You know, I have a pretty amazing job. I get to go to some pretty fabulous places, and do some fabulous stuff. Unfortunately, it also involves getting on some little planes. That part I don’t like. But the rest of it I do.

Last week I had to catch one of those little planes. I was looking out the window in Sydney, in a huge storm, dreading it. And as usual, the pilot looked about twelve, and I was horribly nervous. And when I sat down in these incredibly uncomfortable seats, my knees were up around my ears. (Who builds these planes? Midgets? Who is EVER comfortable in these seats?)

But I landed in Broken Hill in one piece.

On one day I taught at Broken Hill primary, working with selected groups of 20 kids at a go. They were all very keen, and it was great fun. I was aware, though, that those were the good kids, or the ones that had some kind of musical interest. At the end of the day, I had all 220 kids in the school singing, which was pretty fun.

The next day I was picked up to be driven 4 and a half hours away from Broken Hill to a station called ‘Reola’, which is pretty famous in those parts. It has a HUGE sheep-shearing shed. It’s really big – not like the big banana in Coffs Harbour, which isn’t really that big, up close. But HUGE. (Did I say how big it was?) And it was dusty. And a bit breezy. And it was my classroom for the next two days. I had nearly 100 children from the School of the Air, based in Broken Hill, come to join me for their first-ever group musical experience at their latest ‘mini school’.

The kids learnt a whole pile of stuff. New songs (one in parts). Rhythm reading. Rhythm games. Percussion parts. Names of instruments they’d never seen before. Performance skills.

Here’s what I learnt in the shearing shed…….
Country kids are great. (Well, I knew that part already. But I was reminded of it again.) I wonder if it’s a lot of time spent getting dirty outside, or a lack of screen-time, or a certain wildness that doesn’t get trampled on. I don’t know the answer. But I like them.

Most of those kids had never done anything musical before, and loved it. They sang children’s songs, and drummed to wind band music, and danced to Don Spencer, and played along to Tchaikovsky. They reacted no differently to any of the music I played – they just loved it all.

If they don’t know any different, boys love to sing.

Orange trousers don’t show the dust so much.

If I jump around enough to ‘I can run as fast as you’ by Peter Combe, first thing in the morning, I can take off my coat and not feel like the Michelin man when I teach.

Dads wearing big hats will also sing ‘A Ram Sam Sam’ as long as you tease them a bit first.

Dams are called ‘tanks’ that far west.

And don’t let the Dorper sheep in with the Merino sheep, otherwise the price of the merino wool goes down.

So here’s what has happened to me over the last few days.

I’ve been involved in a conversation with someone about performing more contemporary Australian music. I’ll say this up front – I don’t search out a lot of it, and I don’t really enjoy playing it. How do I create new programs?I often have the radio on at home, to discover new things that I haven’t come across before, and friends send me things they have heard or played too. I sometimes sit and wade through pages on the internet looking for compositions to perform. But it’s generally not contemporary music. It’s mainly stuff by dead people. Music that has been played before.

And I got told the other day to be more open-minded. That I might find something that I actually like – and surprise myself. And that the audience might like it too. Now, first I got cross at the patronising tone that these sentences had been delivered to me. But then I thought about it. And talked to a few people about it. Perhaps this critic had a point. (If you wanted to save time, I’d just scroll down to the last sentence, or you could read my reasoning…..)

And so here’s what I thought……
I don’t get paid much for the concerts I run. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind that. But I do them because I love playing the sort of music I program, and I love communicating this music to the players I work with, and the audience who comes to share it. And so I want to play music I love. Not stuff I think I ‘should’ play.

Do I have a duty to play contemporary music? No, I don’t believe I do. I feel that my duty is to communicate the love of music to others, and that’s the only duty I want. I do this duty (that I have chosen) by teaching in schools, and training other teachers, and performing as well. That is the battle I have chosen. Not to champion contemporary music.

