My first ‘cello teacher has recently passed away. Just like the euphemism ‘passed away’ (I’d much rather use the word ‘died’, but people seem to find that confronting), I have very mixed feelings about this woman.

She was a very well-known ‘cello teacher, who produced a lot of really well-respected students, many of whom have become professional ‘cellists. She was very kind to me when my dad passed away (there’s that euphemism again. I really hate it.) – I remember she gave me my first ever Du Pre recording, which started a life-long love of Jacqueline’s playing. She played at my dad’s funeral. She gave me extra lessons at no charge. She coached my first string quartet. She was really important in my life, and fostered a great love of music making.

But there were a few rocky moments in our relationship. Although she was very kind, I was mostly terrified of her. I wasn’t a good practiser. I hated scales. I hated being compared to other students, and she did that a lot (in particular, another ‘Rachel’ who she taught). And since her death (sorry – I can’t write ‘passing’. That is too twee for me.) I have been reflecting on our relationship.

It all went very sour when I told her that I didn’t want to do a 7th grade AMEB exam one year – instead I wanted to play the ‘cello in two musicals, tour with an orchestra and sing in the school vocal ensembles. In short, I wanted to make music with others, and learn everything that goes with that, rather than memorise a pile of scales and Bruch’s ‘Kol Nidrei’ (having used that piece as an example, there’s nothing wrong with it. I love it. But I remember it being held up as something I’d never ‘manage’….). I was completely dressed down by her. I still remember it. Years later. Where it was. When it was. And being told by her I didn’t have the ‘persistence’ and ‘dedication’ I needed to amount to anything musically.

Now, I’m glad I don’t have to teach someone like me. I would have been hard work. I deliberately pushed buttons of teachers, and questioned things and always wanted to know ‘why’. But if I loved you, and admired you, I would go above and beyond, if I could, in my high-school blundering ways.

And now, as a teacher myself, I look at what happened. Why couldn’t she see that I wasn’t going to always do what I was told? That being given a bunch of things to practise wasn’t just going to cut it with me? I needed to know why I needed to play these scales. Couldn’t she see that every time she told me that Melissa/ Karella/ Cathy / Rachel did something better than me, I wasn’t going to rise up to her challenge and try to play things better? (I would refuse to practise whatever piece I had been told that someone else played better….. in hindsight, I missed out on a lot of good music. But that was the only line of defence I thought I had!)

Why must teachers humiliate their students? Is it a power trip? Is it frustration boiling over? Did I really need to be ‘told’ in such a damning way by someone who had been a huge part of my life?

I still, after three days of musing this over, can find no real explanation of why she did what she did. Possibly I was just too much.

I won’t go to her funeral. I will remember her though – both as a great inspiration, and also as a warning to enjoy the ‘square peg’ children as much as I can. And to allow them to be as odd as they want.

Today, though, I did play a whole bunch of scales in her memory. And also ‘Kol Nidrei’. It seemed fitting.

I was sent to instrumental lessons as a young girl to some very good teachers. They taught me some really good things – but they never taught me specifically how to practise. My mother would say ‘Go and do your practise’, but I wasn’t really sure what to do. Actually, if the truth be told, I was a terrible practiser. I didn’t practise enough, and I didn’t practise carefully enough. That’s probably why I didn’t get really good until someone actually taught me how to do it.

I help run a string program in a disadvantaged school, and over the last few years we’ve hit a few bumps in the road. The teachers say to me ‘So-and-so hasn’t been practising well/ carefully enough / consistently’ and then there are tears (from the student) and sometimes aggressiveness (from the parent) and me having to be diplomatic (which is exhausting). Finally I realised I was going to have to get a bit controlling here and set up some structures, and try and teach all the children how to practise, and get some very experienced teachers to try and change their teaching habits a bit.

And today, I’ve had another conversation with someone about how to teach someone to practise.

Really, it’s not very hard. The way I do it is really methodical. It’s worked for every child I’ve ever taught, and some adults too. It works for me. If I was going to be unkind about my method, I’d call it ‘anal’ or ‘too prescriptive’ and ‘not allowing children to think for themselves’. But unless you show children structure first, they don’t think for themselves at all. They just wander around a bit lost in the big practise-room of life.

Having seen all sorts of not-very-good teaching in my years, I can now appreciate why parents used to think I was such a good instrumental teacher because I put this system in place. The child practised regularly, They knew what to do. No dramas. No tears before bed-time.

Luckily, after some gentle persuading, the experienced teachers I manage said they’d give things a try. Books and charts were printed for all students in the program. And it seems to be working.

So why don’t more instrumental teachers teach their students to practise properly?

Is it because they don’t know how themselves?

I have had to do a bit of reflecting over the last few days about a few friends of mine who are the generation older than me. They are both musicians, and I’m reflecting on their work over their life.

I was thinking what my life would be like when they are gone (death and taxes and all that……), and how I will remember them. And then, because of course it all comes back to me (!!), I wondered about when I am gone, how people will remember me. And how I would like to be remembered. Not in a maudlin way, just the way people sit and muse over things.

