How often do you practise your instrument? How often do you play it? What do these two terms mean to you? How are they different and how do they overlap? Practice is always a hot topic in music teaching - how much should students practise and how should they practise? There's more talk about practice strategies these days than there is about lengths of time, but the "how long should I practise for?" question still pops up repeatedly. Music teachers still vent their frustrations over students who "don't do enough practice".
I find that adult students in particular tend to 'confess' to a lack of practice - many, many lessons begin with "I haven't done as much as I'd like/ I should have". Sometimes that means they haven't had the time/ energy/ motivation and they've hardly picked up their instrument. But sometimes, it turns out that it means "I haven't worked on the pieces we worked on in my last lesson, and I haven't done those exercises that we agreed would be beneficial to improve my high notes, but I have played my instrument at wind band, and met up with some friends to do quartets, and played along at a folk session in the pub". Yet, they feel like a 'bad pupil' because they haven't done the assigned tasks.
The interplay of play and practice isn't always easy to unpick - I like a sports analogy when it comes to learning music, but is it really like football, where you train (practise) then go out and play a game (perform) or is it more like yoga where the doing (playing) is also the practising? Is it somewhere in-between or a mixture of the two? With the student who's doing lots of playing, I always think (and say) that that's brilliant, it's what playing an instrument is about! Playing is both practice in itself, and putting practice into action. You learn so much from playing with other people, you get pushed by having to 'keep up', you pick up or improve skills in context. So why do we do this other thing, this practising which is generally less fun and less 'musical'?
The simple answer to that is that practice builds the skills that make playing more enjoyable. If you join an ensemble but find it difficult to play at the speed that everyone else is galloping along at, you might feel frustrated. Then practising exercises on your own that will help increase your finger speed will hopefully lead to a more comfortable experience in the group, feeling like you're part of making music rather than struggling to keep up. If you feel self-conscious because your high notes are squeaky or out-of-tune, then working on those in isolation boosts your confidence when you next share them with other people. We practice scale patterns because it means that when we're presented with a new piece of music, some magic* thing occurs in our brains which means we see that string of notes and our fingers know exactly what to do to produce them (*not actually magic at all, but it can seem like it if you've never reached that point yourself, and even if you have, sometimes you still step back and think "woah, how DOES that happen?").
I will admit to some, err, debates with students over practice, but it tends to be when they've set themselves a goal, such as an exam, but aren't doing the things they need to do to reach that goal. Even then, often the problem is not so much not practising their scales or whatever, but actually just not playing the instrument very often. And perhaps that is in part because they feel that if they take it out to play then what they should be doing is practising, and practising is hard and not always fun. Whereas the difficult practising bits would actually be made easier by the familiarity with your instrument that comes from playing it regularly.
I've experienced this myself with the piano. I neither play nor practise the piano very often. Sometimes I'll sit down to play something on it, but because I'm nowhere near as familiar with it as I am with the flute, I get frustrated by not being able to do things so easily. I 'need' to play the piano maybe a couple of times a year, to accompany early grade students in exams, and these accompaniments which I think I should be able to play quite easily sometimes take a fair bit of practice. However, I KNOW I actually enjoy playing the piano when I feel more competent at it. I don't love it in the same way as I do playing the flute - it doesn't feel the same to me as a way of expressing things through music - but it is a useful skill in my line of work and, well, I think I'm intrigued as to what playing the piano better would actually feel like! I really enjoy accompanying, but I know that my skill level limits how much of this I can do. So, I've set myself a challenge, to do some regular piano practice and playing. I've chosen three pieces, initially, that I want to work on 'properly'. I've got a list of scales and arpeggios from a particular grade exam to try to master, because it seemed like a good point to aim at, to start with. I've got a big pile of books to pick and choose things to try out, so I'll also be playing as well as focussed practising. I'm going to give it a try over the summer, while other work is quieter, and see what happens when I practise what I preach! I'll let you know how I get on.
Why do people play musical instruments? Why do they have music lessons? There are all sorts of reasons. To quote one of my younger students "I just like the sound!" - that's usually a big factor. Quite often, especially with adult students, there's a desire to to learn so they can play in a group. Even if the initial decision to learn is because you 'like the sound', people often develop ambitions to be able to join an ensemble or to play together with friends.
