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!
'Getting everything done' is a common issue in my life - trying to balance playing, teaching, all the admin that goes with those, doing a PhD, all the usual things that you have to get done in life and actually 'having a life' isn't always easy. I see it in my students too. It's proving to be a frequent theme in my research (and anecdotally) with adult learners - how do you find time to practise an instrument, learn music theory, read about the history of your pieces etc, whilst also doing a full-time job, bringing up children, and going to the gym regularly (or whatever it is that fills your weeks)? I increasingly see it with younger students too - how do you fit in learning music, all that homework, competing with your sports team and all those birthday parties, and still have some time to hang out and do nothing as well?
When you're younger, you probably don't think in terms of 'productivity'. As an adult these days, the word is everywhere. We're meant to be getting loads done (whilst simultaneously taking plenty of time out for self-care). There's a massive industry around teaching people ways of doing more in less time, books packed full of methods to help you be more productive - if only we could find time to read them all!
I was pleased to be chosen as part of the pre-launch reading group for Prof Mark Reed's new book The Productive Researcher - it's great to be supporting someone who's self-publishing their work, and I was hoping to find ways to make the most of my time when working on my PhD. I wasn't sure at all what to expect, and worried slightly that it would be full of what felt like unachievable methods for 'doing more', just tailored towards academics. What I actually got was not at all your usual ‘how to do more’ book. Mark writes in an open, friendly way, sharing his own experiences of discovering how to be productive, but also happy in your work. There’s clear academic research behind it – in looking at other people’s theories and approaches to productivity – but it reads like the words of a supportive, gently challenging mentor.
You can read this book quickly and pick up useful ideas from it, but I think to get the best from it you need to spend some time and mental energy to work through the questions and exercises, and commit to trying to use the principles. It’s not (nor does it promise to be) a quick fix, but it really gets to grips with what lies behind our struggles with ‘being productive’. The first part of the book proposes that to be productive in our work, we need to know why we’re doing the work, and asks us to pin down our motivations – I particularly liked the idea of having back-up motivations for the times when our main ones falter. There’s a re-framing of SMART goals as “Stretching, Motivational, Authentic, Regardful and Tailored” which I felt was much more motivating than the original concept.
The second part describes ways of putting these motivations and goals into action. There’s a focus on prioritising and using your time well – that the way to feel/ be more productive is to spend less time on the things that don’t contribute to your overall goals. I loved the idea of firing up your day with enjoyable work first, rather than saving the bits you like as a reward for getting through the less fun stuff. There are practical tips on managing the time you spend in meetings, on social media, and dealing with the never-ending stream of emails! I can imagine that some of these would take a fair amount of willpower to implement in the pressured atmosphere that academics are working under, and there are bigger issues at play around what is expected of researchers, but some of these steps would definitely help gain back some sense of control to your working life.
Although it's aimed at researchers, meaning that some of the scenarios are academia-specific, e.g. submitting papers to journals, examining a PhD thesis, there's a lot in this book for anyone who wants to feel like they're making the most of their days. Being really clear about your motivations and priorities, and learning not just how to say 'no' but how to decide what to say 'no' to, are lessons that anyone could find useful. Yes, there are days when whatever procrastination activity you like to indulge in seem far more appealing than practising your scales or going for a run in the rain, but if you're clear about your overall motivation and what's important to you (you want to be able to join a band and sight-read new pieces at rehearsals, or you want to complete a half-marathon) you can keep revisiting that to keep you going and enjoying what you do.
Bloggy disclaimer things: I received a free copy of the ebook version of The Productive Researcher and was asked to write an honest Amazon review (which I did - it's basically a reduced version of this blog post). The links above are my Amazon affiliate links which mean that if you buy the book through those I will receive a small amount of commission.
It's that time of year that feels like another 'new year', and this year I feel like I've had a succession of them. Back to a full teaching timetable after a quieter summer - some new flute students, some new online theory students. Hearing about my students' new schools. And then the University students descended on Sheffield for the start of the academic year and the place was busy and buzzing again. And finally, this week, I started my PhD. That is, I've spent one day so far at Lancaster University, where I'll be studying part-time/ distance learning. The first week is mainly taken up with induction and registration events, and I've been impressed so far by the care that's gone into making sure we know where we need to be, what we need to do, and how to find out things. But more than that, by the emphasis on making sure we're OK - how to look after ourselves in the process of doing a PhD, and where to get help if we need it.
