Mogwai’s Barry Burns On Teaching: How Failing At School Brought The Rock

Mogwai multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns was a teacher before he joined the band. He tells The Quietus what he learned during his short, and failed, career.

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Make sure you actually like children…

I was a music teacher. I think it was a very ill-advised career path because I don’t really like children. I’m sure I’d like my own children, but I just don’t like the responsibility of teaching other ones. I remember when I was working in teaching practice at a primary school I’d planned out this lesson and I ran out of things to do with about half an hour to go, so I gave out pieces of paper and just told them to draw spiders. Luckily there were no other teachers there to go ‘this isn’t quite right’. I often get slagged by the rest of the band for that story, it’s quite embarrassing.

…and ensure that you’re smarter than them

I was 19 when I was doing secondary, so when I was teaching sixth years some of the kids were one year younger than me. I was convinced that some of them were above the level of music study that I was at. It was pretty weird. I really didn’t enjoy it. I remember doing one of those sessions when the examiner comes in and watches you doing it, and after the lesson said ‘you haven’t really nailed this, have you?’ The music side of it was easy, but the teaching side of it, I was no good. I can remember quite a lot about the actual psychology of how to teach children, but it felt way above my head at the time.

Teaching is for life, not just for hapless graduates who don’t know what else to do

I think a lot of teachers do this, and it’s bad because it’s harmful for children, but they go into it because they don’t know what else to do. My wife has graduated from art school, but she refuses to become an art teacher even though she can’t find a job right now. How many teachers do you know that were actually good? I had about three. It’s because people think ‘oh I love maths, but the application of it..?’ Like our tour manager, he was a maths graduate and he became the Wedding Present’s drummer, now he looks after us. That’s more like babysitting than teaching.

Teachers are not real people

When I was a student I was quite well behaved and didn’t drink as much as I do now. I wasn’t a repressed teenager, but I certainly didn’t have as much fun as most of my friends were having. Maybe it was because I thought I had to be responsible. I was going from secondary school straight into teaching – you can tell that a lot of teachers haven’t lived in the real world. I think they shouldn’t allow kids to go straight from school to do teaching, you have to go and be poor for a few years, go and see some of the world and try and understand it. You don’t have any life experience. You go back and see teachers and see them become these casualties, they’ve not done much else, they’re not real people. Did I get on with the other teachers? I’d have to use a 1960s word, they were a bit square, I had nothing in common with them at all. I was listening to Nirvana and stuff like that, and they were into classical music. I was more on the level with the kids, which is dangerous because then you can’t teach them. The teachers didn’t talk about much, and all read the Daily Mail. That’s grim. The English teachers were always the nice ones, for some reason – they had seen the world and done a teaching degree at 35.

Be wary of children, for they are feral beasts

Where I live used to be next to an old mining town and it’s full of, what do you call them, chavs? Neds we call them, loads of Neds. You have to go and see them dragging their knuckles along the ground and throwing their own shit at the moon. When I was teaching it was the same thing, it’s a few miles from where I live now and there was a lot of that. I think music teachers and art teachers used to get the piss ripped out of them so much. I think I used to do it when I was horrible at school, and I think Stuart did as well. Art and music are always hard subjects to teach because kids just think it’s a laugh.

Keep order at all times. Pies help.

I was quite a big guy. I was a quite fat, and I had long hair. I think they were a little bit bewildered by me, so I didn’t get much trouble. When I did get trouble I didn’t really know what to do. I think it’d be OK if it was your own kids, it’d be easier than trying to deal with some nutter from a family that eats beans and toast for their dinner every night. I remember getting panicky. It’s not a nice feeling, because if one goes, it’s like dominoes. It’s a Christians to the lions kind of thing. It only happened once or twice, it was, I don’t know, evil children just giving backchat really.

Question the curriculum

I read what Damon Albarn was saying about them getting rid of reading music. I don’t know what I think of that yet, because those famous composers and conductors who couldn’t read music were probably in a minority to be honest. I think it’s a bad thing if you can’t understand the language of what you’re doing. When I was a teacher it was in the curriculum so I had to teach them that, but I used to get them to improvise stuff too, which was a bit Mogwaiesque. We used to do these little Gamelan things, and keep repeating it and repeating it until someone comes in, and the next note, and so on. It was quite… not trancy as in dance music, but intriguing, and the kids were quite engrossed in that. I suppose that was good practice for Mogwai – long, E minor jams. I probably should have taken kids to more concerts, stuff like that. Why do they never take them to see a band? That was only in further education they’d do that, surely that would get kids into learning about music?

Mixed ability teaching doesn’t work

It was all this differentiation thing, where you’re supposed to be able to teach the same class and have everybody at different levels. Can you? Can you do that, really? You had to teach the better ones at a different rate, but you never saw any evidence that it was working. It was all just chat.

Teaching makes for an ideal home for post punk refugees, but not Mogwai

There’s a college in Glasgow called Springbank College, and the bass player from Prefab Sprout is there, and Ted McKenna from the Alex Harvey Band, they all teach there. I just think that’s really weird. I think it makes sense that people from those post punk or eighties bands end up doing that, because that kind of music you could tell that you had to understand theory. But I just can’t imagine any of us doing it. Stuart has got an HND in music or something like that, but you wouldn’t know it. He has a piece of paper on the stage every night with all the notes written on it. ‘Have you not learned to play that yet?’ I think I’m going to get a wind machine and put it on it just when the important bit comes along. I remember we used to do three or four hours practice a night, but there’s none of that nowadays. Just two or three chords.

Being a crap music teacher can help you join post-rock behemoths called Mogwai

If I hadn’t been a teacher I wouldn’t have learned a few instruments that ultimately got me into Mogwai. It wasn’t because I could play the guitar or the piano, they didn’t know that at the time. I played a gig with them, and they thought I was a good laugh, so that was the reason I got to join. They maybe knew I could play a bit of piano, but that’s what I do mainly now. So it’s thanks to the education system teaching me a really boring instrument gave me a career in music. I think, completely selfishly, it made me a better musician, but it didn’t make me a better teacher. It made me know how to talk about music with different people – I know what chords are going on in a song, if we have to work out something out, or if I have to score stuff when we’re sound-tracking a film it helps with that. I would never have learned that otherwise. I’m glad I did it, because here we are.

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