Last week I wore a variety of hats - not in a metaphorical sense, but in a real one. There was the mortar board at my MA graduation - a lovely, if rather blustery day celebrating the end of the course and catching up with some of my fellow distance learning students/ survivors!
Then there were the Santa hats. (Yes, hats, plural - I have acquired quite a few of them, mainly for flute choir purposes, including some glittery ones and ones with flashing pompoms! So I thought I'd wear a variety of styles...). Firstly the end of term for the baby and toddler music classes I teach at Rhythm Time, where I (and the babies) dressed up in our festive best and had lots of fun with bells! Then at the weekend Sheffield Flute Choir had an outing to play at Weston Park Museum. Twelve (of our total membership of around thirty) flute players all in Christmassy head gear serenaded museum visitors - and the queue for Santa's Grotto - in the fabulous surroundings of the About Art Gallery.
Finally, I've been wearing a very cosy bobble hat, a Christmas present from a student last year - which has been much appreciated in the windy wintery weather as I go about between lessons!
In the midst of all this hat-wearing, I've been helping students out with pieces for Christmas concerts and handing out exam certificates (well done all of you for so much hard work this term!). It's the end of a year (almost) and graduation felt a bit like the end of an era but I'm so looking forward to what next year has to bring.
ps to read a fabulous blog from a lady who wears many (metaphorical) hats, plays the flute and is doing a really interesting PhD project, and who I had the pleasure of meeting at the SEMPRE study day earlier this year, pop over to https://diljeetbhachu.wordpress.com/about
When I'm not doing musical things, one of the ways I like to spend my time is gardening. Don't ask me about flowers - I have a few favourites but I don't know much about them - what I really enjoy is growing food. From a few herbs and chilli plants on a flat windowsill, via a back garden vegetable patch, I now have an allotment - a source of much joy, frustration, hard work and satisfaction... a bit like music, but with added mountains of potatoes!
One of the topics of discussion at our recent workshops with Dr Jessica Quiñones was what your passions outside music are, and it turned out there were a lot of flute players who like to grow things. We're also quite a crafty bunch - knitting, sewing and baking - creative in all sorts of ways!
But let's backtrack for a moment - how did a load of flute players end up sitting in a room talking about gardening? Sometime last year, I came across Jessica online - I can't remember whether it was through Twitter first, or through her blog. I was intrigued by her passion for Tango music, and immediately taken with her fresh approach to flute playing. I read a lot about the technical side of playing, about practising, and about performing, but here was a lady who was talking about shaking up the way you think about making music, about finding your own way of doing things, breaking out of the 'box' of traditional expectations around flute playing, and really sharing your music from the heart. As I began to teach more and more adults, I realised that many of them felt 'stuck' in a pattern of feeling that they 'should' play a certain way, worried about having to 'get it right', and it was getting in the way of them making music the way they really wanted to. Lots of them wanted to try playing folk or jazz or latin, or all sorts of different styles, but they didn't know how to make that step into it, having only played classical music. Now, a big part of my teaching ethos is to encourage people to experiment - not to tell them there is one 'correct' way of doing things, but to help them explore different ways that might work for them. But I also believe that an important part of teaching is knowing your own limitations, being open about the fact you don't know and can't do everything(!), and helping your students to access other ways of learning and people who can give them fresh and different approaches to music. So when I started thinking about running some flute events in Sheffield, I absolutely knew that one of the people I wanted to invite was Jessica. I emailed her asking if she'd be interested, and to my delight (because it's always a bit scary emailing someone you've not actually met to ask them to do something) she was really keen on the idea. More than keen, she absolutely 'got' what I wanted to achieve by putting on this event.
