Tag Archives: Music

Power Chords

I had one of those unexpectedly lovely moments the other day, in the midst of the school run. This is not to say that my life isn’t regularly punctuated by shafts of brightness, not at all, rather that it is the school run itself that is rarely a cause for celebration.  My school-week mornings, without exception, operate on a whirlwind schedule; I generally arrive at work in a sort of state of sweaty flap, and on my days off it takes me at least two hours, a couple of chocolate biscuits and a comatose stare at my smart phone before I feel remotely recovered.  On Thursday, however, right in the moment when I knew that me and L were going to be not only late but spectacularly so, despite our best efforts, something rather lovely happened.

Not that us being late on a Thursday (or at least not rushing about, shouting at the children) is in any way unusual.  For a start, it’s my day off, and there’s nothing like the concept to have you exiting your bed with slug-like similarity.  I lie there hitting the snooze button at least three times, telling myself that because I don’t have to get ready for work there are at least twenty extra minutes on offer, and every week I am confounded.

Thursday is music lesson day you see, for my boys at least, and, as well as all the other things we do in the morning, the showers, the breakfast, the washing up and the putting away, the teeth,  the hair, the turning off of the youtube, the packing of packed lunches, the checking of the correct books in the school bags and sending in of reply slips and signing homework diaries we must pack a violin and a guitar and their various bits of music and notebooks.  You wouldn’t think that a couple of musical instruments added in to the general morning melee would make such a difference, but there you are.

The guitar lessons are a new thing for Sam.  A has been learning the violin (slowly) since Year 4, but Sam, despite bringing letters home from school since he started there, is a new student.  At first, when he brought them home I filed them straight into the bin, assuming that they were a circular sent to all of the children.  Sam, despite appreciating music to a great degree is not what you might call a ‘natural musician’ so I thought no more of it.  Until they started to come with more frequency, and he started putting them on top of my dinner, making sure that I would read and inwardly digest.  In the end, despite our misgivings about his suitability for the instrument, we caved.

The husband took him off to the guitar shop, armed with instructions on what sort of instrument to purchase, and they returned guitar in hand, the husband rather fuller of tales of Fenders and electro-acoustics than expected.  The day of the first lesson, we cycled up to school, his little guitar inside my massive carrying case.  That day he walked out of school taller, and more proud than he ever has before.  He practices away (with reminders), and we haven’t a clue whether he is doing what he is supposed to or not (R and I are both self-taught), but he takes it very seriously.

And last Thursday, while I was hurrying him through the front door to school, as I turned to go and chivvy L back down the path to her own place of education, it happened.  I met Sam’s guitar teacher.

When your child learns an instrument at school you don’t get to meet their teachers very often.  It’s usually at some sort of concert that you see them, and on those occasions they are busy; they sweat as they herd nervous performers into different positions, they look at the time and count and conduct.  After years of producing concerts of my own I know that they haven’t really got time to talk to people like me who want to thank them for their time, for their commitment to my child.

And that’s what I did on Thursday morning.  I tried to express, no doubt far too clumsily, that I knew that Sam was never going to make it to the Albert Hall.  He isn’t going to be up on stage in a competition, but when it comes down to it, we don’t care.  That for him, and for our other children, and indeed for many other children up and down the country, learning to play an instrument is about more than the music itself.

It’s about learning the power of practice, and how, when it all feels like it’s really hard and you’re really stuck and you’ll never get it right, a little bit of practice every day makes the difference.  It’s about learning that if you stick at something, results will happen.  Eventually.  It’s about forging new neural pathways, the pleasure of learning something new.  It’s about coming out of school with that guitar case on your back, your little chest puffed out because you are doing something you think is important; you are getting the chance to experience what you have watched others do for ever so long.  It’s about that relationship with a teacher that is so precious and so special; the shared joy and interest in something that makes both hearts beat quicker, both hearts sing.

And, when I think about it, when I follow this train of thought, it’s about learning that nothing is ever perfect.  It’s about bum notes and learning how to recover from them, in practice or performance.  It’s about knowing that everyone has to start somewhere, and we all start at the beginning.  It’s about the realisation that the perfect sounds you can get out of technology or recordings, just like the printouts we are so keen to hang on our classroom walls, are fake and mechanisitic; like photoshopped pictures of celebrities they give us unrealistic excpectations of who we should be, of what we should be able to do.  It is about learning that music, and making music with a real instrument, is like us – human – and getting it right is hard.

It’s about putting the power in his hands.

