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.

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.