One thing we were both clear on from the start was that we weren't putting on a 'traditional' masterclass. You know, one of those days where you stand up and play a piece in front of an 'expert' who then tells you how to improve it and gives you helpful suggestions on interpretation and technique. These have their place, but I feel they can often be intimidating, even downright scary. There can be a sense that you're trying to prove yourself and impress the expert and the other attendees, that it's a competition to see who can play best up there. Sometimes the advice is useful on the spot, but you don't really know what to do with it once you leave. Often it seems that people go along wanting a 'quick fix' to their problems - for someone to tell them "do this and your tone will forever be wonderful". Unfortunately, there are very few, if any, quick fixes in playing an instrument. The same goes for confidence, nobody can magically instil that in you in a day, or even a year of lessons - it's an ongoing process of gaining experience, feeling more secure with your playing, getting to know yourself, and learning what works for you. What I did want, and I knew Jessica could give us, was a day which opened people's eyes to exploring how and why they make music, helped them start to appreciate themselves as musicians (not in comparison to anyone else), and empowered them to feel like they could start to explore different genres and ways of playing, that they didn't need to wait for permission from anyone, or be an expert to give it a go.
And that is exactly what Jessica shared with us - in two amazing, inspiring, generous days. The workshops were specially designed around a combination of my vision for the day and what the participants had said (in an anonymous survey) they wanted to gain from it. The two days were slightly different - with different groups of players bringing their own backgrounds, experiences and ways of playing, and Jessica adapting wonderfully to each one. There was less playing than you might expect from a typical flute day, but the point was to explore those things behind our playing, which can make as much difference as all the technical exercises in the world. We experimented with movement whilst playing, drawing on the other favourite activities we'd talked about - walking, dancing, playing the flute whilst pretending to dig the garden! - breaking away from the idea that you must always stand upright and still. We worked through custom-made workbooks, which delved into what we wanted to grow in our playing, what inspires us, what we really love and believe about music. As so many of the players had said they wanted to feel confident, Jessica had designed an activity which dug into finding out what we actually mean when we talk about confidence - what will confidence look and feel (and even taste and smell!) like to each of us? A lot of this work was challenging, emotional, difficult - but assured by our agreement to Jessica's rule that "what happens in Vegas, er, the flute workshop, stays in the workshop", people opened up, let themselves be vulnerable, realised things about themselves and their relationship to music.
Before the workshop, Jessica had asked everyone to bring a few items - something which inspired their music-making, a piece of music they'd love to play, and something which represented their alter ego (this last one caused some head-scratching in the week running up to it, I can tell you!). After talking about our inspirational objects, we created an 'alter of inspiration' - a sort of 'sacred space' of those things that meant so much to us. We explored our pieces of music, using a set of prompts about how to approach a score - what can we find out from the printed music, and what can we not? What decisions of our own can we make about how to play it? What shapes, colours, ideas does it suggest to us? Jessica introduced us to some Brazilian Choro, and helped us use the same techniques to look at how to approach an unfamiliar genre (I think many of us may have then rushed home to listen to more Choro and buy some music - what a gorgeous sound!).
And the alter egos?! We talked about what we'd brought with us - and indeed how hard it had been to choose something - and Jessica led us through an activity (inspired, if I remember rightly, by The Inner Game of Music) where we tried out 'putting on' those alter egos (and their associated clothing/ accessories - shoes featured quite prominently one day, and what amazing shoes they were!). This was quite remarkable - hearing the difference between people's playing when they played as their normal selves, trying to 'get it right', compared with when they pretended to be another version of themselves, was astounding. Even when the person themselves wasn't sure it had made a difference, those of us listening were amazed. I heard sounds coming out of some of my students and flute choir members that I'd never heard before, saw them lose themselves in the music in ways that actually made me shed a little tear. I was struck by the fact that everyone, no matter what their background and experience, felt that they weren't confident enough, that their playing wasn't 'good enough', that they weren't the sort of person who could do certain things, and that all of them to some extent had those perceptions challenged.
So, what a weekend... it was exhausting and emotional, but as often is the case, that was surely the sign of an experience worth having. I'm so grateful to Jessica for making sense of my rambling emails and phone calls and creating a workshop that did everything I had hoped for and more - made people think, put the power in their hands and truly appreciated and valued every single person who was there. And as Jessica said at the start of each day, huge kudos to the players, who committed a whole day of their weekend - time, money, mental effort and emotions - to their flute playing, their musical journey and themselves. and joined in even when it was nervewracking. If you don't already follow Jessica's blog, pop over to http://jqflute.com/ now for a dose of beautiful, honest writing about flute playing. And if you loved the workshops, or if you missed them this time, keep an eye on www.sheffieldflute.co.uk/events and come and join us next time!
