Hairy House

Hairy House

Monday, 16 October 2017

What price Instrumental lessons in Schools?

So, the science is out. Music education has been proven, time and time again to benefit academic progress – something of which the vast majority of educationalists must be aware.

Yet, time and time again, music, along with all the arts, is the first thing to be cut, when budgeting becomes an issue. In a sensible world, this of course, would cause a huge outcry, there would be protesting on the streets, blah de blah de blah. But as we know, apart from a few disgruntled music teachers turning to drink, not a lot changes, here in the UK, at least. And I think I know why.

This was the situation at one of the schools I taught at last term – and I would like to point out here, that this was a nice primary school in a beautiful town in Buckinghamshire, where most of the pupils I talked to were planning trips to the Maldives/Florida/Australia, over their summer break.

My brief was to teach violin to several groups of children, in twenty minute blocks, over the course of three hours - the majority of the groups being two to three children.
Once I started, I realised that the groups I was teaching had been selected for their academic years, not for their ability and that, within each group, there was a huge range, from complete beginners, to children who had been playing for three years. (and I was asked NOT to interfere with said groups.) Only two children EVER turned up for their lesson on time, which meant that I had to spend at least five minutes of the allotted twenty, tracking my pupils from various parts of the school. When once I had got them back to the room, (which incidentally, was so cramped that they couldn't do an up bow without hitting the wall) fixed and tuned the violins (because yes, there is nearly always at least someone whose bridge has fallen down, or whose chin rest has come off, string broken etc etc) we had a maximum of ten minutes before I had to go in search of the next few children. When I asked the children why they didn't come to their lessons on time, it turned out that may of them couldn't tell the time, so had no way of telling when their lesson was, the others were so deeply engrossed in their Maths, that they had forgotten the time, or the timetable (which changed every week) had been placed too high on the wall for them to read. Though I asked several times, it was apparently impossible for the class teachers to remind the children to go to their lessons.
I hasten to add that there is a lot of truly wonderful teaching that goes on in schools, but sadly, the above experience of teaching is not uncommon. I have often had teachers roll their eyes at me when I come to collect children for their lessons, or children who have been told off for interrupting their teachers when they try to come for their lessons themselves.In another school I had to teach six children in 20 minutes, in a room which doubled as Special Needs teaching room/library/photocopier room, which meant that I had a constant stream of people walking in and out to choose books, uses said photocopier, and kids with special needs having lessons at the same time. The best class I ever gave was one where all the children were ten minutes late, two children had broken their violins and one child weed on the floor.

And of course the result of this sort of teaching is that the children do not progress as fast as they can and I shouldn't think it does much at all for their academic progress. Parents who have paid for years for lessons, will read articles about the benefits of music education and might nod their heads or even go so far as to share them on Facebook, but at the back of their minds will the thought that they never saw those benefits themselves. The children will grow up, look back on their childhood lessons and wonder why they never felt the benefit. And so the cycle continues....

Monday, 9 October 2017

Part 1 of...

Last week, I wrote about some of my experiences as a musician, in an attempt to explain why I have had a rather love hate relationship with music and, to some extent, why I am the weird person that I am. Over the years, music has meant so many things to me, as a profession and as something I love doing. Is is something which has led to many beautiful friendships, something which has led to a lot of fun, laughter, tears and something which has led to a huge amount of FRUSTRATION.

And one of the many frustrations I would like to write about now, is that of music education.
So this is Part 1 of 10,000, dealing with my FRUSTRATION with MUSIC EDUCATION.

It seems that there are a myriad reasons why parents wish their children to learn a musical instrument. Here, I believe, are the ones you hear most often.
  • they themselves never had the opportunity as children and so would like their own children to have the chance
  • they learned as children, felt they gained hugely as a result and want the same for their offspring
  • they have heard/read that learning an instrument can benefit their child's wider education
  • their child has asked to learn (!)
  • they believe that their child will have more chance of getting into the school/university of their choice if they have certificates of achievement in musical performance.

It seems that nearly every day, the results of another study into the benefits of music education are published. Music education has been shown, time and time again, to enhance children's listening skills, their co-ordination, problem solving, social skills. Students who study music have been shown in numerous studies, in numerous countries, from kindergarten through to University, to have higher grade point averages than their non music learning peers. Of course it can be argued that the people who fund the studies have an agenda; that families who can afford to pay for instrumental lessons are more likely to come from academically focussed backgrounds or are more likely to pay for extra tuition in other areas too. However, very few people ever argue that music education is NOT important, or that they are glad that they never learnt to play an instrument or that their children have never wanted to learn to play.

