Author Archives: claireholdich

Finding perspective: teaching and wellbeing

This mental health awareness week, I want to share my experience of how teaching has been challenging to my wellbeing and what I have found useful in order to remain healthy in and out of my work.

Several years into wmindset-743166_640orking as a teacher, I began to experience a significant crisis of confidence over my ability to do the job. Almost overnight, I began to feel that I did not have the knowledge or skills to guide my pupils appropriately and that I was not the best, and therefore did not have the right to be in the position that I was when so many other fantastic musicians were struggling to find work. And whilst I knew that this feeling was all coming from me, from the thoughts I was having, and not through any constructive criticism or feedback, it still felt like I would ultimately have to leave a job which I had somehow always felt I would always fulfil.

And this of course was coming on top of the ‘usual’ level of stress that goes with the territory. The pressure to keep pupils on track, especially leading up to an examination or performance, and the energy required to remain upbeat and positive through day after day of back to back lessons is not something I think that everyone is cut out to cope with.

Teaching one on one can also be a lonely business. The chance to discuss the challenges and highlights of the day is seldom there, whether you work privately at home or in a school or other organisation. The preparation and planning of lessons takes place alone and feedback from anyone other than your pupils themselves is rare.

I realise now that my crisis was fuelled mainly by the disease we call perfectionism. My desire to be the best at everything was still present from my years of studying as a singer and I was now transferring it to my teaching. I also failed to realise that teaching is just as much about personality and your ability to relate to a pupil as it is about your own musical ability, and that your own desire to continue to improve your musical skill is perhaps more important than your current level of expertise which is always much greater that that of your pupils.

Many years later, I’m now in a very different place mentally to where I was when I first started. I came through that difficult time by facing the fact that perfectionism is a damaging construct (and one which I explored in a previous post relating to performing here) and ultimately through my own strength to carry on whilst taking small steps in building my confidence in my abilities. I am now aware of how to mange my time and work load so that I don’t become overwhelmed – taking regular breaks and setting aside scheduled time to plan and deal with admin tasks is now something I wouldn’t sacrifice. I am also aware of the need to share ideas and experiences with colleagues and others in a similar position as often as possible and so try to become involved with events and discussions, even if only online rather than face to face.

In taking a wider perspective on my working life as a whole and making sure that I am always able see the bigger picture, I feel not only am I a stronger person both professionally and personally, but that my teaching has directly benefited greatly also.

When it’s ok not to practice

We all have off days. As a musician, this can be translated as those days when picking up an instrument in order to Practicework on the next challenging piece or to improve our technique feels so far away from what we want to do (ie. the sofa seems just that bit more appealing). My thoughts turned to this after reading a blog post on parenting this week which highlights the stigma that parents feel when they too just long for a day off. Should we as musicians feel stigmatised when we just don’t want to practice and is there anything we can do about it?

Practising an instrument, like parenting, is a real challenge. It requires constant focus, physical and mental energy and an ability to envision which expressive qualities the music requires whilst working out how to achieve them. It is not something that can be carried out any time and any place, indeed it requires a certain set of conditions to present in order for it to be productive. And that’s not forgetting that practice is just that. It is a process, a means to an end, and one which needs to be repeated over and over in order to gain enough knowledge and control to enable us to recreate sounds at will.

So it is not always appropriate to practice. But when it’s not, is that it? Should we just stop and give in to the sofa and render ourselves unproductive? When we are truly exhausted yes, but perhaps not every time. For if our practice time is used in the way it should be, there must be room for time when we can simply play. Time when we pull out those pieces that we have already gotten to grips with which bring us the most pleasure, maybe some that we haven’t shaken the dust off for a long time, and just play. For it is in doing this that we not only remember why we strive to meet the next challenge that we practise for in the first place, but we are probably at our most creative, free from the worries of technical challenges and able to express fully what the music means to us.

So the next time that the sofa calls, be sure to pause and ask yourself ‘do I simply want to play?’ instead. You may have just asked yourself a question which not only saves you from the clutches of sofa but more importantly helps you to take your playing to the level that you’re striving for.

Keeping it real

Today, we live in a instant world. A world which often feels like it takes place more often than not behind a screen than in reality. Not only is it possible to see someone who is across the other side of the world at the push of a button, we can access a wealtwelcome-to-reality-quote-1h of information on any conceivable topic at any time of the day or night. That of course has its many advantages, but when it comes the art of learning to master a musical instrument, it would seem that the dominance of our virtual and instantaneous world can be more of a disadvantage which can have a huge effect on our ability to strive towards real achievement in a real way.

