In odd bits of spare time, sitting on the bus or having a cup of tea in the evening, I really like reading the Mumsnet forums. It's such an insight into human life and people's ideas and how people can have such varying opinions on a subject and all be sure that their opinion is right. It's probably also the reason why I have such a clean washing machine, the Household section is full of some incredible wisdom. Recently I read discussions about whether a family should still pay their cleaner when they had told her not to come that week because of the snow, and about whether a childminder should still charge her clients if she was open but they'd decided not to travel to her due to the weather. Opinions were sharply divided between "if it's you that cancels, you should still pay" and "they're self-employed - if they don't do the work they don't get the money".
Similarly with music lessons, it probably often feels like a straightforward exchange - a set amount of money for a set amount of the teacher's time, a bit like buying a product.
Music teachers charge different rates, in different ways, and have different policies about things like charging for cancellations, but there is a definite shift in the 'industry' towards not being paid purely for 'hours of teaching done'. I'm not entirely sure why this has come to a head so much recently. Certainly, the very recent bad weather has seen many teaching colleagues worrying about lack of income due to cancellations. But even before that, in the last few years, there have been endless conversations about the unreliability and unpredictability of a teaching income.
It's been suggested that part of the issue is that music lessons aren't seen as a priority (this is a far bigger problem in education than just affecting private music teaching, but perhaps it's part of a wider trend). Of course the vast majority of our students aren't going to go on to do music as a career, but it's true that sometimes it's seen as the thing that's most expendable aside everything else they're doing. And of course, it's each individual student's/ family's choice as to how important it is to them. I'm sure most music teachers will confirm, though, that they're often asked to cancel or reschedule in favour of a sporting event or a school trip or something else. Of course it's easier to reschedule or cancel the thing that involves the individual teacher, rather than a group event, and we teachers do our best to offer alternatives where we can. However, many of us teach numerous other students (at the time of writing this I have 30+) and timetabling is a tricky art as it is, so rescheduling isn't necessarily easy.
So, yes, the music teacher's heart sinks a bit when they get another text cancelling a lesson. Even if you have a cancellation policy - say 48 hours in advance of a lesson or it's chargeable - this isn't always easy to enforce and people do argue over it. We worry about how we maintain our student's progress when they're missing lessons. We worry about losing income and whether we can really afford to keep doing this job we love. It is a lovely job, at its heart, but it's also very definitely a job. For most of the teachers I know, it's not something we do 'on the side' - it's our main, or indeed sole, income. We're not like the old stereotyped image of the 'little lady piano teacher down the road' who teaches for a bit of pocket money whilst her husband pays all the bills.
I've recently changed to a monthly 'subscription' system - this entitles students to me being available to teach them for a certain number of lessons per year. Rather than paying on the day or according to the number of lessons they have in a particular month, the amount for the year is split into 12 equal monthly instalments (it can easily be worked out pro-rata for people starting part-way through a year). Currently, it's 42 lessons per year for those who have weekly lessons, which allows some flexibility on both sides for planned holidays etc. Students/ parents know exactly how much they're paying every month. I know that I have a steady income, which makes it easier for me to carry on teaching as a career and devote more time and energy to the musical and educational side of it rather than the 'worrying about money' side.
It's a bit like a gym membership, although students obviously can't just have a lesson any time! They are, in part, paying for me to reserve a regular space in my timetable for them - which can't easily be replaced by other paid work if they cancel a lesson. As giving them 'access' to so many lessons per year, it's also reflecting the fact that teaching is about more than just the hour a week you might spend being actively taught. If you look at a music teacher's timetable, it might look like they have lots of spare time - mine sometimes has whole mornings free and gaps between lessons! However, ask any teacher what they do with that time, and they will tell you about the admin. Just today, I've spent the whole morning sending out and replying to emails, scanning and copying documents, doing some online promotion for concerts, researching resources and arranging travel for a some training which will benefit my teaching.
I travel to my students, so my teaching also includes travel time/ expenses. Teachers who don't travel have the expense of premises and more than likely buying and maintaining a piano. We need working computers, printers, scanners, and TONS of ink. We have to keep up-to-date with books, resources, instruments, methods, teaching ideas - so we have to buy things and go to conferences and do CPD courses. We have books that we'll happily lend you, but you're also partly paying for access to this library of ours. We need to pay for DBS checks, public liability insurance, professional memberships. We have to maintain good quality instruments in good working order to be able to teach you to play yours.
