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.
Last week I found myself on the way to Leeds, twice. On Saturday I played with Yorkshire Wind Orchestra in the lovely surroundings of 'Arts@Trinity' - a hub of music and other artistic activity right in the busy centre of the city. We had a lively flute day with lots of visiting flute players, followed by an equally lively concert of 'Music from the Americas' inspired by the Rio Olympics. On Sunday, I felt as if I'd taken part in the Olympics (if flute playing was an Olympic sport, which after a session on the bass flute I felt it should be)!
A few days earlier, I headed over to the Yorkshire College of Music and Drama, an amazing community centre for music and drama lessons, headed by principal Tim Knight. I met Tim some time ago through the wonders of the internet, but we first worked together when he wrote the fabulous 'Steel City Shuffle' for Sheffield Flute Choir. We worked on the piece over a few rehearsals, then Tim came to workshop it with us - him telling us about his inspiration for the piece, how he intended it to sound, and us advising him on what is really quite hard to do on a bass flute! The result is this tremendously fun piece for flute choir. The flute choir will be joining one of Tim's (singing) choirs, the Heritage Masterworks Chorale, for a concert in Rotherham Minster this September, and I expect the 'Shuffle' will get an outing there.
This week I visited YCMD in Leeds to play through and record some of Tim's works for flute and piano. The College was a hub of activity, being the local ABRSM exam centre - and such a buzzing, welcoming place. I lost count of how many different music groups and lessons they have going on every week!
Lots of Tim's work seems to be inspired by the British landscape - we played Celtic melodies, his Lakeland Suite and Moorland Suite amongst others. Being a Scottish person who spent many happy holidays in the Lake District, and now enjoys a wander out of Sheffield to the moors, this felt a bit like a musical journey through different stages of my life. The Lakeland Suite in particular makes me think of childhood holidays with my grandparents, sadly no longer with us, and of my grandad's paintings of the scenery of that area (one pictured above).
You can hear some of the results of a really enjoyable morning over on Tim's YouTube channel and copies of the sheet music are available from Spartan Press.
I awoke this morning from a dream where I was running off stage in the middle of a performance. I wasn't fleeing a disastrous moment of playing, or a terrifying audience, but a nightmare about page-turning for a pianist. The huge pile of music for the concert had, in the way that things do in dreams, turned out to be printed on pieces of soft fabric, which was flopping all over the place and falling into the piano. Despite this obvious challenge, the pianist was angry at my inability to turn the pages properly, and I left in shame...
Possibly the weirdest thing about this dream, is that it happened the night after I had page-turned for a concert, rather than the night before, and said concert had gone perfectly well, with, strangely enough no paper that turned into unmanageable floppy stuff, and no anger or shame anywhere to be seen. Still, as I lay awake this morning, wondering what my brain was trying to tell me, I remembered that I'd long been meaning to write a blog post about page-turning.
The 'job' of being the person who turns pages for piano players is the subject of occasional online articles - the most recent that I've read debates whether page-turners are "a charming relic of an amateur age." Technological advances mean you can now have music on an iPad (or other tablet) and turn by means of a wirelessly-connected foot pedal. Adoption of these seems slow, however, so there is still, currently, room for those people who sit to the side of the piano.
I can't actually remember when I first turned pages. My first flute teacher was also a pianist and I think I did it for her when she was accompanying other students for concerts. As a teenager, I was part of a choir which had junior and senior sections, and I remember occasionally page-turning for the accompanist while the adult group were singing. The occasion which most sticks in my head is doing this in a church, when the accompanist was playing the organ - I was fascinated by the instrument, and the extra challenges - both to player, and for the page-turner in trying to keep out of the way! - that it presented. I did some page-turning at Uni, for odd other concerts and shows. And then I didn't, for quite a while.
So, fast-forward to a few years ago, when I was looking for some music-related voluntary work in Sheffield. The website of the wonderful Music in the Round popped up, and I filled in the form to register as a volunteer. I happily ticked the boxes to say I would do admin, ticket selling, help at concerts etc, but I hesitated over the 'page-turning' option. I had done it before, but did I want to do it again? I told myself that I could always say no if I was asked to do it, ticked the box and hurriedly sent the form off before I changed my mind.
