IF the thought of music lessons reminds you of practising scales ad nauseam or slaps on the wrist with a ruler, then Arlene and James Robertson are going to change all that.
The husband and wife team behind Live Act Music have recently moved their business into Berwick, and are on the lookout for students, tutors and bands to harness the town’s musical energy.
Arlene, who takes main responsibilty for the Live Act shop, is particularly keen to help out parents who are thinking of splashing out on musical instruments as presents this Christmas. “It happens every year,” she says, “Kids get these instruments, and then it’s well, what next? Come New Year, every year, there must be loads of these guitars and things, untouched.”
Husband James brings plenty of experience to bear on his music teaching in the partnership, in fact he even taught Arlene the drums when they first met.
He started drumming 22 years ago, taking lessons at the Edinburgh Acting School.
Very soon James was playing in revues and musical theatre in the city’s Fringe Festival, which he remembers now as being perfect for the development of his craft.
“It was very varied, the music that I was asked to play,” he remembers, “and you had to be able to sight read from the score, sometimes, as well, which was a challenge.”
Music was a secondary passion for much of his life, as he worked in conservation and then joined Lothian and Borders Police.
In 2000, James won funding for and launched his own community project, the Upbeat Drum School.
“The Drum School focused on group tuition, just like we are offering now,” says James, “and it took off to such an extent that I left the job with the police to pursue teaching music.”
A diploma in contemporary music from Jewel and Esk College gave James further insight into musical education.
He now takes classes at schools in Berwick, as part of the Northumberland Music Service, as well as at St Mary’s, Melrose and Longridge Towers. And he still looks for new ways of getting his knowledge across to his students.
“I believe in life-long learning,” he says. “You can always find areas that you can improve on.
“With music, I am constantly coming up with new ways to teach, and to keep the learning vibrant and fresh.
“For example, the drums are not generally a solo instrument. You’ll never name that tune in three just from hearing the drum line. It’s important to students can pick up the knowledge and skills base but also to be able to utilise that by playing with partners or in a group.
“When you go into schools you tend to see a class based on just one instrument, a group of kids learning guitar, or keyboard, or whatever.
“That’s fine, because everyone needs that kind of basic knowledge. Once they’ve got that, then they need to be able to build and develop their new skills. You can learn all the notes and chords but it can be made a whole lot more interesting when a group of students get together.”
Things are set to get “a whole lot more interesting” on the premises of the couple’s new shop, Live Act Music, on Hide Hill, Berwick.
While the downstairs is filled with instruments and sheet music, above the shop James and Arlene have installed two state-of the-art studios, designed for group teaching.
They joke that their neighbours needn’t fear the noise, either.
“It’s very rare we’ll be banging about on this,” says Arlene, giving the drum kit a tap.
“Most of the time the students will be on the other kit.”
The “other” kit is a collection of electronic pads. When wired up with the rest of the room, the musicians will be able to hear all their instruments perfectly, while, as James explains, an onlooker will “only hear a little bit of tapping and scratching. They’d have no idea that the group were jamming at all.”
The duo are already seeing the breadth and depth of the music scene in Berwick, which they feel is very different from their earlier experiences on the other side of the border, where they ran a shop in Kelso.
“There’s a different student base, definitely,” says James. “The music scene in the Borders does tend to be mainly folk based, whereas Berwick seems to have more of an appetite for more mainstream music.
“There are a lot of groups and small orchestras and things. All of them added together means that there is more interest in a classical scene, as well.”
Joining this thriving music scene, Arlene and James are aiming to make their mark as musical impresarios.
They are running a competition alongside their Build A Band project, which offers young people group tuition in the studios, taking them through rehearsals, live performance and eventually recording.
Five winners will begin 30 hours of sessions in the studios from January, as well as receiving a drumkit, keyboard, bass guitar and two electric guitars.
The studios are not just for teaching in: they can be rented out by local musicians as rehearsal spaces, and students can sit their exams there as well.
James and Arlene are hoping to show off the facilities this weekend, with an open day on Sunday November 18.
Arlene hopes that such a range of services and equipment will bring in the curious and also prospective tutors.
“We are always looking for more tutors, who teach more instruments,” she says. “And they can teach at home, as well, which is easier for a lot of teachers around here, under the Live Act umbrella.
“It’s almost like a small musical university, with different campuses!”