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.

There’s been a much-talked-about study done by the Grattan Institute that 40% of Australian students are disengaged in the classroom. Not all of them are being disruptive, but often just drifting off, apparently. And this makes them up to two years behind where they should be with their learning. (If you haven’t read it you can go here…)

I have heard all sorts of discussions about this report on the air-waves. There have been discussions about how teachers need to make lessons more engaging. (It’s always up to the teachers, isn’t it?). Teachers need more training and mentorship for older teachers. (See my previous comment again.) I’ve heard from politicians that this is a terrible statistic. (Well, they are right. It is.)

What I haven’t heard is something that goes like this….

Over the last ten years or so, there has been less and less emphasis placed on the creative arts in the school learning process. The new Edubuzzword is STEM. All about literacy and numeracy. Bit of science too. As one principal put it to me once ‘I’m here in the business of getting children to read. Not getting them to be musicians.’ So most lessons in schools, most days focus on reading and writing and maths. (I’m going to climb on my soapbox and talk about music programs, because that’s what I know. But that’s not to say that visual art and drama doesn’t do the same thing.)

Children who participate in regular, interactive music classes read better. Yep, there’s been studies done. Google it if you don’t believe me. But that’s it, in a nutshell. They also speak better, concentrate more, have better motor skills and better mental health. ALL of the things I’ve mentioned allow children to re-engage with schooling. I see this EVERY DAY I teach. Mostly with boys, or children who struggle with conventional learning.

So why isn’t this being discussed? Why isn’t music and visual art and drama being brought back into the curriculum? I can remember the lessons I loved at school. And they were not maths and English (until year 11 when I had a phenomenal English teacher – but she taught us in a very unconventional way. I’ve not seen anyone else like it…). They were music and drama. And then science. What did you love the most?

Here’s what I see…. I see kids walk into music classes and they are dopey. They are tired. They’ve been sitting at a desk for a long time. They’ve worked as hard as they can. And then they sing, or drum. They smile and laugh. They learn – actively, noisily, as a team. And then they go back into class, and they are invigorated. And isn’t that what we are after here?

So why isn’t this being talked about? Why isn’t this being shouted about?

I am fortunate to live not-very-far from a fabulous Iyengar yoga studio. In fact, I am incredibly fortunate. The teaching there is extraordinarily good. I go there a lot to practise. A few people have wondered why I go to the studio to practise – I mean, can’t I do it by myself at home? And they are right. I could now, I guess. But I go there because once I walk in, I practise being absent. Well, not totally absent, as in away-with-the-faeries, or I’ve-had-a-lobotomy absent. But without judgement. And without ego.

I didn’t start yoga to be able to do this. I started it because I had a sore back. And then I got incredibly hooked on the precise learning that was required of me in classes. I liked that, as it was what I do as a cellist, and as a teacher. And although I found it frightening, I thought that doing something that took me out of my comfort zone regularly would make me a more empathetic teacher. (It has, by the way.)

In the studio, from the top down, there is no judgement from any of the teachers. They are there to guide you – to push you a little some days, to nurture you on other days, and to make you smile. There is no ‘wrong’. There is no ‘try harder’. There is just instruction with fairness (and kindness). And when I realised that, it was a huge relief. One day I went to practise after a huge day of rehearsals. I felt like I had nothing left within me. Essence-of-Rachel was all used up. And I practised without comparing me to anyone. I was completely internal.

What a revelation that was.

We don’t do this, much. Well, at least I don’t. I look at people – I see what they are wearing. Do I like it? Would I wear that? I listen to what they are saying – do I agree? Do I want to talk to them more? I read books, or listen to music – do I like this writer or performer? I judge and compare. I don’t think this is wrong. I was also brought up in a competitive learning environment. I knew who was at the top of the class. I wanted to get a distinction in cello recitals. This judgement is good in a way – it makes me discerning and hard-working. I learn from myself by judging my actions.

But sometimes NOT judging is excellent. And there’s a time in one’s practise as a musician where you need to stop judging, and start creating. And take risks. And do it without ego. To be absent.

And I have learned that from my yoga teachers. And I practise it when I go there and listen to them in the beautiful space that is the yoga studio.

And I thank them, with all my soul. It’s a relief.

I have an excellent friend who is a self-taught flute player. He’s a good player, and is a very clever man, so approaches his playing with great intelligence. He listens to all sorts of music, and really thinks about what he hears, so his ideas are always developing. But he’s had very few traditional ‘lessons’. I coach him from time-to-time, and last year I played continuo for him in a Bach sonata.

As we were rehearsing, I didn’t say a lot, as I didn’t think it was my place. I was his continuo player, and he was the main voice. But I played for him as I would a professional performer. I came to the first rehearsal with everything ready to go at tempo, having pulled apart my part and was ready to really rehearse. This is the way I was trained by my teacher in London. I believe it shows respect for my fellow musicians, and also the music I am playing. Some people don’t approach rehearsals like this, but I do.

This week, over dinner, he was talking about the effect that my playing had had on him and how it had really hoicked him into shape – it had raised his playing to another level. I was delighted. And it got my thinking about the musicians that have raised my playing to a new level, or the things I have done to raise my playing – recording, playing Bach suites with a percussionist, touring, learning to re-arrange things and then perform them.

It made me realise how important it was,for any musician, professional or amateur to allow themselves to be totally lifted up by their bootstraps by another player, or an experience, and how important that is. To not play with players who don’t think. Or who think they are better than they are. To try new repertoire and new playing combinations. To perhaps play with a baroque bow. To not grow stagnant.

Thank you to the players who did this to me. Who forced me to do things I didn’t want to do. Who suggested pieces that terrified me. Who took things at tempi I wasn’t comfortable with. Who hoicked me into shape.