It was a while before a request came through, and I was definitely nervous about agreeing that first time. I don't think I had any anxious dreams, but I did worry about being able to do a good job of it. It's a funny task - most people will describe it as 'quite a responsibility' or something along those lines. It's important, in a way, because you're helping things to run smoothly, but at the same time you're the least important person on that stage. You're part of a performance, but I always feel that my role to 'perform' is to be as invisible as possible. Despite enjoying performing in the traditional sense, I think I'm also pretty good at being unobtrusive (or "too quiet" as I was often told when I was younger). So, in 2014, Music in the Round got me 'back into' page-turning. I realised I was OK at it, I actually really enjoyed it (a friendly welcome from Ensemble 360's brilliant pianist Tim Horton hugely helped) and have lost count of how many times I've done it since.
It shares aspects with performing as a musician - a high level of concentration on a piece of music, precise physical movements and 'playing your part' at the right time - but at the same time is very different. You're not expressing yourself or communicating with the audience. You're not moving with the music, although the tempo does affect what you do - somehow it feels that a quiet and slow moment requires a different page-turning action to the middle of a 'presto' movement that needs the pages whipped over quickly. You need to be aware of the structure of the music, rather than the details, to know broadly what's coming next, and if there's any repeats - turning back pages instead of forward is always fun (by 'fun' I mean a bit of a challenge and slightly worrying, especially if you've got to grab a handful of pages to get back to the start of a long movement). Like playing music, the challenges are both mental (concentration) and physical (getting stupid pages to stay open when they want to flip back over, and you can't take the stupid book off the piano in the middle of the piece and bend the spine back), but they're embodied in a different way.
Almost every time I page-turn, people ask me questions about it. Do I get nervous? Yes, a little bit, because of the responsibility of not messing up something for someone else. It's similar to the feeling of being nervous when accompanying a flute student's exam - yes, I am, but the occasion is about them not me and I have a responsibility to support them (so, actually, both experiences are very useful about learning how to manage nerves, and, dare I say, ego?!).
Do I rehearse? I have been in rehearsals sometimes - there are page-turning 'conventions' but it's good to get to know how a particular pianist works. Do they indicate when they want you to turn? How close to the end of the page do they generally want it turned? (You get more of a sense of this the more you work with the same person too). But normally it's a quick look through the pieces beforehand to grasp what's going on and pick out any awkward bits. Did I enjoy the pieces? Yes, but not in the same way as you do as part of the audience. I enjoy being 'involved' in the process of the pieces coming to life, but I don't exactly 'hear' them - I'm listening to them, and I'm concentrating on following them on the score, so I'm far more aware of the overall structure than the details. I've been introduced to new pieces by page-turning for them (recent highlights being Ligeti's Musica Ricercata/ Six Bagatelles, and Volker David Kirchner's Lamento e Danza d’Orfeo for French horn and piano), and subsequently gone home and listened to them, and sometimes wanted to be cloned/ time-travel as I've enjoyed the page-turning but would also have liked to hear the live performance by those musicians.
Have I ever had any page-turning disasters? If you believe YouTube, there have been many of those around the world! Music flying off all over the place, page-turners falling off the stage. I've once or twice had a blip in following the music and missed a turn, which the pianist has then had to quickly do themselves (nobody's ever got angry like the one in my dream, though). I once wore a cardigan which fell at just the right angle to clatter its buttons on the piano every time I turned a page, and spent most of a concert holding on to it with my non-turning hand - I'm now quite careful about clothes, to avoid a repeat of that or anything flapping in the way of the pianist.