There's a lot of crossover between things that are useful in musical training and work, and those that help you on the way with a PhD. The concept of little and often - whether that's reading and writing (I'm taking the advice to write frequently and writing this blog post!), or practising your instrument. Making use of small stretches of time - I can practise a tricky phrase for ten minutes while my lunch cooks (obviously making sure it doesn't burn!), I can read a quick article on the train. Making notes to refer back to about what you're working towards. Planning - your aims for your research, or for a practice session - but equally being aware and prepared that things won't always go to plan, and being adaptable. Realising that there will be times when nothing seems to be going right and you want to pack it all in!
Of course these are useful in many aspects of life. As is stationery. One of the joys of a new school year was always shopping for a new pencil case, rulers, a protractor. I haven't bought any of those this time (and can't actually foresee any use for a protractor any time soon), but after much quizzing of other people about their PhD note-taking and filing systems, I have invested in some hopefully useful equipment. I bought some nice pens, which are comfortable to write with. I've tried making notes electronically, but it doesn't seem to work as well for me for processing information - so apart from using Evernote on my phone for quick reminders to myself, handwriting seems to be the way ahead. I have a lot of post-it notes of assorted sizes, for both PhD and musical projects, small ones for quickly tagging things and larger ones for more extensive notes on books and articles (and yes, they have small animals on them, thank you Paperchase):
I spent a while pondering what the ideal notebook would consist of. A few friends mentioned that they'd had notes all over the place when doing their research, and this was something I found I was already suffering from. At the same time, I was reading about different organisational systems, and came across Bullet Journals. The short explanation of these is that you use one notebook for everything, generally just using the next blank spread of pages for whatever you want to write next, and indexing these in the front so you can find everything. This sounded pretty ideal for note-taking where I'm likely to be writing about different aspects of my project, but want to be able to group themes together at some point. So my plan is to use these A4 notebooks with punched holes and perforations:
To start with I'll be using the next blank spread for whatever I make notes on next, and indexing it Bullet Journal style. However, as my work progresses, the perforations and punched holes allow me to detach sheets and file them in ring binders in the appropriate category, to refer back to. That's the plan anyway - I'll report back on whether that actually works!
I realise this is not exactly a 'research' blog post - but organisation is possibly one of the biggest challenges of a PhD (and also of freelance music-making and self-employed teaching, which I'm doing at the same time). As far as actual research goes, I'm currently reading about theories of adult learning, and making notes for a summary of how each of these relates to music education. And trying to get plenty of sleep!
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'!).
The PhD is starting to feel even more of a reality now - I've told all my students about it, I've got the dates for registration week in October, and I've got to take a photo to upload for my student card! I'm already thinking about how I'll manage my time and the conflicting demands of PhD, work and life - I often feel that the PhD experience is geared towards the typical full-time student (dare I say a 'one size fits all' approach?), and negotiating my path through it as a part-time student who is also committed to a teaching and playing career seems like it will be a challenge at times.
In the meantime, I'm starting to shift up a gear from 'reading bits and pieces' to actually planning my literature review. I'm excited about delving into research from all sorts of areas - music education, education more generally, adult learning, linguistic methods. My initial dipping into 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). Perhaps that's something I need to ask adult learners as part of my research - how do they characterise their music playing/ learning? And perhaps I also need to look into literature around leisure activities?
I do think that music teachers need to take account of those different attitudes - what someone needs from lessons does vary 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!
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...
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)
Last week I wore a variety of hats - not in a metaphorical sense, but in a real one. There was the mortar board at my MA graduation - a lovely, if rather blustery day celebrating the end of the course and catching up with some of my fellow distance learning students/ survivors!
Then there were the Santa hats. (Yes, hats, plural - I have acquired quite a few of them, mainly for flute choir purposes, including some glittery ones and ones with flashing pompoms! So I thought I'd wear a variety of styles...). Firstly the end of term for the baby and toddler music classes I teach at Rhythm Time, where I (and the babies) dressed up in our festive best and had lots of fun with bells! Then at the weekend Sheffield Flute Choir had an outing to play at Weston Park Museum. Twelve (of our total membership of around thirty) flute players all in Christmassy head gear serenaded museum visitors - and the queue for Santa's Grotto - in the fabulous surroundings of the About Art Gallery.
