I’ve just come back from a week away down the south coast. My long-suffering, very patient partner (aka ‘The Bear’) and I escaped Sydney and went to stay in a little house with four other really dear friends. The little house it a bit neglected, but charming. The balcony wobbles. The oven is terrible. The stair-rail up the side of the house wouldn’t pass an OHS test. As someone climbs the stairs, the whole house wobbles like a firm blancmange. But it was the most perfect place to be.

We talked a lot. Read. I knitted (my new hobby). There was a lot of laughter. Lots of wine, champagne and some fabulous cider. Loads of Maltesers (TM). And these people put me back together after a pretty huge year. My job is excellent, don’t get me wrong. But it wears me out by the end of the year. I feel like an old flannel in some grotty Laundromat. Being around five wonderful people for a week was the most excellent thing.

I also had to take the cello with me. I am recording a CD at the end of January, which terrifies me. Every recording experience I have done up to this point has been incredibly stressful and really, I’d rather have root canal work. But I have agreed to try it again with my dear ‘musical brother’ accordion-playing-whizz. So I had to slope off for a few hours every day to practise.

It was a really enjoyable process, having the space to be creative. To try a few new things here and there. And to really enjoy playing again.

So here’s to 2014. I’m planning a year with many things in it. Some terrify me. Some I’ve done before. Some I’ve been wanting to do for a while. But I’m hugely optimistic. And smiling. Could be the result of an excellent week away. Thank you to the Bear, the Cabin Boy, the Wordsmith, the Colour Guru and the Lens-Cap Operator. I love youse all.

I had a really amazing experience today. I had a concert with some kids. Now, these kids are from really tough backgrounds. They deal with enormous amounts of stuff – really horrible stuff – and that’s before they even get to school for the day. They shouldn’t have to deal with this, but it’s just their lot in life. These are the children I come home and weep for.

But this post is not about their sadness and rotten lives. This post is what they did today. We had  a concert. The whole school was involved. Year six were ushers, and sound technicians (well, they manned the CD player and adjusted the volume!!), and gofers, and runners. Children drummed, and sang, and played and were proud. These are children who three years ago would not look me in the eye. They would not sing. They were shy and distrustful. Today they sang with their heads up, and their chests proud. They watched, they focused – every one of them was a superstar. I was so very proud of every one of them.

In the craziness of all these rehearsals over the last few weeks, something happened. I had a group of four little year four girls who were a group of soloists. They would sing a verse here and there, by themselves throughout this musical pageant. They sounded beautiful. Two weeks ago, one of these lovely little musicians had her world turned upside-down. Her mum died. I don’t know how she died. But I watched this little girl tell me a fortnight ago, and crumble. My heart broke for her. You see, when I was in year five, my dad died. He didn’t die suddenly, like this mum, but he was gone out of my life, and my world turned upside-down too. Like I was walking in a snow globe, and suddenly it all flipped. And got turned on its side over and over again. I remember what I felt. And my heart broke to see this little girl having to go through similar stuff. I talked to her about it. And I cuddled her when I saw her.

This school has fabulous pastoral care. Her class teacher is a wonderful, wonderful woman. And she is loved, and looked after when she is at school. And she loves music, and having this to work towards was really great for her.

On Monday I found out that her mum’s funeral was on the day of the concert. She said to me at the dress rehearsal that she would be there – ‘because I want to. And because mum would want me to.’ But I have to say, I didn’t believe her.

And half an hour before we were due to start, this little person walked into the hall. She smiled at me and said ‘I’m here!’. And she sang her solos. And she drummed. And she was an angel on stage. And I was conducting her with tears in my eyes.

I loved music all through school. I played the recorder, and the flute, and of course the cello. I sang in the choir. I rang handbells. And I remember when dad died I kept playing my cello, and really started to love music more. I was nurtured through this by some fabulous music teachers. I can remember my cello teacher gave me a record of Du Pre playing a ‘recital’ of all sorts of little cello pieces. I now have that record on CD, and I play it often. And it reminds me of that time in my life. Every time I play my cello I am reminded of my dad. And when I am really vulnerable, I remember being the little girl playing a cello duet with my cello teacher at his funeral.

And now, I was the music teacher, helping a little person who loved music come to terms with the punch that life had dealt her. I was the other side of same coin.

It has been a tremendous honour to work with this little girl, and conduct her today. And it has reminded me of me, and my dad, and all my music teachers, and other teachers who loved me and looked after me.

I wish her all the strength in the world.

