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An Interview with Alan Green

The Guitar Noise community is made up of people from all over the world, more than one hundred and fifty countries at last count, who have come here to share their love of music and their love of guitar. Some are beginners who’ve just gotten their first instrument and are eagerly trying to digest as much knowledge as possible. Some are folks who “used to play” at one point in their lives and are now getting back to creating music for themselves. Some have been playing for ages and come to share their knowledge and experiences.

Not surprisingly, we have a good number of guitar teachers in the Guitar Noise community. Again, they also fall into many different varieties and bring many levels of experience to their students.

Some of you may remember that last year, August 18, 2008, saw Tom “Noteboat” Serb open the Midwest Music Academy in Plainfield, Illinois. Tom and his school had a wonderful first year, giving over a thousand lessons to close to two hundred students.

This fall, Guitar Noise Moderator, Alan Green, is also embarking on a huge undertaking, teaching for the Essex School Music Service in England. Those of you who have been a part of Guitar Noise for some time will recognize Alan from his participation in the Sunday Songwriters’ Group as well as his Guitar Noise articles and his musical adventures as part of the Cambridge Guitar Orchestra. What you may not know is that he’s been playing guitar since 1974, has a Distinction at Grade 8 in Classical Guitar and a Distinction at Grade 5 in Music Theory (Alan’s tip for the Theory exams – know how to write out an ascending and descending scale of G# melodic minor, properly annotated for sharps and naturals).

Alan lives in Finchingfield, which is (apparently) Essex’s most photographed village, a few miles from where Dick Turpin (the highwayman) was born, and where some of the witches executed after the famous “Matthew Hopkins, Witch-finder General” trials of the 1640s were buried sitting up so they could never claim to have been “laid to rest.” The place is mentioned in the Doomsday Book so there’s a lot of history there.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Alan twice, once for breakfast and some poking around guitar shops in New York City on glorious April morning and once as a house guest here in Massachusetts last September, where we managed to put together a small open mic / songwriter performance for him to take part in. He is every bit as personable and friendly in person as he is on the GN Forum pages.

To celebrate this new stage of Alan’s teaching career, I asked him if he might take part in a little Q & A for the Guitar Noise readers and so, let’s get right to it.

GN: How long have you been playing? When (and why) did you first pick up the instrument? Have you been playing since day one or have you had the occasionally sabbatical? Who are your musical inspirations as well as your guitar heroes?

ALAN: There was this shop near my school run by Reg Roylance, a local jazz musician who could play anything on any instrument; records at the front, guitars at the back and I saw this beginner’s guitar in the window. I knew I wanted to be a pop star (at that time everybody my age did) and suddenly there in front of me was an inexpensive way of starting out. So I asked for it as a birthday present. I could already read music, having had compulsory recorder lessons as a six-year old at primary school, and it was “just” a matter of learning where the notes were on the neck. That was harder than you’d think, especially when you’re dealing with a lousy action and fingers that were glowing like light bulbs; and recorders don’t play below middle C, so 6th and 5th string notes were unbelievably hard to learn to read and play from sight.

My first public performance was as a chef in my primary school’s Christmas play. I had to bring out the figgy pudding on a large plate when the choir sang “now bring us some figgy pudding and bring it out here.” Applause is instantly addictive. My first performance with a guitar in my hand was playing the bass to Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” at a local Church Choir concert, and my first note on a guitar in public was a big fat “G.” It should have been a big fat “F” so I played a “C” on the fourth beat and got back to the “F” for the start of the second bar. Later, I played for the group that covered the 9:30 Sunday service at a local Church when the organist had his Sunday off, then learned to play lead guitar and played some punk/ metal with a band called “Block A” in Romford in Essex for a couple of years. So, anyone who knows a guy called John Hooper from Gidea Park (our singer, married to Wendy, last known of in Pitsea, Essex) let him know I’ve lost his phone number and I’ve got some songs he might like to have a go at.

I didn’t play much whilst my sons were small, just enough to keep my hand in. Eventually, I found myself 38 and single; I didn’t think anybody would take me seriously if I said I was trying to put a rock band together, but I’d had some lessons in classical technique for a while in my twenties and decided to pick up my guitar seriously again and go down the Classical Guitar route. I got into Classical Guitar listening to “Junior Choice” presented by Ed Stewart on Radio 1 one Saturday morning when he played “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams; I just knew I had to learn to play it. I used it as an audition piece for the Essex Music Service earlier this year and a certain editor at a certain Guitar Website not far from here got to hear a pretty jet-lagged performance of it at an open mic night in Massachusetts last year.

