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If you’re a teacher, you’ll understand that more often than not, the biggest hurdle to getting your students to perform is the fear that they will face. Fear of making a mistake, fear of standing up in front of their friends and family, and fear of being called out as ‘not being good enough’. What is takes to overcome this is the ability to be vulnerable.
Vulnerability is at the core of the years of research undertaken by American author Brené Brown. Daring greatly is just one of a number of bestselling books that she has written, each highlighting an aspect of her research into the essence of what it takes to be your best self and live a life which is full and true to yourself. In it, Brené focuses on her biggest finding – than in order to live wholeheartedly, vulnerability is not something we can shy away from. Rather than viewing it as a weakness, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable builds courage, engagement and connection which could not be more relevant to our work as musicians, whatever aspect or level we are engaged in.
As well as offering many insights into how we can help ourselves to embrace vulnerability through her research findings, Brené provides a number of honest, sometimes hilarious and sometimes cringe worthy, personal stories which although may not be entirely relatable, certainly offer a perspective on our own thinking in situations when we are called to be vulnerable. Her style throughout is one which never makes the reader feel inadequate, yet gently persuades even the most staunch advocate for a stiff upper lip to explore to benefits of wearing your heart on your sleeve. And I think that’s something that the world could always do with more of.
We all have off days. As a musician, this can be translated as those days when picking up an instrument in order to work 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.
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 wealth 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.
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 found, 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.