If you've never page-turned, it probably looks either incredibly easy or like some sort of mysterious magical art. It's neither really. It's a performance which is completely not-about-you, but about someone else's performance. It almost feels odd writing about it in this much detail, because it's so much about being in the background, drawing as little attention to yourself as possible (I decided not to add any pictures to this post - I don't think there are any of me page-turning, and that seems quite appropriate, given that sense of being almost invisible). There are few, if any, professional page-turners as such - they tend to be volunteers, students, or people who work at concert halls who are asked to do it as part of their job. But I think those of us who do it regularly probably do analyse it a bit (especially when we're frequently asked questions about it). Despite the strange considerations of appropriate cardigans and the frustrations of non-compliant sheet music, it's a curiously intense experience and a privilege to be in the midst of excellent musicians making music.
April has arrived in a stereotypical display of sunshine and showers, and I've had a sudden burst of spring cleaning enthusiasm. In the course of tidying some paperwork (I've not yet found the courage to tackle the sheet music mountain), I came across the print-out from my school 'careers interview' where I somewhat confused the careers guidance person by reeling off a very detailed plan about how I wanted to be a musician and how I was going to go about it. I was single-minded then, but I'd been through phases of wanting to be various other things - a writer, a translator, something to do with nature or biology.
When I went off to University to study music, I found that single-mindedness going off track a bit. I discovered I was still really interested in language. I started reading about psychology and philosophy and found those fascinating too. Whilst berating myself a bit for not being able to 'stick to one thing' I ended up a few years down the line with both a University music qualification and an Open University degree made up of (hang on, let me think) Latin, Greek, general humanities modules (I loved the mixture of subjects these let you explore), philosophy, psychology, English literature and linguistics. I studied linguistics for my Masters because I was absolutely hooked on discovering the ways that analysing language could enlighten all sorts of subjects. I sometimes felt a bit apologetic though, especially when people gave me slightly puzzled looks - why was I not doing a music Masters? Why was I on this course where 90% of the other students were English teachers? But I used linguistic analysis techniques to kick off my research into adult music learners, and in the process found myself heading down the route of interdisciplinarity (nice description of what academic interdisclipinarity is all about here). Quite an exciting route as it turns out!
It becomes really obvious when I'm looking at conferences to attend. I look at all the music education conferences (and those that are about music psychology and music in general). Then at the linguistics ones, and there are a lot of those - not all relevant, but anything in sociolinguistics, corpus linguistics or discourse analysis catches my eye. But then I'm also interested in education in general, and adult education in particular, which opens up a whole other array of events. So far I've presented posters at the Manchester Forum in Linguistics and the SEMPRE (music psychology and education) Postgraduate Study Day. I'm very excited to have been accepted to give spoken presentations at the International Society for Music Education (ISME) research seminar this summer, and at the European Society for Research on the Education of Adults (ESREA) triennial research conference in Ireland later in the year. It's a little bit overwhelming to have all these options, but mainly it's wonderful to be able to draw on all these different areas and hear about the research and experiences of people researching such a mixture of topics.
It's interesting that Universities have had to give a particular name to research that crosses subject boundaries, since those boundaries have never been entirely clear-cut. Life doesn't sit well into perfectly defined 'subjects' - it overlaps. A conversation you have in the gym might spark something that helps you approach your flute playing in a different way. An experience of playing music might feed into another area of your life. The lines between physical and mental health aren't as defined as we once might have thought they were.
But perhaps being able to give this boundary-crossing a label - 'interdisciplinary' - has helped me feel more at ease and happier with my tendency to explore lots of different areas and not just focus on one. I'm not sure I can ever imagine only 'doing' or 'being' one thing - a teacher, an academic, or anything else!
Now, about that sheet music mountain...
What's going on in this picture? Do some of those flutes look a bit... big? What are those giant silver drainpipes doing in the corner?
This was the view at our Low Flutes Day in Sheffield a couple of weeks ago - a day of playing all those flutes that are bigger than normal! Although the alto flute was invented in the mid-19th century, and all the 'big' flutes are increasing in popularity in the flute world, they're still not particularly mainstream instruments. My first encounter with an alto was, I think, at university, where I played in a flute quartet - despite being the smallest player, I somehow ended up with the biggest flute (I loved it though)! Fast-forward to now, and at Sheffield Flute Choir we have a growing number of altos and a couple of basses between us (including mine that nobody ever wants to borrow because it's a chunky heavy old thing!). I'd become increasingly aware, though, that few of us had really got to grips with the differences between these low flutes and the normal ones - everyone's automatic reaction is to pick them up and try to play them like a 'C' flute. And then to get a bit frustrated that it's hard to get certain notes out, hard to get much volume, the tone sounds thin in places, it seems to react slowly to tonguing, and "oh my goodness my arms really ache after five minutes playing this thing". Some people didn't want to try it at all, because these giant instruments were a mystery.