It sounds like a good plan, to get to the stage where you can play with other people, but I think there's a lot to unpick here. For me, playing with other people is a huge part of what playing music is 'about' - the communication, the connection, the teamwork, the blending of sounds - and I can probably be a bit evangelical about it. But it isn't a compulsory aspect of learning an instrument, and it is absolutely fine if what you want to do is play on your own, in your own house, because you like the experience of making a nice sound, but feel no particular desire to do that anywhere else or with anyone else. Music in this way can be very therapeutic - sometimes it's an escape from the stresses of life. Sometimes I shut myself in my spare room and just play whatever I feel like, and it makes me feel better.
I'm also somewhat bothered by the idea that you have to reach a certain level of competency to play with other people - you have to be 'good enough'. Of course, if an established ensemble has a minimum standard, then obviously you have to meet that to join. In some cases, this can be a good motivator to practice and improve your playing. Sometimes you need the 'piece of paper' to show you're the appropriate standard, and I've had students set themselves goals of passing a particular exam so that they can join the next level up of school orchestra, or their nearest amateur wind band. However, I strongly believe that as long as you can make some sounds, you're 'good enough' to play with others in some way, if that's what you want to do. When I run student workshops, everyone is invited, no matter how long they've been playing for - and when we play as a group there are parts for everyone, even if I have to write a new part that just consists of Bs, As and Gs for someone who's only been playing a few weeks.
Part of the problem with waiting until you're 'good enough' to play with others is that when you do reach that stage, you don't have any experience of playing with others! In one worst case scenario, you could be Grade 8 'on paper' but only ever have worked on exam pieces and not much else, and the only ensemble playing you've done is once a year with an accompanist, whose job it is to follow your playing, whatever you do. You could be technically brilliant, but just not used to playing a part that isn't 'the tune' and listening out for how your part fits in with everyone else. You might not have a lot of experience of sight-reading. You might not have any idea how to follow a conductor.
Now, none of this is the fault of the student, but it strikes me that if one of your aims is to play in an ensemble, then one of the things you really need to learn is ensemble skills. That includes experience of listening to other parts and fitting in with them. It involves getting used to playing harmony parts and thinking about how they work in the piece as a whole, being sensitive to how loud or quiet you need to play, considering how to match your articulation or phrasing to what other people are doing. You need to get used to 'keeping going' whatever happens - there's a mantra about sight-reading for exams where people are told to keep going, don't go back and correct a mistake, and this is absolutely vital if you want to keep your place in ensemble music. You need to practice keeping in time with a whole load of other people - either by following a conductor or communicating somehow as a group. And really, the only way to learn these things is to do them. Teachers can help - I do 'playing together' and 'call and response' activities in lessons from the very start, and encourage students to learn duets for us to play together, rather than just using them as a 'fun' thing to do at the end of a lesson (this blog post from David Barton Music is also well worth reading on this topic). It occurred to me a while back that tutor books often have the student playing the top line of duets, for quite a long time, and then it can be quite tricky when you ask them to try playing the bottom line - your eyes just get used to looking in the same place - so have made a point of finding duets where both parts are manageable in the early stages. I think recorded backing tracks can play a useful role here as well, for the experience of playing along with 'someone else' who isn't going to adapt to you.
Individual lessons can only do so much towards this though, and just playing with other people helps to make you better at playing with other people. It's one of the reasons I run Sheffield Flute Choir and also why we have an annual summer playday where anyone can come and join in (as well as improving people's skills, the other main reason is that it's fun getting together with loads of other flute players!). Obviously, getting guidance from more experienced ensemble members and leaders can be invaluable too, and *subtle move into advertising here* that's why I've asked Carla Rees to join us for the playday this August. I've experienced Carla's ensemble-leading quite a few times now, including with the rarescale Flute Academy and I'm every time I come away feeling like I've learned something new about how to play as a group. She has some serious words of wisdom about shifting your mindset from playing like a soloist to working as a team. If you'd like to hear them, and explore a range of excellent flute ensemble repertoire at the same time, come and join us in Sheffield on August 25th for our Summer Flute Ensemble Day.
Do you ever feel like the worst musician in the room/ orchestra/ world? I'm sure we've all been in situations where we feel like we're much worse than everyone else at whatever it is we're doing. Sometimes we are, actually, technically, the worst. I could recount many memories of playing various sports or games where I was the weakest, the least coordinated, the slowest runner. There was the time I played rounders with some work colleagues and everyone else was good or at least passable at it. I failed to catch anything, other than a ball to the head when I entirely misjudged how fast it was coming at me.
I have also been in musical situations where I've been the least technically-accomplished player or the least experienced. I remember sitting at the far end of a row of six flutes in a youth orchestra, feeling like everyone else was so much better than me, probably because they were.
