Why do people play musical instruments? Why do they have music lessons? There are all sorts of reasons. To quote one of my younger students "I just like the sound!" - that's usually a big factor. Quite often, especially with adult students, there's a desire to to learn so they can play in a group. Even if the initial decision to learn is because you 'like the sound', people often develop ambitions to be able to join an ensemble or to play together with friends.
It sounds like a good plan, to get to the stage where you can play with other people, but I think there's a lot to unpick here. For me, playing with other people is a huge part of what playing music is 'about' - the communication, the connection, the teamwork, the blending of sounds - and I can probably be a bit evangelical about it. But it isn't a compulsory aspect of learning an instrument, and it is absolutely fine if what you want to do is play on your own, in your own house, because you like the experience of making a nice sound, but feel no particular desire to do that anywhere else or with anyone else. Music in this way can be very therapeutic - sometimes it's an escape from the stresses of life. Sometimes I shut myself in my spare room and just play whatever I feel like, and it makes me feel better.
I'm also somewhat bothered by the idea that you have to reach a certain level of competency to play with other people - you have to be 'good enough'. Of course, if an established ensemble has a minimum standard, then obviously you have to meet that to join. In some cases, this can be a good motivator to practice and improve your playing. Sometimes you need the 'piece of paper' to show you're the appropriate standard, and I've had students set themselves goals of passing a particular exam so that they can join the next level up of school orchestra, or their nearest amateur wind band. However, I strongly believe that as long as you can make some sounds, you're 'good enough' to play with others in some way, if that's what you want to do. When I run student workshops, everyone is invited, no matter how long they've been playing for - and when we play as a group there are parts for everyone, even if I have to write a new part that just consists of Bs, As and Gs for someone who's only been playing a few weeks.
Part of the problem with waiting until you're 'good enough' to play with others is that when you do reach that stage, you don't have any experience of playing with others! In one worst case scenario, you could be Grade 8 'on paper' but only ever have worked on exam pieces and not much else, and the only ensemble playing you've done is once a year with an accompanist, whose job it is to follow your playing, whatever you do. You could be technically brilliant, but just not used to playing a part that isn't 'the tune' and listening out for how your part fits in with everyone else. You might not have a lot of experience of sight-reading. You might not have any idea how to follow a conductor.
Now, none of this is the fault of the student, but it strikes me that if one of your aims is to play in an ensemble, then one of the things you really need to learn is ensemble skills. That includes experience of listening to other parts and fitting in with them. It involves getting used to playing harmony parts and thinking about how they work in the piece as a whole, being sensitive to how loud or quiet you need to play, considering how to match your articulation or phrasing to what other people are doing. You need to get used to 'keeping going' whatever happens - there's a mantra about sight-reading for exams where people are told to keep going, don't go back and correct a mistake, and this is absolutely vital if you want to keep your place in ensemble music. You need to practice keeping in time with a whole load of other people - either by following a conductor or communicating somehow as a group. And really, the only way to learn these things is to do them. Teachers can help - I do 'playing together' and 'call and response' activities in lessons from the very start, and encourage students to learn duets for us to play together, rather than just using them as a 'fun' thing to do at the end of a lesson (this blog post from David Barton Music is also well worth reading on this topic). It occurred to me a while back that tutor books often have the student playing the top line of duets, for quite a long time, and then it can be quite tricky when you ask them to try playing the bottom line - your eyes just get used to looking in the same place - so have made a point of finding duets where both parts are manageable in the early stages. I think recorded backing tracks can play a useful role here as well, for the experience of playing along with 'someone else' who isn't going to adapt to you.