To the rescue - low flutes expert Carla Rees. I invited Carla to Sheffield to run a day de-mystifying the low flutes, helping flute players understand what was different about these flutes. To simplify a lot, the answer is... lots! A great mix of people came along, some having never played a low flute before, whilst others owned their own altos and basses. We started off playing group pieces, all sitting up nicely, trying our best to hold altos and basses up straight, trying to get a nice sound out. Very quickly we discovered that we needed to forget pretty much everything we knew (or thought we knew) about 'good' posture. Carla guided us through ways to hold the flutes, the different embouchures, air speeds... we experimented with leaning back at different angles, putting the flutes in different places on our chins. I won't go into every detail, but I will highly recommend Carla's blog for starting to learn about these techniques (or even better, her teaching in person - described by one of our participants as "a great teacher and motivator", and I couldn't agree more!). We had a fantastic Q&A session around all sorts of aspects of low flutes - including which makes of instrument to try as a beginner, and to think about progressing to if you find yourself advancing with them (I was pleased to find out that my chunky heavy beast - a Monnig alto - is not a bad place to start, and will definitely help build stamina!). We heard about Carla's training regime before her first alto recital - practice, running and weightlifting! Various players tried out bits of repertoire (including some brave sightreading on the spot) - it was lovely to see really good flute players relax into trying out techniques that sometimes felt quite alien!
We also had the chance to try out a wonderful selection of instruments, thanks to Just Flutes who brought a stand packed with exciting things - lots of low flutes, and a few rather nice 'normal' flutes too, plus a great selection of sheet music. Huge thanks to Jonathan for bringing - and unloading, a lengthy task - a van full!
This also meant that we were able to have a go on a couple of those giant drainpipe creatures - the fairly unflattering picture to the left is me playing a contrabass flute. These are BIG, heavy, and take some serious 'huffing' down, but they make an incredible sound (two octaves below the normal flute). They're also quite expensive, which is the only reason one didn't come home with me on the day - it's now a long-term savings project though.
The day finished with a chance to try out all our newly-learned techniques on one of Carla's arrangements of Bach for low flutes. The sound and the feeling of 23 people all playing alto and lower was utterly incredible - the room resonated with deep harmonies. We definitely still had achy arms by the end, but we all left full of enthusiasm for low flutes and feeling equipped to make a start on learning to play them as instruments in their own right. Thank you Carla for that inspiration and the tools to go and do something about it!
Future flute days in Sheffield are in the planning - go here to find out more and sign up to the mailing list for updates!
This quote, shared on Twitter this morning by @ScaleBoxApp, reminded me that I've had a blog post brewing in my brain about competitions. It was mainly sparked by the BBC - the announcement of the Young Musician of the Year finalists, and their new 'Great British Amateur Orchestra' series/ competition.
I have such mixed feelings about competitions in music. Professional music IS competitive - winning performance competitions, winning a place at a prestigious institution, winning auditions, winning audiences to come to your concert rather than someone else's - although this is simplifying the music world a lot, there's a huge element of having to be 'better' than someone else. Many of the Young Musician participants will go on to professional careers, and no doubt being part of this competition plays some part in that. Equally for aspiring musicians, 'winning' local/ regional/ national competitions, getting into ensembles where you have to be one of the best at audition - these things do help with making your way to a university/ conservatoire place.
As a teenager I took part in a few competitions. My favourite was the Edinburgh Competition Festival - although it was competitive, the emphasis seemed more on the 'festival' side of things. It was a great opportunity to perform in front of an audience and get some outside feedback on your playing, and it always felt to me like a celebration of the music-making going on in the city (I'm pleased to see it's still running!). Obviously it was nice when you did well, but I think well-pitched events like this have much more to them than the idea of 'beating' other people.