(There's another excellent explanation of the monthly payment system and what you're paying for in Tim Topham's studio policy - he also writes in more detail for teachers about this system here.)
We also do need to take time off - sometimes at short notice if we're ill (or snowed in) - and the flexibility of the subscription system allows me to make that up at a later date without doing any complicated calculations - students are assigned a 'make-up credit' which can be used against another lesson. The monthly payment system won't work for everyone - not all teachers will want to work that way. I have a handful of students who have ad-hoc lessons because their work or health circumstances mean they can't easily commit to a regular time-slot. However an individual teacher decides to charge for lessons and deal with cancellations, by having lessons with them you're agreeing to accept their policy. If you haven't read it or you argue with it, you're making it difficult for them to do their job.
Mainly, we do this job because we love it, and we care about our students learning to play and enjoying music. We know that the best way to do this is through regular lessons, a commitment to learning, and a happy, committed teacher! We're only human, and in fact, being musicians, we're probably some of the more sensitive, worrying humans around. We work strange hours as it is, and we struggle to set office hours, but believe me, some of us have sleepless nights about financial worries and how to reply to those difficult emails. How can we teach well when we're stressed?
So please do read your teacher's terms and conditions - we know, it's quite boring, but it saves us having to debate whether you owe us money in a particular circumstance, and spending time sending emails back and forth which could be better spent on us finding out about new and exciting pieces of music for you to learn. Please ask us if you have questions about payments, but please don't assume that your teacher is trying to scam you out of money if you think there might be a mistake. Please don't assume that just because it's a 'lovely job' we only turn up for your hour's lesson and are spending the rest of the week lazing around, occasionally leisurely polishing our washing machines. If you're having problems paying, please let us know rather than ignoring it and making us have to chase you (again, more time and awkwardness). We're musicians, there's a good chance we know exactly what it's like to be worrying about the bills!
I had finished my series of blog posts on 'The Reliable Musician' - the skills and qualities that musicians need (aside from playing) to get on well when playing with other people. However, a few conversations with people about how we can actually 'teach' or pass on these skills have prompted me to write a bit more. The qualities and habits I've written about have been described by various people as 'common sense' but also as 'unwritten rules' or 'unspoken agreements' - how do we encourage our students and the other musicians we come in contact with to behave in these helpful ways?
I suppose writing a series of blog posts was part of my attempt to explain the behaviours that I think make for a good, reliable musician - behaviours that I've seen the positive results of (and the problems that the opposite can cause). I can only hope that people visit my blog and/ or see them pop up on social media and find them useful. If there's a sense that these are some sort of secret, hidden rules that only (some) musicians know about though, maybe we need to state them more clearly.
We can talk to our students about these things - we don't need to present them with a list of rules for going to rehearsals, but maybe if it's the first time they've joined an ensemble, there's no harm in reminding them that they need to take a pencil, might need a music stand etc. It's worth us talking about our own rehearsals/ playing work and how we prepare for these. We can model good behaviour by responding to their enquiries promptly and talking about/ demonstrating how we work on the music we need to practise.
We can encourage good habits by stating our expectations of our students and ensemble members - if we're arranging an event we can give out information sheets, or emails, reinforced by verbal instructions if needed, about what people need to bring and how early they need to be there. We can give clear directions, such as needing to respond with availability by a certain date, or what people need to do if they can't make a rehearsal.
We could talk more openly about the behaviours that make us want to work with people, and be less tolerant of the ones that don't. But it can be difficult to challenge someone's behaviour, especially if it's gone unchallenged for a long time. Sometimes musicians will be 'not invited back' if people find them unreliable, but often the link between the unreliability and the lack of future work isn't made clear - and how does anyone learn from that? Do we worry that people will be upset, or that they'll be angry and defensive if we tell them what the problem is?
Musicians are renowned for worrying about their reputation - which is usually based on how 'good' they are, but perhaps they need to worry more about their character - taking this to be their habits and behaviours around working with other people. And if we get frustrated by the way people behave, then we need to think about the best ways to influence that behaviour and somehow teach/ explain/ demonstrate how their habits affect other people, and therefore inevitably themselves.
I think this is the last part of this series, although I'll probably hit 'post' and think of a whole load of other things to say!
Most of the qualities I've written are really about awareness and putting other people first.
