I love to see crossed off lines in any list I write – tasks that have been completed – visible evidence of progress. And when larger projects with their lists of lists have been completed, there is a sense of real satisfaction.

This week I had already crossed off a number of little tasks from my list, but the biggest task was the end of year concert for SDMS. Shirley District Music School is a government backed scheme to provide reduced rate music lessons for pupils from (currently) seven local schools. I’ve been its director for the past 13 years. I must admit I was a little tense leading up to the event. It wasn’t that this end of year concert was in itself harder than other years, it was that it marked the end of an era for me and for the school. I was handing over the reins and wanted to finish well, so there could be a smooth transition to the school’s next iteration and for its new director taking over.

SDMS end of year concert, 2010

As I sat in the final concert, I was delighted at all the performances of the children across the range of instruments. As each one came to the stage I wondered, with the rest of the audience, how they would do. Would they be nervous and lose their place? Would they remember where to start playing? Would they be happy at the end with their performance?

The ending is so important. When clapping starts and the performers do a nice bow to acknowledge their audience, there is a sense that all the hard work has paid off. The pupil and tutor glance briefly at each other with a smile that beams: “We did it!” like a remote ‘high five’.

Afterwards I wondered how many went home ready to go through all that hard work again just to get that feeling of performing their music and finishing it well. I often hear that a good performance has had that effect.

Not one of the performances in this concert fell apart or came to a standstill necessitating a restart, and I was so proud of tutors and pupils alike. But I have seen it happen in past concerts that a restarted performance when it finally reaches the end gets extra applause as the audience acknowledges the determination of the performer to carry through and finish what they started.

Starting something is good, but finishing well is even better because it takes time, patience, grit and determination to get there. And that is something worth celebrating.

Besides, getting to the end of a project gives the opportunity to explore new possibilities, change direction or develop new skills.

And for those among us who love list making, it offers time to write new lists.

This week I held my first grandchild, little Naomi, in my arms for the first time. As I wept tears of joy, I sang a song of thanks to our Heavenly Father for His beautiful creation. Robin and I are so proud of our son Isaac and his lovely wife Chuana. And they of course are thrilled, if very tired, to be parents.

Last week as I sang with my siblings around the piano for the first time in 9 years, along with other family members and friends, it was an incredibly special moment too. We’d come together from various countries for our nephew’s wedding.

And casting my mind back to when my father died, I remember how we sang a hymn I had always loved, but never knew before that time that it was Dad’s favourite too.

If you think about the special transitions in life: birth, marriage and death, music takes a special place to help us express our emotions and the deepest feelings we have, whatever they may be.

 

Have you ever noticed that some things can be said in a song that you wouldn’t say without the music? This could apply to words of love, but I have also heard negative lyrics in a song that would come across very differently if spoken directly to someone’s face without the music.

When I was studying ethnomusicology it came up that there was a culture where music was used to express displeasure about a particular sin done in the community, but sung so that the harshness of the words were softened in a way through the music used to convey the message.

Songs are used around the world in a huge variety of styles to express delight or displeasure, to teach and inform, to rebuke or challenge the status quo in a community.

All this to say there is power in song that we often underestimate. I have noticed that some of my young pianists are reluctant to sing along to their piano pieces at first. But it is so good for their development as a musician that I keep encouraging them to get in the habit of it. Even in a simple first year piece I see a huge difference in the way the notes are played when they sing them. The music immediately goes from becoming a collection of notes to becoming a melody and the words of the song help to make that link. Singing helps you play the piece a little more from your heart. Besides, singing releases endorphins, so it will lift your mood as well.

 

Whatever instrument you are playing this week, can I encourage you to sing along with it too in some way regardless of whether you think you can or not.  Okay, that’s tricky for wind instruments, but a person playing a wind instrument will obviously play with some of the sensations of singing anyway. Even so, singing a phrase then playing it may still make it flow better. Let me know if you notice the difference. 

When you are helping your child with their piano practice, come alongside and sing along with the lyrics if there are some. It will bring the music to life and be part of bonding with your child too. Their piano playing becomes less of a task to get done and more of a wonderful thing to do together. (I’d love to hear from you if you try this and notice the difference in some way.)

 

This is such a big subject that I hope to cover it more in future blogs. But for now, it’s a time to sing! And I look forward to the day when little Naomi and I will sing together. 

Many consider Nadia Boulanger to have been the greatest music teacher that ever lived. She certainly had many notable names among her students: Aaron Copland, Daniel Barenboim, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Walter Piston, to name a few.

