Lessons in serious rocking: Jim White watches the Musicians Institute London take the stage, seedbed for would-be stars

Jim White
Sunday 18 September 1994 23:02

Thursday was good value night at the Orange, a pub in west London where the carpets are sticky from the years of hosting rock concerts. Nineteen bands arrived on the Kleenex-sized stage in under three hours, including Marty Mark and the Cunning Song-Cutters.

'I think they just chose that name,' said Pete Langman, the evening's compere, who was wearing a tuxedo and crocodile-skin cowboy boots, 'to test how much I'd had to drink.'

It is the way with pub rock that the nomenclature is more imaginative than the playing. But this occasion, the graduation party for the Musicians Institute London, provided something more than the standard pub rock event. For a start every member of each of the 19 bands appeared on stage sober. And, once there, they all seemed to know what they were doing: guitarists addressed more than one area of the fret-board; drummers kept time; singers managed to register their voices in a close approximation to the tune. That is what happens to you after a year at the MIL: you learn how to play rock music.

'What you are seeing here is the result of 12 months' hard graft,' said Tony Muschamp, director of the institute, offering up an unexpected vision of the rock performer as eyes-down worker bee. 'One of the first things we teach our students is that application is essential if you want to make it.'

Muschamp started the institute 10 years ago, for the simple purpose of training rock professionals. This is different from training rock stars. He provides no lectures in groupie control, seminars on hotel-room trash techniques or workshops on drug procurement. His curriculum is packed with courses, conducted by renowned session men, on diatonic harmony, secondary dominants and tritone substitution.

'Being a musician doesn't have a career path, like being an architect,' Muschamp explained, as behind him a bunch of graduates pumped out their jazz-funk-fusion stuff. 'There are a lot of people out there playing music without any kind of direction. You can learn so much by trial and error and then you can't get any further. We just provide the next stage.'

He offers the course - based on one at the Musicians Institute in California, where he learnt how to play bass - for pounds 3,100 a year. And he gets plenty of takers: the rigorous auditions whittle numbers down to about 150 a year.

'Some of our students are beginning to obtain local authority grants,' said Muschamp. 'In the meantime they earn the money as best they can. If you hear a high- class busker on the Tube, chances are he is one of ours.'

Muschamp is also in negotiation to have the graduation certificate he offers recognised as an official National Vocational Qualification. Not that many of his graduates need qualifications. He already has a roster of former pupils earning a living in studios and concert halls across the world.

'One of our lads has just landed the Bruce Dickinson gig, and another is playing bass with Jean Michel Jarre,' he preened. 'And EMI has signed up one of our guitarists. That's EMI Japan.'

Nigel, who graduated from MIL last spring and was at the Orange to meet up with old mates, was not quite so lucky.

'I've worked full time since I left,' he said, 'as a dentist. I suppose when I was younger I wanted to be a rock star. The college taught me that you can make money out of music, but you have to be realistic. It also gives you a real appetite for music. I do a bit of teaching and I really much prefer earning pounds 10 an hour teaching a kid how to play guitar than pounds 60 an hour looking down people's throats.'

Like the 400 or so gathered to enjoy the fruits of a year's graft, Nigel enjoyed a non-stop parade of fine, if a little dull, playing. MIL graduates are accomplished performers (college motto: 'All the practising, all the study - those are just the feathers. Performing is the flight'). Which may explain why none have become pop stars. Being able to do this stuff rather gets in the way. Indeed, just as we were about to leave, sated by professional playing in every style (a musical variety reflected in a convocation of haircuts varying from Bill and Ted grunge ponytails to, well, heavy metal ponytails), a band appeared on the stage who made us stop and gulp. A sharp, original, bizarre mix of rappers, rock guitarists and a classically trained flautist (the only woman to appear all evening) you couldn't keep your eyes off. As they came off stage, Charlotte the flautist revealed they were called Xiiba. Had they met at the institute?

'Er, well, actually, only the drummer and the bassist went,' Charlotte said. 'The rest of us are at art college.'

The evening's final lesson. Competence can be taught; charisma you're born with.

(Photographs omitted)

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