 

You Can’t Stop the Beat

When Sam was about a year old, I was infected with a serious case of Even-Better-Than-Thats.  It’s a terrible disease that affects teachers in particular, especially those with a bit of time on their hands and a fertile imagination (ie. me).  Back in 2002, instead of buckling under the pressure to attend every baby-learning group possible (OK, I fell for the baby swimming one for a bit), I decided I would go into business and set up my own.  So Music Time was born.

I learned a lot from my little enterprise; not least the pleasure I got out of sharing my joy in making music with other people.  I developed a simple structure: a half hour of singing everyday nursery rhymes and songs with signs and actions, playing and exploring musical instruments, accompanying songs with instruments and a bit of listening to music from different times and cultures (which usually included jigging about).  I ran it for about seven years, by which time all three of my children had attended, from babyhood to pre-school.

There was the pleasure in seeing adults making friends, through a joint activity, a common interest.  I wasn’t a party to these friendships, not particularly, but I was aware that mothers came to my group because they valued making music with their little ones, but perhaps lacked confidence doing it on their own, and found others who shared their values.

Then there was all the business stuff I learned.  I found out that there is no better marketing than word of mouth; I must have had three posters in and around my town, done about five demos at different toddler groups and that was it.  I was up and running.  That said, I also found out that people want to buy into a brand.  They don’t always believe that smaller is better, that they are getting a better quality experience when they attend an independent group designed by someone enthusiastic and well qualified, rather than one run by a franchisee.  I found that, in the midst of babies and nappies, sleepless nights and vomit, endless washing and potty training, I didn’t have what it took to compete with flashy resources and the power behind a glossy name that everyone recognises.

But most of all there was my pleasure in seeing my children, and Sam in particular, taking part.  I had (in fact, I still have it, sitting on top of a shelf, next to the piano) a box of instruments specially designed for tiny hands.  (I occasionally let them get it down and bang and clash and create and compose to their heart’s content.)   Sam used to dance about and exclaim with excitement when it was time to get them out.  Those simple songs started all of my children on their journey to communication and language.  While I sang them, I signed them.  As well as the rhythms and rhymes of English, they all learned essential signs, such as ‘more’, ‘please’, ‘eat’ and ‘drink’.  Sam was signing long before he was talking.

It was more than that, though.  There was up and down, stop and go, waiting, turn taking, the security of routines and repetition, discovery, counting, early reading; I could go on.  I made coins so that they could come and ‘buy’ currant buns (after counting them).  I had a piece of string for ‘elephants’ to balance on.  I made a set of cards with pictures on one side and words on the other so that we could take turns making requests.  There was eye contact and sharing.  Stories and song.

I’ve been doing a bit of reading lately and it’s been making me feel bad.  I’ve been finding out about how much a parent’s engagement with their child matters, how much of a difference it makes to educational achievement.  And I have mourned the passing of Sam’s primary years, those years when I felt slowly, but surely, frozen out of his schooling; years when the journey of my slow withdrawal from involvement with his school work started.  These days, it’s a rare event when he will read his book to me.  I struggle to persuade him to do his spellings without a fight.  Frankly, I’ve felt a bit depressed.

But something happened today, something quite unexpected, that made me stop and think.  There I was, sitting at the table, surrounded by the debris of a Saturday lunch, reluctantly contemplating the washing up, the wiping down, the sweeping up.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I am not the biggest fan of cleaning, in any of its forms.  I have a multitude of professional procrastination techniques up my sleeves.  However, eventually, the job has to be done, and often my answer is to put some songs on, crank the volume up (not so much as to annoy the neighbours) and sing and boogie the housework away.

Mid-boogie (it may have been one of my Zumba-tunes), Sam came and joined me.  He didn’t attempt a Strictly-fied lift this time (thank goodness); this time he selected the tunes and we walked 100miles, told each other we were fireworks and wondered at the amazing discovery that rock ’n’ roll would save us all.  We grinned at each other and I remembered that we share more, my eldest boy and I, than I normally realise.

When he was a baby, and my only baby, I used to play and play my piano to him.  I lay him on the floor nearby and he would coo and I would play and sing.  Later there was Music Time, and now there is Strictly and dancing and singing; always singing.  It doesn’t matter that you can’t really hear the words.  It doesn’t matter that the tune gets mangled.  We don’t care that the rest of the family is sick of Moves Like Jagger and Scouting for Girls.

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Music is inside us, and the beat goes on.  My son and I.

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This is not my bass.  This is Daddy’s bass.  (My piano is behind the Boy.)