And if this music is good, shouldn’t other people want to play it too, rather than just me being duty-bound to play it? I guess you could counter that argument by saying that a lot of composers that are now popular (Arvo Part, for instance), all had a champion at one point (Gidon Kremer), because there was a time that they weren’t popular. So maybe I should be doing that too. But I am not Kremer. I am not travelling the world, playing what I want, with huge budgets. I do not have time on my hands to learn really hard pieces that take hours and hours and HOURS to perfect.

And actually, if it boils down to it – I don’t really like contemporary music. I listen to it with friends at times – ‘Listen to this! This is great!’ they say, laughing. And I find it makes me uncomfortable. My spirit soars when I listen to Bach, or Dvorak, or some gem I have discovered. And right now, at this stage in my life, I choose to play the music that gives back to me. I mightn’t do it forever. But right now I will.

So am I close-minded? Possibly. I think I am more interested in putting percussion to Bach suites, and exploring works I can play with piano accordion, and adapting Mendelssohn songs for different sorts of instruments, and championing education in primary schools, especially to children who wouldn’t normally get it. If that makes me close-minded then I will happily be so.

My great hero, Mr T. Minchin, once said ‘If you open your mind too much, your brains will fall out.’.

When I am working on a new piece of music, I nearly always start the same way. I will go through and work out some kind of fingering that will work for the piece, so that I can start to turn my musical muddling into phrasing and something that sounds like what the composer intended. And then I will research what it is I’m playing – who the composer was, what he (or she – but usually a he) played, what else they wrote, when the piece was written, what it was originally written for – all that sort of stuff.

Now, as a child, I was always reading the back of record covers. I was fascinated by who these composers actually were. I can remember, aged about 14, becoming quite obsessed about how everyone died – Peter Warlock gassed himself, Bartok had leukaemia, Tchaikovsky died of cholera…… I would share this information with anyone who would listen. I am still interested in who these chaps (and sometimes gals) actually were, and I find myself, when I’m teaching students (of any ages), talking about their lives. Children love it, and even adults seem to be interested (or it could be an act, letting the mad ‘cellist ramble on….)

In the age of Google and the Internet, this is an easy task. Type in ‘Felix Mendelssohn’, and you’re off. No trip to the library, no heavy encyclopaedias, no imposing librarians.

So why don’t more people do this?

Why do I walk into rehearsals with other musicians and they haven’t done it? Surely this is all useful, and sometimes necessary as a professional musician, at least as a Classical one? It helps to know that the piece I’m playing was originally a song for a soprano. I will have to really think about breathing, and how I need to ‘sing’ it, as a ‘cellist, rather than play it. It helps me to know that Brahms wasn’t a string player, so his ‘cello lines will be a bit awkward to play – and I have to get around them thinking like a pianist. It helps me to know a little bit about composer’s personalities – if they were a bit mad, or a bit depressed, or madly in love at the time. As I work out the musical puzzle of how best to play this piece of music written for me to recapture and share with others, I feel that these clues are vitally important.

I had a rant about this to my highly-reasonable partner, who responded (in his highly-reasonable way), that possibly some players were more interested in their responses to a piece of music, rather than the history behind it. But this strikes me as lazy. As a Classically-trained cellist, my job is to take all of history (well, as much as I can), and learn all the rules – and then, if I choose to, with a good reason, break some/ most/ all / none of them. Because I feel that I owe it to the composer to do that – it’s somehow respectful. And if I don’t respect the composer, then I won’t play their music.

I worked with a singer a little while back (I hardly ever work with singers. I mock them, mostly.), who walked into the first rehearsal we had, and talked about why they were going to sing the words in the way they were, and how they wanted the tempo – and gave all these reasons. Not in a boring-I’m-going-to-lecture-you-for-hours way, but in a  concise-I’ve-thought-this-through way. I whooped with joy.

But this is the exception, rather than the rule. People don’t wonder about stuff like this. Players can tell me what celebrity wore what to where, but not what Messiaen  played as we start to rehearse his music.

And I wonder why.