I spend a lot of time sitting in traffic in Sheffield, travelling to lessons, rehearsals, friends' houses, the gym. I do walk quite a bit too, and the effects of that traffic are often quite evident in the air you breathe in the city centre. Sheffield is lucky though, to be home to the research and development of 'catalytic' material, and to be showing that off in creative ways. There's Simon Armitage's 'catalytic poem' In Praise of Air which hangs on a banner from one of the University of Sheffield's tall buildings, inspiring travellers with its wonderful words at the same time as absorbing some of that bad stuff from the air. And at Sheffield Hallam University, opposite the train station, this new bit of catalytic magic has appeared. Good news for those of us attempting to get round the city and breathe at the same time.
But as a woodwind player (and sometimes singer). thoughts of breathing automatically take me back to thoughts of music. I was really struck by the words on these walls - not only do they describe what the catalytic material is doing, but for me they sum up what's happening when we're learning and playing music. We're constantly trying, changing and absorbing new things. Whatever instrument you play, you're 'transforming the air' into music - what an amazing thought.
ps want to learn some new things (and maybe see the catalytic poems too) - there's still a few places left on our workshops with the wonderful Dr. Jessica Quiñones in Sheffield this weekend, click here to book.
In my last post I hinted at some of the similarities between learning an instrument and training for a sport, and since I've just come back from my induction at a new gym, it seems like a good time to explore that a bit more. In some ways music and sport seem worlds apart - maybe music is seen as more of an 'intellectual' activity against sport's physicality. I know when I was at school I was 'rubbish' at P.E. and was definitely put in the box of being good with my brain rather than my muscles. The funny thing was, outside of school I took dance classes for years, and whilst I wasn't brilliant at that, I got to a decent standard - I reached the point of dancing on pointe in ballet and won a few medals in Highland Dancing competitions. So why was I no good at basketball and hockey but alright at dancing? Partly I think that comes down to one of the similarities between music and sport - that mental attitude is a big part of doing well. I wanted to dance, so I worked at it. I've no doubt that the fact it was movement to music helped. I had teachers who were encouraging, who paid a lot of attention to each student's physical make-up and explained to them what particular aspects they would need to do more work on to succeed. There were exercises to work on at home between classes (although I fully admit to getting lazy with them in my teenage years!) which meant that there was more progress than if you just turned up once a week. In other words, very much like practising an instrument! In my MA research I discovered discourses of 'learning music as training' in terms of taking small steps, having goals and aims, tapering your practice before an exam. I also came across terms which flagged up discussions around mental preparation techniques often used in sports training, such as visualisation - where an athlete might visualise how they'll run that race, a musician could use the same technique for a performance. Learners described exams as hurdles and like a treadmill, suggesting a need to mentally push past barriers.
However, the similarities between sport and music aren't just in psychological approaches. Making music is a physical activity. Playing the flute doesn't (normally) involve any running or big jumps, but it does require the movement of many many muscles - in your face, your tongue, your fingers, for breathing and blowing. You need to hold something up with your arms for prolonged periods of time. It ideally needs good posture and a strong 'core' (I've found that Pilates is wonderful for that). But from thinking of myself as not a 'sporty' person, it took me a long time to realise just how physical playing an instrument is. In the text I analysed for my dissertation I found learners talking about building up strength and about the best thing to eat before performances or exams, and I was pleased to see this awareness of the physicality of it. It's certainly something I try to explain in my lessons - that learning to play is partly about building up strength and flexibility in new muscles. Students (especially adults) who've done a sport often find these comparisons helpful - if someone has trained for a marathon, they understand the idea that you need to build up from short runs. It takes time, but if something feels difficult now, it can be worked on, steadily and gradually and it will get easier. I suppose this may be one of the reasons why adult learners feel they can't make as much progress as younger students, that age is physically 'against them' - something I want to look into a bit more, to find out whether research shows that really is the case or whether it's more assumptions about what they 'can and can't do' that hold people back.
This need for 'work' ties in with one more similarity between sport and music - the idea of talent. I do think that some people find it 'naturally' easier to do particular activities - that might be because of their natural physical build or because of previous experiences that mean they have strength in particular muscles, or have developed particular parts of the brain. However, talent will only get you so far without willing and work. Someone who really wants to do something, and is prepared to put in the time and effort, is going to get far further than someone who has a physical 'advantage' but doesn't practise. This video from SportScotland (which I've posted before) makes this point really well.
