There was a time that I did a lot of teacher training – I would present workshops to generalist Primary teachers (unsung heroes, in my opinion) about teaching music to their kids. I can remember one moment really clearly. I was asked what I’d do if a child read a rhythm wrongly (using Hungarian time-names. Ta and ti-ti and all that….).

“I would say ‘No.’ I said. ‘Try again’.”

A teacher looked at me. “We don’t say ‘no’ to children.” he said.

I was completely speechless. Various things went through my head. Like “Why not?” and “Well, they are going to hear ‘no’ in their lives, so avoiding that word is a silly thing” and also “But it’s wrong, so things need to be corrected”, but I said none of those things. I probably said something like “I suggest you find your own way”, and kept on going, because there’s never enough time to teach everything you need to.

But it’s stayed with me. And I check what happens to the kids I teach when I say ‘no’. And right now, I’m saying it a lot. I’m preparing kids for concerts so there’s a lot of ‘no’ going on. A group may not have walked on to the performance place well enough. Or someone’s made a mistake. Or held an instrument wrongly. Or a class mightn’t have concentrated as well as I wanted them too. There’s ‘no’ to individuals. And ‘no’ to groups. There’s ‘that’s not really good enough’ as well (and no – I don’t say ‘I think you can do better’. I say ‘That’s not good enough yet’.).

And here’s what I’ve noticed. Kids nod their heads. They don’t crumble. They agree. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t good enough. And then we all try again – and then when it’s better, there’s a HUGE feeling of joy. There’s smiles and laughter. There’s sometimes cheers. There’s often high fives.

The acceptance of mediocrity isn’t something I do for myself – and I don’t do it for the kids I teach either. And you know – they rise. They are extraordinary. Every time.

I am planning a few live concerts next month. I wasn’t going to do any more live concerts this year, because I got sick of all the angst that goes with it, at this current time. You see, what I have to do is hire a venue (which isn’t cheap), and then hope that enough people turn up to pay the hire costs – and then provide a fee for my other performer, and then me. Some big organisations get grants, but ‘Bach in the Dark’ doesn’t work like that – every concert is a big gamble.

When I started the concert series, over a decade ago, I knew what I was in for, for a few years. Some concerts I didn’t make enough to pay me (as a performer) – but I managed to cover everything else. Then it all started to work really well. Tickets were bought by my dear audience well in advance, and the financial stress of running things left.

Then came COVID….

I was incredibly lucky to be able to live-stream concerts during the last few years, and have the support from everyone to do it – from Ben who set it all up, other artists who came to my house, friends who helped,  and the hundreds of people who supported the streaming – who bought tickets, who made donations, who sent messages afterwards. But it’s not the same as playing live. It’s really strange playing to an empty space (in my case, the kitchen). As a performer, you thrive on hearing the audience, feeling the audience, sensing what’s going on in the moment. And that goes when you stream something.

I wonder if that’s what drained me so much.

After the stress of financially running some live concerts in February (and boy, did I want to play live again!), I thought I wouldn’t do it for a while, just to let Sydney get back on its feet. I am still getting emails from people saying ‘I’m not going to live concerts any more/ at the moment…’ which breaks my heart. I am sorry that these people feel so unsafe, and I am more sorry for the performers and creatives who, like me, need these live audiences. With the rise of vaccines, and everyone doing what they can (like moving to bigger venues, or limiting audience numbers), is it still unsafe to be in performance venues?

Anyway, as I was going to be preparing a program for a music club, with one of the people who I love playing with the most, I thought I’d take a gamble again. Who know what will happen…. I hope very much it’s a success.

Fingers crossed, I guess – apart from when I need them to practise!

I do a lot of performing with kids. Well, I used to. It’s all ramping up again, post-COVID. And something I do a LOT with them is practising walking on to the performance place (usually a stage), and walking off again.

It usually goes like this…. The kids line up. Sometimes it’s in height order. Sometimes it’s dependant on what they are playing, or singing. There will be strong musicians at the end of each line. There will be kids that are more confident at the start of a row.

Then we practise lining up outside the space. Holding instruments correctly and quietly. Walking on. With quiet feet. Quickly, but not in a hurry. Silently, if possible.

Then they practise ‘being’ on stage. Where are they looking? They may not wave at the audience. They may not wriggle. They have a way to stand, or sit, or kneel.

Then they practise walking off. And I do this 5 or 6 times. Teachers know what they need to do. It’s run with military precision. (Interestingly, then they tend to perform better too….)

I was talking with someone the other day and they were lamenting that they had seen something where the kids didn’t do this. And it got me wondering…. Would those little people have the best chance of success then? Would they be proud of what they had done? Would they even enjoy it?