I think I’d like to be remembered as someone who left the music education scene in a better way than when she found it.
As someone who played her ‘cello honestly and with authenticity.
As someone who enjoyed being with her friends and her husband.
As someone who had a weakness for Veuve Clicquot.
As someone who loved bright colours.
And as someone who laughed a lot – especially at herself.

I’ll probably really be remembered as an opinionated trouble-maker, who was difficult, obstinate and drank too much – but a girl can dream, I guess!

I don’t watch a lot of TED talks – but there is one that I really like. It is called ‘Every Child Needs A Champion’, and I find it really inspiring. It was made by a wonderful teacher who has now left this world called Rita Piearson.

It is here, if you want to watch it….. Every child needs a champion
I watch this often, and it reminds me of why I do what I do.

Not so long ago, I found myself standing up for a particular child. This little person has really given her teachers the run-around, apparently. She isn’t very pleasant in other classes. I don’t teach her very often, but she has always been lovely for me. She is a musical little soul – she sings beautifully, and has always really responded to music in class. Whenever she sees me she greets me by name, and smiles, and sometimes even gives me a hug. I like her a lot. I appreciate that she can be trouble, and she has a mouth on her – but, actually, I don’t see that. I see a basically decent kid.

I wanted her to participate in some classes I was taking, and the powers-that-be in her school said no. She hadn’t behaved in some other classes, and so they were going to use no music classes as a punishment. But I work for a charity who try and engage kids just like her. So I stood up for her.

Well, I was told I was being manipulated. I was wrong. I was being taken for a ride. That she would disappoint me. That she was no good. Other teachers got angry with me. In fact, a few got really angry with me.

I had to talk to a few trusted souls, people whom I respect, to check that I was doing the right thing. Was I really being manipulated by this child? Should I give her a go? (I don’t know about you, but if enough people tell me I am doing the wrong thing, I’ll at least think about it…..) But deep down something told me I should put my neck on the chopping block for this kid. And my trusted friends agreed with my inner voice.

So I got shouted at, and told that I was doing the wrong thing some more. I trod on toes, and had heads shaken at me in disbelief. I was told I was a fool.

But she was in my classes, and she participated. And she had a good time. She performed with me – and even smiled. She was polite, and helpful.

My heart breaks for this little person who as blown all her chances where she is. She’s a good kid. In fact, sometimes she’s a lovely kid.

But I found it hard sticking up for her.
But I’d do it again.
And again.
She was worth it.

I am lucky enough to work quite closely with the good people of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Sometimes they send a quartet out to a school, and I run a facilitated concert with these wonderful players, teaching children about different ways to play stringed instruments, or about concepts like ‘ostinato’, or ‘ground bass’.

But this week, we did something different.

I am at one school where there are a lot of children with really difficult little lives. Lots of family members in prison. Lots of kids having to look after themselves a lot of the time. You know the sort of stuff…. I write about it often. I’ve said it all before. Three terms ago, some girls in years 3-6 came to me and asked if I could start a choir with them, so that they could get together to sing weekly. So the senior choir was born. In term one I had 14 girls. In term 2 it jumped to 22. In term 3 it stayed at 22 – and we had a concert to prepare for.

The ACO was going to send out a quartet to perform with these girls. So I had to come up with four songs that would work well with a quartet backing these young voices, and that the girls would be happy rehearsing for 8 weeks. I thought I had come up with a good four – and then sent the to the ACO for arranging.

Two weeks out from the concert, and the girls were restless. The songs didn’t sound very polished. None of the girls would really look at me. They wouldn’t stand still. I was worried. Would they be put off by the quartet? Would they actually be able to do this, or would the wheels fall off? (Also, I am a cellist – I am not a choral conductor, so my conducting is a bit patchy……)

A week out from the concert and I was cranky in rehearsal.
‘Look at me!! I can help you!’
‘Why don’t you know these words?’
‘Why can’t you stand still?’

The day of the concert came (it always does). One girl who is chronically late to school was waiting at the gate before 8 am (school starts at 9). EVERYONE in the choir was at school. Two of them even told me that they had gone to bed early the night before so they could concentrate.

I started the rehearsal by allowing the girls to hear the quartet playing the accompaniment to one of the songs, in the hope that they would get used to the sound. I started off the ACO players and then watched faces. Now, these girls weren’t to know that they were playing with some of the best players in the country (although I was appreciating that!) – but their faces showed it. Little grins turned to big grins. Jaws dropped. Heads nodded.
‘They’re deadly!’ says one girl.

You know, I shouldn’t have worried about anything.
All that sleep I lost? I should have trusted those little people.
They weren’t put off by anything.
They stood – tall, proud, and looking at me. In fact, most of them didn’t take their eyes off me.
They were still.
They knew all the words.
They sang with all their hearts.

And they sounded FANTASTIC. They performed for their peers, and lots of  special visitors. They were wonderful. Their school cheered them. I cheered them. Their teachers were amazed.

So many of the kids in this school are brow-beaten and down-trodden. They are told they are no good, stupid, worthless….. Well, for an hour, my 22 girls RULED THE SCHOOL. They were the best they could have been – and then some.

I was one seriously proud music teacher.