I don’t watch a lot of TED talks – but there is one that I really like. It is called ‘Every Child Needs A Champion’, and I find it really inspiring. It was made by a wonderful teacher who has now left this world called Rita Piearson.

It is here, if you want to watch it….. Every child needs a champion
I watch this often, and it reminds me of why I do what I do.

Not so long ago, I found myself standing up for a particular child. This little person has really given her teachers the run-around, apparently. She isn’t very pleasant in other classes. I don’t teach her very often, but she has always been lovely for me. She is a musical little soul – she sings beautifully, and has always really responded to music in class. Whenever she sees me she greets me by name, and smiles, and sometimes even gives me a hug. I like her a lot. I appreciate that she can be trouble, and she has a mouth on her – but, actually, I don’t see that. I see a basically decent kid.

I wanted her to participate in some classes I was taking, and the powers-that-be in her school said no. She hadn’t behaved in some other classes, and so they were going to use no music classes as a punishment. But I work for a charity who try and engage kids just like her. So I stood up for her.

Well, I was told I was being manipulated. I was wrong. I was being taken for a ride. That she would disappoint me. That she was no good. Other teachers got angry with me. In fact, a few got really angry with me.

I had to talk to a few trusted souls, people whom I respect, to check that I was doing the right thing. Was I really being manipulated by this child? Should I give her a go? (I don’t know about you, but if enough people tell me I am doing the wrong thing, I’ll at least think about it…..) But deep down something told me I should put my neck on the chopping block for this kid. And my trusted friends agreed with my inner voice.

So I got shouted at, and told that I was doing the wrong thing some more. I trod on toes, and had heads shaken at me in disbelief. I was told I was a fool.

But she was in my classes, and she participated. And she had a good time. She performed with me – and even smiled. She was polite, and helpful.

My heart breaks for this little person who as blown all her chances where she is. She’s a good kid. In fact, sometimes she’s a lovely kid.

But I found it hard sticking up for her.
But I’d do it again.
And again.
She was worth it.

I am lucky enough to work quite closely with the good people of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Sometimes they send a quartet out to a school, and I run a facilitated concert with these wonderful players, teaching children about different ways to play stringed instruments, or about concepts like ‘ostinato’, or ‘ground bass’.

But this week, we did something different.

I am at one school where there are a lot of children with really difficult little lives. Lots of family members in prison. Lots of kids having to look after themselves a lot of the time. You know the sort of stuff…. I write about it often. I’ve said it all before. Three terms ago, some girls in years 3-6 came to me and asked if I could start a choir with them, so that they could get together to sing weekly. So the senior choir was born. In term one I had 14 girls. In term 2 it jumped to 22. In term 3 it stayed at 22 – and we had a concert to prepare for.

The ACO was going to send out a quartet to perform with these girls. So I had to come up with four songs that would work well with a quartet backing these young voices, and that the girls would be happy rehearsing for 8 weeks. I thought I had come up with a good four – and then sent the to the ACO for arranging.

Two weeks out from the concert, and the girls were restless. The songs didn’t sound very polished. None of the girls would really look at me. They wouldn’t stand still. I was worried. Would they be put off by the quartet? Would they actually be able to do this, or would the wheels fall off? (Also, I am a cellist – I am not a choral conductor, so my conducting is a bit patchy……)

A week out from the concert and I was cranky in rehearsal.
‘Look at me!! I can help you!’
‘Why don’t you know these words?’
‘Why can’t you stand still?’

The day of the concert came (it always does). One girl who is chronically late to school was waiting at the gate before 8 am (school starts at 9). EVERYONE in the choir was at school. Two of them even told me that they had gone to bed early the night before so they could concentrate.

I started the rehearsal by allowing the girls to hear the quartet playing the accompaniment to one of the songs, in the hope that they would get used to the sound. I started off the ACO players and then watched faces. Now, these girls weren’t to know that they were playing with some of the best players in the country (although I was appreciating that!) – but their faces showed it. Little grins turned to big grins. Jaws dropped. Heads nodded.
‘They’re deadly!’ says one girl.

You know, I shouldn’t have worried about anything.
All that sleep I lost? I should have trusted those little people.
They weren’t put off by anything.
They stood – tall, proud, and looking at me. In fact, most of them didn’t take their eyes off me.
They were still.
They knew all the words.
They sang with all their hearts.

And they sounded FANTASTIC. They performed for their peers, and lots of  special visitors. They were wonderful. Their school cheered them. I cheered them. Their teachers were amazed.

So many of the kids in this school are brow-beaten and down-trodden. They are told they are no good, stupid, worthless….. Well, for an hour, my 22 girls RULED THE SCHOOL. They were the best they could have been – and then some.

I was one seriously proud music teacher.

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.