I can really feel the difference in my playing when I'm physically fitter, one of the reasons that the start of this term sees me back at the gym. To read more from some inspiring musicians about their take on flutes and fitness, have a look at Music Strong and the Flying Flutistas!
In my last post, I talked about exams - the discourses around them that I'm discovering in my research, and my own experience of taking two Grade 1s on different instruments. I briefly touched on the metaphors of movement that I've come across in my data - there's a sense of exam-taking being a journey. But there are also terms that refer to movement on a smaller scale, and in particular to 'force' on the student - pushing and pulling. Looking at these in context shows that some learners feel 'pushed' into exams by teachers. Others are talking about entering exams working as motivation - with exams 'pushing' them to work harder, to learn scales or perfect pieces which they might not do otherwise. These two sides sort of reflect my feelings about exams - they can be a great goal and act as amazing motivation. But they can also become something that learners feel they have to do, even if they don't really want to.
In my teaching, I'm equally happy to help people prepare for exams if they want to, or to teach without exams. I consider exams mainly as a 'marker' along the way - it's nice to have a certificate to say "well done, you have reached this standard" and some feedback from an impartial outside person. The different exam boards test slightly different skill sets, but I think they all have something to offer in terms of checking up on where you are with learning musical skills. Sometimes students need exams for other goals they have, such as joining a particular ensemble or studying music at university. What I don't think exams are, or should be, is the be-all-and-end-all of learning music. If you only ever learn what you need to know for exams, you miss out on so much - wonderful music, different styles, skills that aren't tested in the exams. I think there is a real danger of fitting music into 'exam boxes' and thinking of everything in terms of grades. There's a movement of a Handel sonata in the Grade 5 syllabus but that doesn't make it a "Grade 5 piece" - Handel didn't write it with a particular standard of exam in mind. It doesn't mean that if you aren't approaching Grade 5 level, you can't try to play it (although you might not quite manage all the detail that a more advanced player does), or that if you first encounter it once you've done your Grade 8 there is no point in giving it a go. Equally, I tend to introduce particular scales earlier than they appear in the exam syllabus, because I believe that they are vital building blocks for being able to play music, not boring things that have to be memorised in order to pass an exam (and yes, that means that my students who don't do exams, DO do scales!).
Having said that, I do think exams are great in the right circumstances. It can be really motivating to have a 'big' goal to work towards. It is a good (and often enjoyable) thing to perform music to someone else, whatever the circumstances. It can feel brilliant to get those results and think "yes, I did it!". For myself, I like doing exams. When I say like, I don't mean I love every minute of it. I absolutely do get nervous about them. I worry and am a complete pain (to myself and everyone around me) for the days/ weeks following the exam whilst waiting for the results. BUT I do really enjoy the process of preparing, of performing, passing (hopefully!) and getting feedback. All of those are reasons why I sat my DipLCM Performance recently. I do play my flute most days (as I say to students, there is nothing wrong with the odd day off!) - playing with groups, with friends, in students' lessons, and at home. At home I do a lot of technical practice (yes, including scales!), and learning pieces that I need to learn, for orchestra concerts etc. And I do learn solo flute pieces, but they don't tend to take priority. Entering the diploma exam gave me an opportunity to actually polish up some of those solo pieces, to get into them in real detail, to think about my interpretation of them. I had to put together a half-hour programme of music (complete with programme notes), which resembled a real (though short) solo concert. It was wonderful to work with an accompanist to produce a performance - sadly I don't have a pianist to hand in my daily practice!
C. Stamitz - Concerto in G (second and third movements)
Saint-Saens - Romance
Berkeley - Sonatina
Richard Rodney Bennett - 'Games' from Summer Music
The first three of these I had played before, varying amounts of time ago, so it was a case of re-visiting, tidying up and tweaking. The Rodney Bennett was a new piece to me, added because of the syllabus requirements to play something written post-1945. It was a really useful experience to learn something new, and get it up to performance standard, quickly.