Individual lessons can only do so much towards this though, and just playing with other people helps to make you better at playing with other people. It's one of the reasons I run Sheffield Flute Choir and also why we have an annual summer playday where anyone can come and join in (as well as improving people's skills, the other main reason is that it's fun getting together with loads of other flute players!). Obviously, getting guidance from more experienced ensemble members and leaders can be invaluable too, and *subtle move into advertising here* that's why I've asked Carla Rees to join us for the playday this August. I've experienced Carla's ensemble-leading quite a few times now, including with the rarescale Flute Academy and I'm every time I come away feeling like I've learned something new about how to play as a group. She has some serious words of wisdom about shifting your mindset from playing like a soloist to working as a team. If you'd like to hear them, and explore a range of excellent flute ensemble repertoire at the same time, come and join us in Sheffield on August 25th for our Summer Flute Ensemble Day.
Last night BBC Four showed the first episode of All Together Now: The Great Orchestra Challenge. Like Bake Off for musicians, this is a series where we follow several amateur orchestras through various rounds until a winner is decided (and gets to play at Proms in the Park). I wrote of my reservations about the idea when it was first announced, so it was with some hesitancy that I switched on last night.
I have to say I enjoyed most of the programme - it was lovely to hear the stories of the orchestras and some of the individuals who played and conducted them. It was particularly great to hear about how being part of the groups had enhanced people's lives, made them feel part of a community. It was fascinating to see how they worked in rehearsals, and responded to the professional coaching and intensive mentoring sessions, to hear them talk about practice (or lack of!) and the challenges of playing at a certain age, or when you've got long working hours and family to consider. Seeing/ hearing the different styles and characters of each group was really interesting, as was seeing/ hearing the progress they made over a month with the pieces they'd been challenged to learn.
The competition element was kept fairly low-key, until right at the end, when each group performed their piece and there was the typical "we have to say goodbye to someone" line-up. I agree with this review from theartsdesk.com that this felt tacked-on, 'tacky and unnecessary'. Could we not have just followed the progress of all these amazing people across a few months? Could they not have all played in a concert at the end, celebrating amateur music-making and their achievements? Maybe that wouldn't have provoked as much interest as a competition.
Classical music has been in the news for other reasons connected to competitions too. After the Olympics, there were questions around why there is so much more funding for sport than there is for the arts. Why 'elite' sport is seen as a good thing but 'elitism' in music isn't. That particular question grabbed my interest as a linguist - my initial thoughts are that it is in part down to the different usage of the terms. You just don't really hear anyone talking about 'elite' musicians in the same way as they do about elite athletes, even though the process of training is not actually that different or any less intense. Where the term is used, it's negative, around classical music being 'elitist' or for 'the elite' (although I have also seen some discussion about certain sports suffering from 'elitism' - debates around lack of access to particular sports to people coming from state schools, for example, which could also apply to music education in some areas). I think this is something that could make a good corpus linguistics study, to get some data around the usage of the words - maybe I'll set aside some time for a mini research project!
I do wonder, though, if there is any connection between these views (and funding levels) and the fact that sport is generally competitive and music is generally not - not in quite such an obvious way, anyway. Music competitions exist, but the usual way for people to experience music is a performance/ concert, whereas the normal way of experiencing sport is to watch a competitive match or race. Do people just like the structure of competition, the tribalism of supporting a team? Is musical performance 'elitist' in a way that sporting competition (whilst involving an 'elite') is not?
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 exams - the discourses around them that I'm discovering in my research, and my own experience of taking two Grade 1s on different instruments. I briefly touched on the metaphors of movement that I've come across in my data - there's a sense of exam-taking being a journey. But there are also terms that refer to movement on a smaller scale, and in particular to 'force' on the student - pushing and pulling. Looking at these in context shows that some learners feel 'pushed' into exams by teachers. Others are talking about entering exams working as motivation - with exams 'pushing' them to work harder, to learn scales or perfect pieces which they might not do otherwise. These two sides sort of reflect my feelings about exams - they can be a great goal and act as amazing motivation. But they can also become something that learners feel they have to do, even if they don't really want to.