Inspirations, good question. I learned to play chords on my first electric guitar using songbooks of David Bowie and the Beatles. The first riff I learned to play was either “Ziggy Stardust” or “Jean Genie,” and the first song I played from start to end was probably “Hard Day’s Night.”

Guitar Heroes – I had a girlfriend who was into Queen and I picked up a couple of Queen songbooks. Brian May has to be the most technically excellent guitarist on this planet, and his multi-tracked work makes his guitar sound like nothing else on earth (check out “Good Company” on “Night At The Opera” for an object lesson in how to make a single guitar sound like a jazz quartet). Then one night I was sitting at home with my father, watching “The Old Grey Whistle Test.” The legend that is Bumbling Bob Harris introduced a band called Rush, from Canada. My father’s face dropped in that “Oh, my God” expression. Mine lit up in that “Wow, this is the meaning of life” expression, and Alex Lifeson has been my complete and utter absolute Guitar Hero ever since. I admire Slash greatly, and John Frusciante, too, and there are a lot of good guitarists around who haven’t quite made it into Hero status yet. On the Classical Guitar side, I like John Williams, David Russell and Craig Ogden, but there’s less difference between classical guitarists.

GN: How (and roughly when) did you first find out about Guitar Noise? What keeps you coming back (not to mention what made you say “yes to being a Moderator)?

ALAN: I was working in Germany. We didn’t have a lot to do and one afternoon I was surfing the Wholenote dot com website. They were in the midst of a massive flame war which had practically taken over their entire forum, and if anyone can tell me how America’s involvement in the two World Wars is relevant to playing the guitar I’ll give them a free lesson. Somewhere amongst the insults I found a post where someone was talking about a show they’d done and it had a link to an article on Guitar Noise. I noticed there was a forum page here and never went back to Wholenote.

Guitar Noise is a unique community, somewhere you can drop in and out whenever you want to talk about anything to do with playing guitar. I like the fact that there’s no chat room and anything off topic is stamped on by the moderators. If I want to talk politics or religion I’ll go somewhere else; if I want to indulge my guitar hobby I come to Guitar Noise. I do frequent other guitar forum pages too, for Classical and Flamenco Guitar, but nothing like as regularly as I do Guitar Noise. It was nice to be asked to be a Moderator, and I knew the existing team to be a decent bunch so I threw my hat in the ring.

Talking of hats – I have worn one of Nick’s hats.

GN: Congratulations on moving up big time with your teaching? How did all of this come about? How long have you been teaching? Why did you make the decision to get involved in teaching on such a bigger scale?

ALAN: Thank you. I started teaching in the UK in 2003, after I came home from Germany, and by the start of 2007 had built up a thriving little practice which brought me four students on a Saturday afternoon and the occasional midweek session. I have a little guy named Joseph to thank for starting me out on my Grades. We were sitting in his lounge one Saturday afternoon listening to his sister playing the piano. She’d just got her Grade 1 and Joseph asked me “Are there any Grades for this thing?” I nodded and made a mental note to order a few extra copies of the book so I could do the Grades myself otherwise he’d get the Step 1 (one of two pre-grade exams) and technically he’d be ahead of me.

Moving to the countryside destroyed my teaching practice as it wasn’t possible to do any marketing and still travel 90 minutes each way to work and back each day. Then the bank I was working for wrote off a bucketload of money (thirty four billion dollars, in fact – that’s nine zeros) in the first wave of the credit crunch and started cutting jobs. I survived the first six rounds of job cuts, training people to take routine work offshore to India (for a lot less money than I was paying people to do the same job in London) but eventually ……. well, when you get a call from your boss asking you to go to an unscheduled meeting in a meeting room in the building HR occupy you know what’s coming.

So, there I was, looking at being out of work at the worst time in my industry since 1929. I’d been made redundant ten years previously, and was determined not to be out of work so long this time so I took a good long look at everything I could do; amongst which was this guitar teaching thing, a little rusty perhaps but nothing that couldn’t be fixed. I figured I could probably make a break into the adult education service (you need a bachelor’s degree at the very least to teach in schools in the UK) teaching guitar. I looked up the adult education services in all the local counties to me (where we live is close to three other counties outside Essex) and e-mailed them all. I also started a degree course with the Open University in England, which specialises in remote learning, to beef up the qualifications. I got a reply from the Essex Adult Education people who said they didn’t have anything but put me in touch with the School Music Service. I sent them an application form.