It's something I hear from a lot of other people too - they worry about playing in a group or coming to a workshop because "I'll be the worst there", "everyone is better than me". It's fairly common with adult learners, as they feel they 'should' be more accomplished simply because they're adults.
I understand that worry, but if you can re-frame 'being the worst' it can help you enjoy and benefit from experiences that you might have otherwise avoided. For one thing, the language of 'better' and 'worse' is fairly unhelpful, and suggests that it's in some way a failing not to be as 'good' as someone else. It is language that sadly pervades some musical environments so it's no wonder that people feel intimidated by this sense that they're being ranked into levels of 'how good you are'. It's part of the (damaging, in my opinion) discourse of 'natural talent' that suggests you're somehow inferior if you can't currently do something.
However, I think it's better to think of yourself as at a different stage on your musical journey - perhaps you started later, or you haven't had as much time to dedicate to it. It may be that some people have found solutions that work for them to problems you're still struggling with. This is all OK, and nothing to be ashamed of. If you're willing to learn and try to find solutions, then the only people who should be ashamed are those who look down on others for not being at the same stage as them. Maybe you could have practised more/ better, but it's more productive to go and do some constructive practice now than to beat yourself up about not having done it in the past.
Yes, it is difficult to feel like everyone else in the room can do things that you can't. It is OK to feel like you've got a long way to go, and even a bit envious of someone else's lovely tone or amazing finger-work. But you can turn that around - see it as something to aspire to. Learn from them. And don't forget to appreciate your own skills too - maybe you can't play super-fast but you can get amazingly loud volume. Maybe you don't yet have the tone you want (if you're a flute player, that's a lifelong search!) but you can sight-read/ busk your way through most things. Maybe you aren't the best at any of these things, but you're a generally reliable, happy soul to have around in rehearsals. Whatever the case, you have your own unique qualities in your playing, and none of these things make you a better or worse person (except maybe being reliable and cheerful to be around, which is definitely a good thing).
The vast majority of people will not be looking down at you because you're not a virtuoso - in fact, most will be too busy worrying about their own playing, but those who are more advanced can make things easier on other people too, by being sensitive to the fact that others might find their level of skill and/ or confidence intimidating. If you find something easy, it can feel natural to always be the one volunteering to demonstrate, or play the solo, but you can support other people by stepping back sometimes, by being supportive, offering encouragement and sharing things you've found helpful in your own learning (without sounding like a know-it-all!). Teachers can help by making their teaching constructive and encouraging, rather than a list of things that the student has done wrong. They can openly talk about the aspects of playing that they find/ have found difficult and how they've worked on them.
I've written before about awareness as part of my series on being a reliable musician and I think that applies here too - be aware of how your behaviour is affecting yourself and other people, whether that's putting yourself down and grumbling about finding things too hard, or acting in a way which might make other people feel bad about themselves and their playing. And remember that how you play is not a reflection on your worth as a person!
One of the best analogies I've ever read for how music lessons should be is in 'The Perfect Wrong Note' by William Westney - which compares the process to the student working on trying to get a machine working. They've tried all sorts and had some success, but when it comes to their lesson, they bundle up all the loose bits and bring them along to show their teacher - "I've managed to get this part fitted in here and working, but I can't figure out how these go together or how to make them turn round". Lessons are the place to get help with the things that you can't do or aren't sure about. I'm also always happy for students to text or email me between lessons if they have any questions - it might be something that's easily fixed with a quick answer or I can give you some ideas to try out in your practice. You can text me a picture of something in your music, asking "what's this again?!" or if you're really struggling to find a recording, I might have something I can bring along to your next lesson, or I might be able to record a quick mp3 of a few bars to help you out.
But music teachers can't be available 24/7 and there are other things you can do between lessons to help you figure out the bits you're not sure about. I still have occasional lessons, but part of learning music is also 'learning how to learn' and finding out where to go if you're puzzling over a problem. When you're used to looking these things up on a regular basis, it becomes habit, but if you're not and you're in the middle of a practice session thinking "help! I have no idea what to do!" then it can be difficult to know where to start.
So I thought it would be useful to put together a page of resources in one place, to help students if they're stuck with something between lessons. There's a bit of a flute focus, but most of it will be handy for players of any instrument.
(Side note: a lot of these are online resources, and a few people have mentioned to me that they get distracted if they have their phone/ computer nearby whilst practising. If that's the case, then maybe 'allow' yourself to have your phone/ computer/ technology item of choice only for the first or last, say, ten minutes of your practice session, when you're dealing with the specific issue that you need to look up. You might want to stop notifications from popping up for that time, if they're likely to lead you astray. Then you can either put it away for the rest of your practice session, or if you use it at the end you can finish, pack up your instrument and go and check all your social media if that's what you want to do!).
