I often teach children who aren’t very happy. They could not have been happy for a number of months. It could be a sad time for them at the moment. Or it could just be an off day for them, and tomorrow will be better. But when I see them in their lesson, they aren’t very happy. Their body language is often closed off. There’s no smiling – not with their mouth, not with their eyes – nothing.

I’m lucky with my job, becuase I don’t have to teach children the music curriculum. I mostly do, and then some, because the NSW creative arts curriculum is not particularly detailed. But officially, my job is to engage the little people I see through music. In a nutshell, I have to try and make them smile.

Last week, I saw a little person that isn’t often happy. I know that they are anxious. I know that things aren’t great for them. And my heart breaks for them. Last music lesson, we were playing a piece with lots of different percussion instruments, and the class was rotating through each instrument. After a few goes, this little friend of mine got to play the bells. I’d asked the kids to play four bells when it was their turn to be the bell part (they are sleigh bells, and little hands can easily hold two) so that there was lots of ringing when we needed it.

I heard a voice “This is my favourite!” I asked why. “Because there are four instruments to play.” I stopped everything. “Okay bell department. You need to go and get two more bells each. Get ready for SIX bells.” You should have seen my little friend’s face. A BIG smile.

It made my day. I smiled for the rest of the day. In fact, I’m still smiling now thinking about it. And maybe you are too…

I’ve been teaching in schools for so many years now. I’ve seen so many little faces grow up to be big faces. Every so often though, something happens that totally shocks me. Not often these days – but it happened last week. Let me tell you about it….

I’m at a school where the music program is HUGE. I am given free rein to do pretty much what I want. I have incredible support from the Principal, the Assistant Principal and all the staff. It’s pretty fabulous. At a meeting at the start if the year, the Principal asked me to teach the whole school ‘We Are Australian’. This has three verses, in the chorus children sign what they sing in AUSLAN, and a verse in Yawuru, the First Nations language from the Kimberley region (we have permission to sing in this). He wants it for a performance at the end of term 2.

Now, this isn’t as big a job as it sounds, because years 4,5 and 6 all know this. So it’s a medium job. But I need to teach K-2. At this point, kindergarten have been at school for about two minutes (okay. I know. At least a week….) – and getting them to sit still at the end of a day is an achievement. And I have them all in a choir, and now I have to teach them this massive song.

So I thought I’d start. And thought I’d start with the sign language part. I estimated it’d take three weeks, me just chipping away at it.

Rehearsal goes like this. Kids come in at the end of the day. Get the kids musically warmed up. Tell them what we are about to do. And then start….. I said each word of the chorus. Then showed them the signs. Then started to put it together with them. Then added the singing. 180 little faces. Totally engaged. Even kindergarten.

Seven minutes later, we’d done it.

Yes, read that part again. No exaggeration.

It was extraordinary. These little kids. Singing. Signing. Smiling. Knowing that they’d just totally amazed me. Teachers’ mouths were open in astonishment. I stood out the front, totally gobsmacked.

And then 180 little people cheered. For themselves. For what they’d done. Totally joyous.

I hope I don’t forget this for a LONG while.

Last weekend, I played a little live-stream launch. It was a way of me musically kicking off the new year, playing to my audience base who is incredibly supportive, and has stuck by this little concert series of mine for the last few years.

Let’s face it, 2020 and 2021 were DIRE for artists. Cancelled concerts. Lockdowns. Uncertainty. It was horrible. Not just in Australia, but world-wide. I consider myself one of the lucky ones – I could live-stream concerts, and give my musical friends and collegues work. Practising had a point, and I was able to share music with others – both performers and audiences.

In 2022 I put on a few concerts, but it was hard. Hard because there was still so much uncertainty. People left booking tickets really late, so I was left wondering if I could pay everyone. There were COVID outbreaks, which affected both players and audiences. So I decided to stop for a bit. I was pretty burnt-out. From working incredibly hard (both as a performer and teacher), from being as positive as I could, from worrying about finances (like nealy every other artist I know). Nothing remarkable. Luckily, I could press pause, and still pay my rent (I kept teaching, just not performing).

And I got sick. Boy, was I sick. Everything I could have got, I got it. And badly.

Now I find myself facing 2023. And I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful enough to schedule a YEAR’S WORTH of concerts. To pay deposits at venues. To start thinking medium-term. I’m hopeful enough to release a recording out into the world (there’s always a chance you’ll be heavily criticised). I’m hopeful enough to think of some really hard things to do – things that will challenge me.

Back to the live-stream last week. I chose music I loved. I chose music that made me happy. And I played it like that. I celebrated. In my living room, to a camera, and two wandering cats, I found myself hopeful for a long while. And you know, it felt good. Here we go….. !

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!