Rockin' all over the class

21st April 1995 at 01:00
Should pop musicians be more public-spirited? Jeremy Sutcliffe meets one who's setting the pace.

We have got something this morning which will really wake you up!" With these words Barbara Haigh - probably the only headteacher to come out as a total, head-over-heels-in-love fan of one of the country's most enduring rock bands - introduced Status Quo's drummer, Jeff Rich, to 340 youngsters.

Mrs Haigh is the head of Woodbridge High School in Woodford, north-east London and, you would have thought, far too sensible to follow the band which gave head-bangers a bad name. Yet she does, proudly displaying programmes and mementoes from several Wembley concerts, including Quo's 11-hour Rock 'til You Drop charity marathon.

Scarcely less surprising, in an age when heads are employed to manage corporate enterprises and meet performance targets, is her readiness to lead a sports hall full of cheering children in wave upon Mexican wave to the deafening sound of a modern drum kit and accompanying percussion.

This approach is just the sort of thing Jeff Rich appreciates. As a live performer, with 25 years as a professional rock musician, he knows the importance of engaging with an audience. And it is his passion for his job and love of music that has brought him, in his early forties, to Woodbridge school, one of 16 school "gigs" he has embarked on before he sets off on Quo's tour of India and South Africa next month.

The genesis of Jeff Rich's drum master class, which over the next few years could take him into hundreds of schools, was a request from Bancrofts, an independent school in Woodford, attended by his two children. The news spread and he was invited to neighbouring schools.

By now, the two-hour session has been honed into the sort of performance you would expect from someone used to playing before a quarter of a million people. Yet it's not easy, teaching a comparatively small group of children. "I can't tell you how nervous I was when I first did it. I thought the ground would swallow me up! But after I'd done it two or three times it was great; I really enjoy it."

The enjoyment is obvious from the relaxed manner in which he gives a brief account of his own career, starting at 11 with the formation of his own band at a Hackney comprehensive school. After taking O-levels (no hard luck story this: he might have become a journalist, but became a millionaire musician instead) he took a job in a nightclub and went on to become a top session drummer, playing with Elton John, Kiki Dee and other stalwarts of the British pop industry.

In the early l980s he was drafted in as an emergency replacement for the drummer of Def Leppard, who had lost an arm in a car crash. He joined Status Quo 10 years ago, just after the Live Aid concert.

Next comes an exposition on how to get on in the music business, by reputation a glamorous but seedy world, where sex, drugs and rip-off merchants lie in wait to pull down the would-be pop star. In fact, says Jeff Rich, it's not really like that. As in any other business, it's hard work, determination and good luck that get you to the top.

He has a theory for it - the FAT theory - which stands for Fitness, Attitude and Time-keeping; three essentials, he says, necessary for any ambitious musician. Watching him at work on the drums, it is easy to see what he means about fitness; a two-hour concert must be almost as gruelling as going 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. The right attitude, he says, means being versatile, having a broad outlook and a willingness to learn and adapt to all types of music, be it rock, blues, jazz or classical. Time-keeping, - that is, keeping the beat - is fundamental to all musicians, but perhaps most important to a drummer.

The third section of the master class is an illustrated history of the drums, beginning with the hollowed-out African log and ending with the modern kit. During the Woodbridge visit, the 10 to 12-year-old audience (including children from the school's linked primaries) learn how technological innovation led to animal skins being stretched over various pieces of wood, tuned in different ways and further adapted to produce a bewildering array of percussion instruments, from the African "talking drums" to the military tabor.

After these comes the modern kit, with its plastic skins designed to stay in tune: the big bass drum, tuned lower and amplified by microphone to produce "a nice fat sound"; four tom-toms of different size and pitch; and a snare (Jeff Rich's favourite sound, redolent of those Elvis Presley and Bill Haley sounds that rocked around the world in the 1950s). To complete the set come the cymbals, made of brass and different alloys to produce a variety of sounds, from the big crash to the galloping ride. Crowning the kit is the "high hat" double cymbal, which in the dance bands of the 1920s used to be called the "low hat" until someone decided to put it on a stand.

To get the full flavour of this lesson, you have to imagine one of the world's top drummers demonstrating a variety of techniques, including "independence" (which means that the left hand is doing something different from the right hand, and pretty clever it is, too). Predictably, the polite applause which greets the start of the display gives way to unrestrained cheers.

Phase four of the class gives Jeff Rich a deserved rest while percussionist Peter Lockett takes over. He is self-taught, a professional of 12 years' standing, who has played with Thunder and Rory Gallagher, and is currently working with Japanese drummer Joji Hirota. He also lectures at the Royal Academy of Music. By the time he has finished, the children have been introduced to the conga drums of Brazil and Cuba, the djembe of West Africa, the Turkish darabuka, and the rej from Egypt, a form of tambourine going back to the Pharaohs. But his forte is Asian percussion instruments, the kanjira of Southern India and the North Indian tabla, whose characteristic sound is produced by bending the skin to vary the pitch. Anyone who has heard Ravi Shankar's percussionists will recognise the sound.

The final phase involves the children, or at least as many as possible. First they are taught to chant a tukra, which reproduces phonetically the sounds of the tabla. Then Jeff Rich gets back to work, with the two musicians inviting a score of children at a time to join in with an assortment of bangs, rattles and bells. Those who cannot come on to the stage show their appreciation by waving - Mexican-style - conducted by their headteacher.

Not everyone in the pop music business is as public-spirited as Jeff Rich. While big names like Sting, Mark Knopfler and Phil Collins do valued charitable work with disadvantaged youngsters through the Prince's Trust (Status Quo has long been linked with the charity), links with schools and youth clubs are surprisingly rare.

One exception is Brighton-based Herbie Flowers, who played bass for T-Rex and David Bowie, and is renowned as the bass player on Lou Reed's Transformer album.

He has been running free five-day Rockshops for teenagers for the past five years, funded by the likes of Eurotunnel, the Home Office drug prevention unit and various arts festivals, including a recent one at Surrey University.

The residential workshops are usually based in universities during the holidays, and attract keen would-be rock and jazz musicians who come away with a videotape, audio cassette and new friendships (and sometimes bands) after an intensive course with professionals leading to a live performance.

While British schools are still able (despite financial cuts and the threat posed to local authority music centres by the devolution of funding to schools) to produce good classical musicians, they have few links with the pop music industry.

Yet music is among Britain's most profitable businesses. According to a recent report by British Invisibles, an export promotion group, the industry achieved exports of Pounds l.2 billion in 1993, with a trade surplus of Pounds 571 million. This makes it the country's 13th biggest exporter, bigger than the arms industry (excluding aerospace), cosmetics and tobacco.

Perhaps because of the industry's "bad boy" image, and the common perception that amid all the glamour, few people can make a secure career, schools have been slow to realise that rock bands, musical theatre (aka Andrew Lloyd Webber), record publishing (by far the biggest earner with Pounds 628 million) and the manufacture of musical instruments together employ some 50,000 people.

Music's trade association, the British Phonographic Industry, has been trying hard to correct this perception, notably through its charitable arm, the Brit Trust, which runs the Brit School for Arts and Technology in Croydon, south London. The venture, part of the Government's much-criticised city technology colleges programme, is an attempt to emulate the Fame-type performing arts' schools and colleges in the United States.

Another high-profile initiative is the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, backed by Paul McCartney, which offers BA honours degree courses in acting, community arts, dance, enterprise management, performance design and music.

The industry is also closely involved in a one-year course leading to a Higher National Certificate diploma in business administration at West Lothian College, Scotland, which takes a mixture of graduates and school-leavers and teaches them the business side of the industry, including copyright law and how to set up their own record company.

Course director Gordon Campbell acknowledges that schools have been reluctant to recognise the music business as a potential career, but says that after nine years the course is gaining growing recognition (90 per cent of its students got jobs in the industry last year). "Schools are beginning to get the message that it is a real business. But there is still this perception that there is one guy up on the stage strumming a guitar and they don't realise there are nine people backing him up," he says.

To Barbara Haigh, the benefits of having someone of the calibre of Jeff Rich performing in her school are much more than vocational. First of all, she says, it gives children the opportunity to meet someone right at the top of their profession - whatever it may be. Second, it enables children who are already interested in music to listen to the best the industry has to offer.

Third, (a useful marketing point, this) the master class brought together 170 children from local primary schools, who will not only build on the visit through linked curriculum work but will surely take home with them a golden memory - and look forward to coming to the school again. Fourth, there are wider educational benefits, including history and geography each of the exotic instruments is associated with a time and place, whether it be the Napoleonic Wars or Egyptian hieroglyphs. There is a useful science lesson, too: children learn how water and the atmosphere can change the pitch of drum-skins, for instance.

But it's not primarily intended as a lesson in facts. Children are given a performance and they enjoy it. "It's good to be able to do something that the children are really enthused about doing, that excites them, that arises out of their interests - that you can then channel into various areas of the curriculum," says Mrs Haigh.

It would be surprising if at least some members of Jeff Rich's audience do not go away with a desire to learn to play the drums. Mrs Haigh's local authority, Redbridge, has been able to preserve its central music service (which has itself produced top classical percussionists in the past), despite delegating the funds for instrumental teaching to schools two years ago. Woodbridge High has actually increased its spending on music, reflecting pupil demand. "If a child has an aptitude you should be able to support it," says the head.

Jeff Rich, who became a musician despite his own schooling rather than because of it, agrees. "Every child should be able to play some sort of instrument, even if it is only a penny whistle. In some schools I go into, nearly every child plays an instrument, and in some hardly any do. It's like learning a language, and it can only do them good because it gets their brain working - and it's fun."

Both from his own experience and visiting schools he has found music teaching is by no means always fun. "Half the schools I have talked to say they are not prepared to put money into music because there is no demand for it. Maybe if they were to create more interest the demand would be there. If I can do one school and get a child to learn an instrument, I will have done my job. "

To find out more about Jeff Rich's Drum Masterclass, write to him care of Handle Artists, Handle House, 1 Albion Place, Galena Road, Hammersmith, London W6 OQT. For information on Herbie Flowers' Rockshops, contact Rockshop, 15 High Street, Ditchling, East Sussex BN6 8SY

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