So on Thursday, I was teaching at a school. Last lesson was a year five class, and I haven’t taught them for very long. From what I can gather, they haven’t had great music tuition, and are pretty disengaged with the whole music ‘thing’. Any music teacher will tell you that engaging disengaged kids in upper primary is fairly challenging. Actually, having written that, it’s probably fair to write that about any subject…. I’ve only experienced it with music, though.

But back to me and year five. A young boy drooped in and flopped down on the floor. He didn’t want to be there. He looked hot and over it. I started the lesson. I’m teaching them some drumming – not with djembe drums, but with drum sticks – and they’ll be drumming on upturned chairs. About five minutes into class, something happened to this kid. He stopped drooping and sat up. Then he started trying. Then he started succeeding. This was noted by both me and his very switched-on teacher. In the space of ten minutes, he had gone from doing nothing much to being the best drummer in the class. He looked really coordinated. He sat properly. He even smiled – a little smile, but a smile.

‘Have you done any drumming before?’ I asked. ‘Nope.’

‘Do you like this?’ ‘Yep.’

Total turn-around. He was engaged for the rest of the lesson.

I think I need to find him an electric drum kit and a teacher….

It’s March now, and I realised the other day that for most of 2017 all I have practised have been Bach Suites. It’s been completely fabulous, you know. When I went to study with Robert Cohen, my teacher in London, it was all I did with him for at least a year. No studies – just Bach. It was fabulous then – and it’s been fabulous now. (Too many fabulouses. Sorry.)

I’ve had to play them all differently, due to the programs they were in. One has been to link with the spoken word. So I found myself playing really freely. Speaking each phrase – where was I going? What was I saying here? One suite was with a percussionist. I practised that with a metronome. No rhythmic freedom there at all! It was very challenging to work around the problems of string crossings and being a melody-maker and a bass line with no real rhythmic changes. And the third one was with a painter. I had to be really dramatic and full of different colours for her to respond.

It’s been a great way to start the year for me. Ironed out lots of holes in my technique. And I’ve come to an excellent conclusion. None of these suites suffered. They didn’t change. And all of them held up to what I was doing. And each of them were enjoyed by the audiences I played them to. Herr Bach, you are really truly very excellent. Thank you for these suites. Thank you for your genius. You were one extraordinary man.

I love singing. I have always been encouraged to sing from a really young age. I have a recording of me singing to my grandparents on  cassette – I think I was under the age of two. I’ve sung in school choirs, in vocal ensembles, in musicals (a few – not a fan of musicals. OK… I know a lot of people like them. They’re not really for me. Move on now.), in pubs, in buses, in many showers….

It makes me sad when I hear adults say “I can’t sing.” Actually, there are very few people who can’t sing. Some people can only sing a few notes – they may have a really low voice, or a really high one – but nearly everyone can actually sing. Some bastard music teacher has come around and told these now-grown-ups they couldn’t sing as a child, usually. Death to that music teacher, I say. I really do get sad. I actually want to hug whoever has just said that to me, and talk to them, and sing with them. Truly.

Last week, I had a number of moments that made me realise how GOOD singing is. You see, when you sing, with others, there’s all sorts of great health stuff that goes on. Dopamine is produced, your heart starts to beat at the same speed as those who are around you (true!), your brain starts firing…. It really is one of the best things you can do with others that’s (a) legal, (b) cheap and (c) doesn’t involve taking your clothes off.

Here’s a few great singing stories that have happened to me just in the last week.

At one school I go into, singing is all I do there. I have two huge choirs, and I’m very popular there (yes – the choir teacher is popular. Read that part again.). Kids love it. They will sing in parts, in rounds, with actions, without actions… and they will tunefully bellow. I look at kids having SUCH A GOOD TIME. Singing. I was working with 170 (yes, you read that right.) kids teaching them ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. They had been learning it for three weeks – and they got to the end. We stopped and I said ‘Well done! You’ve done it!’ Quick as a flash someone said ‘So can we sing it again now? All the way through?’ I said ‘Really? You want to do this all over again?’ ‘YES!’

At another school, a teacher who I love to bits said he’d had a really awful day. In fact, he’d had a really awful week. So I got his class to sing to him. He grinned and looked at me. “This is the first time I’ve really smiled at school all week” he said.

I’ve also just come back from a wonderful school in the country (I have to say it’s wonderful, as I know teachers at the school read this! Actually, it is wonderful – I’d write that anyway….) – and the high point for me this visit was the choir. After two days, a group of kids learned a song for ANZAC day. Not just the song though – also AUSLAN sign language for the words they sing. And they nailed it. Even little children. I saw children concentrating their damnedest. Kids who were shy singing proudly. Kids who are fidgetbodies sitting still. And everyone singing. And loving it. Really loving it. So they weren’t just singing, but they were excelling themselves. And they were completely inspiring to watch.

It’s so good, you know. Singing. You don’t have to be good at it. You just have to do it.

Do it.

Go on.

