During this Mental Health Awerness week, I’ve decided to share something I wrote not so long ago at an extremely difficult time for me mentally. I share this in the hope that those fortunate enough to not have expierineced such difficultes can perhaps come to appreciate some of the effects mental health conditions can have on anyone, and, at this difficult time for us all due to the global pandemic, will be encouraged to support the arts in any way they can so that the power they bring to our lives as both performer and listener can continue to be felt.
“…I stopped playing and just held my flute in my hands. I’ve spent many hours with this beautiful instrument yet it felt like this was the first time I was really feeling it. It had always been there for me, like an old friend, and now I knew I needed it more than ever.
I pulled out my old copy of the Telemann sonatas – on old favourite which I’d explored many years ago. I’ve turned my back on this style of music as a performer, perhaps due to the feelings of not performing it correctly (whatever that means) but I knew it was this that I needed to play right now. The notes were fuzzy from the start, some barely audible, and there were many more incorrect than right, but that didn’t matter. It was still my voice and my heart which was carrying through them. Even though my out of practice lips were screaming at me to stop, I just kept right on going, not allowing anything to get in the way, least of all my failing fuzzy brain. I surrendered to the fact that it didn’t matter, this was for me, my therapy, like my music always really had been. And I vowed to hold on to this feeling – a feeling of enough, of contentment in knowing that allowing myself to share my musical self is ok, and that it doensn’t need to be anything more.
Thank goodness for music, for what it can do to us if we only let it, and for the ability to see it for what it is. I know that my playing will get me through this, now and probably again in the future, and I also know that this will help me honour it during the good times as well.”
This coming Tuesday (26th May) I’ll be playing the Telemann Sonata in F major in full live on my YouTube channel. To be able to perform it now, honouring the music as it was intended from a place of stability and quiet confidence is something that I feel so grateful for. And if you’d like to join me to hear it I’d be even more thankful.
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.
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.
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.
Browsing through internet news pages earlier today, I came across this BBC news article in which it is claimed that Adele 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.