In my teaching, I'm equally happy to help people prepare for exams if they want to, or to teach without exams. I consider exams mainly as a 'marker' along the way - it's nice to have a certificate to say "well done, you have reached this standard" and some feedback from an impartial outside person. The different exam boards test slightly different skill sets, but I think they all have something to offer in terms of checking up on where you are with learning musical skills. Sometimes students need exams for other goals they have, such as joining a particular ensemble or studying music at university. What I don't think exams are, or should be, is the be-all-and-end-all of learning music. If you only ever learn what you need to know for exams, you miss out on so much - wonderful music, different styles, skills that aren't tested in the exams. I think there is a real danger of fitting music into 'exam boxes' and thinking of everything in terms of grades. There's a movement of a Handel sonata in the Grade 5 syllabus but that doesn't make it a "Grade 5 piece" - Handel didn't write it with a particular standard of exam in mind. It doesn't mean that if you aren't approaching Grade 5 level, you can't try to play it (although you might not quite manage all the detail that a more advanced player does), or that if you first encounter it once you've done your Grade 8 there is no point in giving it a go. Equally, I tend to introduce particular scales earlier than they appear in the exam syllabus, because I believe that they are vital building blocks for being able to play music, not boring things that have to be memorised in order to pass an exam (and yes, that means that my students who don't do exams, DO do scales!).
Having said that, I do think exams are great in the right circumstances. It can be really motivating to have a 'big' goal to work towards. It is a good (and often enjoyable) thing to perform music to someone else, whatever the circumstances. It can feel brilliant to get those results and think "yes, I did it!". For myself, I like doing exams. When I say like, I don't mean I love every minute of it. I absolutely do get nervous about them. I worry and am a complete pain (to myself and everyone around me) for the days/ weeks following the exam whilst waiting for the results. BUT I do really enjoy the process of preparing, of performing, passing (hopefully!) and getting feedback. All of those are reasons why I sat my DipLCM Performance recently. I do play my flute most days (as I say to students, there is nothing wrong with the odd day off!) - playing with groups, with friends, in students' lessons, and at home. At home I do a lot of technical practice (yes, including scales!), and learning pieces that I need to learn, for orchestra concerts etc. And I do learn solo flute pieces, but they don't tend to take priority. Entering the diploma exam gave me an opportunity to actually polish up some of those solo pieces, to get into them in real detail, to think about my interpretation of them. I had to put together a half-hour programme of music (complete with programme notes), which resembled a real (though short) solo concert. It was wonderful to work with an accompanist to produce a performance - sadly I don't have a pianist to hand in my daily practice!
C. Stamitz - Concerto in G (second and third movements)
Saint-Saens - Romance
Berkeley - Sonatina
Richard Rodney Bennett - 'Games' from Summer Music
The first three of these I had played before, varying amounts of time ago, so it was a case of re-visiting, tidying up and tweaking. The Rodney Bennett was a new piece to me, added because of the syllabus requirements to play something written post-1945. It was a really useful experience to learn something new, and get it up to performance standard, quickly.
On the day, well, yes it was slightly odd performing to an audience of one who was scribbling down notes, but it still felt like a performance - I really felt as if it was an opportunity to 'communicate' this music to someone else, and I truly enjoyed doing that (apart from the moments when I was struggling to keep my flute attached to my face - it was a very hot day!). The examiner was utterly lovely, saying at the end how much she'd enjoyed listening. Of course I was delighted to pass (with 88%) and really happy to get positive comments (plus of course a few things to think about for the future) - as I said earlier, that external view on your playing can be incredibly useful. Of course this sort of 'professional development' is invaluable for teaching - I've learnt a lot about myself as a player along the way, and I can see how that will feed in to how I teach too.
It's the start of the school summer holidays here, with lots of students and teachers taking a well-deserved break. I'm having a couple of weeks off from teaching but much of that time will be devoted to finishing my MA dissertation which is due in mid-August. I'm currently finishing writing up the section on how adult learners write about exams (well, I have been this morning - I'm currently having a short break, a cup of tea and a packet Hula Hoops, and writing this blog post!).