On the other hand, sometimes competition doesn't seem so healthy. Perhaps it's natural in an activity where there is 'progression' (in particular where a series of grade exams are available), that people will compare their own and others' level of progress. I remember going on music courses where the first few conversations always seemed to revolve around who had done which grade and what mark they got and which youth orchestras they'd got into - it was as if musical teenagers had to work out a hierarchy amongst themselves, again, maybe something teenagers always do to some extent, but there could be a lot of looking down on others and ego-boosting based on being 'better'.
High profile competitions on national TV do, I suspect, add to this competitive nature of the music world. Young Musician showcases some wonderful players, but I do feel that some of the 'hype' around it focuses too much on 'talent' rather than the immense amount of work that these musicians must have put in to get to this stage. I've posted about the idea of talent a few times before, so I'll refrain from my usual rant, but suffice to say that I think it's important that young people watching this programme are told that the participants didn't get there by some 'magical gift' alone (and I think in fact that claiming it's all natural talent is insulting to their hard work and commitment. Of course, there's a whole other discussion around that level of work/ commitment/ public exposure/ pressure at a young age...).
This new amateur orchestras series though... well, my first thought was - can we not celebrate amateur music-making without making a competition out of it?! Maybe nobody would watch that though - people like to see who wins and loses, who gets through to the next round, who they want to 'support'. My second thought was to wonder how they're defining 'amateur'. Thinking of the orchestras I've played in, which have mainly been considered amateur since the players don't get paid, all of them contain some members who make their living from music in some way. So whilst that particular activity is 'amateur', they are paid players (and/or music teachers) in other capacities. Unless the orchestra has a strict rule about its members not making a living from music to any extent (as some competition festivals do for their 'open' classes), then the proportion of actual amateur musicians could vary rather a lot - bearing in mind that it's a blurry line anyway - what exactly does constitute a professional musician? Does 'amateur', i.e. not being a paid musician, necessarily indicate a lower level of skill? (I'd say not always). And surely those orchestras which have higher entry standards in the first place stand a better chance in the competition than those who are open more widely?
I haven't seen the full rules for the competition, but having seen comments from those who have it appears to require a big time commitment from the orchestras, which seems incompatible with the lives of amateur musicians (or those with other musical jobs who play in these groups) who have jobs to go to, families to look after, and indeed other musical groups to play in who might not be too happy if you took a long absence from rehearsals! It strikes me as adding a whole new level of stress and expectation, when it can be hard enough fitting musical commitments round busy adult lives as it is. It will be interesting to see whether there are enough groups willing and able to enter under these terms for the series to go ahead. If it does, I'll probably watch, but I can't promise that I won't (OK, I practically guarantee that I will) be shouting at the telly.
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)
A phrase (or concept) that comes up in various forms when talking to and about adult learners is that "life gets in the way". Looking at discourses around family in the data for my MA research highlighted a recurring theme around family and work responsibilities restricting how much learners could play, practise or participate in musical activities. Almost half of the teachers I surveyed also mentioned that adult learners' other commitments had an impact on their learning - whether it was time to practise, having to cancel/ reschedule lessons, or just having the 'head space' to concentrate on learning.
According to one study, the ideal teacher has “an understanding of the… responsibilities handled by adults, along with a steady insistence that students be challenged” (Roulston et al., 2015) This is definitely a challenge for teachers - judging how much to 'push' when there are other things going on in people's lives. It doesn't only apply to adult learners either. With children we're also balancing it up against other activities, school work, family circumstances, sometimes ongoing medical conditions. There's also working out how much of a priority music is for that individual person - the bigger a role it plays in their life, the more 'challenge' they're willing to take on to develop their skills.