And yet, here are some of the things I and most instrumental teachers hear on a regular basis: 

“We didn't have time to practise this week, she had too much homework/ballet/drama/swimming/guides/tennis/football.”

 “He didn't want to practise and I didn't want to push him.”

And, the most dreaded: “There's not much point if he's not enjoying it, is there?”

So let's think about that last point. Yes indeed, music can be a wonderful world, filled with unicorns and fairy wings, where one can soar ever higher on clouds of rosy self expression, whilst one's intellect sharpens into diamond points of Einsteinism. 
But it can also be a hard slog and when you've just had a long day's schooling and it's cold and you're tired and hungry, even taking your instrument out of the case, fitting a reed or tightening a bow, can seem a herculean task, however keen one might be. Playing an instrument is a physical task, make no mistake.


How many parents go to their child's teacher and say: “My child isn't going to learn Maths/English Science any longer, because they no longer enjoy it?” 

And here's the Thing; children know that their parents are not going to say that. And so here's the Question: Do they also know that, deep down, their parents are not convinced that, actually, music is that important after all?

Friday, 6 October 2017

The Contradictions of it all.

This is something that I wrote two years ago - in recent times I have had some happier experiences as a performer and as a teacher, but this was relevant at the time, and so I am publishing it anyway.

“Music education is so important for children,” I say, putting as much conviction into my voice as I can. “It helps in so many ways - to develop the brain, to develop self expression, it can even help children with their maths!”
Ben's mother nods and smiles, her eyes tired and rather desperate as she looks at her son, who is attacking the music stand with his violin bow, à la Jack Sparrow. I must sound convincing, because I can tell that she's beginning to think that yes, maybe it is worth plodding on then - maybe it is worth the fights to get him to stand his testosterone-fizzing body still, for ten minutes three times a week with a violin clamped under his chin - maybe it is worth the money she pays to bring him for his lessons every week, worth the trauma of listening to him whine and squirm the notes out of his small, factory made instrument.
I feel a worm of guilt wriggle in my stomach. Should I have my fingers crossed behind my back, when I spout this “music teacher” talk?
Should I tell her about my performance on Saturday evening? Does she really need to know? Does she need to know how I, a grown woman with three teenage children, the product of so many music lessons, spent all Saturday in a cold sweat, my fingers shaking, the vomit churning at the bottom of my throat - just because I had to perform a Bach solo that I love? Would it help her to know how I washed down my beta-blockers with a glass of wine before the performance – and how all I wanted to do, in the hours leading up to it, was to leave my children and husband of twenty years and run away to Peru? Does she need to know about the humiliation, the great feeling of worthlessness that drained me, the next day, because, even after the wine and the beta-blockers, my hands shook so much that the bow felt as though it had shrunk to the size of a pencil and spent the entire piece bouncing up and down like a rubber ball on the strings?
No, of course she doesn't need to know about those things. Instead, I tell her about those times when I was a child and fell in love with music – the times I will never forget. The Wednesday evenings in Saudi Arabia, when my father would load four of his six daughters into our rusting Chevrolet and we would ride through the dusking city, through the blare and snort and fart of Riyadh traffic, past the flashing neon signs and the feathery palm trees, the high rises and the mud houses. We would drive right to the edge of the city, where concrete melted into sand and rock and you could look out for miles across flat and empty desert, to where the sun was sinking in a welter of dusty pink glory. And there would be our friends, Ruth and Erasmus, middle aged doctors with grown up children, who would welcome us into their house with beaming smiles, would ply us with tea and orange juice and sticky cakes from French Corner, filled with custard and fruit. Malcolm would be there as well - fierce, eagle eyed Malcolm who, in his youth, had played with the great recorder players of Europe and Knew His Stuff. We would sit in a circle, in the orange light of the lamps and put up our music stands, take out our recorders and open up the boxes of music that stood in the centre of the room.
We never knew what was going to come out of those boxes – whether it would be music by Telemann, or Purcell, or Bach, or Schickhardt or Loeillet. Sometimes it would be music we had played before, but more often than not, it wasn't. Ruth would hand out our parts and we would open them up, see the squiggles on the page – flat instructions, printed black on white. And then we would begin to play, Erasmus on the guitar – pretending it was a lute - his eyebrows disappearing into his hair as he peered at the music over the top of his glasses; Ruth with her fat, sausage fingers sticking out high over the holes of her recorder, so that she was always a quaver behind the rest of us, her soft grey hair, loosening from its bun and waving around her round, sparkling eyes; Malcolm, his breath rasping from his nostrils into his beard, stamping with a desperate foot and wagging his recorder up and down in an attempt to keep us all together; my sisters and I, our cheeks flushed, all bright eyed with eagerness.
