I got an email from someone last week that comes to concerts. I don’t think they meant be as rude as they were, but I raised my eyebrows as I read it. I won’t quote from it, but it basically said that I wasn’t doing enough to promote the music of women composers, and I should include at least one piece in every concert.

Now, this got me thinking. Should I be doing what they wrote (not asked. Told. Yep.)? And why? Why should I have to include a piece that I mightn’t like, or want to play, for the sake of supporting women music-makers? (I hear a lot of music by women on the radio. Some of it I like enormously. Some of it underwhelms me.) The good bit about this weird email is it got me thinking about why I program particular things in concerts, and why.

So I got to wondering…. what do I want to get out of every concert? I choose things to perform to challenge me technically, musically or emotionally. I choose to do pieces that I want to play. I might want to feature the music of that particular composer (be it male, female or prefer-not-to-say). I might ask the other artist I’m playing with what they would like to do, and take their recommendations.

I know that female composers have been underrepresented. And if I like something that’s been written by a female, then of course I’ll play it. But will I play something just because it’s been written by a female? No. Would Fanny Mendelssohn want me to play her trio because I love it (which I do), and want to share it, or because it was written by a woman?

Because having to practise something that you don’t like is a drag. And I spend hours practising things before I even start rehearsing them. So I’m not going to feature pieces to appear like I’m ticking some kind of gender-balance box. It might work for others, but not me. I’d like to feature things I love and want to share, regardless of who wrote them.

So, no. I won’t play things because I feel I should, or because I’ve been told I need to. I will play things I want to, and love. I will play them to audiences as best I can. (Because I will have loved practising them, exploring them, making them a part of me.) I don’t really care who wrote them – male, female, old, young, if I would have liked them personally or not. Because for me, that’s not the important bit.

Please know, as you read this, I’m not trying to change your mind. And I’m not going to get on a soap-box, or get all ranty. I’m just going to say why I’m going to do what I’m going to do, when it comes to the referendum. And why. I want to tell you a story…

I was working at a school the day after Kevin Rudd’s Apology. I listened to it on the radio – I thought it was a great speech. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened the next day. At the particular school I was at, there were a lot of Indigenous kids. And they were SO excited. SO proud. They were tall, and seemed to be physically bigger. Because what had been said, for them and their mob, was huge. For them, it wasn’t just a speech. It was a validation.

I was at another school when the conference was happening that created the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And there was a girl in year 6 who had family there. She was hugely excited at what was going on. At the change that she thought would happen. The fact that her family was going to help her country. She was proud of who she was.

I still work with Indigenous kids. Lots of them. And I see that many times they don’t feel proud of who they are. Their little lives are hard. They don’t stand up straight. And so I will be voting yes. Not for me. But for them. To validate them. To let them know that I stand with them. And they are important. Because they are the future of this country.

I have listened to the people who say we should vote no. That there’s lack of detail. That this will divide things further. But I see something else. I see kids who want hope. And I will try and give it to them.

You can do what you think is the right thing to do. And I will respectfully agree, or disagree. But for my little friends, I will be voting yes. I will do it with them at the front of my mind.

J.S. Bach wrote his cello suites between 1717 and 1723 – no-one really knows exactly. I’m playing the second one at the moment, for a concert of spoken word and cello. A dear friend of mine is reading from her new book, and I’m playing music that we think fits to her words. It’s not a hugely crazy concept – if you feed the sound of a cello through an oscilloscope (the instrument that measures soundwaves), the graph that is produced very like the human voice – so she’s speaking, and then the cello is speaking back. Same, but not-same, as my primary-school friends might say.

I read her excellent book, and found passages that I thought would match with movements from the second suite. And we are now fitting the whole concert together. (It’s really exciting, experiencing all the pieces falling into place!) This book is partly about being on a sheep farm through a drought year. And in one part of the book she describes a day of shearing – the energy, the gestures, the sounds. And you know something? It fits PERFECTLY with the gigue. And this amuses me as I play.

Bach solo cello and a Tassie shearing shed. Who’d have thunk it, ‘eh?

I’ve had a really challenging class this year. They are older kids. Kids who have seen a bit too much already. I haven’t taught them for long (only this year), so I haven’t really established friendships with them. They don’t really trust me much (and why would they?). And there’s a big range of abilities, and some really strong personalities.

Ususally, I drum with older kids, and they love it. NOT this bunch. After two terms, they basically mutinied. They drummed it with another teacher, and are bored. They don’t like it. And I was getting nowhere. I hadn’t won them.

I work with an amazing AP (Assistant Principal to those not in the know…). She went into the class and talked to them. Found out what they might like to do in music. They gave her a list – they wanted a song that they could play along to on didgeridoo, percussion, and clap sticks. And sing as well. So she wrote all this down to me. It must have taken her hours. And then I read it. And then panicked.

Now, modern songs aren’t something I listen to. In fact, I hear auto-tune in tracks and switch off (both my ears, and then the radio). I get bored with most of it, and lots of songs aren’t really singable with kids. So I am NOT the right person to create this new percussion-stuff-to-a-song for these kids. But I’m all they’ve got. And I have a weekend.

Ben (long-suffering husband) came to the rescue. He found a song, and with very clever editing software edited it for me to be in the right key (so I could add percussion stuff in C), edited it again so it was in a format we could all memorise, edited it more to remove a few unsiutable lyrics, and then I sat down and dreamed up percussion parts and a way to teach it. This was all done over 48 hours, in the middle of a weekend of a concert, cello teaching and desperately needing to plant out seedlings.

And last week, I started teaching it. And the kids loved it. This week, I’ll find out if they’ve practised it. But for the first time, they were all engaged. I won’t ever like this song. But what we’ve done with it I will. And the fact it makes kids smile makes me smile. So I will suck up my hatred of auto-tune, and try to sneak in as much musical teaching as I can. And enjoy kids enjoying it.

I was talking to a teacher friend a while ago as I got kids ready for a performance, and they told me that they’d never really seen a teacher who says ‘no’ so much to children. To clarify, they didn’t mean that I say ‘no’ as just one word, but I tell kids that what they’ve just done isn’t good enough. And I don’t use language like ‘This is really great, and you’re trying really hard. And now we’re going to do it again and you’re going to be really awesome!’ Because that’s not me. I’ll stop a track and say ‘This isn’t good enough. You’re not concentrating.’ Or ‘You’re not following my conducting.’ Or ‘You’re getting too fast. Why aren’t you watching me?’

To begin with, children are a bit taken aback. Sometimes they get a bit cross with me.

But here’s the thing. They suck it up and they do better. Mostly enormously better. And they sense that it’s better. And they can see that I think it’s better too. I smile at them. And then they start to work harder. They sing better. They drum more accurately. They play better.

And then when I say something like ‘Yes! That was fabulous!’ they know it’s the truth. They were fabulous. It was something that deserved a ‘yes’.

In my experience, after all these years, when you are preparing for a musical performance, kids don’t need the sugar-coating. They don’t need the affirmations. They need a really solid lead-up time, good preparation, and the truth. And then, when they excel – because they always do – they need honest, heart-felt praise. And then they’ll trust you more. And the whole process begins again.