For many younger students, their first experience of learning to sing or play may also be their first experience of having to coordinate their brain and body in such a way that it can only be truly learnt once frequent repetition and intense concentration have been practised. This, when combined with the necessity to find time and a quiet solitary space without distraction where their senses of sight, sound and touch can all be perceived together (ie. whilst not in front of the a TV or computer screen), can make learning an instrument seem like a completely unapproachable and alien task. This has of course always been the case for anyone, however I believe that nowadays, the frustration and desire to give up at the first hurdle is more sorely felt, in some cases to the point where students really can’t comprehend the idea that to be able to get it right every time, diligent practice really is the only way.

But this is conversely exactly why I love playing an instrument so much and why I love encouraging and helping others to do so. It’s raw and real, and requires my own mental and physical energy to be controlled in such a way that a sound can be produced and replicated as I when I want it (and when taken to the extreme, for example in fluteboxing, can produce a really powerful natural high). It takes dedication, discipline and determination to keep going when its difficult, and even if technology can aid us along the way, it can never fully take a humans place when it comes to playing. Alongside these aspects, my instrument and my voice are themselves devoid of technology – they require no plugging in or charging up – and whilst modern in their make up, have an element of history woven into their development and understanding which gives them a real feeling of nostalgia before the music even begins.

So when faced with the struggle against our instantaneous hungry brains, the process of learning an instrument is one which can really teach us a lesson in stepping back and keeping it real.  And even if a student once having taken those early steps decides that learning an instrument isn’t for them, I would hope that they have a least gained the realisation that not everything is instant –  a most valuable lesson to have learnt.

Why a ‘perfect’ performance is not always the best

When analysing any musical performance, it is easy to focus solely on those elements which are traditionally seen as being the building blocks of music – pitch, rhythm and dynamics for example. Whilst these are no doubt fundamental in the accurate portrayal of any piece, and mastery of them alone may appear to create that ‘perfect’ performance, should these elements be allowed to be the ultimate goal when it comes to a musical performance?all-that-counts-in-life-is-intention-quote-1

I would argue not. Although I’m not a composer, I’m pretty sure that if you asked the vast majority of them what they would like a performer of their music to ensure that they get right when they perform, it has everything to do with intention and less to do with the actual instructions which have been provided in the score. For it is often those elements which cannot be fully notated – the length of a pause or breath, the exact use of an accented note or the way in which a crescendo is executed for example, which can only ever be controlled by the performer themselves in the moment and which require a thorough understanding of what the piece is really trying to say in order to bring a piece to life.

And because of this, there may be a price to pay when it comes to being ‘note perfect’. If the sole focus remains on the notes alone during a performance, then the real intention of the piece is not given any attention. Of course, the intention of some pieces is to be precise and that is all, and professional performers at the top of their game are quite rightly expected to never get a note wrong. But for those of us who are still striving to progress in our musical abilities, and particularly those who are new to performing itself, I feel that if the intention of the piece is allowed to be the overriding aspect of the performance, then it will be a successful one, despite any misplacement of notes or details which may take place. It will also be a personal one, where performer and perhaps teacher have worked together on what the intention of the piece is, from their own and the composers point of view, and have sought to use the performers current skill level and musical abilities to shape the piece in a way which is possible and suitable.

So the next time that you hear a live performance that you particularly like, try to think to yourself why that is? I can almost guarantee that it will go beyond the basic elements to deliver music which has it’s focus firmly on intention and not just on what it’s composer set down on a page.

 

 

 

Can’t sing, should sing!

Nadine Cooper was told by her music teacher when she was a child that she can’t sing and therefore shouldn’t join in with the school choir because she is ‘spoiling it for everyone else’ (as reported in this BBC article). Let’s think about that for a second. To me, it’s a bit like saying that you shouldn’t walk down the street because the way in which you place one foot in front of the other is not, in someone’s opinion, worthy of being classifiable as walking.can't sing

Everyone can sing. As a singing teacher I’m often asked to give this response to the first question that I’m faced with when someone’s learns what my job is. I’ve always given this same answer in my 9 years of teaching as I’ve never been proved wrong. Every student I have ever taught has been able to open their mouth a create ‘musical sounds with the voice’ (Cambridge dictionaries online definition of singing) right from the very first lesson and, more crucially, every student has made an improvement to this over time, even those who on initially hearing a note played on the piano are unable to internally hear it and therefore pitch it in their own voice. And that’s the main point here. Some people are born with an inmate musical ability and natural vocal technique which allows them to sing well with little guidance. But the vast majority are not, or at least have only a certain degree of these skills when they begin to sing more regularly. We wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to, for example, swim well, if even at all, the first time they try it, even though it only requires the use of our own bodies and no external equipment.