How does this piece go again?
As much as the sheet music tells us 'how a piece goes', there are times where we all get stuck with how something is supposed to sound. Some books come with CDs or downloads of the tracks which can help with this, but if they don't then YouTube is usually my first stop. As with any online resource, you need to exercise some care - professional performances are more likely to be accurate, but that's not to say there aren't lots of brilliant home recordings out there too. But do be aware that what you hear might not be exactly what's on the page, whether that's through error or intentional interpretations of the piece. Other online music resources like Apple Music and Spotify are great too, and it can be helpful to listen to different versions of the same piece to get ideas about how to play it. If you can't find the exact piece, then even looking up something in the same style can give you ideas about how to play it, for example looking up Minuets or Waltzes to give you a feel for those sort of pieces.
How do I do that?
YouTube also has some great instructional videos. If you're struggling with how to do something in particular on your instrument, it's worth a search to see if anyone's put up a video about it. Now, you will possibly find varying and even completely conflicting views on aspects of technique, but I always encourage students to experiment - so try a few out and see what gives you the results you're looking for, remembering that there is no such thing as "one size fits all" when it comes to playing an instrument.
You'll also find lots of web sites written by flute players and teachers, with advice about technique and about particular pieces. Jennifer Cluff's site has a wealth of ideas and answers to questions sent in by players. Paul Edmund-Davies' Simply Flute has some great exercises accompanied by videos showing how to work on them. If you're exploring how to play alto or bass flute, have a look at these blog posts by Carla Rees on different aspects of the low flutes. If you're looking at some of the different techniques on the flute besides 'normal' notes, I think the short video tutorials at Flute Colors are brilliant - whether you've come across one of these 'extended techniques' in a piece, or you just want to try out making a different sound!
You can also try asking on online forums or Facebook groups - there are plenty out there for general music and for specific instruments, which also have the benefit of acting as a community where you can chat to and compare notes with other people learning. Again, you'll probably get differing views on the same issue, so it pays to be open-minded to trying different possible solutions.
I love arriving at a lesson to a student telling me they've been reading different ideas about how to do something - we can then play around with these in their lesson and see what works!
How do I play that note?
If you're stuck on how to play a particular note, fingering charts are what you need. You can often find these in the back/ middle of tutor books, or more detailed books (including alternative fingerings and trills) are available. You can also buy fingering charts that are small enough to carry around in your bag or flute case. If you prefer to go online, I like the charts at WFG and FingerCharts (which also has a really handy app for Apple and Android).
What does that word mean? What is that squiggly sign on the music?
If you're not sure or can't remember what an instruction on your sheet music means, whether it's a foreign musical term or a sign for an ornament, there are a few places you can look these up. If it's a word, just Googling can work (although it's often worth adding 'music' to your search term as the usage in music might be slightly different to the everyday translation). Likewise if you look up 'musical ornaments' you'll find lots of pages explaining what the symbols mean, such as the BBC GCSE Music resources. For generally improving your music theory knowledge, MyMusicTheory is a brilliant site with clear explanations and exercises to work through. If you prefer to have a reference book to hand, the classic is the ABRSM 'Pink Book' (and it's second volume, the blue one).
Ask! Ask your teacher, ask a friend who plays an instrument, ask the other people in your band or orchestra. Lessons are just part of the picture of learning music, and you can learn as much from other people (which is one of the reasons why playing in a group is so good for your progress, as well as being enjoyable and social!). People learn in different ways, with different methods and pick up skills in different orders, so they might know something you haven't learnt yet, or have tried a different technique for whatever it is you're trying to do. And the same applies to you too - you might be able to answer someone else's question or suggest a solution to something that's been puzzling them. Or maybe you'll be able to work it out between you!
Do you have any resources that you turn to when you're stuck? More suggestions are always welcome!
The other day, I came across this article from 1938 entitled 'Needed Research in Music Education'. Leaving aside the "nobody under forty-five" bit (lets just make that "nobody"!), it's another to add to my collection of quotes which basically say "someone should be researching adult learning in music". They pop up in the literature every few years, whilst actual research into adult learning appears at a slow trickle. They're one of the things that keep me going with my research, when the thought of the long, slow process seems overwhelming.
