Throughout the pandemic, a new rising theme is the use of online streaming for both teaching, performing and communicating with other musicians, friends and family. Today we’re speaking to Robin Phillips, a Cambridgeshire based musician who is perhaps one of the best examples of adapting and utilising some fantastic tech to continue to inspire and share the power of music!
We caught up with Robin to discuss how he has been able to adapt to the virtual age and his experiences throughout the past year. For more stories like Robin’s, check out our Lockdown Stories series here, or watch Robin perform live at Millers on our Millers Live events here!
Or if you are feeling particularly inspired by Robin’s story and are keen to get started on your own piano journey, our experts are here to help - get in touch today!
Tell us about yourself, your musical history and what you do.
“I’m Robin Phillips and I’m based just south of Cambridge, I’m a jazz pianist and singer mainly and also work in the pop industry. I’m in my studio today where I record and help other musicians. I've got my lovely Yamaha piano behind me that I got from Millers around 8 years ago now.
Safe to say this is my happy place. I built this room to be very controlled and recorded my last album in here. Obviously I’ve spent a lot more time in this room over the last year than I ever thought I would!”
How has music helped you throughout the past year?
“I suppose I should start with what happened over the past year and then how music helped me through that. There’s no way of sugarcoating it - it’s been a devastating time for hospitality and entertainment.
I was a very busy gigging musician and I remember getting home really late, really tired and every time I got home I remember thinking “You’ve got to appreciate it!” because you never know what might happen...But of course I don’t think any of us saw this coming at all.
Before lockdown, my normal was teaching about half of the week 1:1 pupils who are incredibly talented, young and old, I teach piano through the grades. Then I also do my studio and recording stuff and then of course gigs. I run the live jazz programme at Gonville hotel. I run the piano bar at De Luca piano bar, which won best bar 2018, then I have a 6 piece swing band in London called Pinstripe suit. So as soon as lockdown hit in, you just couldn’t see it happening because it all stopped immediately.
As a self-employed person, you always need to have a varied income stream because if you lose one gig you’re in trouble. So I’ve always tried to keep myself varied and separated my income stream. It was about 10 years ago I started teaching - I wanted to give something back and teach people the things I wish I was taught when I was younger. So I started building up a nice little roster which is why I built this studio because I thought when I was a decade older when I am now, I wouldn’t want to be out gigging so much so could teach from here. - of course I didn’t know at the time how important that would turn out to be!
When lockdown came in, I flipped all of my students immediately online. I’d never done it before but suddenly I realised I could actually teach anyone anywhere in the world online.
I have a 2 camera set up, one for above the piano and then a chatty one. That was great because instantly it gave me something to focus on and what it made me realise was that that it gave my students something to keep going with because schools had just closed too.
The great thing about having lessons is that you’ve got some routine and incentive to play. I was lucky because I flipped my existing students - but then suddenly we had a lot of people thinking “I want to learn something new in lockdown!”, so suddenly I got a lot of adult learners and 2 months into the pandemic, I was teaching students in Vancouver, California and somebody in Scotland and Cornwall. It was amazing to open up what is possible. That was a real inspiration for me.
After that, I decided if I couldn’t gig, I would learn how to stream. Everyone was talking about how as an artist you can still put yourself out there. With the studio, we were still set up for multiple cameras so we have 4 go pros in here but it meant I could fully edit my videos.
What I ended up doing to keep the piano bar at De Luca going was really simple, having an external PA so the sound was good and used an internal camera on my laptop. If you go too crazy the tech falls over pretty quickly. But suddenly this was our lives!
I managed to find a way of keeping things simple and streaming once a week. That became really important to people and I didn’t realise how important it was for people until we reopened in September for a few months and a lot of people came up to me and said things like “Your weekly streams and reengaging with something that felt a bit normal, that really got us through.” That had a huge impact on me because as a musician, you’re not normally thinking about - what do people need from me and how can I help other people?
Despite this, as artists we were utterly ignored. I run an LTD music company and we’ve not had a penny of assistance in a year. Suddenly we were told if you do this then you’re important and if you do this you’re not important - We all saw the Fatima re-training in cyber posters and all that nonsense.
