Christopher is a lifelong music lover. Determined to become “musical,” he took lessons in cello, clarinet, piano, saxophone, and electric guitar, and sang in numerous choirs and ensemble groups. Despite reaching proficiency with the instruments, for a long time he still didn’t feel “musical” like the apparent naturals he saw around him.
Through many years of trial and error, studying and discovering, Christopher realized there were ways to “become musical” and he was so passionate about this discovery that he found creative ways to bring these insights to others through his work and career.
Christopher is the Director of Musical U but he actually wears many hats! He serves as the team leader, he writes and edits articles and tutorials for MU members and he helps develop new features and build the future of Musical U.
Early Musical Days
Musical U: Tell us a little bit more about your musical background. What were some highlights during the times you studied all those instruments?!
Christopher Sutton: I took instrument lessons throughout my school years and at school, there were two highlights. The first was performing in a couple of a cappella groups, one a male barbershop group, the other a mixed a cappella group. I just love that close harmony sound, and I’m a low bass so I got to belt out the super-low bass lines in pop and rock covers. Fun!
The second was playing the title role in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Looking back, I’m particularly proud to have starred alongside Jo Goldsmith-Eteson who went on to become a Swingle Singer!
Highlights since then…
At university, I got to have a band practice on stage at The Junction. Not a performance, but since it was a venue where I regularly attended concerts, it was a pretty cool experience to get to play harmonica up on the stage I normally watched.
As I began to shift my focus from playing instruments to training my ears, I did some work assessing and optimising sound quality in my engineering job. This led to a new system which is now installed as part of the broadcast chain in radio stations around the world.
From there, my highlights start to focus much more on the students I’ve helped through the apps and courses we’ve developed. These days, I’d much rather spend my time creating resources which help other musicians to get up on stage than do it myself!
MU: What initially drew you to music? What would you say helped you develop your passion?
CS: Although my parents don’t play instruments themselves, I grew up in a house full of music. My mum (though she’ll deny it) is a good singer and often sang little ditties to herself and to me and my sisters. My dad is a huge Beatles fan and has wonderfully varied musical tastes, so we grew up hearing all kinds of music. I remember Andrew Lloyd Webber being a big part of my early music experiences, too, going to shows and singing the songs with my sisters.
My credo for music has become: “Creating and Enjoying are more important than Perfecting”.
MU: What made you decide to learn to play so many instruments? How long have you been playing?
CS: I was lucky enough to go to a school that encouraged early music education, so I began with cello lessons at age 7 or so. The rest followed from there.
I absolutely love learning new instruments, but I’m not someone who seeks to become truly virtuosic in any one. So over the years I’ve become a bit of a “jack of all trades” when it comes to musical instruments. This has turned out to be fortunate as it’s much easier to help our members inside Musical U when I can play the same instrument as them.
Musical Development and Tastes
MU: Are there any other instruments you play? Any you’d like to still learn?
CS: It might be a stretch to say I still play cello or clarinet… though I’m sure I could remember how with a bit of practice! I do play bass guitar and blues harmonica.
Right now my focus is on learning to play the U-Bass. It’s a ukulele-sized instrument but strung with odd synthetic strings which are fat and loose, and pitched like a regular bass guitar. It takes some getting used to. But since ukulele and bass are two of my favourite instruments, it’s no surprise I’m loving the U-Bass so far :)
MU: Who are some of your most influential or favorite musicians?
CS: Top of the list would be The Mountain Goats. In my opinion, John Darnielle is the best songwriter of the present day. Close behind him I would rank Marc with a C, another big favourite of mine.
Being a geeky guy at heart, I have a love of nerdcore hip-hop (MC Frontalot, MC Lars, Beefy), nerd rock (Kirby Krackle, I Fight Dragons) and chiptune (Anamanaguchi) music.
I also love power punk and ska, so Sublime, Bowling For Soup, The Aquabats, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes and recently I’ve been digging a band I saw live in Ecuador called Los Pericos.
I think the advice I’d be most desperate to give [ aspiring musicians] would be two things: don’t neglect your ears and never feel intimidated in music.
I’d also have to give mention to Death Cab for Cutie, The Shins, and Broken Bells. And when I’m low on energy there’s nothing like epic metal (Symphony X, Luca Turilli, Rhapsody, Edguy).
I could go on… But last.fm knows me best.