I’ve had a pretty gruelling week. Teaching at the end of the year is always really difficult – year 6 children are ready to leave their little pond of primary school and move on to the bigger pond of high school. Everyone is tired – children (who are grumpy), parents (who often make some pretty unreasonable demands at this point), the office staff, the fix-it people around the school, and the teachers themselves. It’s a bit like pulling hen’s teeth to get anything happening at this point of the year.

And traditionally, this is the time of year for all the school concerts. Groan. And the Christmas carols. Sigh. And all that jazz.

Now, this is the life of a music teacher. In the midst of all the yawns and tantrums you get concerts read to go. That’s fine with me. I see it as an enormous challenge to get these children being the best they can. It’s expected. And when it all comes together (thanks to the help of all the staff), it’s a great thing.

But this year has been quite hard. Not only did someone drive into the back of me this week, and my car then also had a flat tyre one morning, but a few other things were thrown my way by the universe.

A little girl who I teach told me her mum died suddenly. She burst into tears in a rehearsal. It was true- her mum did die suddenly, and she was sent to school soon after. She’s a brave little person, and my heart is breaking for her. And what could she manage to do at school? She could manage to sing, and drum, and ‘do’ music. Other children I teach are going through some really serious family upheaval. And what did they want to do? They wanted to sing, and perform, and have their music lessons.

Now, I am just writing this as a music teacher. I’m sure that art teachers, or drama teachers, or dance teachers would write the same sort of things, but from a slightly different perspective – insert ‘acting’ for ‘music’, for example. But why are we taking Creative Arts away from children so often? Why are these the things that are cut when budgets are slashed? Why is literacy and numeracy so more important than healing little peoples’ souls?

I am flabbergasted, you know. There have been hundreds and hundreds of studies done about the importance of music educations. I’m sure there are the same amount of studies done with all the other creative art subjects. They heal children. They give them back their sense of self. They feel them with pride. They make them walk taller. They make them smile when there’s not much else to smile about. They level the playing field in the classroom. I see this daily.

What more do our power-brokers need to read? Or see?

A few weeks ago I was involved in a really interesting cross-pollination performance. For want of a better term, let’s call it an ‘event’. I played a Bach suite, and an excellent friend of mine, who happens to be an excellent visual artist, created a painting in real time, as I played the Bach Suite.

There were a few hurdles that we had to jump over to get this to happen.

It took us seven months to actually find a venue that would have us. One was great, apart from airplane noise. Some were too small. Others were too expensive. One had too many steps. But finally, just when we were about to give up, we found a place. We booked, paid a deposit, and started to sell tickets.

Two weeks before the event, my painter friend called up the place, only to find they were in receivership, and had NO RECORD of our booking. I was in rural NSW at the time, doing some really intense teaching, so it was up to my poor friend to sort it all out. Needless to say, it was all sorted – but it was really quite stressful. Especially for her.

Then there was the bump-in. It took four people four hours to set everything up. Canvas frames had to be made specially. Lights had to be rigged up. Chairs had to be set up and wiped down of accumulated grot – it was a huge set up. And this was done by the two performers and their partners. I wonder how many people who came to the event realised we’d been sweating our way through the afternoon, drilling and moving heavy chairs.

It was finally time for the start. I have to say, I was nervous. Nervous because this was something new to me. Nervous because it’s not really a ‘normal’ concert. When I’d told a number of musicians about it, they’d raised their eyebrows and said ‘hmm… sounds interesting‘. Which as we all know, is a euphemism for ‘I don’t think that’ll work.’

The Bach suite was the fifth suite. In C minor. I find the opening hard. And that’s when I’m practising alone, and feeling good about stuff. So when I walked on to play that night, nervous and jumpy, it wasn’t the best I’d played it. The piece starts off with an octave – and mine wasn’t great. In fact, it was pretty terrible. Inside, I was dying a million deaths. I wanted to stop and try again. (But we all know that you can’t do that.) And I kept playing on. For the first page of the suite, I was really thrown by the sound of the painting going on behind me. So it wasn’t my best playing. But then I settled into things. To tell the truth, I didn’t really enjoy the playing, in the moment of perfromance. I was hot. And tired. And nervous. But I played as well as I could.

I am really affected by keys in music. If I’m playing something in A major, everything is good with the world. If I’m playing in C major I feel pretty strong. I was playing in C minor. I find this a very vulnerable key. I felt, in this suite, after everything that had gone on, and in the key I was in, that I was offering my heart up on a platter. Imagine standing completely naked in a room, with all your love handles, and stretch marks, and moles on view to a group of people and saying – well, this is it. This is me. That’s how I felt.