Finally, I've been wearing a very cosy bobble hat, a Christmas present from a student last year - which has been much appreciated in the windy wintery weather as I go about between lessons!
In the midst of all this hat-wearing, I've been helping students out with pieces for Christmas concerts, handing out exam certificates (well done all of you for so much hard work this term!), and writing a PhD proposal. Exciting stuff! It's the end of a year (almost) and graduation felt a bit like the end of an era but I'm so looking forward to what next year has to bring.
ps to read a fabulous blog from a lady who wears many (metaphorical) hats, plays the flute and is doing a really interesting PhD project, and who I had the pleasure of meeting at the SEMPRE study day earlier this year, pop over to https://diljeetbhachu.wordpress.com/about
The last couple of weeks have gone by in a bit of a blur - definitely busy, and definitely not 'doing nothing', but for some reason that song popped into my head earlier today. I remember someone singing it in a pantomime that I took part in as a child, and being really taken with the tune and the lyrics. Musical influences and memories have been a big theme for me recently. Firstly, we had the wonderful Dr Jessica Quiñones visiting Sheffield for a weekend of workshops for flute players, which delved into our influences and prompted us to think about our personal musical style and 'manifesto'. For the last few days, I've been in Scotland, where I grew up, visiting home and attending (and presenting a poster) the SEMPRE postgraduate study day. So there were thoughts of childhood music, mixed in with getting to hear about lots of exciting research and other people's experiences of music through their lives.
I also found out last week that I passed my MA with distinction. Absolutely delighted, and it was a real boost before I went to the study day to know that my poster was presenting research that actually made sense! And while it might also make a bit of sense to sit back and indeed do nothing now, I've been spurred on to apply for more conferences, think about writing up some work to submit to journals, and apply for further study next year! If you're interested in the outcomes of my Masters research, you can now read the finished dissertation here.
This afternoon, I'm at final rehearsals for the Classical Sheffield Festival where I'll be playing with Sheffield Flute Choir and Platform 4 Contemporary Composers - I'm so looking forward to this innovative new festival, bringing classical music to Sheffield in a different way.
All of these things deserve fuller blog posts of their own, so this is just a quick whistle-stop tour. Come back soon for more on the workshops, the conference and the festival!
It seems a bit rude starting a blog post with 'shut up'. Don't worry though, this isn't me telling you to do any such thing... unless you want to!
In the midst of my Masters, I discovered 'Shut Up and Write Tuesdays' - an online writing group, aimed at academics, which has the simple premise that, for one hour on a Tuesday, you sit down and get on with a piece of writing that you're working on. There are different hours depending on where in the world you are (and if you're feeling particularly in need of writing time you can join in with more than one) and wonderful support from dedicated Twitter accounts which tell you when it's time to 'shut up' and generally cheer on the participants. I found this incredibly helpful when writing my dissertation, especially when it seemed overwhelming. I didn't initially think I could get much done in an hour, but these sessions really helped me to understand the value of short blocks of time. I've also used them to write blog posts!
A comment on my previous post (thanks Katherine!) mentioned the same idea around training for sports and practising instruments - often people feel there is no point in going for a short run or squeezing in a short practice, but these small blocks can be surprisingly productive. Something generally is better than nothing, and often a short block can feel a lot less intimidating than thinking you must spend hours on a task. I've found it often works as a kick-start to more work - I think "I'll just do this hour of writing" and find it fires my enthusiasm so much I'm still going several hours later (with appropriate breaks of course, SUWT is a big supporter of cups of tea!). Or it helps me 'break the back' of something I've been putting off because it feels like a huge task, so I feel happier to come back to it later - whether that's a first play through of a new piece of music, or like today, where I got the basics of my first conference poster in place. Having never put together a poster before, I had a definite sense of not knowing where to start, but sitting down for that hour thinking "I'll just do something to get it started" has made it feel much more manageable (rather than it just sitting on my to-do list, glaring at me). Short blocks are also working well for my clarinet practising challenge - just ten minutes regularly (often during breaks from admin and writing - I keep my clarinet near my desk) are definitely making a difference. That might not exactly count as 'shutting up', especially if you heard some of my higher notes...
