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!

Well, it all happened.

My partner (who was also going to produce the disc) and I loaded up the car last Monday with the cello, the piano stool and everything that we could possibly need, and drove to Melbourne. Sadly, my car had no air-conditioning, and it got to 40 degrees for about 5 hours. (I thought that was bad until we had to come back. It was 42 degrees for about 8 hours in the car. It was so hot my rosin melted. It was one of the outer circles of hell in my Fiesta on the return trip – I hope I never have to do that again….)

We talked a lot on the way down about what my aims were – to be as creative as I could, and to trust the engineers and everyone else. I was nervous – but also a little excited. I had also talked at great length to two musician friends of mine who do a fair amount of recording, and they warned me about changing things in the studio because of the dry sound. I had also spent the week before going to Melbourne really carefully trying to get even more attuned to my cello and the feel of it, as I knew I’d be playing in a very dry, unforgiving room, and the sound I heard in that room wouldn’t be the sound that would be heard by others.

Tuesday arrived – day one of recording. It took about 3 hours to set up the microphones. Again, I’d been warned about this. ‘Be patient’ I was told. This is like telling the bull to not go into the china shop. The 3 hours felt like 3 years. And at the end, even 3 decades. Obviously test number 1 for the nervous cellist.

Then finally we started. I was surrounded by sound baffles – imagine three large screens set up around me, with only one opening. I’m not sure if this was to create blinkers for me, so I couldn’t be distracted, or it actually really did affect the sound. The only thing I could see was my recording partner sitting in front of me, with his accordion strapped to him and a large smile on his face. He’d done this lots of times before, so was pretty calm about the whole thing. And so I let him musically take my hand, and start walking with me down the road, as it were. My only thought to myself was to be with him in the moment – I needed to respond to everything he gave me. And he is an outstanding musician. I needed to take every little subtlety he played, and use it, and give him back as much as he gave me.

And would you believe it? It worked. I didn’t have a bad time at all. In fact, in some moments I really enjoyed playing and recording it. I enjoyed pushing some barriers (musically, not the sound baffles around me). I enjoyed weaving in and out of the sound that was offered up to me. I enjoyed playing very dangerously at times – pushing my cello to the limit, or playing so intimately neither of us could look at each other. There were some horrible moments. I swore a lot over a little phrase in a piece that should have been easier. I cursed my inability to play an octave at one point. I worried as my walking partner disappeared in frustration over a part in another piece. But all in all, it wasn’t all bad.

It was a huge lesson in trust for me. It was a lesson in self-belief. It was a lesson in patience.

I might even do it again, sometime.

Now I have a mountain of sleeve notes to write, and meetings with my fabulous graphic designer friend. There are tracks to be edited and mastered. But the scaffolding has been well and truly put up, with very little shouting.

Last night, I went to have dinner with some friends of mine. Both professional musicians, both in their fifties. Unlike so many other musicians I know, they are both still really engaged with being musicians. They still want to share music with others – by performing, teaching, coaching and listening. I find them both incredibly inspiring. They are also both really normal. They have other interests. Their feet are well and truly on the ground – and their heads are…. well, where they should be. Not up anything, as the saying goes.

On the way there I was reflecting about these two, and how much I respect them both. And they are the sort of players where their goal is simply to share music. They walk on stage and seem to say to their audience (without saying it out loud, of course) “Look! We have found this piece of music! It’s just wonderful. We’ll play it to you the best we can – and hopefully you’ll think it’s really wonderful too…. Have a listen.” There is a real ego-less way of being and playing.

Then there are other sorts of performers. They walk on stage and say “Look! Look at me! Listen to how I play this! I’m great! You should notice me!”. And they fill their conversations with their friends and colleagues about how they were noticed the other day, or should have been noticed by others, or how well their CD sales are, or how much they have been played on the radio.

The second sort of musicians are often far more successful. They have the names that you would know, if you were not in ‘the business’. I find them phonies (thanks Holden Caulfield). I try to be around them as little as possible. And sometimes, these known names are not like the second type of performer. But, in my opinion (and after all, this is only my opinion), not so much.

I really believe that performing is not about fame. It is not about being noticed. It is about sharing. And for the sort of performer who doesn’t even write their own music, it is about me even less. It is about Bach, or Bloch, or whoever. It isn’t about adulation, or travel, or being noticed. It is simply about taking dots on the page, and turning them into something that makes others smile, or cry, or remember that wonderful day and how they felt.

I hope, when I am in my fifties and beyond, that I am like these two people.

If anyone has been reading this (or the facebook posts for ‘Bach in the Dark’) they will know that at the end of January I’m recording a disc.

This is a big deal for me, as every recording project I have ever done has been hugely unpleasant. There is always something that goes horribly wrong – someone can’t play something, there’s too much noise outside, it’s freezing cold, egos get in the way…. this list goes on and on.

But after two years of a dear friend (and a musician I admire so very much) asking me to record with him, I have said I’d try it one more time. If I was going to record with anyone, it would be him. I have decided not to listen to raw takes – I am bringing down a very trusted pair of ears (that do not belong to me) to listen to the takes, as I know that at the first whiff of an out-of-tune anything, I will stop being creative and imaginative, and become some kind of uninteresting cello-playing robot. And that wouldn’t be true to everything I hold dear as a performer.

So, for better or worse (hopefully better), I am going to Melbourne to be a creative cellist with lots of patience as we have to do things a number of times to get everything right. (I am not so patient. That will be hard. Not as hard as the last Bartok piece we’re doing, though.)

We rehearsed a lot last weekend. We gave a little concert to some friends who gave up their Sunday afternoon to come a tell us what they thought. We’ve talked endlessly about how things are going to go. A recording schedule has been drafted. I have so many callouses I could stick pins in most of my fingers and not feel a thing.

So it’s nearly upon me. I am reminded of my favourite quote (at the moment) about creativity, by Anna Funder. “This is the trick to creative work : it requires a slip-state of being, not unlike love. A state in which you are both most yourself, and most alive and yet least as sure of your own boundaries, and therefore open to everything and everyone outside of you.”

Here goes……..