You might have heard of a Grade-One-athon before, or maybe not! Normally it involves an - often sponsored for charity - attempt to pick up an instrument you've never played before, enter and pass a Grade One exam within a term. I've known quite a few music teachers and other people who already play an instrument give it a go - sometimes it's been a quick challenge, and sometimes it's led to a love of an additional instrument that they've kept on playing long past Grade One. I'm not exactly doing that, as my challenges don't involve instruments that are 'brand new' to me. But this term I'm sitting two Grade Ones, and here's why...
Piano - I don't remember exactly when and how I learned which notes were which on the piano. As a child interested in music I picked it up here and there I think, learned a bit from friends who had lessons. I had a keyboard from a really early age - at first one of those tiny Casio ones which the endlessly annoying 'demo' tune! When I started to take music more 'seriously' I had piano lessons, eventually auditioning on it as a second instrument for University. Although I did play a bit at Uni, for some reason that I can't remember either, we didn't get second instrument lessons in the end, so it fell by the wayside. That is, until my flute teaching started to increase, and I realised that I could play some of the simpler accompaniments to my student's pieces. And more than that, I actually really enjoyed playing them. I like being able to introduce students to playing with another instrument, and for those who do exams, it's lovely to be able to go along and accompany them for those first few early grades, to be a familiar face in an unfamiliar situation. The more I played the piano, the more I enjoyed it, and the more I wanted to improve, which led me to the idea of getting some lessons and maybe doing some exams. I had no real idea of what standard my piano playing was, but I really wanted to go back to basics, and gain more confidence with it. So this July, I'll be sitting Grade One piano. It's been fantastic to concentrate on some relatively simple pieces and get to grips with the detail of them, to start understanding different piano techniques and gradually start to feel like I can play music on it, rather than just learning notes. And to have help from a piano-teaching friend to guide me through all this, to point out the things I don't notice when I'm busy concentrating on everything else!
Clarinet - I played a clarinet once at school, when a good friend let me try hers. It was difficult to blow and I didn't like it anything like as much as playing the flute! I hadn't tried to play one again until a couple of years ago, when I picked one up cheap and tried to have a go at it. I made some sounds, but they weren't particularly pretty and I found it hard to remember which fingers to use (clarinet fingering is similar to the flute in places, and different in others). I felt like my face was filled up with air and my head was going to explode. So it sat in its case for a while. This year though, I decided to try again. I really thought about and analysed what was happening with my breathing, and how it was different from the flute which uses a lot more air. I had been doing a bit of recorder-playing and that helped with the fingering (eventually I moved from thinking "bottom octave = treble recorder" to it almost coming automatically). Again, I had some informal lessons with a friend who teaches clarinet, which was invaluable for details of technique that I wouldn't have picked up or known about myself, and spotting things like my stray little finger sticking out - something I never do on the flute, but put my fingers at a different angle and funny things happen! And I thought, why not, do an exam, see if you can properly learn some pieces and perform them in front of someone? So, yes, Grade One clarinet will also be happening this July.
As well as expanding my playing skills onto different instruments, these little musical journeys have given me really valuable insights into being a beginner again. As a teacher, how I teach is influenced by how I was taught, by my experience as I teach different people, and by the reading I do and the training courses I go on. I also do a lot of thinking! But the experiences of picking up a (practically) new instrument and of re-starting an old one have helped me to remember what it's like to do something that feels really alien. To try to remember four different new physical skills at once. To try to translate the marks on the page to what your fingers etc are supposed to be doing - how that goes from being a process of 'working out' to one that's more 'automatic'. It's made me understand better what my adult students are feeling when they already have skills in other areas, even in other instruments, but they're trying to learn something new from scratch. But also to remember how good it feels to make progress with something that felt almost impossible to begin with. To confirm to myself, that indeed, you aren't too old to learn. And how exciting it is to be at the beginning of a journey, not knowing exactly where it will lead!
(I also want to say thank you to the two people who've helped me out with lessons and advice, patiently listened to my squeaks and my randomly loud left-hand piano notes, answered my silly questions and entered me for the exams - thank you!)
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!