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!
'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.
I've been a member of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) since I started teaching. Essentially there's a choice of two 'unions' for musicians, the ISM and the Musicians' Union, both offering support, advice, legal protection, training, online communities and real-life meet-ups. I've benefited from the ISM's resources for teachers - I use a version of their teaching contract - and I couldn't (legally) do my job without their Public Liability Insurance (although I've thankfully never had to claim on it!). They run regular webinars which have given me some interesting food for thought on topics such as 'teaching in the digital age' (how do we keep the attention of children who are used to social media and computer games?), career planning and psychological wellbeing for musicians.
Their blog is a great resource of ideas and opinions from different musicians, too, and I've particularly enjoyed the new Teacher Focus series, where a private teacher writes about their own job, thoughts and experiences. So I was very happy to answer a call for more contributions to this series, and reflect on my background, principles of teaching and hopes for the future - you can read my post at https://www.ism.org/blog/private-teacher-focus-rachel-shirley.
It's a well-known fact that music teachers have the ability to tell exactly how much practice you've done between your last lesson and the current one. You can't fool us. You don't need to make the guilty admissions that you "haven't done much practice" because we already know. Even on those days when you know you've done loads of practice and it feels like it's not showing when you play in front of your teacher, we can tell.
Well, OK, we can't tell precisely how many minutes of practice you've done, but generally, teachers can tell if there's been some work since last week. We can tell because we have done and still do go through the process of practising ourselves. We're familiar with the satisfaction that comes when that structured, gradual work pays off, and the frustration that you feel when you know you've put the work in but the desired result hasn't materialised yet.
At this time of year lots of people have been making resolutions to practise more, take up a new instrument or return to a neglected one. And we seem to be bombarded with quotes intended to inspire and motivate us. The two above have popped up in my view just this week. Some words can be helpful in spurring us on, but I'm not sure about these ones.
Both of these give the impression that what we're aiming for in music is 'perfection'. That you can never be a professional unless you can do things without any mistakes. Yes, it's a good thing to aim to keep improving your playing, and if you want to perform a piece, you want it to feel as secure as possible, but these quotes suggest that you're not 'good enough' if you're not perfect, and that can be quite demotivating. I think this sort of pressure can lead to unhealthy stress - feeling like you can never 'get anywhere' with music if you're still making mistakes. Of course professionals still get it wrong! And how would you even begin to agree on a definition of perfection?
A more useful piece of advice I read recently appeared in this blog post by The Self-Inspired Flutist: "realise that practising is the point". In other words, as a musician, you're going to spend more time practising than any other activity, so if you can learn to love it, that will go a long way to enjoying making music. That doesn't mean that it will always be fun and sound lovely - the point of practising is to deal with the bits you find difficult, to make the mistakes and find out how to fix them. It can be frustrating and downright annoying at times, no matter how many years you've been doing it for. But if you can find satisfaction in that process, I think that can make a big difference.
I'm playing in a concert at the beginning of February, and I reckon on the day I'll be actually physically playing the flute for about fifteen minutes. I haven't kept track of how long I've practised the pieces for (especially as I've played a couple of them before, so the initial practice was a while ago and I'm now revisiting them), but I can tell you that it has definitely been hours. Then there's the general ongoing practice of improving tone, technique, breath control etc which will contribute to playing these pieces. Seeing the outcome of all these things in a performance is of course fulfilling, but getting absorbed in the process is also a wonderful thing. Finding out what your mind and body can do can be quite amazing - from the beginner who starts to train those tiny muscles around their lips to make a sound on the flute, to the advanced player who discovers a small tweak to their hand position which improves their technique.
Things you do other than actually playing your instrument can help your music-making too. Lots of musicians turn to meditation to help with nerves and concentration, and to exercise for fitness and stress-relief. I've recently re-started going to the gym, and the fact that I know it helps my playing is always a big motivation. Some achy muscles led me to reading about recovering from workouts, and everything I saw emphasised the importance of rest. One article I read said that fitness doesn't happen in the gym, it happens in the times between, when your muscles are recovering and rebuilding - and practising an instrument needs those times in-between too. You are using both muscles and mental energy, and those need to be rested. So this is why I won't tell you to practise every day, but most days, and to do enough but don't overdo it. Take rests, have a cup of tea, have a day off, go and listen to your pieces rather than playing them, go and listen to something completely different, lie on the grass and stare at the sky for a bit (though maybe not at this time of year). Of course you won't always do all of this, and sometimes you'll give yourself a hard time for not being perfect, for playing the wrong notes, or for not practising enough or for doing too much (and sometimes I need to be reminded to follow my own advice). And that's OK.