When I went to music college, I wasn’t really encouraged to rock the boat much. Although I learned from a teacher who taught me both traditional repertoire (all the Beethoven sonatas, for example), I was encouraged to play more wacky stuff. But he was one of the few who did this. I can remember learning a piece of music for singing cellist by the Australian composer, Martin Wesley-Smith. This was a really big turning point for me, as a cellist. I had heard the piece, and fell in love with it – but I had heard a man do it (in fact, my teacher at the time). I was encouraged to contact Martin (who I only knew by reputation), and then go to his house and work on it, to work through the piece with him, so it was suitable for female singer, rather than male. I had never done this sort of thing before, and I remember it was a huge thing for me. Learning to sing and play as well was a really hard thing – it took hours in the practise room. I still play this piece. I still love this piece. And Martin is still a friend of mine. And yet every other teacher at the particular institution I was at dismissed this piece as a ‘party trick’. They didn’t seem to care about the processes I had gone through, or the hurdles I had jumped. Just that it was something different, and they thought it was tacky. So much for breaking the mould there.

And then I went to England, and realised I didn’t know all the music I was meant to. The Beethoven quartets. The Brahms sonatas. All the standard repertoire. So I knuckled down and humbly learned as much of it as I could. This was the time in my life I did an awful lot of practise. I went to the U.K. as an average cellist. I came back a very good one. But I came back very much working within the classical cellist ‘norm’, as it were.

Little by little, I’ve tried to break away from this. I’ve talked to friends who aren’t Classical musicians about this, and they don’t really understand what my problem is. Who cares if I perform with an accordion player? Or if I wear wacky shoes? Or any shoes at all, for that matter? But there are so many traditions within the Classical music establishment. So many rules. So many things expected by a lot of audience members that come to concerts. You see, if you break too many rules, you become labelled as too different. No-one comes to your concerts. Or if they do, they are few. And if you break too few rules, you don’t say anything new. And then no-one comes to your concerts. See the problem here?

This year, I started the ‘Bach in the Dark’ concerts with a gamble. I had wanted to play two Bach suites back-to-back for a while. But I didn’t want to just walk on stage and play one after another. So I linked one with spoken word, and one with percussion. My inside voice said things to me like this…

You are going to expect people to concentrate for 33 minutes on an intimate performance that combines words and music? They aren’t going to want to do that. That’s hard work. They won’t like it. They won’t come. And you aren’t playing things the right way. You aren’t repeating when you should. You aren’t playing the minuets like they should be.

And then…. Drums? You are going to put drums to Bach? They aren’t going to like it. Its too hard for you to play these suites without any room to get around the instrument. You won’t be able to be heard. People will walk out.

I have done so much practise for these concerts. Not just so I can play as interestingly, and expressively, and rhythmically as I could, but also just to build up finger stamina. The first performance of this program was last night. It was hot. I was sweaty and uncomfortable.  The last review I got in a major Classical publication was condescending. I had really hoped the ‘establishment’ would understand what it was I was trying to do, but they didn’t (and why am I really surprised?). It was a very long and lonely ten minutes backstage before I walked on to play. I was very nervous about how it would go down. I got hotter. And more uncomfortable.

And then I realised I needed to be brave. I tell people I am teaching this all the time. So, Rachel, do it. Be authentic. Be yourself. What’s the worst that can happen? The sun will rise tomorrow. The last instruction I gave myself was to breathe.

And the concert went. How did it go? Well, people loved it. They listened. They laughed. They clapped. Some people even cried. One woman came up to me at the end and said “It was so different. But I knew that if you had done it, it would be right. And I loved it! Thank you…”

Turns out I didn’t need to worry. It’s OK to rock the boat. But it takes an awful lot of strength and self-belief, you know.

I teach a lot of children. Loads, in fact. I love the process, actually. But this post is not about that.

Most of the schools I’m in, I’ve been in for a while. They have umm… ‘experienced’ Rachel. They know a little bit about what to expect. But last week I started at a new school. I know a few teachers, but I didn’t have their classes on that day. I saw 7 classes of children who had never met me, seen me teach, or had a hands-on music lesson before (there used to be a music teacher at the school, but no instruments there. How can you teach music with no instruments?).

I decided to hit the ground running. I was a tie-dyed one-woman circus. All the kids learned to note-read. They sang. All classes played instruments. Lots of them played chime bars. Year six drummed on djembes. There was a lot of laughter – it started off nervously, especially with the older children, and then developed into actual laughter expressing joy. There were a lot of strange looks (who is this woman? what is she asking us to do? why is her hair so messy?) from both teachers and students that seemed to relax throughout the lesson (well, mostly). And there was a HUGE amount of engagement.

I see it as a challenge, you know. I have 25 children in front of me? If I can’t get ALL of them engaged in what I’m asking them to do, then I need to do things differently. My delivery is wrong. Or I’ve pitched the lesson wrongly. I need to change what I’m doing.

There were so many good things that happened. One very ADHD boy sang and played chime bars with a huge grin on his face. One very autistic child who doesn’t join in much had a great time playing percussion with her class. Year six erupted into cheering at the end of a drum piece. Lots of smiling. Lots of laughter. Lots of loving the learning process.

Music really engages kids, you know. And yet it’s not taught at a lot of schools. Or it’s taught badly. For my money? It’s as important as maths. If I was Prime Minister it’d be the first thing I made compulsory in schools. It would increase kids’ learning. And their self-esteem. And their school attendance. And their motor skills.

It’s a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned.