Music in YA

Perhaps my last post till August. Four trips are lined up for July, and the ten days I’m at home are all schooldays. Fortunately I’m feeling fairly organised about it all (except the financial side!).

So, without further ado, Alex once again gave me a great post topic. Here’s her tweet:


Anyone keeping up with the big YA Contemps of recent years might guess, like me, that this trend is at least in part caused by Gayle Forman’s fabulous If I Stay, due for cinema release this summer. As a sidenote, I don’t follow the American bestseller lists, but somehow I snagged a copy of this great book early after its release before many people in the UK had heard of it, so in a way I feel connected to its fate.


Anyhow, as a musician myself I watch this trend with equal pleasure and trepidation. Music is such a wide aspect of culture that often I see it abused, generally out of ignorance. It’s good to see the participation in the act of making music recognised (fun fact: musicians on average live eight years longer than non-musicians, so it’s not like you’re wasting time!).

You don’t have to be famous to make music; all you need is dedication. I’m not musical myself, besides adoring the mathematics behind it, but I passed my Grade 8 last week. I’ve practiced an hour a night for months, gone to school for aural lessons at half eight in the morning on Saturdays for a year, spent two years learning these pieces, spent eight years learning the instrument…you can see how huge this is for me.

However, also due to being a musician, it worries me to see non-musicians writing about music, either misusing terminology, overusing what’s commonly-known, or not using any of it. Had I never played an instrument there’s no way I’d appreciate music as I do now: I wouldn’t hear harmonies, or criticise the sound balance at concerts, or know a good song from a mediocre one—even now, I’m doubtful I could do any of these things properly. Playing in a band is especially valuable: for four years I’ve spent ten hours a week playing in ensemble, and I can pick out and accord my own part to individual parts in an orchestral piece.

Now, I’m not saying a non-musician can’t write a good book about musician-ing, and I’m not making prejudicial assumptions. Yet the very lack of brass fandom in writing suggests exactly what I fear. Carnegie Hall is bandied about as if only genius musicians are worth writing about with reference to music. ‘The bow was like an extension of her arm’ is the worst string-player cliché out there, and you’d certainly never catch a musician saying it in but the cheapest of sarcasm. Always it is strings, or clarinet or flute!

Our family collection, predominantly brass. (since added a ukulele)

Our family collection, predominantly brass. (since added a ukulele)

The brass are rowdy and lively, and I freely admit my bias, but I feel we have the most distinct section identity. We are the smallest (except the percussion, who are too busy tuning timpanis to socialise) but the most tightly-knit, with pub-nights and unmatched banter. We can also do the coolest things with our instruments. Just about everything you say about the trombone sounds dirty, we put the mark in marcato, we put the issimo in fff. I am convinced that every other musician cherishes a secret wish they became a brass player (Freudian penis envy, as I think of it). Sure, maybe all this buoyancy doesn’t suit your character or your story, but in my opinion the brass are the most versatile section of them all. We can do soaring tear-jerking solos – that’s what euphoniums are for, even! We can be warm and raucous, bad-ass or gentle. All we want is recognition!

That’s truly all I have time for. Live the good life till I get back to ya on the 9th!


Weary of Underdog Heroes

(Excuse the spree of colour. Enjoy it, if you will.)

I wrote Captain’s Paper because I was tired of underdog stories. I love a good accidental everyman hero, like everyone, if the transition is effected with due subtlety and credibility, but I can’t pretend I’m a big fan of the underdog triumph. Sorry, but it’s been done too many times and it’s too rare in real life (well, the way it’s often presented).

Take Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

RudolphtheRedNosedReindeerWhat made him great? He had an unusual appearance; that’s all we know. One day, Santa took pity on him. ‘Then all the reindeer loved him’—are reindeer so fickle, so near-seeing, so prejudiced of soul? Yes, it’s nice Santa did his good deed of the day and made the life of a persecuted individual good forever after. Yes, it’s the best moment of Rudolph’s life. But whoever wrote this song had a pretty pessimistic view of reindeer society, in my opinion.

Captain’s Paper follows Drina Connelly, a girl born, bred and accustomed to achieve. All she craves is success. The story deals with her learning to anticipate failure as a legitimate possibility and understanding that it isn’t the extinction of all happiness. And in the end, yes, she fails. She’s not superwoman.

I watched Planes last night. Irritation of irritations! Dusty Crophopper has worked in the fields all his life, dreaming of becoming a magnificent, rich, famous, successful racer. What little boy doesn’t? And then his dream comes true, he woos the gorgeous girlfriend, pulverises the snooty rival, effortlessly gains the loyal best friend and Kenobi-type veteran mentor. Utterly, utterly predictable, right the way through.

I hope that expression on his cropdustin' face is irritating you half as much as it's irritating me, for the sake of my point.

I hope that expression on his cropdustin’ face is irritating you half as much as it’s irritating me, for the sake of my point.

Yes, I have a problem with that.

What I’m getting at is this film is sending bad messages to children. True, Dusty persevered till he got what he wanted (except the faltered-arrogance sequence before the final showdown in which his friends remind him of WHO HE IS and WHAT HE’S THERE FOR). But, like, (yes, I typed that) only 0.0001% of boys who idolise Wayne Rooney even get close, and girls who aspire to look like Barbie dolls…oh, don’t get me started.

Tell me, am I being pessimistic?

That was one of the greatest strengths of Cars (the first). Cocky, one-sided, blasé famous racer Lightning McQueen plunged helplessly into this Radiator Springs place, where no one knows or cares for his reputation or origins. This story tells children that there’s more to life than dreaming. There’s living, too. You don’t have to beat the baddie or show the world (well, okay, sometimes you do).

Now isn't that a nice smile?

Now isn’t that a nice smile?

I love to see big characters humbled and forced to accept their insignificance, far more than strong characters saving the day. Call me sadistic.

What I don’t mean is UNDERDOGS SHOULD STAY UNDERDOGS or YOU CAN NEVER CHANGE FATE (although, hypocritically, I could probably discuss at length why this is true). What I mean is, MUST YOU  WRITE ANOTHER UNDERDOG STORY???

There are many underdog heroes before whom I’d happily grovel. Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein (excuse me, Sir William Thatcher), I’m winking at you. Dusty Crophopper, I couldn’t care less.

The beautiful Heath Ledger (1979-2008). He was only twenty at the time, but such a subtlety and confidence to his acting, without the usual arrogance. But then I have a bias to all characters called William.

The beautiful Heath Ledger (1979-2008). He was only twenty at the time, but such a subtlety and confidence to his acting, without the usual arrogance. Still, in 2014, we walk in the garden of his turbulence. (But then, I have a bias to all characters called William.)