A few weeks ago I was involved in a really interesting cross-pollination performance. For want of a better term, let’s call it an ‘event’. I played a Bach suite, and an excellent friend of mine, who happens to be an excellent visual artist, created a painting in real time, as I played the Bach Suite.

There were a few hurdles that we had to jump over to get this to happen.

It took us seven months to actually find a venue that would have us. One was great, apart from airplane noise. Some were too small. Others were too expensive. One had too many steps. But finally, just when we were about to give up, we found a place. We booked, paid a deposit, and started to sell tickets.

Two weeks before the event, my painter friend called up the place, only to find they were in receivership, and had NO RECORD of our booking. I was in rural NSW at the time, doing some really intense teaching, so it was up to my poor friend to sort it all out. Needless to say, it was all sorted – but it was really quite stressful. Especially for her.

Then there was the bump-in. It took four people four hours to set everything up. Canvas frames had to be made specially. Lights had to be rigged up. Chairs had to be set up and wiped down of accumulated grot – it was a huge set up. And this was done by the two performers and their partners. I wonder how many people who came to the event realised we’d been sweating our way through the afternoon, drilling and moving heavy chairs.

It was finally time for the start. I have to say, I was nervous. Nervous because this was something new to me. Nervous because it’s not really a ‘normal’ concert. When I’d told a number of musicians about it, they’d raised their eyebrows and said ‘hmm… sounds interesting‘. Which as we all know, is a euphemism for ‘I don’t think that’ll work.’

The Bach suite was the fifth suite. In C minor. I find the opening hard. And that’s when I’m practising alone, and feeling good about stuff. So when I walked on to play that night, nervous and jumpy, it wasn’t the best I’d played it. The piece starts off with an octave – and mine wasn’t great. In fact, it was pretty terrible. Inside, I was dying a million deaths. I wanted to stop and try again. (But we all know that you can’t do that.) And I kept playing on. For the first page of the suite, I was really thrown by the sound of the painting going on behind me. So it wasn’t my best playing. But then I settled into things. To tell the truth, I didn’t really enjoy the playing, in the moment of perfromance. I was hot. And tired. And nervous. But I played as well as I could.

I am really affected by keys in music. If I’m playing something in A major, everything is good with the world. If I’m playing in C major I feel pretty strong. I was playing in C minor. I find this a very vulnerable key. I felt, in this suite, after everything that had gone on, and in the key I was in, that I was offering my heart up on a platter. Imagine standing completely naked in a room, with all your love handles, and stretch marks, and moles on view to a group of people and saying – well, this is it. This is me. That’s how I felt.

I walked off stage relieved. And very pleased with the Sarabande. That was really great, I thought. And there were some other really good bits. I was also proud of the fact I’d pulled myself together – fallen over at the start, with that double stop, but kept going. And I was also really proud of the event itself. The painting was amazing. The theatricality of the whole event was fabulous. My painter friend had created the most amazing artwork.

And then, after it was all over, and I was piecing myself together, someone came up to me, and said ‘Well, shame about that double stop at the start’ and then laughed. If you have read this far, please don’t stop now.
Remember this – every performer hears their mistakes. Their ears are trained for that. And we are trained to remember what we do wrong. (In fact, we’ll completely blow it out of proportion.) You don’t need to tell us. Especially not straight after a performance where, as a player, I have offered you my soul, with all its flaws.
Tell me those things in a few days, when I’ve pieced myself together.

I could have punched this person right in the face. Really hard. With all my heart. They didn’t need to say what they did. Did they say that to make themselves feel better? To remind me that they were older than I, and that I used to hold them in such high regard? Were they even thinking about the consequences of their comments?

Who knows.

I came home, in tears. But I have now pieced myself together. Life goes on. The sun rose in the morning. And it was one small glitch. The actual event was something that was fabulous – and I was really proud of it. Many other people have said such positive things. I know that doing something like what we did isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And you can’t please everyone all the time. In fact, you can’t please many people if you push boundaries.

But I am proud of it. And pleased with it (apart from my shaky start), and have agreed to do it again. I need to get it better.

But I won’t be inviting that person to anything for a while.

At least once a year I travel to Dili to train teachers there. I’ve been doing this now for about four years. I originally went with a whole other bunch of Sydney-based musicians, as part of an overly-ambitious project that didn’t really work. Then I was asked back to see if I could create a classroom music curriculum, with four different parts to it.

I needed to create an early childhood programme, an infants music programme, a primary music programme, and a set of lesson that could be taught by any teacher (musical or not), for young children that required no musical instruments – just music lessons with body percussion and singing. All of this needed to be in Tetun – the Timorese mother tongue. Te lessons, the children’s songs, the lot. (As an aside – I don’t speak this language. Well, now I can get by in it – I can order food, and direct taxi drivers – but when I started it was completely unknown.) I had a team of young teachers to train. When I say teachers, they had no teaching qualifications. They were eager to learn, though.