Getting to know what's 'normal' and expected for the group you're playing with is really important when it comes to working well with people. Observe and ask. Is the conductor open to group discussions during the rehearsal or do they want you to save any questions for the break? What's the atmosphere like - is it full of jokes, or are you expected to take things very seriously? How do other people behave in the group? If you want to fit in, you may need to modify how you behave - of course, you might decide that you the culture of that group doesn't suit you, and that's fair enough too, but you can only find this out by observing and being aware of what's going on around you.
Generally, musical training encourages self-awareness - recognising your habits and what you're doing when you play your instrument. I recently read this article which describes two types of self-awareness - internal (which is knowing yourself well, probably what we normally refer to as self-awareness) and external, which is to do with being aware of how others see us and how are actions affect them. This article suggests that being good at both makes people good at 'leading' and I reckon a combination of the two makes for a musician who is good to work with too.
Make it about them not you
Most of these qualities are really about putting other people first, about not making yourself the centre of everything. About calmly getting on with the 'job' (or acting calm, even if you're not feeling it) and not making a fuss. If you're playing in a group, you're not the most important person, nobody is. If it's just you and an accompanist, you're still a team. Even if you're playing solo, completely on your own, if there's any sort of audience there, you're not the most important one. But all of the above habits are good for you too - being organised, informed, and on time makes things far less stressful, and they make you the sort of person who is valued, respected, and asked to do things.
Nobody expects you to be perfect, and you will have to odd 'off' day where you accidentally double-book yourself, forget your music stand, don't leave enough time to get to the venue, or inexplicably play like you haven't practised even when you've done loads, but if you're generally reliable, people know that's an off day and not your usual style. If you're exceptionally highly skilled at playing, you might be able to get away without doing some of these things - you could be late, demanding, difficult and diva-ish - but even then, imagine how much better it would be to be brilliant, reliable and friendly - what a combination!
I'm borrowing this phrase from a friend of mine who uses the word 'cheerful' a lot - not a word I had heard or used a great deal before I met her, but one which I now think should be used more! I don't mean you have to be relentlessly happy all the time, but constant complaining and muttering about things is really off-putting and disrespectful to the people around you. If you have a problem with something musical and someone can help, ask about it! If you have an issue with something else to do with the group, find an appropriate time to raise it with whoever can do something about it.
If you don't like the music, well, that's something you have to put up with sometimes - if you like the majority of what a group plays, then try to see the odd 'horrible' piece as a learning experience. If you don't like the majority of what a group plays, then you'd need to have another very good reason for carrying on playing with them (maybe you're getting paid huge amounts of money and that's more important to you at this point of time). Grumbling about it isn't going to change how much you like it.
Despite the photo above, a comedy grumble about a tricky key signature is usually acceptable. It is fine to explain if something is difficult on your instrument - a group of flautists I play with has a non-flautist as a conductor, and he's very open to learning about the peculiarities of the flute and why we are struggling with something in particular! Explanation is nearly always much more useful than complaint or excuses (more on this below).
You should apologise if you're (occasionally, unavoidably) late for rehearsal. You should apologise if you accidentally knock over your colleague's music stand or hit them on the head with a piccolo (if you're doing these things deliberately, you probably shouldn't be there). You really don't need to apologise if you play a wrong note or make another musical mistake - for one thing, everyone does it. For another, there's a chance that nobody noticed anyway, and by apologising, you're just drawing attention to it. If they did notice, they already know about it - if they think it needs to be pointed out, they'll point it out ("remember that's a B flat in that bar"). If they think it was just one of those slips that happens to everyone sometimes, they won't mention it, so you don't need to mention it either. Everyone has bad days, and everyone knows that everyone else has bad days, so if you're having a bad day, just do your best, try to remain as cheerful as possible and don't make a huge show of what a bad day you're having.
Often apologies sound like justifications - "I know what I'm doing, really, I just didn't do it that time". Instead of telling people you know what you're doing, it's far more convincing to show that you know what you're doing, by doing your best to concentrate, practise and improve. It's fine (and indeed a good idea) to acknowledge things you need to work on - say you're in a quintet and you're trying to figure out part of a piece, and you know that it'll fit together better once you've mastered those semiquavers, then it's good to say "I know my timing is a bit off there, and I need to practise those semiquavers before next time" - it shows awareness, both of what you're doing and how it affects the whole (then do go and practise that bit for next time).
