#003 Life Lessons from Brian Eno

Last night I attended a public speaking event where Brian Eno spoke about his work with the creative process, his thoughts on the education system and of course, his career.

I must admit that Roxy Music has never flipped my switch and I wouldn’t be able to name many of their songs, although I respect them for their efforts and capabilities. More importantly, I respect Brian Eno for his contribution to the culture of our society.

A curious, yet reserved man. A man with a wealth of intelligence yet lurks in the shadows of the cultural world. I was taken back by the way that he was able to articulate himself and his various idiosyncrasies. Whether it be his compulsive lying for humourous effect, or his deeper philosophical thinking.

Being interviewed by child behaviour psychologist, Tanya Byron, meant that the conversation was ultimately steered towards the realm of education. Eno’s thinking and philosophy was heavily aligned with my own. He referenced the work of sir Ken Robinson (not via name but by quote). He expressed a desire to teach, and approach a topic from the present backwards. In musical terms, we are often caught up in the chronology of events and how early work influences the contemporary.

Current students of mine have as little idea about Mozart’s world (contextually speaking) as I did when I was studying the classical mastermind. An idea that I have had previously is to reverse the chronology learning process and start with who our students actually know and listen to.As an example, my students attend an outer-London state high school. They are all infatuated with grime. Would it not be better to begin with a study of Stormzy or Skepta and trace their roots back to through N.W.A and Public Enemy; who in turn were influenced by the likes of  James Brown or Gill Scott-Heron; who were influenced by the likes of Ray Charles and Miles Davis; who were influenced by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington; who were influenced by Buddy Bolden and Scott Joplin; who took influence from the romantics like Chopin and Schumann; who took influence from Beethoven and Mozart; who took influence from Bach and Handel etc. If it were only this simple!

The curious thing about Eno is that he is not a qualified teacher, although he has all of the charisma, knowledge and skills to be an outstanding teacher. in 1975 he developed a set of ‘creative-block’ breaking cards, other wise known as a form of differentiation to us of the qualified variety. In collaboration with the painter Peter Schmidt, Eno released “Oblique Strategies”, a set of cards to refresh your creativity. Of course you no longer need to purchase the boxed set of cards, you can now peruse some of these through websites and apps.

Out of the few cards that I have seen, one of my stand out favourites is “Discover the recipes that you are using and abandon them”, Eno referenced this strategy a number of times throughout the talk. His main call back was when discussing the artistic boom during the sixties and seventies. His words were along the lines of, each new movement that comes along is superseded by a period of immense experimentation in search of the formula. Once the formula is found, such begins a period where the formula is applied and exhausted. In this case, we are looking at the sixties and seventies as two decades worth of searching for the formula, and the eighties and nineties as the exploitation of the formula. Many might argue that some bands knew the formula as early as 1962 (**Cough** the Beatles), but if we were to take a step back and look at their output, they too began to experiment in search of sonic improvements and more interesting music.

The power of the formula does not only apply to the musical world, we can look at cinema, art, literature, politics, sport or even education. Once the formula is exploited to it’s fullest, we begin a new phase of experimentation in hope of discovering a new formula. Analysing the current musical education battlefield, we have previously been dictating the answers to exams, hoping that students remember/study these answers and praying that they can regurgitate said answers in their final GCSE/A level exams. This year the specifications went through a “major” overhaul where in actual fact, not a lot has changed. My School has transferred from the Edexcel exam board to the AQA, in hope of returning some of the creative potential to the students. Instead we have been greeted with more of the same. memorize facts, study and regurgitate, except this time the pieces are unknown until the exam, therefore it is memorize the entire musical catalogue from 1500 to today, study and hope that the exam is generous. How does this access musical knowledge, or practical application or even ability? Eno said that he memorised an encyclopedia as a child and can still recall certain facts from the book, he can’t apply the facts into everyday life, but he can recall them, which by exam standards today means that he would be mathematics genius (which he claims not to be, although he did score well in his O levels, which he claims to be a clerical error).

Did I walk out of this talk inspired? yes. Did hearing Eno’s passion for music and education re-ignite the fire in my belly? yes. Can I change anything about the current situation regarding the musical youth? yes one student at a time, or if you would rather, one ‘oblique strategy’ at a time.

“Humanize something that is free of error” (Oblique Strategies)


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