So learning how singing works is critical for anyone who wants to use their voice just like any other skill, with regular time needing to be spent on developing these skills in the correct way for the individual. If we go back to the walking idea, yes we can all walk (if we have no medical reason not to) but we could probably all improve our walking by looking at our posture, balance, fitness etc.

Nadine has decided to not let her music teachers words stop her and has formed a choir for ‘those who lack confidence or need more practice.’ I can’t applaud her enough. Often those students who have come to me with a seeming lack of skill as discussed above are really completely lacking confidence in their ability after being told they can’t sing, often by people who should know better. This is damaging, and can sometimes take years to reverse and have a knock on effect to other areas of their lives too. Singing as part of a choir is a great way to begin to combat this, allowing you to explore your voice in a relaxed way, whilst hopefully having some fun and learning something about vocal technique along the way. Of course there is no substitute for one on one lessons with an experienced teacher if you are serious about improving you voice, but we are not all fortunate enough to be able to devote the time and money needed to do this.

However you choose to do it, if you have been told/think you can’t sing and want to give it a go, then go for it – you can only progress, and you never know where it might lead.

Fluteboxing – what the ….??

Fluteboxing, or flute beatboxing, is something that you may or, more likely, may not be familiar with. Simply put, there’s playing the flute and then there’s beatboxing (or the art of mimicking drum beats with the mouth and voice). Put them togethFlute Neon 1er, at the same time by the same player, and you get fluteboxing. This results in the player effectively becoming an entire band all by themselves, producing a beat with their lips, teeth, tongue and breath whilst maintaining a melody using traditional playing.

Fluteboxing very much sounds, and is, a recent concept (the term beatboxing only began to be used in the 1980s) however combining traditional flute playing with singing and other extended techniques can be traced somewhat further back with flautists such as Ian Anderson, Robert Dick and Ian Clarke developing new sounds and techniques for the instrument (which will be explored in a future post). Indeed, it is possible to use extended techniques when fluteboxing, adding yet another layer of sound and difficulty into the mix.

As a flautist, this is not for the faint hearted! Both the skill of playing and of beatboxing are not easy to produce on their own and because the two involve using and controlling many more parts of the body when you put them together than you would use when producing them on their own, it really does feel like an impossible task when you begin.

Without a doubt, the most well know fluteboxer is Greg Patillo. His youtube videos show the energy, versatility and creativity which is required to flutebox at the highest level yet he makes it look so easy! His desire to share not only his own playing anywhere and everywhere but to inspire others to have a go too (Greg has also produced a number of videos for players on where to start with fluteboxing) is really something to be admired and shared.

Just like playing other contemporary flute music with extended techniques, I’ve fallen in love with fluteboxing. The energy, imagination and time that is takes to get each piece working is immense and totally addictive. Because of the use of breath and the necessity to maintain a beat throughout a piece, fluteboxing requires stamina and strength like no other playing and forms a full on workout for mind and body. I love the way in which it allows any piece with a beat to be played as a solo, and gives endless possibilities for beats and rhythms to be changed to become more ‘edgy’ – something that is not easy to explore and put across when you are simply playing a melody alongside an accompaniment. It opens up mainstream repertoire – songs, jingles, film themes, computer game music – all become possible, as well as gives a new take on traditional pieces. And above all, I love the reaction of audiences when performing – so far I have always been met with big smiles and looks of disbelief every time I have performed.

It’s a whole new instrumental world and one which I hope will to continue to grow and be explored.

The joy of teaching… and of being taught

I’ll admit that when I first became a singing teacher, and for a good few years into my teaching career, I blinkerdly looked upon it as a sideline, a way to work in music and earn money whilst supporting my own singing and studying. Despite the admiration that I received from those who learnt of what I did for a living, I couldn’t see the joy that could be founif-you-become-a-teacher-by-your-pupils-youll-be-taught-quote-1d, and the knowledge that could be gained, in what I now come to regard as one of the most important and fulfilling ways in which to share your own passion for music making.

In the nine years that I have now been teaching, I can honestly say that I have learnt more about life and music making directly from it than from any other activity. I have had the privilege of working with a massive range of people of all ages who have come to lessons for a wide variety of reasons – to challenge themselves, to try something new, to resurrect an old skill, to pursue a musical career. All of these reasons may have given them a different starting point, yet they ultimately all end up experiencing the same negative and positive feelings during the inevitable challenging moments and the successful times which arise. Even though this roller coaster journey which every musician finds themselves one is one which inside I know all too well, it is only now when I get to experience it over and over again through the differing eyes of all my pupils that I can understand its merits and its importance.