I walked off stage relieved. And very pleased with the Sarabande. That was really great, I thought. And there were some other really good bits. I was also proud of the fact I’d pulled myself together – fallen over at the start, with that double stop, but kept going. And I was also really proud of the event itself. The painting was amazing. The theatricality of the whole event was fabulous. My painter friend had created the most amazing artwork.

And then, after it was all over, and I was piecing myself together, someone came up to me, and said ‘Well, shame about that double stop at the start’ and then laughed. If you have read this far, please don’t stop now.
Remember this – every performer hears their mistakes. Their ears are trained for that. And we are trained to remember what we do wrong. (In fact, we’ll completely blow it out of proportion.) You don’t need to tell us. Especially not straight after a performance where, as a player, I have offered you my soul, with all its flaws.
Tell me those things in a few days, when I’ve pieced myself together.

I could have punched this person right in the face. Really hard. With all my heart. They didn’t need to say what they did. Did they say that to make themselves feel better? To remind me that they were older than I, and that I used to hold them in such high regard? Were they even thinking about the consequences of their comments?

Who knows.

I came home, in tears. But I have now pieced myself together. Life goes on. The sun rose in the morning. And it was one small glitch. The actual event was something that was fabulous – and I was really proud of it. Many other people have said such positive things. I know that doing something like what we did isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And you can’t please everyone all the time. In fact, you can’t please many people if you push boundaries.

But I am proud of it. And pleased with it (apart from my shaky start), and have agreed to do it again. I need to get it better.

But I won’t be inviting that person to anything for a while.

At least once a year I travel to Dili to train teachers there. I’ve been doing this now for about four years. I originally went with a whole other bunch of Sydney-based musicians, as part of an overly-ambitious project that didn’t really work. Then I was asked back to see if I could create a classroom music curriculum, with four different parts to it.

I needed to create an early childhood programme, an infants music programme, a primary music programme, and a set of lesson that could be taught by any teacher (musical or not), for young children that required no musical instruments – just music lessons with body percussion and singing. All of this needed to be in Tetun – the Timorese mother tongue. Te lessons, the children’s songs, the lot. (As an aside – I don’t speak this language. Well, now I can get by in it – I can order food, and direct taxi drivers – but when I started it was completely unknown.) I had a team of young teachers to train. When I say teachers, they had no teaching qualifications. They were eager to learn, though.

There have been many times walking this road where I thought I couldn’t do it. Where things were too different. Too hard. One visit, when I realised that nothing I had taught for two years was being used, I was ready to throw in the towel. I remember sitting in a tiny little room with every part of me sweating and the horrible realisation that I was going about things completely the wrong way. I didn’t know what to do. Cry? Shout? Give up?

People who know me know that I am pretty determined. I will have my way – either by hard work, careful manipulation or persuasive arguing (well, I like to think of it as persuasive. Some uncharitable people might call it bullying – but I don’t think so.). I was also aware that I had been paid to do a job – and I hadn’t done it.

My mother was a teacher. She was a superb teacher. I never sat in one of her classes, as a girl, but I heard things from friends of mine who were taught by her. And a few times I spied on her teaching classes. For the next two days, I kept thinking ‘What would my mother have done?’

So I set about doing my job differently. It was a huge learning curve for me, the next 48 hours. I wrote lesson structures, I created rules, I tried to second-guess how these young teachers would best learn. I tried to understand the Timorese way of thinking, and adapt my teaching to it – rather than just presuming that they would come round to my way of thinking. I have never been so focused in my imparting of knowledge. Never been so specific in what to do. I felt like some kind of educational dictator. But these kids (I say kids, but they are all in their 20’s. Not really kids. But a fair bit younger than me.) would have to be on their own once I left, with a bit of support, but not a great deal. Not only did they have to know their material, but they had to know how to put it together to create a lesson. They had to exude confidence. They had to teach huge class groups, in really tough situations.

After I came back to Sydney, it took me about 3 weeks to recover. To piece myself back together. I felt like a wet rag.

And then the lesson plans started coming in to me (one of the reporting structures I’d set up – I was trying to keep an eye on them from a distance). They were doing what I’d asked! It was possibly working.

I’ve been back a number of time since then, to see what is going on (and give them more material) – and they are doing it. These kids are delivering well-crafted lessons, with age-relevant material. The kids (up to 50 in a class) are engaged. They are learning stuff. My teachers are becoming more confident. They have good classroom management skills. They are smiling as they teach. And other visitors report back to me, with the same sort of news.

The reason I am writing this today is I got a package of stuff from them yesterday, containing news from them, and lesson plans. They are teaching kids from K-4. They have groups of 40-50. They are training other teachers. And it’s all working!

I couldn’t be more proud of them. I give them all gold stars.