It's very easy to put off writing, or running, or practising, or all sorts of other tasks, because you think they're going to be monstrous, and it's also very easy to come up with reasons (some might say 'excuses') not to do them. But sometimes, you do need to tell yourself to 'shut up' - actually getting on with it is amazingly effective at silencing all those thoughts about how terrible it's going to be!
Talking of monsters - the posters I'm preparing are based on the section of my dissertation which examines discourses around adult learners and their teachers - featuring the lovely quote from one learner that their teacher is "not an ogre". I'm looking forward to presenting it at the Manchester Forum in Linguistics and the SEMPRE Study day on Music Psychology and Education later this year.
Is there a task you could do with 'shutting up' and getting on with?
Image from https://openclipart.org/detail/219746/keep-quiet-sign
In my last post I hinted at some of the similarities between learning an instrument and training for a sport, and since I've just come back from my induction at a new gym, it seems like a good time to explore that a bit more. In some ways music and sport seem worlds apart - maybe music is seen as more of an 'intellectual' activity against sport's physicality. I know when I was at school I was 'rubbish' at P.E. and was definitely put in the box of being good with my brain rather than my muscles. The funny thing was, outside of school I took dance classes for years, and whilst I wasn't brilliant at that, I got to a decent standard - I reached the point of dancing on pointe in ballet and won a few medals in Highland Dancing competitions. So why was I no good at basketball and hockey but alright at dancing? Partly I think that comes down to one of the similarities between music and sport - that mental attitude is a big part of doing well. I wanted to dance, so I worked at it. I've no doubt that the fact it was movement to music helped. I had teachers who were encouraging, who paid a lot of attention to each student's physical make-up and explained to them what particular aspects they would need to do more work on to succeed. There were exercises to work on at home between classes (although I fully admit to getting lazy with them in my teenage years!) which meant that there was more progress than if you just turned up once a week. In other words, very much like practising an instrument! In my MA research I discovered discourses of 'learning music as training' in terms of taking small steps, having goals and aims, tapering your practice before an exam. I also came across terms which flagged up discussions around mental preparation techniques often used in sports training, such as visualisation - where an athlete might visualise how they'll run that race, a musician could use the same technique for a performance. Learners described exams as hurdles and like a treadmill, suggesting a need to mentally push past barriers.
However, the similarities between sport and music aren't just in psychological approaches. Making music is a physical activity. Playing the flute doesn't (normally) involve any running or big jumps, but it does require the movement of many many muscles - in your face, your tongue, your fingers, for breathing and blowing. You need to hold something up with your arms for prolonged periods of time. It ideally needs good posture and a strong 'core' (I've found that Pilates is wonderful for that). But from thinking of myself as not a 'sporty' person, it took me a long time to realise just how physical playing an instrument is. In the text I analysed for my dissertation I found learners talking about building up strength and about the best thing to eat before performances or exams, and I was pleased to see this awareness of the physicality of it. It's certainly something I try to explain in my lessons - that learning to play is partly about building up strength and flexibility in new muscles. Students (especially adults) who've done a sport often find these comparisons helpful - if someone has trained for a marathon, they understand the idea that you need to build up from short runs. It takes time, but if something feels difficult now, it can be worked on, steadily and gradually and it will get easier. I suppose this may be one of the reasons why adult learners feel they can't make as much progress as younger students, that age is physically 'against them' - something I want to look into a bit more, to find out whether research shows that really is the case or whether it's more assumptions about what they 'can and can't do' that hold people back.
This need for 'work' ties in with one more similarity between sport and music - the idea of talent. I do think that some people find it 'naturally' easier to do particular activities - that might be because of their natural physical build or because of previous experiences that mean they have strength in particular muscles, or have developed particular parts of the brain. However, talent will only get you so far without willing and work. Someone who really wants to do something, and is prepared to put in the time and effort, is going to get far further than someone who has a physical 'advantage' but doesn't practise. This video from SportScotland (which I've posted before) makes this point really well.
I can really feel the difference in my playing when I'm physically fitter, one of the reasons that the start of this term sees me back at the gym. To read more from some inspiring musicians about their take on flutes and fitness, have a look at Music Strong and the Flying Flutistas!
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!