Don't make excuses
The same goes for making excuses - "I haven't had time to practice this week" (that will either be obvious, or it won't, either way, you don't really need to tell everyone). As discussed in the last post, explanations are OK, if they are helpful - if you tell the conductor "my flute has suddenly broken and I can't play any Fs" that is possibly useful, as they then know there's a technical issue and there's no point in replaying that bar with all the Fs in it this evening, because no number of repetitions is going to make it sound right.
This isn't to say you shouldn't offload to your friends if there's something bothering you about a group - or you had a bad tone day or you just can't stand a piece of music that you're having to play - that can be very therapeutic and a good idea, indeed a better idea than muttering behind your stand when you should be listening to the conductor. Playing music isn't going to be completely fun all the time, and it's unlikely that a group is going to completely suit you 100% of the time. If you're unhappy a lot in a particular group, then maybe it isn't right for you. If you can cheerfully accept that there will be bits that are challenging, find that fulfilling and get on with what you're there to do, things will be much happier all round.
So you've got yourself organised to get to rehearsals regularly, and on time. What now?
Listen to recordings of the pieces you're rehearsing to help you get to know them. This really helps them stick in your head, and can often answer questions that you have about how something should sound. It helps rehearsals run more smoothly if everyone knows what the outcome is meant to be.
Listen to other people - both musically and in what they're telling/ asking/ suggesting/ discussing that you do. Listen for instructions about what you're doing next, which bar you need to play from, and how you need to try to play it. Listen when other people are being given advice or directions, because these could apply to you too, and they might affect how you play your part. If the conductor asks one section to play from bar 126, there's a good chance they'll subsequently ask everyone to play from the same place, so listen to that bar number even if you aren't playing this time through. Listen to how your part fits in - is it supposed to blend in or stick out? Listen to how other people are playing - do you need to match them or sound different?
Listen to people talking about their experiences and learn from them.
As mentioned in the previous post, I think a diary is vital - either online or paper, or both. Put things in it, soon after you know about them. Check it. If you forget to put things in your diary, how about setting an alarm to remind you once a week (or however often is useful) to sit down and update it?Same thing for checking it regularly. Stop trying to remember when everything is happening, and get it all out of your brain onto paper (or virtual paper).
Write notes in rehearsals, whether it's on the music itself (in pencil, or the librarian will scowl at you), or on a post-it note or in the back of your diary if it's not relating to a particular bar/ note but something you need to remember more generally.
Other people's annotations on the sheet music can be useful too. You might find helpful hints that people have worked out for how to play a particular trill, for example. However, be aware that old scribblings might not be relevant to your group's (or this particular) performance - don't trust someone else's markings that you're not doing the repeats, unless you know that's definitely true!
Obviously you have to read the music, but also read any instructions you've been sent/ given. Most groups communicate by email these days, or they might have a members web page with dates etc on. Read them. Reply if a reply is needed (and by the date you're asked to reply by). Ask about things you need to know that haven't been covered, but otherwise read, note down what you need to, and don't be that person texting the night before to ask if there's a rehearsal when you can check your emails/ the website/ your diary. Sometimes you'll be asked to fill in some sort of form (e.g. Doodle Poll) to conform your availability or attendance - unless you have some sort of technical difficulty doing this, then follow the instructions and fill in the poll (because if you don't, the person managing it then has to collate information from emails and texts and things people have said to them in passing, instead just seeing it all together in the poll... can you tell this one is a bit of a personal plea?!).
Extra musician bonus points are given for reading ABOUT the music you're playing - what do you know about it? Why was it written? What period of history is it from? How does this affect how it's played? This doesn't have to be extensive research in a library archive, even a quick glance through a Wikipedia article can help!
And to help you do all this... be prepared
Being prepared by practising goes without saying, I hope. But just in case it doesn't... if you have access to the music, then at least some level of familiarity of it is extremely helpful. It may be that your group does a lot of sight-reading (we do at flute choir, it's one of the aims to help people improve their sight-reading skills!), but if you're expected to practise outside rehearsals, then do. Don't be the person who is obviously only reading their part once a week (and yes, it is obvious), whilst everyone else is squeezing in five minutes a day and getting to know the piece.