Living a Musical Life
MU: Did you ever think about quitting music in the past? How did you handle it? Why didn’t you quit?
CS: For me, music and business are intertwined so it’s a bit hard to separate them.
Starting a company and keeping it growing is no easy thing! So there have definitely been moments of considering quitting. When my music business is going badly, it can drain my enthusiasm for playing music myself, and when it’s going well I’m often too busy to make real time for music practice.
But through all that – no, I don’t think I could ever consider quitting music completely.
MU: What’s the hardest part about staying motivated to practice? How do you decide what instruments to practice?
CS: For me, the challenge is normally focus rather than motivation – there’s so much I want to learn.
That’s actually why we put such an emphasis on planning and progress tracking in Musical U, and provide guidance on getting accountability and support in our Music Habit module. I know I’m not the only musician whose broad enthusiasm sometimes outweighs their desire to focus on a particular goal.
MU: What advice would you give aspiring musicians?
CS: Well, I’m not in a position to offer career tips or high-level performance advice. But thinking about a passionate amateur musician like myself… I think the advice I’d be most desperate to give them would be two things: don’t neglect your ears and never feel intimidated in music.
I wish I’d discovered ear training sooner and I wish I had believed earlier on that I was capable of developing my musicality.
Those two things held me back much more than any specific instrument, technique, or repertoire issues.
My credo for music has become: “Creating and Enjoying are more important than Perfecting”. I know a lot of people in the music education establishment might object to that, especially from someone who provides education to others as I do.
But having spent years in the formal, exam-oriented, “classical music”-influenced system, it felt liberating to finally accept that my goal really wasn’t perfecting piece after piece as note-perfect. My goal in music was to make music – and enjoy doing so.
The more I remember that, the happier I am in music. And actually, I’ve found it leads me to be a better, more capable musician too.
Oh – and given what I said above: FOCUS! But that’s advice I’m continually giving myself too :)
Being a Part of the Musical U Team
MU: Could you tell us a bit about your work at Musical U?
I wear a lot of hats these days! I’m fortunate to have a terrific team around me, but as the Director of Easy Ear Training and Musical U, there are still a lot of projects and decisions that need to come through me.
I regularly write for EasyEarTraining.com and guest posts for other sites and publications, such as Making Music Magazine and Total Guitar magazine. Along with Andrew, our Editor, I’m involved in commissioning and editing articles from other expert music educators who write for us.
At Musical U, you are surrounded by peers on a similar journey to you, all sharing their progress. And you have continual access to expert help.
I oversee the creation of new training modules inside Musical U and guide the product development there, introducing new features. For example, we recently gave our member profile system a total overhaul, letting members share much more detail about their musical life, adding a searchable member directory, and showcasing each member’s profile in a clearer way. I studied Computer Science at Cambridge (not Music as many people assume!), so I still get my hands dirty writing code inside Musical U occasionally.
And of course, I’m active inside Musical U every day, helping our members with training questions and just enjoying the discussions about every aspect of music. I’ve been discovering some great new bands lately from other members’ recommendations!
MU: What is your favorite part about working with the Musical U team?
CS: I think it’s that they’re all avid and accomplished musicians themselves. They’re actually all far more active in live performing than me these days, so I get to live vicariously hearing their stories of gigs and tours…
I also love how different our skill sets are. Stewart does a fantastic job leading and supporting our community inside Musical U, Marisa has a real flair for communicating via social media and email, and Andrew has an editor’s mind, always striving for clarity and effective education.
I consider myself very lucky to have found such strong team members and our students at Easy Ear Training and Musical U really benefit from their experience and skills.
MU: In your opinion, what’s the biggest thing Musical U members can get the most out of their membership?
CS: Support and guidance.
This is something that is absolutely missing in most “ear training” courses or apps. It’s so frustrating! I’ve seen so many musicians find the interest and summon up the determination to pursue ear training – only to fizzle out because they hit a hurdle or lose momentum, and the app or course they’ve chosen provides no “safety net” or support option for them.
At Musical U, you are surrounded by peers on a similar journey to you, all sharing their progress. And you have continual access to expert help. This means when you train at Musical U, you never need to feel lost or stuck.
I love seeing members taking advantage of that, sharing their ups and downs and getting the help they need – and then accelerating their progress beyond what they thought was possible.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this chance to meet Christopher Sutton, Founder of Musical U.
Stay tuned to the blog here for more opportunities to Meet the Team!