On the day, well, yes it was slightly odd performing to an audience of one who was scribbling down notes, but it still felt like a performance - I really felt as if it was an opportunity to 'communicate' this music to someone else, and I truly enjoyed doing that (apart from the moments when I was struggling to keep my flute attached to my face - it was a very hot day!). The examiner was utterly lovely, saying at the end how much she'd enjoyed listening. Of course I was delighted to pass (with 88%) and really happy to get positive comments (plus of course a few things to think about for the future) - as I said earlier, that external view on your playing can be incredibly useful. Of course this sort of 'professional development' is invaluable for teaching - I've learnt a lot about myself as a player along the way, and I can see how that will feed in to how I teach too.
Last weekend I put on a workshop and concert for my flute students, joined by members of the flute group I run for adults, Sheffield Flute Choir. We worked together on some aspects of technique (mainly breathing, which involved a rather messy and competitive bubble-blowing session!) and playing as an ensemble - 17 flutes together! The concert included performances from students playing solos and duets, plus a couple of pieces from the flute choir, and finished off with the whole group playing the pieces we'd worked on in the morning. You can see some lovely photos, comments from audience and participants, and a bit of video over on my workshops page. I'm immensely proud of everyone who played, and grateful to those family and friends who came along and were such a supportive audience.
Before the event, I was knee-deep in preparations, lists, spreadsheets and brain-whirling. Afterwards, once the tiredness has subsided, there's always a bit of analysis. When I started teaching, it seemed natural to me to organise these events, because several of my own previous teachers did just that, giving students a chance to get together and play a few times a year. Having individual lessons can be quite isolated - you might only ever play by yourself, in front of your teacher, and maybe to some family members. Some of my younger students are members of groups at school or through the local music hub, and some of the adults are members of local groups (including the flute choir), wind bands, orchestras, and folk groups. But some don't have many opportunities to share their music with others.
The traditional thing to say about events like this is that they're good 'practice' or 'experience' of performing, and yes, I certainly hope and think that they are - that the experience of these workshops and concerts will give people skills which they can take forward to other musical activities. Learning how to work in a group rehearsal, and getting experience of performing 'on stage' is really helpful for joining ensembles and performing in other concerts and exams. The audience for these events is always made up of family and friends, so perhaps not as 'scary' as a 'proper' public concert (although some people say it's easier to play in front of strangers!). But I hope that as well as providing 'useful experience' for other performances, they have their own value. For a lot of students, having is event provided a useful focus - having something to work towards. For some it was their first performance, some had only started learning earlier this year, and I think it's important to have opportunities to do that - whatever level you're at, you're making music and you have something to offer; you don't have to wait until you're a particular standard before being able or 'allowed' to perform. Meeting up with others who are sharing the same experiences is a BIG part of the whole event - I think the chatting over tea break and lunch is just as important as the playing (see previous comment about feeling isolated)! Playing with others is such a special part of playing an instrument. Performing in front of your family and friends (who may only normally hear bits and pieces being practised in another room) is just as much a part of making music as playing in front of an anonymous 'public'. And of course, most other people's family and friends are strangers to a lot of other students.
Going to any concert can be inspiring – watching a professional play can spur you on to practise and improve. But it’s also useful to hear people who are closer to your own level – to hear pieces that you could achievably play in a few months’ or years’ time, to see the things that other people do the same way or differently to you, and to learn from those. Some of the younger students find it surprising that adults can be beginners too, and I think it's good for them to see that you can carry on learning throughout your life. Perhaps even some of the audience might be inspired to take up learning music too!
And for me... I learn something new every time I run one of these. I learn how different students react and respond in a performance situation. I learn what works and what doesn’t, how much time things take, and how many packets of biscuits I need to buy (lots). I always perform myself too, in duets with students, playing piano accompaniments, and preparing a more challenging duet piece with a willing victim, er, friend! I learn more about how to work with groups of players, and that I could do with learning more about how to conduct...
I love going out travelling to students for their lessons, but it's also wonderful to see all these people who I visit together in one place, to meet relatives who I might have heard about but never met before, to see this whole little 'community' enjoying each other's company and sharing in the music-making of their families, friends, and fellow flute players.
In part one of this post, I talked about the technology - mainly iPad apps - that I use in teaching. Today's post is about the less techy, but no less useful, gadgets that I carry around!