For rehearsals - take a music stand - unless you're specifically told that you don't need to take a stand, you probably need to take a stand. Take your instrument(s). Take a pencil. Take your music - I've got a tray near my front door with all the music I'm currently working on, so if it's Tuesday and I'm going to orchestra rehearsal, I can grab the folder with my orchestra parts in. If you tend to forget things, write yourself a list and stick it to the front door and check you've got everything before you leave the house. If you think you'll forget to check the list, set a reminder on your phone for five minutes before you need to leave the house, to remind you to look at the list.
If you know that instructions are likely to come by email, check your emails regularly. It's all about getting into habits that make it easier for you to turn up and do a good job.
The first part of my series on the skills that make you the sort of person people want to make music with talked about being on time. This second part leads on from that, and can be summed up simply as 'be there'.
Even worse than being late is just not turning up without letting anyone know. If you say you're going to do something, do it. If you later find you can't do it, then let people know as soon as you can, and if you not being there is going to cause a problem, offer a solution if you possibly can, such as finding someone else to replace ('dep' for) you at a rehearsal. As with normally being on time, if you're normally dependable, people understand that you might occasionally need to be absent through illness, an unexpected situation at home, an occasional accidental double-booking, or something else that comes up where you need to make a decision whether to attend. Even nice things, like a holiday that means you miss one of the weekly rehearsals you go to, are not generally a problem if you let people know well in advance. If you regularly agree to do things and then don't turn up, that is a certain recipe for not being asked back, asked to do other things or recommended to other people.
The thing is that rehearsals are not just about learning your part - in fact, that's what practising at home is for. They're about learning to play together as a group, and how the piece works as a whole. They're about finding out how your conductor/ group specifically wants to play that piece and for all the little bits of information that you pick up along the way. They're about getting help with those bits that you can't quite figure out on your own. Even if you can play it all easily, the other people around you also need to get used to playing with you and hearing how it sounds as a whole.
I think there are two things that help you do manage to 'turn up' - the first is keeping a diary. 'Keeping' a diary as in actually writing in it (or using an electronic one). Put appointments in as soon as you can - I generally put everything in my Google calendar immediately, then sit down once a week or so to update my paper diary. Whatever works for you, but don't rely on scraps of paper or your memory. However good your memory is, writing it down helps to reinforce it, and it gives you space in your brain to think about more important things like what to have for tea. Of course, if you put appointments in a diary, you do then need to remember to look at it, so get into a pattern of checking it regularly. If it's an electronic one you can usually set it to remind you of things too, so if you're likely to forget to check it, you can get it to beep at you and tell you to go to rehearsal in two hours' time. The time it takes to set all this up is worth the time - and hassle - it saves later.
The second thing is not over-committing yourself. Musicians (especially when they're training/ at university etc) are often told that they need to say 'yes' to everything - don't turn down an opportunity. You might never get the chance again! Or they get swept away with enthusiasm and want to do EVERYTHING. The trouble with that is that you can end up too busy, things start to clash with each other, and you get so worn out that you can't manage to do any of them well. It is tricky to get the right balance for and work out what to prioritise, and I fear that perhaps you do have to reach the point of doing too much before you realise that you need to let some things go. If you start to find yourself feeling over-stretched and letting people down because you've got too much happening, then you probably need to scale (musical pun not intended, but since it's there I'll leave it in) it back a bit.
However, people do and will understand, and generally respect other people's decisions to prioritise one thing over another, whether that's a one-off or in the long term. They might be disappointed if you don't choose or stop coming to their 'thing' but if they get huffy/ rude about it, I'd suggest that maybe you don't want to work with them anyway. They don't need to know all the details and it's fine to turn down an offer with a simple "I've got a prior commitment that day, but would be interested if you need someone again in future". If you can recommend someone else who might be able to do it instead, that's even better and often much appreciated.
Yes, sometimes the decisions are difficult. You might not get the chance to do exactly the same thing again, but actually, I'm not sure that many 'opportunities' are so life-changing that it'll drastically damage your musical career (whatever that means to you) by not taking them. On the other hand, being known as a person who reliably turns up is definitely a good thing.
I've had lots of conversations recently about the qualities that make the sort of musician that other musicians want to work with (for work read any sort of musical activity that you want to take part in, paid or not). Being able to play your instrument goes without saying, but there are other qualities that are just as important. In fact, many people I've spoken to would rather work with someone who demonstrates these qualities and behaviours, above someone who is technically 'better' at their instrument. I've also been reading a lot about letting go of the stereotype of the 'artist' as someone messy, disorganised, unhealthy, self-destructive (see Elizabeth Gilbert's 'The Artist's Way' for interesting discussions on this). For most people, you'll do better work and get more work if you're organised and disciplined, rather than believing that you can 'get away' with not being these things because you're in a creative environment.
