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Remembering John

Sunday 23rd October 2016 (8:00pm)

Last week I was contacted by my old teacher and principal tuba player for the BBC Philharmonic, Chris Evans. Chris taught me immediately prior to my time at the Royal College of Music. Chris's patience and help prepared me for my audition with John Jenkins, the tuba professor at the RCM and principal tuba in the Philharmonia orchestra.

Chris had got in touch to ask about John (who, alas, passed away in 2008):

"I started a John Jenkins group on Facebook a little while ago. I didn't know him, I just loved his playing. You were taught by him for 4 yrs, I'd be interested to know what lessons were like with him."

I emailed Chris a lengthy reply - most of which forms the basis of what follows. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.

John Jenkins - tuba professor

My first year consisted of playing lots of long notes into the corners of rooms. It was all about feedback.

John very patiently forced me to listen to all the aspects of my playing concerned with sound production: the way I articulated or sustained the note, the graduation of dynamic change, slurring between notes - all that sort of thing - the "nuts and bolts" of physically producing a sound. We also spent a lot of time on breathing - it was stuff that extended the work Chris had been doing with me prior to the RCM (breath from the bottom of your lungs, use your diaphragm to support the note, open up your throat to ease the movement of air, that sort of thing).

Most importantly we spent a lot of time listening to the timbre of the note and working out how I could make the various different sorts of sound a tuba player needed to make, be it a sound that was focussed and "light" (for solo / chamber work) or something big and "fluffy" (for wont of a better word - and I don't mean indistinct, rather, it had a foundational sort of quality) that would blend with the other bass instruments at the bottom of a big orchestral sound. I can't over state how much we did this, week in week out and concentrating on how I might make the sound.

Often the conversation would go along the lines of John saying "when I do X then Y changes, you try it" and I'd watch and listen then I'd have a go myself. John demonstrated how he changed the sound then I would try to work out how I could do the same as him. At all times John insisted I get it right and wouldn't let me off the hook. To be honest, he was a bit of a task-master although it was plain to me that he was focussed on helping me to work out what I needed to do (in a physical sense) to make the sort of sound I needed to develop.

As an 18 year old youth it was sometimes very frustrating. I came to develop an "I'll show you, you daft old bugger" sort of attitude which was also very satisfying for those times when John gave me a compliment. He knew how to balance use of the carrot and stick.

I remember Steve Follant (who was in his final year during my first year) saying something along the following lines to me (paraphrased), "the thing about John is you turn up at the RCM all cocky and in the first year he kicks your arse around the room, takes your playing apart and then helps you to reassemble it. Stick with it, it's worth it."

I wasn't put in an orchestra until my final term of the first year - even then I was just 2nd tuba for John Adam's Harmonielehre. I spent most of my time in my first year playing in quintets and brass ensembles. This was not a bad thing since I had David Mason, Arthur Wilson and other hugely experienced musicians pass on a lot of musical lore and wrinkles. It was a lot of fun and my love of chamber music is directly related to their coaching. I was also coming to terms with the rather onerous academic demands I had to meet (I was on an academic rather than performance related degree).

At the end of the year we had to do our technical exams and I was expecting some sort of slow / low study a la Blazevich, given all the long notes I'd been playing.

Actually, he set something from Kopprasch that was fast and in a "difficult" key - number 20 I think. We re-focussed during the summer term on getting around the tuba, being nimble and not just "fluffing it".

We started very slow, focusing on small chunks, made sure all the notes were secure and gradually stitched the piece together and sped things up. Again, the discipline of this was a great experience and taught me a lot about how it should feel to go through this process (every teacher says to start slowly and speed up, but John actually forced me to do it in the lessons and he wasn't satisfied until I'd done it properly).

At the end of my first year I was surprised to learn I'd got a 1st and won a prize for my tuba playing. That was important - work appeared to be paying off.

My second and third years were very different ~ I really felt I was flourishing as a tuba player: I was literally in everything in terms of ensemble playing through to orchestral work. I was also in some really great concerts that I'll remember until my dying day - I was playing with my friends and loving it. My academic studies were also opening up new stuff: I discovered philosophy, re-learned how to program computers, spent hours in the London galleries and read poetry and literature voraciously. It was an exciting time and John contributed to it!

The lessons changed from being a sort of lobotomy of my playing to focusing on orchestral excerpts and having fun playing actual pieces of tuba repertoire! I was having fun and I think John was too. I remember lots of laughter (squeaking my way through Berlioz's Le Corsaire ended in tears etc.).