There have been many times walking this road where I thought I couldn’t do it. Where things were too different. Too hard. One visit, when I realised that nothing I had taught for two years was being used, I was ready to throw in the towel. I remember sitting in a tiny little room with every part of me sweating and the horrible realisation that I was going about things completely the wrong way. I didn’t know what to do. Cry? Shout? Give up?

People who know me know that I am pretty determined. I will have my way – either by hard work, careful manipulation or persuasive arguing (well, I like to think of it as persuasive. Some uncharitable people might call it bullying – but I don’t think so.). I was also aware that I had been paid to do a job – and I hadn’t done it.

My mother was a teacher. She was a superb teacher. I never sat in one of her classes, as a girl, but I heard things from friends of mine who were taught by her. And a few times I spied on her teaching classes. For the next two days, I kept thinking ‘What would my mother have done?’

So I set about doing my job differently. It was a huge learning curve for me, the next 48 hours. I wrote lesson structures, I created rules, I tried to second-guess how these young teachers would best learn. I tried to understand the Timorese way of thinking, and adapt my teaching to it – rather than just presuming that they would come round to my way of thinking. I have never been so focused in my imparting of knowledge. Never been so specific in what to do. I felt like some kind of educational dictator. But these kids (I say kids, but they are all in their 20’s. Not really kids. But a fair bit younger than me.) would have to be on their own once I left, with a bit of support, but not a great deal. Not only did they have to know their material, but they had to know how to put it together to create a lesson. They had to exude confidence. They had to teach huge class groups, in really tough situations.

After I came back to Sydney, it took me about 3 weeks to recover. To piece myself back together. I felt like a wet rag.

And then the lesson plans started coming in to me (one of the reporting structures I’d set up – I was trying to keep an eye on them from a distance). They were doing what I’d asked! It was possibly working.

I’ve been back a number of time since then, to see what is going on (and give them more material) – and they are doing it. These kids are delivering well-crafted lessons, with age-relevant material. The kids (up to 50 in a class) are engaged. They are learning stuff. My teachers are becoming more confident. They have good classroom management skills. They are smiling as they teach. And other visitors report back to me, with the same sort of news.

The reason I am writing this today is I got a package of stuff from them yesterday, containing news from them, and lesson plans. They are teaching kids from K-4. They have groups of 40-50. They are training other teachers. And it’s all working!

I couldn’t be more proud of them. I give them all gold stars.

I haven’t written anything for a while – life has been pretty busy, what with starting off all the teaching programmes for the year, training a new teacher to help me at one of the schools, travelling to rural NSW for a stint teaching there and doing a few concerts with one of my favourite Aussie cellists.

But now I find myself back in Sydney having the same conversation to a number of people, so I’m hoping if I write it here, it’ll be done – and I won’t bore anyone with it any more (all my friends breathe a sigh of relief).

I have to deal with a number of parents of children in my teaching job. I also work with a fair whack of teachers. Nearly every teacher I work with I would defend without question. I have found these people to be fair, hugely overworked yet still cheerful, really good at dealing with large groups of children, able to assess abilities of their little charges and just generally excellent people. (Given a choice, I would hang out with a bunch of teachers over a bunch of IT guys/ stock brokers/ insert profession here any day. Sure, there will be a few moments of organisation, and a bit of shop talk, but on the whole, these are pretty amazing people. Unsung heroes in my books.)

The parents I have to deal with are my age, or a bit older. Gen X, and then whatever the generation is just before that. And we are letting our kids down. Here’s a few thoughts from me. I know I don’t have kids. And I know it’s really dangerous territory to criticise someones parenting – I have lost friends before, doing that. But I think that sometimes these things need to be said.

Here goes……

What you, as a parent, see at home, is not always what you see in the classroom. Your little Braydon/ Tarquin / insert name here may be quite different in a group of 25. S/he may not deal with being one of many, and so behaviours that you as a parent think are so important at home may not be so valued as a group in the classroom. Most people, when they grow up, are going to have to work as part of a group or team – so this is a valuable skill to have as a little person.

Your child is probably not talented or gifted. And that is completely OK. It’s pretty easy to spot that, as a teacher. It’s also really easy to spot bright kids. And being bright does not make your child talented and gifted. And what’s wrong with just being of medium ability? Teachers do not like children because they are bright. They like kids who have personality, good manners, and a bit of spark. It makes not a jot of difference to the people teaching your offspring if they are bright or not. If your school/ teacher does not say that your child is talented do not go up there demanding tests, or asking for special treatment. Quite frankly, it will make things more difficult for your child.

If a teacher tells off your kid for doing something accept it. They are not perfect people. They may not have done their homework. Or their violin practise. Or they may have been revolting in a group. It is not because they are bored/ overlooked/ hard-done-by/ disliked. They have simply done the wrong thing. Teachers do not harbour grudges towards little people – that’s part of their job. LET YOUR KIDS ACCEPT THEY DO WRONG STUFF. Do NOT fight their battles. You will not always be there. How will they develop any kind of coping strategies or social niceties if you are always there, fighting on their behalf. Do not believe every word that comes out of their mouth. Kids learn from an early age to manipulate situations. If I had gone home as a child and told my mother I got told off by a teacher, she would have probably told me I deserved it (not quite that harshly, but you get my drift). She would not have gone marching up to the school, demanding answers. Or told me I was in the right.