It's difficult to sum that up in a snappy quote though.
I signed up to Seth Hanes' email list a while ago, after coming across 'The Musician's Guide to Hustling' through a Facebook group. Seth is a musician and a marketing consultant, having realised before graduation that he needed to know about marketing and entrepreneurship and throwing himself whole-heartedly into getting to know all about it. He now advises artistic clients and businesses such as the Pennsylvania Philharmonic and The Conservatory of Musical Arts. I was impressed by how he'd combined his musical and marketing knowledge.
So when an email came through from Seth asking for beta-readers for his new book 'Break Into the Scene', I jumped at the chance to combine my own skills - a musical background and editing/proofreading - and offer my help (plus, I have to admit I was really curious about the book, and this meant I got to read it early!).
When the book came out a couple of months later, I ordered a copy - in fact, it was the first thing I used my new student status to get a discount on! I read it (again) on the train back from a day at Uni - it's about 160 pages, so a quick read if you want to sit down to it in one go, but also written in easily-digestible sections, so you could grab it for ten minutes at a time and still get plenty out of it.
The book is part myth-busting and part practical advice. Essentially - yes, you need to practise your instrument to get good at it, but that alone will not get you work - the gigs will not 'magically' come to you. Certainly when I was training, the myth of 'discovery' was quite powerful. If you worked hard and got really good, someone would come and find you and propel you to stardom. Maybe that happens on very rare occasions, but the vast majority musicians need to put some effort in to 'getting themselves out there'.
Seth uses his marketing knowledge to set out steps that you can take to get in touch with people and make opportunities for work as a musician. Yes, he uses the word 'networking'. This is a word that always makes me cringe a bit. But I like Seth's take on it - he quotes his friend and mentor Charlie Hoehn: "The best networkers don't call it networking.... they call it being friends" and says that "actively trying to network with people almost always comes across as fake... it should always start from a place of creating authentic relationships". This rang huge bells for me - having friends who share your experiences in different areas of your life is utterly invaluable (in my case, musicians, academics, people who are self-employed in different fields - although of course I have friends who aren't any of those things and I don't value them any less!). And the best, most enjoyable work, I find, is with people who you really get on with.
But of course you need to make contact with people in the first place. Seth's take on this is a bit different from the usual advice. The biggest surprise for me in this book was the advice not to bother with a website. Since I'm writing this on my website, and my website is where a lot of my work comes from, my immediate reaction was to reject this... but actually, he's not saying never to bother with a website, just that it (along with professional photos, social media, etc) isn't vital to start with. Instead, Seth offers an email template for getting in touch with people and offering whatever it is you have to offer. And while you might want to tweak the wording to suit your own style, the basic premise of 'putting yourself out there' and the guidance for taking the first steps is what I think really makes this book. It's like a reassuring voice saying, it's OK, you can do this, I know it's scary, but I've done it, other people have done it too, and here are the good things that can happen. Some of the 'good things' described really made me smile - as well as being success stories, they sounded like a lot of fun!
There's some excellent practical advice on what to do when you get work too - the 'Skills That Have Nothing to Do With Talent' chapter contains some 'rules' which are aimed at freelancers, but can apply to most musical situations - in fact, a lot of other situations in life too. These fall broadly into practical skills (timekeeping, replying to messages, being prepared) and social skills (be friendly, offer help, "don't be a whiner"). All common sense really, but well worth a reminder.