Articles about adults learning music appear in the more mainstream press now and then too - why it's good for our (ageing) brains, the story of someone deciding to take up the piano after dreaming of playing for years. I was pleased to spot a magazine article this week about the benefits of learning music as an adult, but then rapidly disappointed by lines about "demoralising (or just plain boring) school lessons" and "shake off the shackles of childhood piano lessons and start having fun". There's nothing necessarily wrong with teaching yourself or making use of YouTube videos, as the article suggests, but this disparaging view of music teaching got my back up. Yes, there are boring/ miserable lessons/ teachers, but there are so many teachers that I know who are trying their best to make learning music enjoyable and engaging for all ages.
Although the article pushes the social benefits of music, it takes confidence to go and join a group - I'm not sure how easy some people will find it to step out from behind their computer and go out to play in public. That can be something that a teacher can help to 'hold your hand' through, playing with you in lessons, arranging informal opportunities for you to play with and in front of other people, suggesting suitable ensembles to try out. Going along to lessons is a social interaction in itself, and don't we spend enough time in front of a screen as it is?!
I have a couple of other issues with dependence on video lessons - firstly, there isn't someone there observing you and helping you out. I've come across adult learners who've struggled with teaching themselves through online courses, because they're trying to follow a set of 'one size fits all' instructions. The instrument hasn't been set up properly for their particular body shape and size, their hand position is all wrong for the length of their fingers, and they're wondering why it doesn't sound right, and even more worryingly, it feels uncomfortable. Look at just a few clips of professional flute players and you'll see variations in how they use their hands, arms, mouths - because bodies aren't all made the same! This is something that a teacher can help to work out, helping you to avoid injuring yourself at the same time (it might seem difficult to injure yourself with an instrument but the damage that musicians do to their bodies is a big issue - if you're doing a repetitive movement many times, you want to be doing it in the best way possible). They're also there to help with the mental and emotional aspects of learning - supporting you through the frustrating times and helping you navigate the process of learning music alongside all the other challenges in life. I entirely understand that it costs more to take lessons than to watch YouTube for nothing (and clearly I have a vested interest in people taking lessons!), but I wonder whether sometimes 'free' isn't the bargain it seems to be.
My other issue is an apparent obsession with speed (of learning, not of playing!) - online teaching resources I've seen use phrases like "fast-track your results". One, specifically for adults, promises to "skip the simplistic and slow approaches used with children and will get you playing in no time". While I'm not doubting - and research, including my own, suggests - that adults need some different approaches to children, I am wondering what's so wrong with 'simplistic and slow'? I certainly see a desire for quick results in many students (as much in children as adults, I would say), but surely there is nothing wrong with taking your time? As well as getting away from the screen, why can't learning music also be a change in pace from the rest of life? I'm reminded of the 'slow food' movement which celebrates traditional methods of growing and cooking, and of the trend for mindfulness which encourages people to slow down and observe. Why should learning music be a race? Why shouldn't we enjoy the gradual process, and celebrate the beauty of playing something simple well.
Perhaps adults do want quick results. Maybe they don't want teachers (although my research suggest that that plenty of them do, and that the teacher-student relationship is really important). I suspect that what really works well for most learners, whatever their age, is a combination of approaches - individual lessons, playing with groups, making use of some online resources, experimenting on their own. We need to look at what benefits learners most - musically, but also mentally and physically - is it the quick fix that seems initially most appealing, or is it taking your time and immersing yourself in the long, wonderful process of learning? We could say that 'slow and steady wins the race' but I think what's most important is that it isn't a race!
'Getting everything done' is a common issue in my life - trying to balance playing, teaching, all the admin that goes with those, doing research, all the usual things that you have to get done in life and actually 'having a life' isn't always easy. I see it in my students too. It's proving to be a frequent theme in my research (and anecdotally) with adult learners - how do you find time to practise an instrument, learn music theory, read about the history of your pieces etc, whilst also doing a full-time job, bringing up children, and going to the gym regularly (or whatever it is that fills your weeks)? I increasingly see it with younger students too - how do you fit in learning music, all that homework, competing with your sports team and all those birthday parties, and still have some time to hang out and do nothing as well?
When you're younger, you probably don't think in terms of 'productivity'. As an adult these days, the word is everywhere. We're meant to be getting loads done (whilst simultaneously taking plenty of time out for self-care). There's a massive industry around teaching people ways of doing more in less time, books packed full of methods to help you be more productive - if only we could find time to read them all!