We are breeding little monsters here. Kids answer back to teachers. They think they are always in the right. The have real trouble coping with failure and the word ‘no’. If they haven’t been picked for the zone sports team, so be it. They just weren’t good enough. If they’ve been told to practise more, then that’s because they aren’t reaching their potential, and need a bit of help from you, or a bit more inner drive. If they’ve been told off, they deserved it.

Just because you have been to school does not make you a teacher.

Let your kids make their mistakes. Let them fail. Let them be told off. Let them deal with disappointment. Let them be mediocre. They will have to deal with  this later in life, when you are not there, bellowing on their behalf. Let their teachers do their jobs. They know what they are doing. Accept how your child is perceived by others.

There. I’ve said it all now.

I stumbled across these today on the web. I think, after 170 years they are still hugely relevant. Thank you, Mr Schumann!

from Robert Schumann’s Maxims and House Rules for Young Musicians:

– A lot can be learned from singers, but do not believe everything they tell you.

– You should play scales and other finger exercises diligently. There are, however, many who think they can achieve everything by spending many hours a day practicing mechanically right into old age. That is just like trying to say the ABC as quickly as possible, getting quicker and quicker, every day. Make better use of your time.

– Play in time! Some virtuosos’ playing sounds like a drunk walking. Do not use this as your example.

– Do not be afraid of words like: theory, thoroughbass, counterpoint etc. They will treat you kindly if you do likewise.

– Try to learn to play easy pieces well and beautifully; it is better than a mediocre performance of a difficult piece.

– You should always play on a tuned instrument.

– Even if you have a weak voice, try to sing at sight without the help of the instrument; by doing this, the sharpness of your hearing will improve continually. If you have a melodious voice, waste no opportunity to have it trained, and treat it as the finest gift heaven can bestow on you!

– When you are playing, do not concern yourself with whoever may be listening.

– When you are older, do not play fashionable pieces. Time is precious. You would need a hundred lifetimes just to get to know all the good pieces there are.

– You must not promote bad compositions; on the contrary, you should expend every effort to help suppress them.

– Do not search just for technique and so-called bravura. In a composition seek to bring out the expression that the composer had in mind, and no more. Anything beyond that is a caricature.

– Waste no opportunity to make music with other musicians, in duos, trios etc. This makes you play fluently and with animation. Also, accompany singers often.

– If everybody insisted on playing first violin, there would be no orchestras. Respect every musician in his own field.

– When you get older, occupy yourself more with scores than with virtuosos.

– Among your friends, seek out those who know more than you.

– As a respite from your musical studies, read a lot of poetry. Take lots of walks in the fresh air.

– And how does one become musical? Dear child, the most important things – a good ear and quick perception – like all such things, are sent from above. But your given abilities can be developed and enhanced. You will not do this by shutting yourself up like a hermit and working for days on end on mechanical studies; rather you will do so by taking part in a variety of live musical activities, especially those involving choirs and orchestras.

– Never miss an opportunity to hear good opera!

– Hold the old in high esteem, yet also warmly embrace the new. Hold no prejudice against names unknown to you.

– Do not judge a composition on a single hearing; the things that first catch your attention are not always the best. The great masters must be studied. Many things will only become clear to you in later life.

– When judging compositions, distinguish between those which are true works of art and those written to please dabblers. Stand up for the former, but do not be angered by the latter!

– The road to improve is always through hard work and perseverance.

– The purpose of Art is not to acquire wealth. Just strive always to be a better and better artist; everything else will follow of its own accord.

– There is no end to learning.

I’ve just spent the first week for 2013 back in schools. A few things have popped into my mind this week as I’ve been dealing with the setting up of programmes and stuff…..

The children are genuinely excited to see their music teacher. They are keen to get back into it. The kids I see are not the sort that are polite and do things because they think they should. They want what I can give them. So why isn’t this stuff in every school? Why doesn’t every school have a qualified music teacher? I know that there would be far less behavioural problems in schools if there were more creative arts taught in an engaging way. If kids had a twice-weekly music lesson, and twice-weekly art lesson, and maybe also some drama classes, how good would that be? We’d come up with a nation of creative thinkers. Kids with low self-esteem would blossom. Kids would want to come to school. I know this first-hand. I’ve seen these things happen, just with the little bit of music teaching I do.

I also keep reading reports about ‘equality in education’. This is total and utter rubbish. Equality in education will never, never be achieved until every fee-paying school is closed. This won’t kill society. It’s worked in Finland. Equality in schools will never be achieved until teachers are trained better, paid more, and respected more. No government can fix this in the short term, and certainly not by some report. Have these government people seen some of these schools? Classrooms without heaters, or fans? With awful desks? And then gone to other schools with indoor swimming pools, shooting ranges and grand pianos all over the place? I mean, really……

I’m now climbing off my soapbox and going to eat some dinner…..