Sometimes the music was pretty, sometimes, it was lovely, but sometimes, it would spark and catch and lift off the page and it was as though a time warp had opened up between this concrete house in Saudi Arabia and the Europe of past centuries, the music redolent of old stone churches, organs and choirs. Sometimes it was music that was rich with the extravagance of marble floored dance halls, gold trimmed cherubs singing from pink-cloud ceilings – or sometimes it was music which smelled of beer and roared with the life of Bruegel-busy taverns. Our hearts would race, any evening fatigue would vanish and when we had finished it was: “Let's play that again – please can we play it again!” till late in the evening.
This is what I tell Ben's mother. About the times when music turns into a magic gift of creation across time and centuries and people of different ages.
“You're so lucky!” Ben's mother exclaims. “You must have had the most amazing experiences.”
And I nod and smile again, “Yes,” I say. “I am very lucky.”
I don't tell tell her about the years at music college where I learnt that my worth as a human being was in direct proportion to my worth as a musician. I do not tell her about the years of practising in practise rooms with the light switched off, or up in the towers behind the organs where no one could see me, terrified that someone would discover that I had only just started learning my Tchaikovsky, or that I had not yet perfected my Bach, or that my scales were not as well in tune as they ought to be.
I tell her, instead, about sitting on stage with tiger cubs, acrobats swinging overhead, the most famous stars in the land singing and dancing beside me. I tell her of the camaraderie of the orchestra pit, the crosswords and knitting, the book clubs and jokes that form over a season. I don't tell her how quickly that camaraderie can fade, once the season is over. How colleagues that have shared a desk with me, every night over the course of six weeks, can come to return a greeting with glassy eyed indifference, mere weeks later. I don't tell her how, when working with other musicians, you come to expect the jealousy, the bitchy rumours, the snide comments.
“I wish I could have been talented enough to be a professional musician,” Ben's mother says and her eyes are wistful as she watches her son fold his music into an aeroplane and send it shooting at the neighbour’s cat. “It must be so wonderful to do something you love. When I came to your last concert and heard you play, I could just see how much you love it!”
Again, I nod and smile and think back to the week before that concert - how I had been counting down the days: “a week and it'll all be over...three more days and it'll all be over...two more hours and it'll all be over...two more pages....three more lines....two more bars....” how I had looked out over the happy, applauding audience and wondered why, at the age of forty-one, I was still putting myself through all this.
I tell her instead, about playing sonatas with my pianist, the excitement of trying different interpretations; trying this passage a tad slower, or maybe that one much faster – the process of searching for the door into the music – the magic of discovering that you're there! This is it - this is how it's meant to go!
I tell her about playing Elgar - those moments when I feel as though I can see right into his soul and my own heart breaks with the music, but is filled, at the same time, with the rushing thrill of it.
“Well, we'll persevere,” Ben's Mum says, eyeing her son as he throws his violin into its case and slams the lid on it, as though trapping a wild animal. “I'm sure it will be worth it in the end.”
And I bite my lip and smile and the worms of guilt dance a jig in my stomach.
After Ben's Mum has gone, I sit for a while and wonder: why didn't I tell her all those things?
Was it just because I need the income from Ben's lessons? Is the income from Ben's lessons, come to that, really worth the hours I have spent, listening to his squalling attempts to ring a tune out of the violin, trying to persuade him that he really does have to take his violin out of its case and at least look at it, between lessons?
No, it is nothing to do with income. It is because, in spite of everything – in spite of the fact that I probably have a stomach ulcer the size of Japan, in spite of all the tears I have shed over the years, the fact that I know I will always feel like a failure, always feel as though I have missed something, never feel as though I am worth anything as a musician; in spite of the fact that I know it will not get any better – in spite of all this, I know that Ben's mother is right.
I am lucky. I love what I do and I do not regret a single moment of my life as a musician.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Kindle Book

As you may have noticed (!) I've not had much time for writing this blog recently. Though I asked Father Christmas for a few more hours in the day, there has been no sign of them as yet and I have so many projects on the go, I don't know which way to turn most of the time. 
However, one of the projects I've just finished is something I've been meaning to do for a while - putting up another collection of short stories on amazon Kindle. I am happier with the quality of these stories than I was with the last; many of them have won or been placed in competitions, or published in literary magazines though some of them are just there because I have a particular fondness for them myself! The first story in the collection is very imaginatively based on a true family story and many of the others deal with the treatment of women in some parts of the world. So if anyone wants a read, please look this book up, and by all means let me know what you think of it.