It can be easy when reading books like this to come up with reasons (excuses) why you can't do these things, why your situation is different, why that wouldn't work for you. Seth is in the US, so some of the systems and organisations he described don't exist in the same way elsewhere (I'll admit to still not quite understanding how the US high school band system works), but it doesn't take too much of a leap of the imagination to think of alternatives in your own area. And of course, not every bit of someone else's advice is going to be right for you. I still felt some resistance to the 'marketing' language (I can't imagine myself sending an email saying "I wanted to reach out" but again that's probably a bit of cultural difference, and the need to adapt things to suit you!). But if you need a quick dose of motivation, along with lots of straight-talking advice and some virtual hand-holding, I think this book strikes the right balance.
The People's Orchestra, based in Birmingham, are looking to expand their unique orchestra model into other areas of the country, including a South Yorkshire group based in Sheffield, hopefully starting early next year. I've been working with them to find interested musicians in the South Yorkshire area - I'm sure you're out there!
The People's Orchestra is a bit different - there are no limits on numbers of any instrument (so no waiting lists for you woodwind players... saxophones included too!). The repertoire is an exciting mixture of classical, film music, show tunes and more. There's some flexibility around rehearsal attendance (they realise that people have different working patterns and commitments). They offer bursaries to those who need them, and the organisation also supports volunteers to gain valuable experience and find work.
If you'd be interested in playing in a big, friendly orchestra and being there at the start of something very exciting for classical music in Sheffield, please fill in the Expression of Interest form at http://www.thepeoplesorchestra.com/eoi
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!
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?
This photo has been doing the rounds on the flutey internet recently (I don't know where it originates from, so apologies for the lack of credit). These are some of the best flautists of the last couple of hundred years, and in particular these are their embouchures - the shape they make/ made with their mouths when playing. If you'd like to look at lots of other embouchures, there's a web page full of them over here: http://www.larrykrantz.com/embpic.htm. The point is that there are all sorts of differences between them - how much lip is above/ below the flute, what angle the lips/ flute are at, all sorts... and of course their lips are naturally very different in the first place.
I saw one of the above flute players at the weekend - at the British Flute Society 'Flutastique' Festival, which was celebrating the links between British and French flute playing, and William Bennett's 80th birthday. Looking around the event was a perfect demonstration of the idea that one size doesn't fit all! Watching the performers' recitals - all wonderful players with fantastic, but different, tones - you could see different embouchures, different ways of holding the flute and using the fingers, different ways and degrees of movement when they played. And then there were the hundreds of attendees - on the Friday morning we had a great warm-up session with Katherine Bryan, and although we were all aiming at the same thing, 'good' relaxed posture and playing a nice clear 'B', a glance across the room showed numerous permutations and combinations of posture, hand positioning and embouchure. The same variations were in evidence at the manufacturers' stalls where people were trying out different flutes and finding that some worked for them and some didn't.
When you watch someone playing the instrument you play, it's natural to analyse what they're doing (especially if you admire their sound or technique). If they sound that good, they must be doing it right! But seeing so many players in close proximity made it really obvious that there is no one 'right'. Trying out things that other people do is a great idea, but we have to work out if they work for us or not. We probably have to borrow bits and pieces from different people, rather than copying any one person's complete technique (unless they're your identical twin, in which case, it might work). It was fascinating to watch players on stage with some of their own students, and see the things that were similar but also those that were different.
Through all this, it's worth considering that even if someone is really, really good, they might still be doing things that aren't ideal, even for themselves! They might have habits that they'd like to break out of but haven't quite managed to yet. They might have to work round issues such as fingers that don't quite do what they'd ideally do. I find hands fascinating - they vary so much, and trying to get a good playing position on the flute is a case of careful work between the student and teacher to find something that works for them (and then may need to be adjusted as they grow - a few of mine seem to have had finger growth spurts recently!).
And what about attending a flute festival? That's not something that's going to suit everyone - it's pretty intense listening to, talking about, trying out, playing, thinking about flutes for a few days. If you're the sort of person who likes throwing themselves whole-heartedly into a subject for a weekend, then definitely worth it (it's not cheap, so whilst it's not a bad idea to miss the odd session to clear your head, you want to make the most of it). Not something I'd want to do every weekend, but every couple of years - definitely!
The little badges below were my souvenir of the weekend - what a lovely varied bunch they are too!
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!