I was pleased to be chosen as part of the pre-launch reading group for Prof Mark Reed's new book The Productive Researcher - it's great to be supporting someone who's self-publishing their work, and I was hoping to find ways to make the most of my time. I wasn't sure at all what to expect, and worried slightly that it would be full of what felt like unachievable methods for 'doing more', just tailored towards academics. What I actually got was not at all your usual ‘how to do more’ book. Mark writes in an open, friendly way, sharing his own experiences of discovering how to be productive, but also happy in your work. There’s clear academic research behind it – in looking at other people’s theories and approaches to productivity – but it reads like the words of a supportive, gently challenging mentor.
You can read this book quickly and pick up useful ideas from it, but I think to get the best from it you need to spend some time and mental energy to work through the questions and exercises, and commit to trying to use the principles. It’s not (nor does it promise to be) a quick fix, but it really gets to grips with what lies behind our struggles with ‘being productive’. The first part of the book proposes that to be productive in our work, we need to know why we’re doing the work, and asks us to pin down our motivations – I particularly liked the idea of having back-up motivations for the times when our main ones falter. There’s a re-framing of SMART goals as “Stretching, Motivational, Authentic, Regardful and Tailored” which I felt was much more motivating than the original concept.
The second part describes ways of putting these motivations and goals into action. There’s a focus on prioritising and using your time well – that the way to feel/ be more productive is to spend less time on the things that don’t contribute to your overall goals. I loved the idea of firing up your day with enjoyable work first, rather than saving the bits you like as a reward for getting through the less fun stuff. There are practical tips on managing the time you spend in meetings, on social media, and dealing with the never-ending stream of emails! I can imagine that some of these would take a fair amount of willpower to implement in the pressured atmosphere that academics are working under, and there are bigger issues at play around what is expected of researchers, but some of these steps would definitely help gain back some sense of control to your working life.
Although it's aimed at researchers, meaning that some of the scenarios are academia-specific, e.g. submitting papers to journals, examining a PhD thesis, there's a lot in this book for anyone who wants to feel like they're making the most of their days. Being really clear about your motivations and priorities, and learning not just how to say 'no' but how to decide what to say 'no' to, are lessons that anyone could find useful. Yes, there are days when whatever procrastination activity you like to indulge in seem far more appealing than practising your scales or going for a run in the rain, but if you're clear about your overall motivation and what's important to you (you want to be able to join a band and sight-read new pieces at rehearsals, or you want to complete a half-marathon) you can keep revisiting that to keep you going and enjoying what you do.
Bloggy disclaimer things: I received a free copy of the ebook version of The Productive Researcher and was asked to write an honest Amazon review (which I did - it's basically a reduced version of this blog post). The links above are my Amazon affiliate links which mean that if you buy the book through those I will receive a small amount of commission.
I was doing some updates to my website this morning, and I came across this wonderful, slightly chaotic photo from one of my student workshops/ concerts. This is a collection of my students and flute choir members, getting ready to perform to their family and friends. What I love about this photo - other than the fact it contains lots of people who I really like - is the communication between people, the concentration, the variety of people. I love that you can see players helping each other out with getting their music ready to play, supporting each other. And all the friends and relatives ready to hear the outcome of the lessons they might pay for (or keep out of the way in another room for), the practice they overhear/ endure (I know listening to someone embarking on a new octave can be less than tuneful), the enthusiastic ramblings about flute playing that they kindly listen to.
I've also been using the quieter time over the summer to sort out my home office/ sheet music library. I've finally got a pin board to display the cards that were propped up on my desk and kept falling down the back. These are from friends and students and people I've worked with. They have some lovely pictures on, but it's also a lovely boost to open them sometimes and re-read the messages. Some of them tell me about the things that really helped them and remind me how important it is that students get the support they need, not just from me, but from all sorts of people. There's an African proverb that "it takes a whole village to raise a child" and I think the same is true of raising a happy, successful musician. Students doing exams, performances or auditions don't just need lessons. My students don't just need me! They also need opportunities to practise performing (e.g. student concerts - where the other players and the audience make a huge difference). They need good accompanists who can work with them on developing their pieces into a conversation between the flute and the piano. They might need support with other aspects of exam preparation - for example, asking their accompanist to do some extra sessions on the aural tests too. I teach music theory to some students who have instrumental lessons with other teachers (they might not have time in school lessons to fit theory in, or the teacher might just not enjoy teaching it). Students might benefit from different views on an aspect of technique (sometimes just having something explained or demonstrated a different way works wonders), so workshops with other teachers and players can be really valuable. Coming to the student workshops or to a group like Flute Choir can provide different viewpoints, a chance to exchange thoughts and tips with other players, an opportunity to put skills like sightreading into action, and most importantly, encouragement from other people. When it comes to exams or performances, having people around who are calm, organised and positive really helps - good exam stewards, for example.