Having registered with 40 recruitment firms in London over the weeks before my job finally finished in early April, I got a few calls about work after Easter and one call got me an interview. I started work with a Japanese bank the following week. After three weeks at the new job I got a letter from Essex Music Service inviting me to go along, audition and interview. I’d never failed an audition in my life so figured I’d be able to make a decent stab at it and chances like this don’t come up every day so I grabbed it with both hands and started rehearsing. I played “Capricho Arabe,” a 20th century classical guitar masterpiece by Francisco Tarrega, and “Classical Gas.” I’m used to long interviews, but I finally staggered out after being grilled for 90 minutes, fortunately having been told that I was on the teachers’ list for September 2009. Result. There was another candidate being interviewed after me to teach cello. I told her mine had lasted 90 minutes. Her face dropped, but I notice she’s on the same Induction Day as me in two weeks’ time.

GN: Are you excited by the challenge of teaching so many students? Will you be continuing with your private students as well?

ALAN: I’ve been put in touch with three schools, with kids all aged under 8 years old. Thirty-six students. The lessons will be 15 minutes each, so it’s only nine hours each week but it’s a start and I might still get some more schools when they go back the week after next and find they should have booked a guitar teacher.

I can’t wait. I find teaching absolute beginners most enjoyable whatever age they might be. If you deliver the lessons right you’re lining up a student who will stay with you for what might be years and develop onto a top class performer. If they decide that guitar’s not for them, at least they’ll have had the experience and got some skills in reading standard notation that they can transfer to piano or clarinet or tuba or something.

The postcard that I put in the local shop advertising me as a private teacher suddenly earned its keep – I got a call about some lessons and took on my first private student since we moved house. It felt good to get back to teaching old favourites like “Maggie May” and “Brown Eyed Girl” again, and I find private students buy lessons because they want to learn not because they think it might be easy and cool to be able to play a guitar, so they have more longevity as students. I don’t teach Classical Guitar unless asked to do so, but my students know I’m a classical guitarist because they sit in my study with all my certificates on the wall, alongside the Gold Disc we got Kathy’s son off e-Bay for his birthday the other year and is with us for safekeeping whilst he’s travelling the world. Nobody’s actually looked at it yet and said “Is that a Gold disc? Is it yours?”

GN: If someone was interested in having you as his or her guitar teacher, how should he/she go about it?

ALAN: I’m definitely very keen on expanding the number of private students I teach, they’re not impacted by school holidays and provide more opportunities to teach lead and rock guitar. Anyone wanting me as a teacher can PM me through the Guitar Noise website, phone me on my mobile (the number is on the Rollmop Music website (www.rollmopmusic.co.uk)), or they can e-mail me at [email protected] and we’ll talk days and times.

GN: In addition to teaching you’re also a performer, both solo and as a member of the Cambridge Guitar Orchestra. Are you planning on continuing to perform? Any concerts in the works that you’d like to mention?

ALAN: Absolutely. Performance is the life blood of what we do, and although I do know of guitarists who are happy to play at rehearsal but don’t like playing gigs much, I think they need their heads tested for thinking like that. Still it takes all sorts to make a world.

The Musical Director at Cambridge Guitar Orchestra is one Peter Rueffer, a member of the Pro Arte Trio and professional musician himself. He arranges all our music himself, including some works by Pat Metheny as well as Grieg and Stravinsky, and I’ve learned a lot from working with him. Ensemble playing is definitely one of those things where the sum is greater than the parts and if you looked at the parts I get to play with Cambridge, which is all single-line stuff, then listen to the final result you’d be amazed at how it sounds. It’s pretty good for your sight-reading abilities too.

Not only that, but also, I play for the Essex Guitar Orchestra under the Musical Directorship of Melvyn Willin, a hugely qualified chap with two PhDs. Melvyn has studied under David Russell (famous Classical Guitarist), argued with John Williams (very famous Classical Guitarist) and has perfect pitch (don’t you just hate some people). The Essex Guitar Orchestra are now in their 33rd year, and they’ve played in Australia, India and Hungary amongst other places, and done some TV work. Melvyn arranges all our stuff himself too, but he arranges pop songs as well as the highbrow classical stuff and there’s definitely a more anarchic feel to working with him as well as a huge learning experience. I get to play Guitar 1 on a lot of Melvyn’s arrangements, including 16th note rasgueados in Boccerini’s Introduction and Fandango (check this piece out on Youtube – there’s a good version there by a trio – and turn the volume up), and what the audience get to hear is incredible.

I did a bunch of lunchtime Classical Guitar concerts as a soloist at the pub in the village earlier this year, and I’ve had a chat with the landlady about getting my residency back. She’s keen to get it going again too, even more so when I told her I’d got some new material.

And, finally, I’m talking to the wedding venues and hotels round my way about providing music for weddings, parties and corporate events to expand my solo performance diary. Fingers crossed.

There are some concerts pencilled in for later in the year with the orchestras. I’ll announce details closer to the time (once they’re firmed up)

GN: Those who’ve been around Guitar Noise a while might also be aware that you’re quite a writer as well. You recently had a piece published back in May by Here Is The City and your contributions to the Sunday Songwriters’ Group have always been inspirational. Are you planning to keep up with your writing as you take on more and more students?

ALAN: I think it’s natural that if you enjoy listening to music, and the plethora of MTV-type channels on TV suggest that more and more of us do, sooner or later you’re going to think “Well, surely I could do that.” If you take a listen to what’s selling in the Pop charts, you might even think “Well, listening to that, it can’t be that difficult.” Everybody has something to say about most things, and just needs a way of getting it out there. From there, it’s only a small step to grabbing a pencil and paper and getting it written down. Most of us have bad experiences of poetry from school, but all of a sudden we’re thinking about rhyming patterns and how to fit what we want to say into a verse-length structure without running out of breath.

Any number of frustrated writers will sit there and say “Oh, I couldn’t possibly write anything that anybody else would like” and that’s simply not true. Luckily, we’re all different, which is why Slipknot appeal to one audience and Girls Aloud to another and why we have so many different musical styles on the planet – you’ve really got to go some to write something that nobody likes.

So, you’ve got some lyrics, a couple of verses and a chorus maybe – that makes you a poet. Put a guitar in your hands, learn a few basic chords, and that makes you an artist, which is probably where so many people run into a roadblock, back at the “Oh, I couldn’t possibly write anything that anybody else would like because it would be such a simple song and songs need to have a complicated structure” argument. I find most people who say that sort of thing have been told at some stage in their lives, by someone important to them, “That’s rubbish” about something that they’ve done, and it’s stuck.

I can’t sing for toffee, but that doesn’t stop me inflicting my songs on the neighbours and as soon as I get a rush of inspiration from one of Vic’s Sunday Songwriters’ themes or something in the newspapers I’ll be scribbling again.

The article on “Here Is The City” (which is an anarchic news site in London aimed at the Capital Markets/ Investment Banking community) was prompted by reading someone else writing about their experience of losing their job in the current downturn. I commented on the story, saying that I’d gone round the pub and played my guitar, and the editors asked me to write about it and published it. A few friends in Investment Banking recognised my writing style even though it was edited down by a few lines, which was nice. I don’t get to write like that very often; maybe I should blog more.

So, bring on inspiration; I definitely plan to continue writing songs and my students get the same advice.

GN: People are likely to ask how you’ve managed to keep music such an important part of your life. What advice would you give them?

ALAN: Music is the most powerful of all the arts, with the ability to lift or carry a mood and existing only in the time and space during which it is performed, which you don’t get from standing in the Louvre among all the tourists gazing at the Mona Lisa. I’m sure we’ve all been transported somewhere back in time in our minds by hearing a particular song on the radio, and all the important occasions in our lives involve some kind of song – weddings, christenings, birthdays, bar mitzvahs, the chant summoning the faithful to prayer, your team winning at football, and even funerals are all distinguished by having musical content.

Unlike painting or sculpture, music is solely an aural experience (although liner notes try to add a visual aspect) and that makes everybody’s experience individual and subsequent experiences different to the first because the circumstances under which we listen again will have changed – minute differences in the timing, a fluffed note or lyric during a live performance for example, or the difference between sunshine and rain outside when playing a CD. A painting will always be the same painting, likewise a statue, but a musical performance will always be a different work of art every time it is performed or played; and I don’t want to miss that.

GN: Finally, any advice for the person wondering whether or not he or she should take up the guitar?

ALAN: What would I say? I’d say grab the opportunity with both hands and dedicate a good amount of time to it. If you decide later that it’s really not for you, then you will have learned a bunch of skills and disciplines that you can transfer to another musical instrument, or might even help you in your working or academic life. It’s really sad to think that we might have missed out on the natural successor to Jimi Hendrix or Andres Segovia because somebody thought about playing the guitar but thought they might not be any good.

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