My research has revealed some striking metaphorical language used about the experience of preparing for and taking exams. Perhaps not surprisingly, there's a lot of negative terms with groups of words which suggest violence - executed, hanging, murdering, killing - and pain - excruciating, suffering. The process of entering, preparing for, and taking exams is compared to a military campaign with terms such as withdraw, forearmed, territory, officer, bullet, target, medal - and there are also hints of a treacherous naval expedition - uncharted, adrift, wreck. But thankfully we also see the horizon and there is talk of surviving. There are also discourses which suggest that exam preparation is like training for a sport - hurdle, treadmill and discussion of tapering, and even what to eat on the day (which explains the initially mystifying appearance of potato in the corpus)! There are lots of terms which relate to movement - exams approach, near and loom. There is pushing and pulling, but also swinging and waltzing, and quite a bit of wobbling like a jelly. Adult learners express concerns about facing 'scary' examiners, but tend to find in reality that they are kind, gentle, courteous, calm, supportive, encouraging. 'Support' is a common theme, surfacing in descriptions of how teachers help learners prepare for exams and boost their confidence - my teacher is an angel, my teacher is lovely and encouraging. They also mention how helpful it is to have a friendly accompanist, if you play an instrument which is supported by a piano part. Online communities also offer support, with adult learners offering sympathy and hugs during the build-up and the wait for results, and many congratulations (for successful results, but also for being brave enough to take the exam in the first place!).
A couple of months ago, I posted about my own plans to sit two Grade 1 exams, learning the clarinet more or less from scratch, and taking my piano playing right back to basics. I took both of these exams a couple of weeks ago. It was an incredibly useful experience as a teacher to be back in uncharted territory - although I've taken many flute exams, I'd never sat one on another instrument, so it did feel rather like being a beginner, not quite knowing what to expect or exactly how well I needed to play at this level. Nerves definitely kicked in, and I had no idea how my playing of each instrument would respond under pressure (whereas with the flute, I have a pretty good idea what happens and how to deal with it). It turns out that the fact my mouth dries up with nerves is even more 'bleurgh' with a reed in my mouth, but it is manageable! My experience of the examiners definitely agrees with those that the learners in my study talk about - both were friendly and welcoming. The one for my clarinet exam had no idea I had any musical background, so I felt I was being treated as she would any adult beginner, and it was a very positive experience, topped off by a lovely comment on my mark form declaring the exam "an excellent start" on my clarinet journey. What a boost that would be to any beginner!
The piano exam was a slightly different experience, as I was sitting another exam (Flute Performance DipLCM) on the same day, with the same examiner! So she was aware that I had experience of music and exams behind me, and indeed joked that the supporting tests at Grade 1 should be fairly easy for me! ;) All the same, I still felt that I was judged on my performance as a Grade 1 piano student, rather than there being any 'extra' expectations of me (and I know that adult learners often feel they are expected to do 'better' to pass exams than children, simply because they are older). This was really helpful for me, as part of the whole point of sitting this one was to help build my confidence on the piano, to learn it properly rather than feel like I 'should' be at a certain standard with it due to the rest of my musical background. Still, I have to admit that getting full marks on the musical knowledge, aural and sightreading certainly did help with my overall score! It also underlined to me as a teacher how much impact these skills can have on how you get on in an exam (as well as being incredibly useful skills when making music, which is why they are tested in exams). For both instruments, I definitely agree with the learners in my study, when they say that having supportive teachers is a huge bonus in the exam process, helping you feel like you are on the right track and you can do this scary thing! I also agree with their thoughts about accompanists - it is incredibly comforting to work with someone you know is 'on your side' (something I found a bit daunting about the piano exam, as you're on your own there!).
And yes, I did sit two exams on the same day. As well as the Grade 1s, I had entered myself for a flute performance diploma. I'm pleased to say I passed that too, and even more pleased to say it was an enjoyable experience. More about that in a future post, soon... but I must get back to the dissertation!
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!