Then there's the supportive friends, family, parents, partners, housemates, etc, mentioned above. It makes a huge difference to have people who are on your side when you're working towards a goal. One of the findings of my Master research was that adult learners really notice their support network (or lack of it) - that support can also encompass things like social media and online forums of people doing the same things, sharing their experiences of lessons and exams. And for younger students still at school, having support there is brilliant - opportunities to join groups, play in school concerts, teachers who are interested in their musical activities. I've had students who were doing a school project on a particular country ask to learn pieces from that country so they could perform them to their class - what a fabulous idea!
It can be hard to be entirely happy and fulfilled in your music-making if one of the pieces of the jigsaw is missing. It's not impossible, but it's more of a struggle. Whenever I sit in an exam waiting room, with my students, their parents, their accompanist and the exam stewards, or whenever I look at these photos of lots of flute players together, it reminds me of that musical 'village' and how well it works when it all pulls together.
In my last post, I talked about the value of taking different approaches to playing musical instruments, and trying them out to find the best ones for you. In a way, the tendency to try to find 'one size that fits all' is one of the things that led me to want to research adult music learners. It was the attitude that I'd sometimes come across that "adult learners are... X". One of the first results that came up when I searched online was a quote from a music teacher saying that "adults are notoriously difficult to teach". My own experience suggested that wasn't necessarily the case, but it did start me wondering about whether adults learning did have many common characteristics, or whether they were really quite diverse (my 'work in progress' answer to that, from my research so far, and from teaching increasing numbers of adults, is probably 'both'!).
My reading of adult learning literature is bringing up issues around what exactly that constitutes - the research I've looked at so far tends to focus on 'basic skills' education or, to a lesser extent, retraining, which is quite a different sort of experience to learning an instrument, although clearly there will be overlaps in the basic issues around 'learning'. But it has got me thinking about where music education sits in all this - there are plenty of debates around how important it should be considered in schools, but what actually is music education for adults? Certainly it's rare, though not impossible, for someone to take up an instrument in later life and become a professional musician - setting aside for now how we define a 'professional musician' because that's a whole other can of worms! - so it's not, generally, 'retraining' for a new career. Is it a hobby, or leisure activity? It does feel somehow different from hobbies where you perhaps attend a term of evening classes, or go along once a week to a club (and I always feel the word 'hobby' has a sense of casual interest, which doesn't quite fit how some adults treat their music - or indeed other non-work activities).
I do think that music teachers need to take account of those different attitudes - what someone needs from lessons varies depending on what they want out of them. Some adults seem to start with a clear idea of what they're aiming for, whilst others don't so much, and that's also part of our job, to support them in finding out what that is and as it might change along the way (or maybe never quite finding out exactly, but enjoying the process). Some of my Masters research found adult students being pressured down the exam route by teachers, and maybe that's an example of trying to use the same approach for everyone.
I've also read some discussion this week about how long it should take learners to reach certain stages on an instrument, and I think that's definitely a topic for a future 'one size fits all' post, which seem to be turning into an accidental series. More soon!
The world of music is full of attempts to get the ‘right answer’. Just thinking about flute playing…
What’s the right way to play Bach on the flute? What’s the best make of flute? How do I play high notes quietly? What angle should I hold my flute at? Where do I put my thumb? How should I breathe?
I belong to a few Facebook groups and online forums, and whenever anyone asks a question about any aspect of flute playing, strong opinions are expressed. You should definitely do it like this, hold it like this, blow like this. This make of flute is the best.
People go to teachers or to masterclasses and are told to do things a certain way, and do their best to follow the instructions, and don’t understand why it’s not working for them. You buy a tutor book and it says “you must do it like this” and “you should not be doing this” (with my linguistics head on, the language of tutor books fascinates me - there's another research project in there bursting to get out one day).
I am generalising here of course, for there are voices out there saying “try this”. “This works for me, so you could try it, but also you could try these different ways”. “Go and try lots of different flutes and see which one feels best to you”. Experiment.
Some people go to one teacher and take what they say as gospel and never question it. Some people read everything they can on the subject, go to workshops and masterclasses and hear about many different ways to do the same thing. This can be overwhelming and confusing – who are we supposed to believe? Or it can be a springboard for experimentation, finding out what works best for you.
I’ve worked on flute playing in detail with quite a number of teachers, from extended periods of lessons to one-off masterclasses or courses, so I’ve come across quite a variety of views on the way to do things. None of them, I would say, have been wrong, but some have worked better for me than others.