The 'physical' gadgets I use mostly involve blowing. The flute is a bit of an oddity in the way you 'blow' - for most woodwind instruments you blow down into the instrument to make a sound. Lots of people have played the recorder at school and often beginners will try to blow down the flute in the same way. But on the flute the breath needs to go across the lip plate, hitting the 'riser' or 'chimney' inside to make a sound.
Helpful image from http://www.justflutes.com/blog/ian-mclauchlans-guide-to-making-a-headjoint-the-riser/ showing the parts of the headjoint.
I remember as a beginner being taught that it was a bit like blowing across a bottle, and attending a fabulous flute day where we all blew bottles, 'tuned' to different notes with different amounts of water in them, to play a piece. It would be a bit awkward to carry a glass bottle around to all my lessons, but thankfully there is a bit of flute 'kit' which helps students get to grips with 'blowing across'. Presenting, the Pneumo Pro (and my chin)...
The Pneumo Pro is a plastic replica of a flute headjoint, with a gap to let the air through and what is basically a collection of small windmills attached. A couple of my younger students know it as the "helicopter thingy". Essentially, it's a fabulous way of seeing where you're blowing - you blow across, and the windmills go round. It's great for getting to grips with the initial idea of blowing across, but also useful as students progress. The different height windmills relate to the different angles of blowing required to play in different octaves, so it's helpful for feeling the level of lip and jaw flexibility needed. And it can also be used for practising keeping a steady airstream, both soft and strong, and for making sure that tonguing isn't getting in the way of the air. Plus, it's a bright yellow, fun, "helicopter thingy", what's not to love?!
The other bit of equipment I've used quite a lot is a straw. Squeezing a straw to narrow it and blowing through helps to feel the 'diaphragm' muscles which are needed for breath support, another one of those things which is easier to grasp through feeling it than through explanations! But partly inspired by new website Flutemotion, which sells all sorts of flute gadgets, I've recently invested in some more fun ways of demonstrating and practising breath support, and now have a stash of these...
This simple pipe and ball toy (bought in bulk from a kids 'party bag' toy supplier) does the same job as the straw, but with the added bonus/ challenge of having to keep the ball in the air. It really helps you feel those breath support muscles engage, and kids (and big kids) like testing themselves with how long they can keep the ball up each time. It's only disadvantage is having to retrieve said ball from the floor/ other side of the room several times per lesson!
I'm currently awaiting a delivery of some whistling lips to try out, and am planning a few games of Blow Football at my next student workshop...
Rather like your first music lesson, writing your first blog post can be both exciting and a little nerve-wracking! I’m blogging because I’ve got lots of ideas I want to write about, but this first post is a quick one to say hello, a bit about me and what I’ll be blogging about.
So, hello! I’m a flute and music theory teacher, and I also work teaching baby and toddler music classes. Between those, I currently teach music in various forms to people aged between about six weeks and sixty years! I play in local ensembles around Sheffield and Yorkshire, and run a group for adult flute players. I’m also a part-time distance learning student, in the final year of a Masters in English Language with Lancaster University. When I left school, my English teacher wrote in my school yearbook that she hoped I’d enjoyed her classes “almost as much as music”, and the truth is that I have a lifelong fascination with both! I think there are lots of connections and similarities between how we learn and use language and music, the roles they play in our lives. I’m interested in ‘sociolinguistic’ approaches, which examine how language is used to express identity, social relationships and attitudes, and I’m particularly intrigued by how language is used by musicians, musical organisations, music teachers and even in musical tutor books.
I’m currently working on my MA dissertation which is about adult music learners. Using linguistic analysis techniques (more about those in later posts), I’m analysing a large data set (or ‘corpus’) which consists of text where adult learners talk/ write about themselves. The aim is to find out the main ‘discourses’ of adult learners. What are their priorities, their challenges, their feelings about learning music? How do they describe themselves and their experiences of learning music? I’ll be blogging about my research and related topics over the coming months.
You can also expect posts about flutes, performing, teaching and music in general. Comments are very welcome (but do need to be approved to avoid spam and nonsense, so won’t appear immediately) – I’d love to hear your views!
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The Reliable Musician - a series of blog posts on the skills that make the sort of musician people want to work with!