Suddenly I think a lot of musicians out there felt like they didn’t have a worthwhile point to what we did. We’ve always felt there was a need for us, but we were told you’re not going to get any help because the other people are more important, and you can retrain because what you do is a hobby.
I took that on board actually and used Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s only when you get right to the top that we fully realise ourselves as a society and that is with culture, art and poetry, arts, expression and joint experience so it’s not what you need when you come down to survival, but it is what you need when we choose to be true human and fully express ourselves. For example, when an audience sits in front of a classical orchestra, the heartbeats of the room align, you have a joint experience. You resonate together. As human beings we suddenly lost part of what makes us different from everything else on the planet, but we were told we weren’t important.
So that was the difficulty, but teaching gave me worth, opening a new door and getting someone to grips with a grade and sometimes just having a chat - We all felt a bit down so teaching really helped me connect with other people. The performances, people commenting in saying “Can you play this song?” or “We love this song!”, I started to feel we do have a worth. Then I started recording presents for people. So if it was somebody’s birthday or they couldn’t get together someone would say to me “My dad’s favourite song is this...” and then I’d record a video and sing along for them with a personal message.
Again so many people said - “I’ve just seen the video i’ve recorded and it made me cry.” Not because it was appalling, but because of that human connection.
Then other things started happening - one thing we did was a zoom pantomime for special needs kids before christmas - each participant was a class or a school - thousands and thousands of kids screaming “He’s behind you, he’s behind you!” so I think how I’ve kept going was keeping plugged in through invention and learning.”
What do you think people can gain from learning music?
“There’s a multi-level point to learning music - it’s one thing to learn to play by ear, but by learning the code of music you get to enjoy it on a new level, but also you get to compose and appreciate the music even more. Especially with piano, the idea of using the left and right side of our brain and how we play, two different things playing at the same time, so many synapses fire off in our brains.
That is why time after time, science shows us that kids who have music lessons do better academically because their brain is learning this incredibly complex thing. It’s so good for your brain and that’s why I also teach older people as well who are trying to keep their brains active.
Once you understand music, it’s so fun to explore. There’s a million things you can do that are good for your brain, but the emotional outlet of first hearing something and being like ‘I want to learn that” to then going through a process that is not easy but ending up being able to do something that you are happy with and like - it emotionally touches you.”
Where do you think the future of music is going?
“It’s an interesting question because we can’t go back - everyone keeps saying when do you think things will get back to normal? But we can’t go back!
For example, I’ve got two children downstairs right now doing an entire school syllabus online. They can access an education from home. I think we’ve probably gone 50 years tech wise in 12 months.
Just the other day I was thinking what am I going to do with my online students when I’m back gigging? Of course I’m going to keep that up - I think it will be something that just slots into our new world. Even in Millers - People are now demonstrating pianos on a tablet. You wouldn’t have thought that was possible and you wouldn’t have thought people could buy a piano without being in the room - but of course people are accepting that now.
I think technology will not go away, but it won’t be so intrusive and so dominant however we do need to get back to human interaction and group experiences and feeling the resonance of live music. Poetry, tap dancing, music, we really do need that. We cannot go back to the fact that arts are not important. The new problem we have is asking the question what is going to be left? Because people and venues are hanging on by a thread right now. I hope the government continues and increases its support to the arts so after all this we can be the human beings that we pride ourselves of being.”
What are you most looking forward to this year?
“I cannot wait to be back in the band room with my band, just sitting down and sharing music experiences. Then of course do the performance for people and there’s that lovely feeling when you get off stage of we made that together and couldn’t do it on our own which we’re trying to do with technology.
Number 2, I love the engagement with an audience where you create a piece of art and afterwards sometimes they will come up to you and say what your performance reminded them of. Those two things. I can’t wait to get back out there again! “
If you’re feeling inspired by Robin’s story (we sure are!) then now is the time to start your next piano journey! Get in touch with us today, or if you’d like to share your own lockdown story, simply get in touch with us @millersmusic or use #MillersMusic for your chance to feature!