It’s not hard getting kids to do line up and walk on and off. It’s time-consuming. You have to be bossy (comes easily to some…!!). But then, as kids get older, they do it well. Their posture is excellent. They are proud. They are confident. And this permeates through in other ways – how they speak in front of people, how they navigate situations on their own…

Isn’t that what we want for our little people? Don’t we want them to be proud and confident? So why is this often forgotten?

I have been wondering whether or not to write about this thing that happened to me. Obviously, because you’re reading this, you’ll realise that I did decide to do it. Otherwise you’d just be reading waffle. And I actually tell a little story. (Okay, I’ll get on with it.)

I’ve just gone on holiday, with Ben (aka long-suffering husband). It’s the first holiday we’ve been on for a very long time. There have been various reasons why we didn’t – COVID (obvs), then having kittens (literally. As in, we got new cats – one that needed quite a lot of care at the start of her little life), then I was workingworkingworking A LOT, needing to practise for live-streams, not really having the spare money to go away.

And all of this was fine. I love our cats (and wouldn’t trade them in for the world). I was so lucky to be able to perform during this crazy time (and help other musicians along the way). We have a beautiful house, and I’m happy to stay in it.

But I was tired at the end of term 2. I’d had the ‘flu (badly). I’d had COVID (not really badly at all). Teaching is hard at the moment (teacher shortages are BAD, but understandable. This makes interesting reading….).

I mentioned the drudge in an email to someone who is now a friend, but I know them because they are a regular audience member and live-stream watcher. I was actually not having a whinge, just saying how pleased I was not to be actually sick any more, but how things were all a bit bad in schools.

And then a fairly large sum of money from this person dropped into my bank account. With the instructions ‘go on holiday’.

I cried. Because it reminded me that in the midst of all this, this strange time we’re all in right now, there are incredibly wonderful people out there, doing incredibly wonderful things. And I was lucky enough to be the recipient of one of those wonderful things. A friend came to cat-sit (and left us with home-cooked meals in the freezer for when we got back. I know, right??!!) and Ben and I went to an amazing retreat. We spent all the money. I had a massage. We ate some amazing food. We relaxed. We were together doing nothing. We listened to a lot of music. We even watched a James Bond film.

I spoke to my holiday fairy and asked why they had done this.

“You have given me so much pleasure. With all the playing. The musical beauty. The jokes. The stories about the kids you teach. And now I can give back to you.”

Never forget the impact you have on others….

Something happened to me a while ago, and it’s taken me a while to process. And I thought I’d write about it, as part of me wondering about it still….

I have been teaching the cello for a long time. I like to think that I’m a good teacher. Because I still love the cello, and the process of playing, I can transmit this love to others. I spend a lot of time thinking about each student. I respect the one-on-one teaching process, and what being an instrumental teacher is. I have had some fabulous instrumental teachers, and I’m constantly wondering how they would have solved a particular problem. Because I am still engaged with the process of playing and teaching, I like to think that I’m doing a pretty good job with each student.

I also enjoy teaching adults. I respect that they are doing something new, and I try and push them enough, give them enough technical stuff to think about – but not too much, so that they can make music too, whatever the level that they are at. I like to think that I’m good at this part of my teaching as well…

Not long ago I ‘inherited’ a student. They had been taught not-very-carefully. There were big holes in their technique – things that should have been covered a long while back. They were clever, and also good at another instrument, so had worked out ways to work around the lack of solid foundations they had on the cello. When they came to me, they told me that they were a particular AMEB grade, which in my opinion, they were most certainly not. They could be, in a while – but they weren’t there yet.

So, very gently, I started the process of telling them what they needed to know. And correcting them. With adults, physical things need to take time – things need to be unlearned, and then relearned. In my opinion, things were going well. This student was progressing, and holes were being fixed.

And then I got an email offering me some ‘feedback’. They wanted to play more pieces – of the standard that they thought they were. When I said I didn’t think they were ready, they then wanted me to submit a syllabus of what I would do with them when (which is actually impossible to do). And when I said I wouldn’t do that, they said they didn’t like being controlled. (They didn’t actually say it like that. There was a lack of politeness.) So I said it was better for us to part ways, thank you very much.

But then I got thinking, and spoke to a few other adults I know who have lessons. Did they felt controlled? Were instrumental teachers just people who liked other people doing what they said? Was I just a cello-teaching-dictator?

A sensible friend of mine wondered this with me. And then we agreed that as an adult you need to trust your teacher. You submitted to their experience, and their care. You, as a student, trusted that they would walk you down a path of learning at the right speed for you, and give you the tools you needed at the right time.

I am thankful to my adult students that they trust me. I am thankful to the parents of my little cello students that they trust me too. So I’ve become more grateful to my students. It’s funny how things that knock you around often make you better, isn’t it?