I practise a lot.

I try and sit at the cello every day. Days I’m teaching in a school, I’m up before sun-rise, and sit at the cello for a goodly while before I leave. (I’ll often then return after a day’s teaching, but my quality of practise isn’t so good….) On days I’m not teaching, I’ll sit and practise for hours – sometimes up to 5. Most days it’s a good time – exploring, trying new things. Learning new repertoire. Revisiting things I know, often looking at them in a new light.

I was practising a Bach suite (the fifth one. It’s totally fabulous. And huge – such a big play!) the other day, and realised that I’m still improving. I could do things that I couldn’t before when I last performed this two years ago. Some things felt easier. Some phrases spoke to me in a different way.

And so I got wondering – what has made me improve? I mean, you’d hope I did, after all the time I choose to sit at the instrument. I perform a lot, so I’m trying to always be the best I can. (No point in expecting people to come and hear you otherwise, is there?) I play with lots of different instruments, and adjust my sound accordingly – I can play really soft with a guitar, for instance. Very loud with a harp. Is it playing lots of Bach (It’s like eating your greens – it’s very good for you as a musician!)? Is it challenging myself physically in the yoga room, balancing and doing back-bends? Is it getting older? Doing recordings?

It’s possibly all of those things. But at the moment, the thing I’m thinking is making the most difference is that I play a lot of music that isn’t originally written for cello. It’s keyboard music, or violin music, or vocal lines. So I have to work out how to get things sounding the best I can on my cello. No-one cares that it’s awkward. Or difficult. They care that it’s played well. That it’s phrased and sounds beautiful.

So I keep searching and wondering. Can I play this better? Is this the best fingering? Can it sing more? Sometimes my obsessiveness (for want of a better word) serves me badly. I get frustrated with myself. I don’t take a day off. I forget that, after all, it’s OK to not be perfect.

But it’s also pushing me. Making me a better musician, a better player. And stopping and reflecting on that, it makes me smile.

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” goes the saying.

If I can be really honest here, I want to punch someone who says that to me. Hard. Preferably in the face. Yes. It’s true.

I DO do what I love. I love playing the cello. I love practising and exploring new and old repertoire. I love teaching and sharing the love I have of music. I can’t imagine not doing any of this.

But it is work.

I teach on days when I’m tired and my back is sore. I don’t want to be reasonable when a child complains that they have the wrong colour kazoo. I want to be at a cafe having a coffee and a muffin, rather than having been at school an hour before the kids come getting all the instruments out for the day, putting them back at the end of it and then seeing lesson after lesson of kids. It’s work.

I practise on days when I feel like curling up in bed. Or when I’m panicked at the amount of notes I have to learn. Or my eyes are tired. Or I’d rather be out with friends. I sit, sometimes for hours and work. Because I have to.

I sit updating social media, or listening to recordings that need editing, or devise programs (which take a long time, surprisingly) when I don’t really want to. Sometimes this is fun. But sometimes it’s not. Again, it’s work.

Having written all that, some days it’s excellent. I leap out of bed, and love sitting and practising. My body feels good. My brain is on and well-rested. I love leaping around a classroom. But it’s not always like that.

It is fabulous doing something you love. I wouldn’t do anything else.

But it is work.

 

A long while ago I was lucky enough to meet the most amazing music therapist. She came to a school that I was teaching at as part of her Master’s degree. She was meant to be learning from me, as I taught disengaged kids. What actually happened was I learned far more from her than she did from me (isn’t that always the way?)…

She participated in music lessons, helping out. She was fantastic in the classroom. And then she asked if she could do a crazy thing with a pile of year six kids – she wanted to give them a 10-week djembe drum workshop. (She was following a set of lessons they do a lot in W.A., called ‘drumbeat’ as children transition to high school. A facilitator uses drum lessons to get kids talking about what they might be fearful of as they move to senior school. It’s a great program.) Luckily, we had a principal at the school who was willing to give this a go (thank you, Mister Johnston!). Over the weeks, I would nip up to the hall to see what was going on in these classes. And I saw some incredible engagement with some really tricky customers – and love of drumming blossoming. These kids loved what they were doing!

So I learned some very basic drum skills, and piecing together bits and pieces from everywhere, started teaching drumming myself to classes. I’m not a drummer. I don’t pretend to turn kids into ‘proper’ drum students. But I do see so many things working in drum lessons. Children are engaged – really engaged. Children are listening and memorising music. They are developing motor skills. They are working as a team. They are having the most enormous sense of fun.