I teach at a school on a Monday where self-esteem is pretty thin on the ground. I see this a fair bit, especially with young girls. When girls hit about ten or eleven, it seems that when the hormones kick-in, self-esteem recedes like a wave leaving the shore. They start to criticise everything and everyone around them – but most damagingly, themselves.

I get so angry when I hear them comparing themselves to air-brushed pictures in magazines, or videos of pop stars. And at no point do they talk about air-brushing, or the hours it takes in hair and make-up before any cameras roll. They just try and work out how they can make themselves look like that, by not eating, or madly exercising. And all this in primary school.

And with the striving to be thin comes the inevitable comments about others or themselves. “She’s fat. She’s ugly. I’m fat. I’m crap. I can’t do anything. I’m no good.” The list goes on and on. I saw this with girls I went to uni with. I saw this with girls younger than me in high school. And now, heart-breakingly, I see it in primary-aged kids.

So, back to me on Monday. I have a choir of twelve girls. They sing really well for a just-started choir, looked after by a ‘cellist-who-isn’t-really-a-choir-director. They are working on two songs for their upcoming ANZAC assembly. And it has dawned on them that they sound really good. That they can ‘do’ something really well. That they are a group that is doing something different, that’s not been done at the school, and that they are sounding beautiful. And last Monday I watched these twelve girls grow in front of my eyes.

It was like watching a wilted plant get water and Seasol, and straighten and blossom on time-lapse photography. It was nothing short of magic.

At some point, everyone needs someone to say ‘Hey! You do this really well! I like what you do!’. And that was me, to those little people. It was an excellent moment. All this through the power of singing.

As you finish reading this (if anyone does), now I want you to do something. Push back your hair, sit up a little bit straighter, and sing. Sing something. Anything. A children’s song. A hymn. Something your gram used to sing to you. Even an advert jingle, if nothing else comes to mind.

I guarantee you’ll feel better.

Go on, try it. For my girls.

For those of you who don’t know, I spend two days a week teaching children in disadvantaged schools. These are my favourite days of the working week, actually. They are the most exhausting. I come home completely drained – I feel a bit like a wrung-out flannel. But I absolutely love guiding these kids through their music lessons.

Most of these little people I see every week have experience more in their short lives that I have in my much longer one. Some of their stories break my heart, and when I am tired and worn out at the end of the year I come home and weep for them. But I am also amazed by their resilience and their resistance – and encouraged by their laughter and smiles when I see them. They are the best kids in the world, and I am hopeful for every one of them. They are our country’s future, and deserve all the love and compassion and care that teachers give them.

But this is not one of my many rants about how teachers are unsung heroes and are woefully underpaid. Nor is it a rant about arts in schools and how it is dangerously underfunded. It is a post about a new thing I’ve started teaching at one of my schools.

After talking with a wonderful university lecturer just before Christmas, I decided that I would teach the older kids at one school in particular rhythm dictation. For those of you who don’t know what I’m on about, it’s when the teacher claps a particular rhythm, and the listener writes it down using music notation. Writing this post now, I realise that it might sound a bit dry and boring. Actually, it is a bit dry. It’s music theory. But I thought I’d give it a go.

And who would have thought? I tried it on three groups of thirty children. And they LOVE it. Not a bit – but a whole lot. I did it again yesterday using crotchets, quavers and rests. And every child gave it a red-hot go – and without exaggerating, nearly all of them got it right. Kids who can’t really spell could write correctly what I clapped at them. Kids who really struggle with conventional learning were achieving. There where whoops of joy as I gave the answer to each little dictation. The only problem I had was regular complaints from these little people that there were no semiquavers being used. The three class teachers who I asked to revise it in their class over the week all did it – in fact one teacher does it a number of times during the day to begin new lessons (like an art lesson, or a maths lesson), because the kids like it so much.

It was a lesson to me to not presume that children would like something because I don’t. Or because other teachers tell me it’s boring. Or people tell me that ‘kids like that won’t respond to that sort of teaching’.

Roll on next week. I shall include semiquavers!