Performance Management

I do not enjoy the many, many end of term assemblies or carol concerts I attend as a parent.  It troubles me, this dissatisfaction.  After all, I think my children are the bees knees, and I want to join with them in these celebrations, but, somehow, it doesn’t work for me.  Something always jars.  Part of it is down to the fact that at my children’s school, I am an outsider.  I am fully aware of this.  As a teacher my emotions are fully engaged with all of the children, as a parent I only really care about three amongst the assembled throng.  As a parent it’s not my job to interact, to share conspiratorial grins or shush loudly, raise my eyebrows or apologise from the piano keys.  As a parent, it is my job to be entirely passive, to sit, to stand, to clap when I am told to, and it’s not a job I do well, I’m afraid.

There always seems to be, at the back of my mind, the awful feeling that my children are missing out.  As one of the pianists at school, a large part of my job-before-the-kids-arrived was to direct and teach the singing.  I’ve got books and books of parts written for chime bars, recorders and a whole plethora of un-tuned percussion sitting, unused, on my bookshelves and yet, this aspect, this part that was writ large in my teaching life, seems to have touched my children not one little bit.

They don’t know about invisible string.  (That’s the stuff that starts at the base of your spine, goes up your backbone and comes out the top of your head and pulls you to sitting up straight when you are singing.)  They don’t know how many fingers you need to get into your mouth to show you how wide to open it to let the sound out.  They don’t know which parts of their ribs move when they breathe, or how they should be able to sing the alphabet on one breath.  They don’t know to just carry on when the piano playing goes wrong.  In fact, half the time I’m not even sure if I am listening to my own children sing or not, because the canned music is so loud.

And all this makes me unbearably sad.  I couldn’t understand it at first.  I couldn’t understand why the production values were so low, but now that I am back in the game I think I’ve got a better handle on what’s going on.

It used to be, back when I was teaching full time and had a class of my own, that you could pretty much write off the last few days leading up to a production.  Or weeks even, if it was a really big show.  There wasn’t much point planning PE in the hall because you were never sure if you’d be able to get in there, what with all the rehearsals.  Take Christmas.  We’d start learning the carols in November in our weekly singing assemblies, and the timetable, from being predictable in its routine, was liable to fly out of the window at a moments’ notice – usually the point at which the head teacher decided that it was going to be a disaster and no mistake if we didn’t do something drastic.

These days, I don’t think anyone would dare.  Somehow, somewhere, it seems that the only valuable things to learn are those we write down in exercise books, in particular in English and Maths. Somehow, we seem to have forgotten the other things we learn when there is a school play, or concert, end of term assembly or service.  Somehow, in schools stuffed with teachers who play musical instruments, it has become easier to stick a CD on rather than open the lid of the piano.  Or worse, have no-one who can play it all on the staff.

I’ve never been a particularly sporty person (I always have a good idea of the game, but never had the physical capabilities to take part properly); I learned how to be in a team through the school orchestra, the choir and the play.  I’ve watched children internalise song after song after song (who needs poetry recitals?!), I’ve seen them practice and practice until they got it right, take parts that pushed them out of their comfort zone because they trusted their teachers and rose to the challenge.  I’ve refused to accept singing that slides all over the place instead of hitting the right notes,  and have insisted on practising that little bit again and again and again, slowing down the melody and simplifying it so that the children could really hear it, really listen.  I’ve shown children how to enunciate properly so that the audience could make out the words – either sung or spoken.

I’ve felt the buzz of excitement in the room designated ‘back stage’, and I’ve seen how the children take a first tentative step out into the unknown, with no teacher or conductor there to support them, and how they grow when the audience laughs at the jokes and applauds with enthusiasm at the end.

And more than anything else, I’ve experienced how these team events bind us together.  They create a community, a shared sense of ‘do you remember when Johnny Smith fell off the stage and Mr Williams saved the day?’  The magic of going out in the dark, the spotlights that mean you can’t see the audience, but you know that they can see you, creates more enthusiasm for school than anything else I’ve known, especially when it is the kind of performance where everyone has a part to play.

I feel a palpable sense of grief that for my own children, this experience is almost an entirely alien one.  Maybe it’s because they go to a school that isn’t especially musical, but I’m not so sure.  I think it’s got more to do with levels and OfSTED and performance of an entirely different kind. I wish someone would convince Our Great Leader that there is more to learning, and there is certainly more to school learning, than what goes on in formal lessons.

 

Sam learns about stage craft - but not at school.
Sam learns about stage craft – but not at school.