I started writing a blog post about these qualities, but it got rather long, so I've turned it into a series instead. Lots of these are things that you don't need to be inherently good at, you basically just need to decide to do them and, well, do them. It might take a bit of practice if you're not used to doing them, but you're a musician, so you know what practice is all about, right? Decide what you want the outcome to be, do the stuff you need to do to reach that outcome, repeat it often until it becomes habit. I'm often told that I'm 'so organised' but I don't think I'm a naturally organised person - it's just that I see the benefits of being organised massively outweighing any advantages to being disorganised!
No. 1 - Be on time
There's an unwritten rule that if a rehearsal 'starts' at a certain time, you should be there about fifteen minutes before that time, in order to set up and be ready to start playing at the start time. I remember being told about this by a teacher years ago when I went to my first youth orchestra rehearsal. Obviously, travelling can be unpredictable, so if you can aim to be there a bit before that in case of delays, even better - you can always have a wander around outside if you're there before anyone else. I speak from many years of being early for things and having to wander around for ten minutes. If you're always early, and you help to put the chairs out, you get extra musician bonus points (which don't come with any rewards, except the recognition that you are a prompt and helpful person, and hugely appreciated for it). Likewise, if you have a break in rehearsal, be back promptly at the end of it - the social aspect of playing in a group is very important, but if you know you've got fifteen minutes break, then make sure you fit in your cup of tea and your visit to the loo well before you need to be ready to play again, rather than chatting for 14 and a half minutes then rushing around and being late back.
If you usually arrive in plenty of time, then people will be far more accepting of the odd occasion when you are late. If you're late every single week, that's annoying and doesn't tend to make people think favourably towards you.
There are exceptions to any rule, of course, and once you've been (early) to the first rehearsal you can figure out what happens in each particular group. For example, my flute choir 'starts' at 10am, but the building only opens just before this, so it's a relaxed start to rehearsals - get there as close to 10 as you can, get set up, get started once most people are there (usually about quarter past). It's also fine for people to only come to part of a rehearsal, but that won't work for every group. Get to know what is the norm for your group. If you know in advance that you have an unavoidable appointment, let someone know you'll be getting there later (and check that's OK). If you get held up in traffic, hopefully you'll have someone's number so you can text and let them know. If you genuinely can't get there until right on the start time every week, then it's probably worth mentioning it to the group leader - I reckon most people would rather know that someone is keen but can't get out of work any earlier than think that you're just not enthusiastic enough to get off the sofa in time.
The arguments I hear against this are predominantly a) "I'm rubbish at being on time" and b) "but it's supposed to be fun!". If you tend to get distracted and forget what time it is, then end up not leaving on time, set an alarm! The benefits - not being the person that everyone else is rolling their eyes at as you squeeze through to your seat, knocking over music stands on the way, and also being seen as a reliable musician that people want to work with - are well worth it. And yes, music is generally meant to be an enjoyable, satisfying thing to do ('fun' is a tricky word, often suggesting the opposite to working hard and being disciplined, but that's a whole other discussion), but I'd argue that it's more enjoyable if you're not stressing yourself and other people by turning up late. You get the best out of the rehearsal by being settled for the start, and being there for the whole thing. If there's a conductor, they're happiest when everyone turns up on time, and a happy conductor is definitely better than an unhappy one!
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!
Sometimes musicians are guilty of not thinking much about composers. We open a book and there's some music printed there, and we play how we think it goes. We might puzzle over the composer's 'intentions' and debate whether it's important to play exactly what they 'meant', and how we can possibly know that if the composer lived 300 years ago.
I have never considered myself a composer. I've written short compositions as answers to theory exam questions. I wrote a flute and piano piece for a competition run by Flutewise magazine many years ago (it got some nice feedback on the melody but I forgot to leave the flute player enough room to breathe!). I wrote some bits and pieces for composition classes at Uni, and my setting of the words to 'Down in Yon Forest' was performed by the University choir at the Christmas service one year. I started work on an LCM composition diploma a few years back, arranging a piano piece for a wind trio. I've arranged a few of the local Sheffield carols for our flute choir. I'm still not a composer though.
