Don’t put two musicians in a room and expect the conversation to flow in a straight line. Before I can even get my pen out, Mark Harding and I are already embroiled in a discussion about what makes for good pop music. “There’s pop music, and there’s pop music,” declares the charismatic director of Mount St. Joseph Academy’s music department in his well-mannered British accent, “And the Chili’s are unfortunately not in the latter group.”
We’re talking about the Red Hot Chili Peppers, veterans of American alternative rock. Good music, but ultimately unimpressive in Harding’s opinion. “I don’t want to hear the same four chords played the same way for an entire song,” he says bluntly, “That’s not interesting to me.”
We differ slightly on the Rolling Stones, however, when I suggest that their songwriting got inside the American blues and folk idiom better than any other band of the British Invasion. “What about Gary Moore (of Thin Lizzy) or Ten Years After?” he asks pointedly, “Those guys played the blues.”
It’s a draw.
For Harding, it comes down to the music.
“You don’t need the words if you have the music,” he says, making a nod to the unifying power of music. It’s a philosophy that he lives everyday. Born in Devonshire, England, Harding is a self-taught player who grew up immersed in music. His father was in a jazz band, playing trumpet, piano and bass. A major influence for Harding, his father taught him the fundamentals of piano, and inspired his love of music. As a teen, Harding learned classical guitar before spending some time as a street musician. He regards his time busking as when he first learned to perform. “When you’re playing for money, you have to learn how to grab the audience, to entertain.”
At 22, Harding gave up music briefly to pursue “real work.” Eventually, he returned to his calling, getting an office job that afforded him the time to practice. He began to do so in earnest, getting a double bass that he declares was his “liberation,” and throwing himself back into music. It was around this time that he also began studying under double bass virtuoso, Mario Castronari. Soon, he was gigging five nights a week around London, dividing his time between jazz, blues, and Irish music. It was here that Harding began to see the power of music – how it can take people to all levels of society.
“I’d be playing for royalty in the afternoon, and the Hells Angels at night,” he recalls.
Indeed, Harding sees his personal mission as using music to “bring people’s love out” – to bring them together regardless of race, class, or religion. On the stage and in the classroom, he strives to spread this message. In 1996, Harding moved to America on a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He took his studies seriously, occasionally to the detriment of his health – “I’d play all day, sleep for two hours, then do it all again,” he notes.
It was in Boston when he began giving private lessons. Two years later, he was offered a job in Vermont at Long Trail School in Dorset. Harding headed north, finishing his degree online and during the summer months. He spent seven years at Long Trail before deciding to focus primarily on teaching privately and gigging. In 2007, MSJ principal Paolo Zancanaro contacted Harding about taking over the school’s fledgling music program. He jumped at the opportunity.
It’s no secret that MSJ is not a school without its share of hardships. Over the last two decades, enrollment has declined. Recently, the football team was reassigned to Division III status. To some, the writing may be on the wall. One should remember, though, this is a school that should never be counted out. The situation has, however, called for a hard look at where the school is headed. As the MSJ community grapples with the prospect of a future very different from the past, many have looked to music as a very possible niche for the school.
Stepping into the current music room, you quickly see this potential. A room that for quite some time has sat underutilized is now bustling with activity: four electric keyboards, a Hammond organ, guitars, a double bass, amplifiers, various horns and stringed instruments. Sitting in Harding’s office, we have to speak loudly over the slinky bass lines and crashing symbols coming from across the hall. Several students have commandeered the room for an afternoon practice session in preparation for the fall concert. In the classroom, Harding stresses fundamentals – scales, chords, note reading – but makes sure everyone is enjoying themselves, and getting to play what they like.
“The best way to teach modern musicians is by teaching modern music,” Harding said. He sets the repertoire based on students’ tastes and technical skills as well as the quality and message of the song. The upcoming concert features songs by both Bill Withers and Steve Vai. Harding dashes out of the room, and returns with his acoustic guitar. He plays me the Steve Vai tune, “For the Love of God.” He fingers the complex chords while humming the melody. I bring up the Chili Peppers again. This is interesting. Especially, in the context of a school concert.
Harding is delighted to reveal that a student suggested the song. “I told him, fine, you learn it and we’ll play it.”
The student showed up the next day, and played it all the way through.
Due to MSJ’s small numbers, it is difficult to field a traditional orchestra or marching band. However, the size does accommodate for small jazz and rock combos, and lets students play more contemporary music. Harding also notes that it allows students to play the instruments they want. Currently, the program boasts a bagpipe and a ukulele player. Looking ahead, Harding is committed to growing the music program. He envisions the school offering a music diploma within five years where students will be able to study music up to the AP level, and graduate equipped to move into a college-level program.
In the short-term, Harding is looking to build a competitive string program. He is currently working with the school to find a way to raise the approximate $30,000 needed to fund the project, which will provide enough stringed instruments for current students and allow Harding to expand the program to the elementary level at Christ the King School. He is also seeking stringed instrument donations, and encourages people to contact the school if they have any to offer.
It’s impossible not to share in Harding’s enthusiasm for his work. It’s almost four o’clock when I wrap up my interview. The students are still rehearsing. Stopping, starting, getting it just right. As sound fills the hall, you began to see music the way Harding does – a powerful agent of change and love that brings people together, and, when we want it to, accomplishes the impossible.
Expressed :: (Approximately) 5 Questions for Mark Harding
The Express’ Jim Sabataso sat down with local musician and MSJ musical director Mark Harding to chat about Prince, performing and his favorite Beatle.
Jim Sabataso: How many instruments do you play?
Mark Harding: Twenty-eight, at differing levels.
JS: Wow. You got Prince beat.
MH: How many does he play?
JS: Like, twenty-seven, I think. If you had to choose, what’s your favorite play?
MH: If I’m playing alone, guitar or piano. I like the fullness they give you.
JS: Who’s been your biggest influence musically?
MH: My father. He was a jazz player. He led me to the fundamental understanding that if you learn chords, you can play anything you want.
JS: What’s your most memorable musical moment?
MH: Hmm. I’ve played 200 gigs a year for the last 25 years, but I’d say it was meeting my wife, Kerry, on stage.
JS: And finally, because you’re a musician I have to ask this: Who’s your favorite Beatle?
MH: [Producer] George Martin. He’s the guy that led them beyond basic pop, and allowed them to become great. He made Paul learn piano so no George Martin, no “Let it Be.”
JS: Best answer to that question yet.