This was all brought back to me last week, as I was teaching. I’m at a school where things are pretty difficult at the moment. More difficult than what things were. There’s a lot of angry, disengaged little people. It didn’t always used to be like that – and it probably won’t be like that all the time. Maybe next term it will change. But it is like that now. And it’s hard to teach there at the moment. I’ve tried lots of different things to engage the classes.

And this week I chose to drum with all the classes who were big enough to do so (why I hadn’t done this before, I do not know. I tried lots of other avenues, but they weren’t hugely successful.). And I saw it again. I saw this drum ‘magic’. Kids who hadn’t engaged all term were drumming. They were answering questions as we discussed patterns. They were ‘in’ the lesson with me. They were trying new things, and testing themselves. They were sitting stiller than they had before. They were sitting taller than they had before. And most importantly, they were smiling.

Coming home, I smiled. I’m not sure how it’ll go next music lesson. But these ones were good ones. I had done my job. I had loved my job. Kymbo, thank you for opening this door. You would have been proud of me this week….

You’ve heard it all before – teaching is all about connections.

But it was brought home to me again this week. It’s so important. The eye contact. The greeting a child by name. Asking them what they did on the weekend. The first smile.

I have a little girl at one school I go to that talks to me about my necklaces. I have a number of different coloured stones – a purple one, a green one, a piece of amber…. And that’s what she notices. And she likes to see me at the start of her lunch and find out about them. I’m not sure she gets much attention at home. And that little bit she gets from me she seems to really love. And because of that, she is really engaged in music. She loves it, because she loves me and my necklaces (but it’s true, though, isn’t it? You probably all loved a subject you did, just because of the teacher you had at some point… I adored Latin, not due to the subject, but because of who taught it.)

Because, despite what NAPLAN results and commentary will have you believe (and our less-than-perfect politicians), I don’t think that teaching is about content. I think that teaching is about relationships. You can’t really ask a child to do anything in class until you’ve built some kind of rapport with them. Why should they trust you? Why should they do what you say?

It does mean, as a teacher, you need to really give your all. You need to observe, and be totally self-less. I see teachers do this all the time. You need to be totally on your A game every time you walk into a classroom.

It’s exhausting.

But if you have a class with you, following you where you want them to go, and all responding, it’s the most wonderful feeling. Totally exhilarating. I guess that’s why teachers do it. It’s why I do, anyway.

I’ll preface this post by saying that I am a music teacher. I have some knowledge about what I am going to write about. Because I do it. And I see it. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert – but I do know this thing, you see, because it’s what I do. I have enormous bias.

Right… that’s out of the way.

So the NSW Labour Government, if they win, are going to spend lots more money on State Education. I can’t tell you how much, and quite frankly, I can’t be bothered looking it up, because I don’t really trust the people saying it. But it’s more money. Great. Love that.

And they are going to spend that money on providing specialist teachers in schools. Hooray. Love specialist teachers. They know lots of stuff on one thing. And they seem to teach it well. This is not me criticising generalist teachers, oh no sirree,  but a good specialist teacher is great for a school.

The specialist teachers that every school NEEDS, apparently, will be NUMERACY and LITERACY teachers.

Sigh.

Because, despite ALL the evidence that has come out of studies and think-tanks (blah blah blah. Consultants. Money spent on looking at stuff by people who have long since stopped teaching. Blah some more.) do NOT make these specialists music, art, drama, creative teachers.

Our numeracy and literacy rates are dropping in this country. And that has got nothing to do with the standards of teachers, in my humble opinion. It has everything to do with the lack of ‘other stuff’ taught in schools. Subjects that create human beings. Subjects that promote out-of-the-box thinking. That encourage self-belief. That make children work both independently, trusting themselves and their thoughts, but also make children work with others. Subjects that expand the brain.

I am so frustrated. Because these sorts of discussions aren’t happening. Or if they are, they are being ignored.

I see the difference music makes. I am one teacher. I see the skills and the trust. The self-belief. The fun. The laughter. The levelled playing-field. I see the shy kids speak. The self-doubters stand proudly and sing. The fidgets be still.

I am all for numeracy and literacy. Just not at the expense of the creative arts. (With apologies to SloMo…. sorry, that’s sort-of your line, isn’t it?)