I look at my own students and I see such variety. As a flute teacher, you spend a lot of time looking at people’s lips and hands, and there are incredible differences (thumbs, in particular, fascinate me – so many different lengths and angles they’ll bend at!). I see my job less as telling people the ‘right answer’ and more as giving them as many possible ways to try as I can. I can show you how I hold my flute with my short thumbs and my hypermobile fingers, but that won’t necessarily work for you if you have long thumbs and your fingers bend a different way. I can help you try different ways of holding it and see what’s happening with your hands when you can’t because they’re stuck out to the side of you. I can suggest a range of different ways to ‘blow’ or to position your lips, so you can try them out and see which one sounds best for you. And I understand the tendency to want to sound like someone else, flute players you admire whose sound you love, but you are you, and even doing exactly what they do (if that was possible) is unlikely to make you sound exactly like them. Your sound is made up of your physical attributes, your particular technique, your flute - and that's a good thing. If you like something about someone else's sound - the richness, for example - then play around to find out what brings about richness in your own tone. There's no 'secret' that anyone can tell you that will magically make you sound the way you want to sound.
By extension, that means me reading about different approaches to playing, going to events to find out what other people are doing, and learning new things myself. For me, it also means helping flute players have access to other players and teachers, because with all the will in the world I can’t know everything or be able to demonstrate or explain everything. It’s one of the reasons why I arrange flute days. I run workshops and concerts for my students and flute choir members (pictured above just a few days ago), get-togethers where people can play in a big group, meet other players and share ideas (next one in August), and ones where I invite people with expertise in particular areas to share that with us. The next one of those is with Dr Jessica Quiñones in October – Jessica has listened to my rants, er, impassioned speeches, about the tendency to seek ‘right answers’ and has designed a day where we can “explore and experiment with a variety of methods” of approaching different aspects of flute technique.
It’s so valuable to be able to take ideas from different people and try them out for yourself. It's good to meet other players and hear about their struggles with the same issues, and the things that have worked (or not) for them. To see what they do and how they sound. A lot is said in music education about ‘independent learning’ – equipping students with the skills to plan their own development and practice – and I think that’s also as much about learning to experiment with and assess other approaches, to ‘pick and mix’ and find your own way.
I've just been listening to this programme from BBC Radio 4 - School of Thought: Late Learners. Presented by former Conservative MP and universities minister, David Willetts, it's the last of a series looking at education at different stages of life. I haven't listened to the earlier programmes yet, but on this one on adult learners obviously caught my eye (ear?!). He argues for a more flexible education system which takes account of the fact that "life is messy" and makes it easier for people to return to education as adults - the focus is on higher education, so he's suggesting things like better funding schemes and being able to transfer credits for courses studied at different institutions.
Although private music lessons are a bit different to a university course, some similar barriers apply to adult learners. Financially, it's easier (though my no means guaranteed) to find help with learning music when you're younger - some instrument hire schemes are only available to people below a certain age, there are more charities to apply to for help with tuition, summer schools or buying instruments (I had support from several organisations as a child - towards buying an instrument and attending orchestra courses/ tours). It's very rare (impossible?) to find help like this for adult learners. Some schools have free/ subsidised music lessons for children from lower income families, there is some wonderful music work being done for young people who might not otherwise have access to it, but what does an adult with not much money do if they want to learn an instrument?
There are also fewer opportunities to play when you're no longer in school - some of my students can join their school band after a term or two of lessons, but it's much harder to find groups that will take adult beginners. There's no end of term concert if you're not a school kid (one of the reasons I started putting on informal concerts for my students - of all ages - to take part in). If you're interested in entering competitions - something I've heard a lot of discussion about with budding composers in particular - there are often age limits on these. So whether you stopped playing your instrument after school and came back to it, didn't have an opportunity to learn as a child, or suddenly woke up one morning at the age of 46 and decided you wanted to play the flugelhorn, there are definitely some barriers (as well as the ones that adult life itself puts there, as in my previous post).
Apart from being a little disappointed by the implication that adult learning is something you do to 'make up' for missing out on education earlier (e.g. dropping out of school), I thought there were some really strong points in this programme, in particular the discussion of the wider benefits of more people gaining more education, beyond the more obvious outcomes of getting a better/ different job. It was also fantastic to hear from a neuroscientist that our brains are just as capable of learning as adults - the previous thinking that childhood/ teens were the peak learning age has been challenged by more recent research - so any feeling that it's 'harder to learn' at an older age may just be down to preconceptions.
(Mr Messy image from http://www.themistermen.co.uk/mr_men/mr_messy.html)
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