There's a risk of a bit of a 'them and us' feeling between musicians and composers. We could see the people who write the music as some sort of anonymous authority figures, imagining them to create these perfect finished pieces out of nowhere. Rather like the idea that 'good' musicians can just perform a piece first time, it's quite off-putting if you think about composing and imagine that you can only do it if masterpieces pour instantly from your pen (or computer software). Both things are a process and involve hard work!
I've been lucky enough to work closely with some composers over the last couple of years. At Sheffield Flute Choir, we've worked with local composers Tim Knight and Jenny Jackson as they produced new works for flutes. Jenny ran a workshop on composition for flute this year, where I got to work with budding composers as they learned about the composing process and produced a piece for solo flute in just one day - this was an amazing experience to work with people writing music from the very start, to talk about how they got what they wanted it to sound like onto the page, and how I as a player interpreted what was written down.
I've played brand new works by all of the Platform Four composers, seeing pieces evolve as rehearsals progress. I've met the lovely Keri from Masquerade Music, and the equally lovely Rob and Lynne from Forton Music, who are all running small businesses writing, arranging and publishing music for woodwind. I've performed pieces by David Barton - you can find us playing his 'Imagination' on YouTube here. I've also recently been reviewing new sheet music for Pan, the British Flute Society magazine, from publishers big and small - and it's struck me that it's a great privilege to be trying out this music that composers have sent out into the world, hoping that we like it. While we might worry about 'getting the composer's music right', they worry about whether it's playable, enjoyable, too hard, too easy, ready to be heard.
Social media also brings us closer to composers, hearing about the process of writing music (and all the other things going in their lives at the same time too!) - it's through social media that I've discovered the exciting new flute music of Nicole Chamberlain and the utterly joyous 'An Harmonic Disquisition Upon Various Types of Cheese' for piccolo quartet by Brandon Nelson.
I've recently read Brandon's new book 'Writing and Living in the Real World: Advice for Young Composers'. This is an excellent guide for anyone who wants to write music as a career (or part of a career). It isn't about how to compose - other than some good ideas about time management and motivation - but covers the practical side of getting your music out there: publishing and marketing. There's also some very thoughtful chapters on originality, creativity and artistic identity which are worth reading by anyone who has or wants to have a creative career. And far from the idea of the composer up in their ivory tower magically creating masterpieces, it emphasises the importance of sitting down and putting the work in: "Keep writing. Even on days you "just don't feel it"."
So, back to being a composer (or not). I haven't found myself struck by inspiration out of nowhere. However, I have found myself in need of more duets to use with my students - ensemble playing is so important (and fun!) and I'm endlessly trying to find enough pieces to fill the gap between easy and difficult duets. Many of the composers/ publishers above have some great books, but I always want more. I've also had a few conversations this year about the fact that more of us than ever have 'big' flutes (alto, in particular, and bass) and we always need more things to play on those. I want music that will work if I take my alto along to a lesson - both for me to play and to introduce students to it when they're ready. So, I decided to try and write a few duets to fill those gaps. I'd been doing a lot of work with students on discovering the Baroque dance forms that appear in so many flute pieces, so those seemed like a good place to start - writing my own simple versions of those. I used the key signatures and rhythms that students are familiar with from around Grade 3 standard. I deliberately didn't add any dynamics or articulation so they could practise working out their own in preparation for real Baroque music. And because I like to tie music theory in to what we're working on, the harmonies are mostly nice and straightforward so that students at that level can analyse it and figure out the chords and cadences. So this is very much composing with a particular (educational) purpose in mind, but they're hopefully enjoyable tunes too! If anyone else thinks they would find them useful for teaching or just playing, I've uploaded a few for sale at Sheet Music Plus, including a silly seasonal one... and yes, there is a bit of a theme to the titles!
To the real composers I know, have met, have worked with, follow on Twitter, or just encounter your music - thank you for your hard work, persistence and bravery in sharing your work with the world - we might grumble about you sometimes ("you want me to play WHAT?!") but where would we be without you?
The other day, in the course of my PhD work, 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 my research will reveal that adults want quick results. Maybe they don't want teachers (although my initial findings suggest 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!
Flute player and teacher blogging about playing, learning, teaching and researching music.
The Reliable Musician - a series of blog posts on the skills that make the sort of musician people want to work with!