Exploring, Learning, Creating, Performing, Competing and Testing in Music.

Chances are the end of that title sentence jarred a bit with you. It does with me. Exam preparation and competitions, however, are part of my work as a music professional. They are by no means the corner stone but they are there and they serve a purpose. At times they take centre stage – (allow a girl a poor pun).


I’m but a few days away from taking back my old piano students, welcoming new ones, and returning to two North Belfast schools where I have led a choir for some three years. Last year our choir won first place in the FISCA (Flax Trust Inter-Community Schools Choir Awards) competition. That gave us all a real sense of achievement and acknowledged the work put in.
We’ve also created an expectation.

As a child I had formal music lessons. I took grade exams, and went on to study music at second & third level. It is changing now, but a strange dichotomy still exists in music education whereby practical music making is conspicuous by its absence. That, however is another days blog. Suffice to say that the nature of the music experiences I encountered was so unmusical, as to result in a complete disengagement on my part from any meaningful music making for a very long time. Fast forward about eight years and almost entirely by terrific accident I applied for and was accepted into a music training programme in Norwich, England where I lived for almost two years. Community Music in practice was a revelation to me, a supposed musician. The idea that I could work with people who had no music background or training and that together we could create something was a game changer for me. I will digress for a moment to dispel the ‘no music background’ bit….
Not all people get to have music lessons in the traditional sense. Much more often than not, this is of little consequence. People have rhythm. They have a strong aural sense of what they do/do not like. They sing. They have a ear honed and practiced in a lifetime of music consumption. They are musical beings, they just never got to play.

I’m bleating on a little because tapping into innate musical capacity is key to my music teaching now. I want to be mindful of continuing to do that over coming days when schedules and deadlines all start to play their part.

Next week students will come to me for piano lessons, and I will go to a school and begin working on new songs. The very nature of teaching piano for exams and preparing a choir for a performance/competition, means proscribed tuition. There are parameters. I will have to drive home certain ideas. There is repetition. There is an element of pressure.
I should say that I believe in and promote the value of formal instrumental tuition. In our choir I have seen children meet and become fast friends when in their own personal backgrounds, that would be extremely unlikely. And I’ve seen them shine as they sang for over 500 people at City Hall, Belfast. And for their families.

But I saw them struggle too. I wanted them to be as good as I knew were and I pushed them. I took them for choir through November and December when Christmas shows and shopping centre carolling meant that singing, far from being what they wanted to do, was an eye-rolling prospect. I read a quote once about the satisfaction there is in looking back at the pain barrier once you’ve cleared it. Although difficult at times it’s good to challenge, stretch and ultimately enjoy whatever comes from doing that. It’s equally important to me that the children and adults I work with are turned on to their own potential wherever their passions lie.

So I’m writing a public to-do list ahead of next week that I can refer to to keep me right.

– Include in each session activities/songs that the children enjoy and look forward to.
– Give over some control. Allow them to suggest/devise a game activity, or to develop one that they are used to.
– Improvise quick music pieces
– Allow them to sing a song they love (yes, that may mean One Direction or Bieber. Always counter this with teaching a Stevie Wonder number, or anyone else suitably awesome.
– Have a song that can be taught quickly in each sessions to keep things fresh/(and see what goes down well!)
-Encourage free playing
-Link the knowledge they have learned about key signatures to music making. Demonstrate that chords are what songs are made of and they can make them too.
-Improvise pieces together, even very simple ones. Hold everything together rhythmically. A very simple rhythm, if solid, will make an improvisation sound like a piece.

If you’ve read this far and have any additional suggestions, comments or otherwise, I’d love to hear them.


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