I have this lovely friend who is a painter…. I’ve written about her before here – I only know one painter. Actually, I don’t think I should call her a painter – she’s a ‘visual artist’. (She doesn’t paint houses for a living.)

Last week, I played at a workshop for her – 6 student painters were being taught by her about how to respond to music and ‘make marks’. I like that term. It made me wonder how my marks were made – and I could see my playing almost like the light you see from a sparkler when you move it quickly in front of your face. You know that light that you see, and love, and then it’s gone? That’s was how I saw the marks I made on that day.

Each piece was treated the same way. I played, and everyone listened. Then I played again and they made a ‘sketch’ of shapes on not-so-good paper in just charcoal. Then I played again and they could do another ‘sketch’ using charcoal, white and one colour. And then they could start a painting on good paper. They weren’t painting me. They were painting the music. 

I chose to try and be as still as possible when I wasn’t playing. I wanted to be as little intrusion as a person as I could be. And when I played, I tried to give them everything I could – phrasing that took the piece (and their marks?) somewhere, space between notes (probably more so than usual, but not too much, otherwise then the music wouldn’t work so well) and a beautiful sound. I also tried to play the same sort of way each time. On reflection, it was a hugely disciplined day for me – it reminded me a lot like the recording process.

Here’s what I learned…..

My friend is an excellent teacher.

I felt the panic in the room in the first piece. No-one really knew what to do. By the second piece, though, there was this wonderful peace. No-one talked very much. There was a real feeling of being present, and I loved it.

There are very few times that people are present – everyone seems to be on their phones, or on their computers. When did you last stop. And do nothing. Look out a window, or listen to birds. Not when you are on holiday, either. Just each day. I like it. I try to do it as much as I can. Stare into middle distance for a few minutes each day.

It’s hard to play as I chose to. Very demanding – mentally and physically. But it was the right way to do it, I think. And it was really appreciated.

Making art is a beautiful thing. I loved watching it happen. I’m not sure I could do it, visually.

Charcoal gets everywhere. Fingers, faces, the floor, cups of tea. You name it. Being a cellist is much cleaner….

Last week was a pretty full-on week for me. I had a number of huge days in school with tired and grumpy people, some news that really threw me, kids performing and a lot of notes to learn on the cello. I got the the end of the week a wreck. In fact, I got to Friday and it was all I could do to get up, run a few errands and plant new seedlings in the garden.

On Saturday, I had been given tickets to go and see the latest program by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. One of the great things about working with their Education Department is that I seem to be on their freebie list. It’s so appreciated. Off I went, with Ben in tow, to have an early dinner, and then go to the concert at Angel Place.

Our seats were excellent (again, thank you to the ACO!), and half-way through the concert I realised that I was totally absorbed in what was going on. In fact, I could feel my soul being repaired. There was good in the world, despite Trump and his missiles, too much domestic violence, children I knew in awful situations and a wall of tiredness. In fact, there was a lot good in the world.

I left the concert hall different. It was all going to be fine. Things were better than OK.

Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing when I walk on stage with a cello, or in a music class. I’m not working as a doctor, or a nurse. I’m not digging wells for people who need clean water. I’m a musician, and a teacher. But then I realised what I do – because I experienced it. Through music, I piece souls and hopes back together. It’s a pretty good job, when you think of it like that. Actually, it’s a very important job when you think of it like that.

I have been given a reason to think about violence this week. I’m reflecting on the children that I see who live with it. They are surrounded by it. In fact, it’s all they know. It’s what they do when they don’t know how to react. And they do this because it’s what they see. It’s OK to react in a violent way. It’s OK to threaten to kill someone. It’s OK to destroy stuff.

I know that it’s not OK to do this – but how did I learn that? My home environment. My friend’s homes, and their parents. So what happens if you don’t see a non-violent home? What happens if it’s all you know?

And how does this cycle get broken?

I’m not saying the way I was brought up was the best way. Or the values I have are the best. But I don’t think that violence solves anything. It has far-reaching consequences, and hurts not just the people involved, but sends huge ripples through lives. A huge boulder dropped in a lake.

Should we judge children who don’t know any better? Should we punish them? Will simply demonstrating love and compassion and kindness win out? Is that enough? Is there another answer? Is there another way?

If anyone knows another way, could they tell me?

I am interested at how noise is affecting me at the moment…. Here’s my thinking. It’s not in any order, as these observations seem to bounce around my head.

I spend a lot of time in front of classes of children, and I willingly hand out all sorts of instruments. Mini-cymbals, bells, claves – you name it, I’ll hand them out. And kids play them – they test them out, they make noise. In fact, it gets really very noisy. And I don’t mind at all. What I really mind (in fact it drives me crazy!) is if two teachers are standing up the back of the room chatting quietly. And it drives me crazy because of the noise that they make – which is much quieter than the mass of tambourines jingling, bells shaking and triangles dinging. Makes NO sense, I know.

I was in a room the other week trying to sort out a new bank account. (I hate being a grown up.) In the same room was someone else speaking quite loudly on the phone. Try as I might, I could NOT filter out that sound and concentrate on the quite softly-spoken man helping me. Is this the lack-of-noise-filter that people on the autistic spectrum have? If so, it’s awful….. I found it exhausting and upsetting. This also gets worse if I am tired.

And I also get really upset by noise of power tools. Leaf blowers, lawn mowers, saws – you name it. I can deal with it for a bit, and then I find I get really depressed. ‘That’s what you get for living in the city, Rachel. You need to move!’ Ah, but it’s not that simple, is it? I know people who can tune it out – but it this sort of noise seems to drag me to a fairly dark place I find it hard to emerge from.

My favourite sound of all? A cello tuning up. Followed by bird song. And then Bach played well.

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….