John Jenkins - tuba professor

In terms of orchestral excerpts I think all of us (students) would look at the repertoire he was working on in the Philharmonia. We got to try out all sorts of different stuff. We'd play through the repertoire in our lessons with John then go listen to him perform it in the evening. This would be in addition to the orchestral repertoire we played as members of the various RCM orchestras too. Finally, (although I may be mis-remembering this) I think we had to prepare excerpts for our technical exams at the end of the year.

I remember him being opinionated about how orchestral stuff should be played and again he was a stickler for detail. It was at this time we worked a lot on breathing - basically ensuring we had enough support left in the tank for what we needed to do in an orchestral context. I'm pretty certain he had a third lung - he could sustain notes louder and longer than anyone I've ever met and his pianissimo pedals were smooth and consistent. All thanks to exceptional breath control. He was a great musical and technical role model.

When it came to solo or chamber music he would help from a technical perspective but I was left alone to fathom the musicality - he was a lot less opinionated about the solo stuff than the orchestral things. Of course he'd make suggestions but since I had lots of ideas about how I wanted to play things he just left me to my own devices (although he'd sometimes play devil's advocate). I think he quite enjoyed that I knew my own mind in this sense: I'd play something and he'd have a wry smile on his face. I'd ask "what?" and he'd reply, "oh, nothing...". It was obvious he wouldn't have played it like that but he let me get on with it. I guess if I'd parped out something tasteless that's when he'd switch to the devil's advocate questions, "why not try..?" or "have you thought about..?".

Once again, I had the likes of David Mason and Arthur Wilson coaching chamber music and full brass sectional orchestral excerpts (I particularly remember a great Walton 1 blow through with Arthur - such a gentleman) and I think Peter Bassano took the helm as head of brass at this time. He had us doing some fun chamber music - I remember a crazy quintet called "The Rite of Lucifuge", notes all over the place over more than a four octave range, great fun to play though, and John had been the tuba player at its premier (as a member of the Equale Brass quintet I believe).

I guess the most important thing about John was that he was there and students could watch and listen. Having him sit next to you and produce an amazing sounding phrase gave you no room to manoeuver - you had to try to play it like that (or that's how I felt anyway). It was also fun to see him totally cock things up if only to see how he recovered (he'd cock up a phrase, mutter stuff under his breath and try again until he was happy with the result - the important take away for me was learning what he did to put stuff right).

Finally, he obviously cared deeply for his students. I remember him "having something in his eye" when we left the RCM and got together for drinks (three of us finished at the same time: I did a three year academic course, and there was another on the four year performer's diploma and yet another post-grad). There was definitely a "good vibe" amongst all of us tuba related folk at the RCM and I remember feeling very sad that it was all coming to an end. It was all down to John.

In the end I won prizes in each of my three years for my tuba playing. Again, much of this was down to John's stewardship.

If you want to see him in action, in a pedagogical sense, there are some videos online created for a guide to the orchestra by Andrew Hugill (a professor at Bath Spa University). With Andrew's permission I've collated them into the short (18 minute) video of John embedded below:

I still play at a high level, although this depends on my "real work" related time constraints. Music is still very important to me and I often miss playing my tuba. However, my work in computing is also lots of fun, affords me the opportunity to work with some amazingly smart people and also travel the world. Music makes a great counterpoint - I feel it quite a privilege that I've had the training so that I can enjoy music in the way that I can. It's also important in another respect, it's how I met Mary and it's something we have in common and share.

Writing this makes me realise what a privilege it was to know and learn from John. It makes me sad that he's gone - I'd have loved to have been able to buy him a drink and say a proper "thank you".

Rest in peace.


Monday 29th February 2016 (12:30pm)

I was invited to the world's first EdFoo conference, held at Google's HQ in California over the weekend of the 19th-21st February.

Me at the Googleplex

Foo? Yes, Foo (aka Friends Of O'Reilly).

I've written three books for O'Reilly, the last one being a short report on Python in Education. I suspect that's how I got on the invite list. EdFoo, as the name suggests, was a self-organised conference about education and I'm pleased I was able to attend. (I'm also indebted to the Python Software Foundation for their support via a travel grant to cover my flight from the UK.)

I had a fantastic time with good omens from the start: I flew to San Francisco on an almost-empty plane. Even the US border guard wanted a friendly chat. Apparently, "all you English people drink tea with your pinky stuck out because it helps balance the cup." Who was I to argue with the fierce looking dude in a uniform whose decision it was for my entry into the US..? "Hahaha, yes... of course we do, all the time..." I smiled back.

I took a shared shuttle from the airport to the hotel. My fellow passengers were a French dude who didn't know where he was going ("But I 'erv ze adresse 'ere. Non, non, non... ze adresse iz 'ere someware. Non. Ici. Oui. Ah, non..." etc), and a young Indian chap arriving to start his first job out of college at Google. After dropping the lost Frenchman in the middle of nowhere (he insisted it was the correct location) we chatted about cricket, much to the consternation of our American driver. It's like a secret code only commonwealth citizens appear to understand. :-)

While driving I was reminded of the Dionne Warwick song, "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?". I was ACTUALLY ON THE BLOODY WAY to San Jose. It's a four lane motorway. In future I can truthfully shout "YES!" whenever I hear the song played on the radio.

Foo camps are a sort of un-conference: the programme is organised by the attendees whilst at the event. A pre-prepared blank timetable and large sticky-notes are used to create a schedule. Interest in various activities is indicated by the copious use of sticky spots.

A Foocamp schedule

As you can see, I contributed a session about the BBC micro:bit project. People were very interested in the crazy notion of giving every 11 year-old in the UK a small programmable computer.

There were lots of wonderful aspects to this conference:

  • The people were, without exception, smart, friendly and enthusiastic;
  • The sessions were stimulating, lively and diverse in scope;
  • It was safe to contribute and I (personally) always got back more because of putting in.

Since I didn't know anybody, I was at my most gregarious. For example, at meal times I'd choose a table at random and ask, "can I join you?".

Here's a typical encounter:

"Of course!" replies the friendly looking lady.

I discover that she's a professor of anatomy, makes BAFTA award winning TV programmes and has a passion for whales. We talk on a diverse range of subjects and my tuba playing background comes up. It launches us into a discussion about the anatomy of circular breathing and how this is something whales may do when vocalising whale song. We're joined by a trombone playing colleague of hers and have a lovely time geeking out with stories of whales, youthful musical adventures, and anatomy.

Thank you Joy and Jeffrey for such an impromptu and entertaining lunch.

I took part in a wide variety of sessions. Highlights included a technical description of how Jupyter kernels work (more on this below), a discussion about the mechanics of curriculum generation and accidentally walking into a stimulating and enjoyable seminar attempting to work out why real schools are not like EdFoo.

It was a great pleasure to collaborate in such conversations. Often, the person who convened each session merely got the ball rolling. There was enough intellectual momentum in the room that conversation kept on rolling in all sorts of interesting directions.

My own session was a case in point. I spent about 15 minutes giving a brief overview of the micro:bit project, my contribution via the Python programming language and a demonstration of the device. Questions followed but it was most fun when I gave out a handful of devices for people to play with. I learned that Americans call crocodile clips, "alligator clips" so settled on calling them crocogator clips for the sake of trans-Atlantic harmony. I also learned that Chromebooks are popular in US schools. A professor of mechanical engineering even got excited enough to grab his laptop and implement a LabVIEW based controller to drive the micro:bit via the MicroPython REPL. It was very rewarding for me to see a diverse bunch have such fun exploring and experimenting with the device. I also had lots of post-session questions in the corridor since several people couldn't make my session because it clashed with other stuff.

I was conscious that EdFoo wasn't just a case of "Nicholas is off on a jolly" (as my wonderful wife puts it). I went with an open mind but was determined that there be tangible results from my attendance. Fortunately, the very first session I attended offered just such an opportunity.

The Jupyter project is written in Python and provides a means of presenting code, text and other digital assets in a sort of interactive notebook. If you're not technical, imagine if Leonardo's notebooks were interactive and reacted to a reader's modifications - that's what reading a Jupyter notebook feels like. I hope the educational potential of this tool is obvious.

Leonardo Notebook

The session on Jupyter was led by the creator of the project, Fernando Perez, and included contributions from Jupyter users as diverse as Google's Director of Research, Peter Norvig, Professor of Physics, Lorena Barba and staff from O'Reilly, who use Jupyter as a publishing platform.

As the session progressed it became clear notebooks record an interactive and engaging record of the author's movement of thought. As Norvig demonstrated, it's possible to change the code contained in a notebook and "poke it with a stick" as it were. Readers get to follow the author's train of thought but also pause and play with code to test their understanding of the concepts contained therein. As code is modified outputs automatically update (i.e. generated content within the notebook reacts to a reader's intervention).

