as a performer and teacher, so care and knowledge of these is essential to best working practise.
Firstly, within a matter of weeks of being back, my voice dropped. This isn't the usual accent adjustment you'd find moving to a home region after being away (usually a change in tone rather than pitch), but a drop in the habitual voice level by three of four notes. Essentially, this is a result of relaxation of the laryngeal muscles - the cause? No, not the various muscle release techniques (direct and indirect) favoured by so many acting and voice teachers, but just from escaping the madness of London, "The Big Smoke". I wonder, is having the vast majority of acting conservatoires in London conducive to the most efficient models of movement and voice training? Much as I have my reservations about Linklater training (a distinct understatement), I can nonetheless appreciate why Kristin conducts her training in beautiful Scottish countryside. After so may years of cramped tube travel (the metro), striving to get through crowds, and appalling air quality; my habitual pitch had simply become that slight bit higher - both by necessity of needing to be heard, and by slight tensions in the vocal tract from the general stresses of living in the capital.
Secondly, I've noticed a big difference on my posture and spine. This has been positive in day to day use - the space in even a busy city Yorkshire shopping street being akin to a quiet day in even a suburban London high street, thus allowing a freedom in use of my full width and height. At 6' 4'' (1.93cm) I'm fairly tall so it's been a great relief to avoid the daily stooping in small underground carriages. However this has proved problematic in learning to drive! Surely a body awareness course should be available to sit alongside all driving tuition? So many vehicles, all different shapes and sizes, with different force needed by arms, legs, and feet to operate them...
After the first lesson is was my knees which felt strange, asking them to be positioned and used in a manner I'd not done in the previous 31 years. It was almost as if my knees were twisted, like I could feel my Popliteus muscle for the first time (this connects the back of the Tibia to the outside of the Femur). Of course, this got better after only a few lessons, but until now the main issue had been driving in cars too small for me, ones where I had to hunch/crick my neck slightly to ensure that my head wasn't pressed hard against the roof of the vehicle. After a four hour lesson before my test I knew I'd pulled or knotted a muscle, likely my Iliocostalis (cervical part) or Longissimus Cervicis (these connect from between the shoulder blade and spine up to the same side of the neck) - and painful it was too! Every lesson required spinal work afterwards, and I may still even go for a deep tissue massage even now, to be sure.
But hey-ho I passed my test first time, am now fully mobile (a strange feeling after so many years of depending on lifts/public transport), and have a vehicle with plenty of head room so am rid of the posture problems plaguing me for the past few weeks. Hooray!
I'd be interested to hear thoughts from tutors on this matter, driving position must have an enormous effect on our student's posture and use of spine, and until now wasn't something I suppose I'd considered much.
Have you posture or back pain problems from driving? Do you know you get tense in your neck when using your voice? Driving may be a cause, and a massage might be a relief, but training yourself in body awareness is undoubtedly the best full time solution. I've been fortunate to study both Alexander and Feldenkrais techniques and would recommend either. These are minimum effort (though require strong/specific focus) practises which will help many people, and certainly any performer. Search online for a practitioner or group class in your area and give it a go!
And if you want to try something without paying, have a go at these short, free, online Feldenkrais lessons here.
Thanks for reading, comments very welcome.
Many years on my to do list, but it's finally here - any comments for tweaks and improvements are very welcome! I've always known a website would be a difficult undertaking, explaining you have more than one profession is never easy, but I really couldn't handle keeping tabs on three different websites. Big thanks to Rebecca Gausnell for recommending Sqaurespace, I'm not a technophobe but design is not my forte. What a breeze then to find a website creator which does all the hard work for me. I'd certainly recommend trying it if you're in the market for one. And it's got me writing a blog of all things... can't be that bad then I suppose.
So, onwards and upwards!
... I wonder if a "free money" tag will get anyone to read this?