But the level of challenge can be both under- and over-estimated, and another of our jobs as teachers is to help students be realistic about that. Existing research highlights adult learners’ high levels of intrinsic motivation (Lamont, 2011, Taylor, 2011) - learning because they want to - but also finds that many struggle with 'unrealistic expectations' and subsequent frustration with their progress. We need to find ways of showing that it is possible to make progress as an adult, but it's not always going to be easy. And there isn't a set 'path' - some people spend weeks trying to get a reasonably clear sound on a flute; others quickly find a nice tone, but take longer to find the right hand position for them to balance the instrument well. Some people easily settle into a pattern of practising every day (one of my adult students works from home and has quick 'flute breaks' throughout the day), whilst others find it harder to fit another activity into their lives. (This has got me wondering about how music learners - both adults and children - manage increasing practice time and what impact that has on their progress, but I think I'll leave that for a future post). So part of the challenge is finding time, and again, how much of a priority music is has an impact on that.
Now, I'm not being disparaging about those people for whom music isn't such a priority, or about different reasons for making it a priority - whether that's because they want to 'take it seriously', or because they really enjoy it, or because it's their 'me time' or their ten minutes of fun - I'm not going to judge the validity of anyone's reasons for playing music. My own journey of learning the clarinet - which has given me great insights into what it's like to be a beginner again - has brought up the issue of priorities for me too. I had set myself a challenge to do 100 sessions of clarinet practice in the last twenty weeks. It started well, I had a lovely chart where I coloured in boxes each time I practised, and for the first month or so I was on track. But then I got more students (always lovely - but slightly mystified by a sudden rush of enquiries in October!), I had some concerts to play in, I had the small matter of putting together a PhD proposal. The clarinet practice declined. And then I got a cold, and playing the clarinet with a cold is disgusting. I can cope with playing the flute with a cold, a cough, blocked ears - it's not fun but it's manageable (and I kind of have to sometimes, it's my job!). I don't have to play the clarinet though, so I didn't. I salute you reed players who manage to carry on when your head is all stuffed up. So I got out of the habit a bit. I've got back into it over the last few weeks, but there have been Christmas gigs and other festivities going on too. So I haven't done 100 practices - I can't actually tell you how many I have done as I have to admit I abandoned the chart (it was so colourful too!).
The thing is, when I picked it up again, I realised I do enjoy playing the clarinet. It's a different sound, feeling and range to the flute - ahh, lovely low notes - and it's a different challenge as I'm still learning the basics and building up stamina (which I lost rather a lot of and am having to gradually get back). I'm enjoying finding out about the similarities and the differences to flute playing. But it isn't top priority - musically, the flute will always be that for me. And when life gets busy, the things that aren't top priority will drop off for a while. I don't always do as much flute practice as I'd really like - there are only so many hours in the day after teaching, admin, research, writing etc - so I have to prioritise what needs to be done, such as pieces for upcoming concerts (and sometimes that's very concentrated practice on the 'tricky bits' in short bursts). So I understand where students are coming from if I get to their lesson and they tell me they've not done much practice this week - I really do. But I will suggest ways of making practice more effective, and remind them that really, five minutes a day IS better than nothing, and five minutes a day is also better than an hour once a week. Life does get in the way, sometimes completely, and that's - well, that's life! But if you enjoy playing your instrument (even if the idea of practising is sometimes... urgh), then it's absolutely fine, in fact it's very good for you, to prioritise those bits of time doing something you enjoy. I need to remind myself of that sometimes too!
Lamont, A. (2011). The beat goes on: music education, identity and lifelong learning. Music Education Research, 13(4), 369-388.
Roulston, K., Jutras, P., & Kim, S.J. (2015). Adult perspectives of learning musical instruments. International Journal of Music Education, 33(3), 325-335.
Taylor, A. (2011). Older amateur keyboard players learning for self-fulfilment. Psychology of Music, 39(3), 345-363.
Keep in touch
I have an email newsletter where I share my latest blog posts, news from the flute and wider musical world, my current projects, and things I've found that I think are interesting and useful and would love to share with you. Expect lots about music and education, plus the occasional dip into research, language, freelance life, gardening and other nice things. Sign up below!
The Reliable Musician - a series of blog posts on the skills that make the sort of musician people want to work with!