I wondered how a teacher in the UK could use such a tool to deliver Python lessons to children. Could Jupyter be used to create and share interactive resources for the BBC micro:bit? I asked a few pointedly technical questions and discovered the presentation and evaluation of notebooks is separated. Presentation is done in a browser whereas evaluation of code is done in a "kernel". "How hard is it to write a kernel?" I asked. "It's well documented", answered an unsuspecting Fernando.

That afternoon I hacked together a new kernel to interact with a BBC micro:bit. I was able to control the micro:bit attached to my laptop from within a notebook in my browser. It took me about an hour and proved to be remarkably simple. Later in the weekend I integrated the Jupyter Qt widget into my Mu code editor for children, teachers and beginner programmers. Upon reflection, this is perhaps not the way to go - I believe the web-based version of Jupyter is superior. Happily, it's relatively easy to embed a browser into a Qt application like Mu so watch this space! I'm giving a presentation at next weekend's Raspberry Pi birthday conference about Mu, so I'll reveal what I've been up to as a part of my talk. It'll be interesting to see what reaction I get - especially from teachers.

I was also intrigued by the Jupyter contribution from O'Reilly. They've built some sort of authoring platform on top of Jupyter and gave a quick demo of Norvig working his way through a problem. I asked if it was open source to which the O'Reilly people responded that it wasn't. I pointed out that if it wasn't then someone would be bound to copy and re-create it. I think there was a bit of misunderstanding or crossed wires: perhaps the O'Reilly people thought I was talking about their (excellent) content. I was actually referring to the authoring platform they appear to have created on top of Jupyter. I imagine teachers would have a fantastic time with such a tool. I know of several secondary teachers in the UK who'd lap it up.

The other practical take-away from the conference was via a conversation with an educator who used Google's Chromebooks. These cheap and simple laptop computers are apparently very popular in schools in both the US and UK. "Can I use my micro:bit with a Chromebook?" was their concern.

Why yes, is my response.

I've adapted the web-based editor I wrote for the "official" BBC website and, via the magic of Chrome's serial API, added a REPL client so kids can interactively program their devices.


Yet another highlight was breakfast on Sunday morning: I had a lot of fun creating squishy circuits (they're made from a sort of dough) and had a professor of electrical engineering from MIT show me how to make a simple LED flashy thingamabob that makes a great light display in a dark room.

Squishy circuits

It's such fun to play!

Only 50% of the attendees are invited back. If I'm not, I'd love my place to be taken by someone from the UK. If there's but one criticism of the conference it is that it mainly involved people from the US. There's a huge amount of innovation, experimentation and success happening in education in the wider world. EdFoo could be a wonderful opportunity to bring an international and diverse group of education pioneers together. Since I'm making "moon on a stick" suggestions, my vote would be to hold it in Athens, the home of Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum (but I'm biased because I'm European and have a background in Philosophy).

Finally, sincere thanks to our hosts, Google, who did a magnificent job. I was particularly amused by the available WiFi SSIDs. :-)

Google SSID

Image credits: Leonardo Notebook © Trustees of the British Museum. The remainder were created by the author.


Wednesday 2nd December 2015 (1:30AM)

Why do you do what you do?

We all "do" different things and fulfil many roles, but our vocation is usually how we answer, "what do you do?".

For example, I'm a programmer.

But there is a problem:

We are more than just our vocation, it is but a small aspect of who we are, what we do and why we do it. A vocation also pigeon-holes so there is a danger of prejudice (for instance, the vast majority of programmers are not spotty, socially awkward single men). Furthermore, our vocation defines us in terms of our economic value (it is how we earn money).

Because the notion of vocation is so strong there is a danger that it dominates how we find meaning in our lives. Everything appears to flow from our vocation: money to pay for the things we think we need. Our life is reduced to a struggle to "do a thing to afford another thing".

This wonderful article from 2012 supplies an interesting contrast to such a world view. It lists five common themes the dying focus on when asked, "what would you have done differently?" (the same question I posed at the start but expressed in the past tense)...

  1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
  3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

None of the themes directly reference vocation nor is the resolution of such wishes encumbered by money. For example, I can't buy "staying in touch with my friends". It depends upon my own efforts to remain close to those I hold dear.

It suggests to me that acting without the expectation of debt or obligation to or from others can be a source of happiness and good. Act for intrinsic value rather than financial or material benefit.

So, I'll ask again: why do you do what you do?

As always, comments, constructive critique and ideas most welcome (with the caveat that these are rather raw thoughts that I may revise at some later date).

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