Whilst most musicians would not have had the privilege of sitting under her tutelage, almost all of them would have been taught by one or more teachers who were very influential in their musical growth.

 

 

If I look at where some of my pupils are at right now, I might think that the impact I am making on them is not all that significant. But I do know that right now is the most important time to give them my best. If I get that right, there will be growth in their ability – movement from where they are to where they can be, via the next step forward. And surely this is what any good teacher looks for.

I know this because I have seen the impact of careful persistence and patience over years working with individual pupils, mostly at the piano. Watching a young child go from learning their first note to becoming a very capable musician has been a real privilege. I am very  grateful for it, and also for the relationship that is built between us as teacher and pupil.

 

This week I was together with my three sisters and brother for the first time in nine years. We had gathered for my nephew’s wedding. One of the last things we did together before my sisters headed off to their various corners of the globe was to sing and play instruments around the piano: Helen on violin and Ethne on clarinet, Marilyn and Peter singing. The next generation also joined in on some of the songs we enjoyed when we siblings were younger. What a privilege to show our love and unity with one another through playing music together – a skill that started with our mother’s tuition and our father’s encouragement.

 

The relationship built between music teacher and student can span the student’s school years and can parallel what a parent does for a child when they guide them through life from a young age. For some these are one and the same. My music teacher through those formative years may have had fewer notable students taking the music world by storm than Nadia Boulanger had, but for me at least (and not only because she was my mother), she had the greatest impact and was my greatest music teacher.

 

I found out a new fact last week…
We had 6 little chicks hatch last week and I was amazed at how incredibly packed into their eggs they were. How could they get the movement needed to hack away at the inside of the shell? Then I found out they have a special little bone on their head that saws away at the shell. Within days of hatching it disappears.

Now you probably know more about chickens than I do, but for me it was a new fact – something interesting and fascinating to be added to what I already knew about chickens. It got me thinking about how new ventures in music making – our musical creativity – comes from the combination of facts we know, or to put it another way, the basic skills we have, at our instruments.

Developing basic skills
Suppose one of my pupils is learning how to play a C major chord for the first time. This chord has been around a long time, but for them it is a new thing. They are not creating something new, but they are discovering something that can become a building block for creativity.

Establishing skills
If they take that pattern of tones and semitones (whole and half steps) and use it from a different starting note it becomes a different major chord. Then they could work out the other different major chords coming up with all 12. We call this transposing.
Now suppose I gave the task of doing this to a dozen pupils, I could be sure the outcome would be different for each one. Some would try it on the white notes only. Some would give up after knowing they could do it. Some would get side-tracked and go off and find other combinations altogether. All acceptable outcomes.
Note: Repeating a pattern in different contexts (transposing) actually helps establish a full understanding of the basic pattern.

Combining skills to create something new
When we combine a known pattern with another known pattern we create something new. This could be when the pupil starts trying different major chord combinations by forming progressions with that major chord starting on different notes. Each person’s way of creating that new thing will be different because of their particular personality and experience. The more comprehensive their experience, the more likely it is that they can create something truly innovative.

Let me give an example. One of my first song writing attempts was when I was about eleven years old.
Skill 1 : I knew about various chords but I didn’t know a good order to use them.
Skill 2: I could also sing but didn’t really know how to frame a melody without harmony.
Method:
• I wrote down the chords and the order they were used from a song I liked from a popular musical.
• I just played the chords at the piano and sang a new melody to them until I came up with something that didn’t sound like the original melody.
• I wrote down what I came up with so I could make further adjustments as needed later
At first, I didn’t share this idea with anyone because it felt like cheating, but I’ve come to realise it was a helpful way to learn about chord combinations that work together. As I’ve grown in my understanding of chords, combinations, melodies and harmonies, I can now create my own chord patterns.

We all like the idea of being creative and I really like to give my pupils the opportunity to experiment with the “facts” (basic skills) of music they are learning so that they can develop creatively. The challenge is to make sure we have some good basics learned so that we have something to be creative with.

Over the past week I have marvelled at how the mother hen shows her new chicks what to do as they learn the basics of eating and drinking. It makes me realise in a fresh way that doing stuff alongside our children is the best way for them to learn their basic skills. So if your child or grandchild is learning a musical instrument, get them to show you something they have learned and have a go at it yourself. Like the baby chick’s head bone, you won’t have to do it forever. They will love you for it whether you can do it or not. Their motivation to learn music making skills will probably increase and who knows what creative music making could be hatched some day as a result.