And it’s not only in this way that I’ve seen what teaching can offer to the person delivering it. Over the years I’ve experienced moments of joy and laughter during teaching, especially when a pupil experiences a breakthrough in their development or when I can hear the beginning of a new vocal sound emerging.  I’ve been privileged to witness numerous performances where pupils have gone far beyond my expectations and have given me more enjoyment and perhaps more to think about than if I had been performing myself. I’ve had the chance to explore pieces that I thought I knew well from a new perspective which has deepened my own understanding and interpretation. And above all, I’ve formed relationships with people which have become so well bound that the teaching and leaning has become so comfortable and instinctive as brushing your teeth.

How many aspects of music making can boast all that? Teaching, I’m glad you found me.

Musical association : a cause for concern?

Browsing through internet news pages earlier today, I came across this BBC news article in which it is claimed that Adeemotions-966669_960_720le is unhappy with reports that her music is being used by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. This got me thinking about how music can easily become associated with a person, place or event but this can often be a difficult bond to break. Could this therefore cause a big impact on the composer or performer either negatively or positively and should this be something we should consider more carefully when putting our music ‘out there’?

Adele isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to come face to face with a negative association with her music. Perhaps the most famous example is Adolf Hitler’s adoration of the music of Richard Wagner. This has caused such a strong link between the two that many people refuse to even listen to Wagner’s music, and indeed none of his operas have ever been staged in Israel for this reason (it is worth adding that there is evidence to show that Wagner himself held anti-Semitic views but maybe if it wasn’t for the Nazis this would have been somewhat overlooked?) On a lighter political note, who cannot fail to think of Tony Blair when hearing D:Reams ‘Things can only get better’ (and if you google the title, one of the most searched for phrases is ‘Things can only get better Labour’). Or on hearing the rousing anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Carousel not be reminded or a certain football team who plays in red?

But all these associations on a global scale are perhaps not as important to us as individuals as the personal associations which we all find ourselves making from time to time. Those moments when a song or piece captures just how we feel or enables us to express something better than we ever could ourselves. Or maybe a time which stays with us in our memory has a certain piece connected with it, perhaps because it was being played at that very moment? Then there are of certain associations which are made by the composer or performer themselves  – the time you performed in a certain building or with a certain group or even that dreaded audition piece all hold different memories and feelings. And maybe that’s just it. Musical associations are meant to happen and are part of the deal. We all make them. Music is an art, and art is perhaps the most evocative and powerful language known to man which paradoxically is also is wide open to individual interpretation.

Artists will always be quick to react to negative associations which are formed with their work in the public arena. But perhaps they would do better to remember why they do what they do in the first place and the musical associations that they themselves have made? For every public negative association, isn’t there bound to be an unobtainable number of positive associations by people on a personal level which can bring so much joy and comfort to us and yet go unnoticed in the wider world? In the case of Adele, the fact that her latest album ’25’ has now sold more than 15 million copies worldwide must surely be proof of this. And ultimately, as musicians and artists, if we are brave enough to share our musical ideas with the world in the first place, we must learn to be brave enough to accept that how they are perceived is ultimately out of our control.

Breathing for life

yoga-422196_960_720Breathing. We all do it. So why do we need to think about it? Unfortunately our modern lifestyle has led us to become pretty lazy in this most natural of functions, so much so that we really are missing out on the many benefits that it can bring.

Breathing fully from the bottom of your lungs upwards gives you an instant feeling of openness, relaxation and strength, right from the first time you do it. It’s almost like opening your eyes for the first time. However, I’m yet to meet a new student who already does this habitually of their own accord unless they already practice something else which encourages it, such as swimming. What I mostly find is that new students have become satisfied with only filling the top part of their lungs, meaning that they often create tension in this area and are missing out on the true feeling of what breathing should be like.

As a singer and flautist, breathing is a fundamental element of what I work to improve, and I encourage my students to thing about it right from their very first lesson. Without this full breath, we can’t create the beautiful sound which we crave for. But this awareness of breathing has given me so much more. I am able to experience a feeling of calm whenever I feel just by taking in air, alongside knowing that I’m improving my general health by doing what nature really intended.

It takes time for full breathing to become automatic, as does every other aspect of singing or playing. However, I believe breathing is element which really gives us one of the greatest benefits to other areas of our lives, and which, as musicians, we should be grateful for. Full breathing really does feel like a joy, and it only takes our persistence and effort to find it.