I hadn't been planning to start blogging on this site yet - my previous blog is on my old website, which I'm gradually working out how to transfer over here - but this morning I read a tweet that inspired me to put down lots of thoughts which have been bouncing around my head.
The aforementioned tweet was from Nick Harvey. You’ll probably recognise some of Nick's music - he’s written many recent TV themes. But that’s possibly not why you’ll have heard of him. Nick and his dad became shining lights in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, when Nick shared footage of his dad improvising beautiful music from a few notes Nick had played. Nick’s dad Paul is a retired music teacher, who has dementia - and whose musical memory and ability is as sharp as ever. Paul’s Tune, as it became known, ended up being played by the BBC Philharmonic and recorded as a single which got to number one and raised huge amounts for dementia charities. The piece is beautiful, and I sobbed at its premiere on Radio 4, but I’m even more moved by the footage of Paul chatting to his old students, some of whom have gone on to be pretty famous themselves. They talk of his kindness and encouragement, and he remembers every one of them and what they were like at school. His influence on the people he taught is an absolute inspiration to me as a music teacher, and an incredible reminder of why I do teach music as a job (alongside other jobs which support music education).
Yesterday, Nick posted a video of himself and his son, playing an arrangement he’d put together of ‘Demons’ by Imagine Dragons, tweeting “My son’s been getting fed up practising classical pieces, so tonight, worrying that he might be losing interest in the violin completely, I transcribed one of his favourite songs for him to play instead.” It’s brilliant. But the comments from other people made me sad - because there were so many tales of people giving up learning music because of “stuffy” teachers or only being “allowed” to play a narrow range of pieces. Kids being discouraged because they only got to play exam pieces, and, although there are efforts to diversify the exam syllabi in style and genre - as well as gradual steps to widening the range of composers included - it’s absolutely true that if you only ever learn exam pieces, you’re unlikely to play your favourite band’s music on the flute/ clarinet/ violin (it can be a different story if you play an instrument that falls into the rock/ pop exam category).
But even if you do choose to take exams - and it should be a choice not a compulsory part of learning an instrument - the syllabus is not and was never meant to be a curriculum. I’ve never come across anyone who works for any of the music exam boards who would tell you that learners are meant to play exam pieces and no other repertoire. Even the word repertoire reminds us that there’s an ‘approved’ set of music that we’re ‘supposed’ to learn if we play a certain instrument.
We often see instrumental teachers advertising that they offer lessons "whether you want to take exams or just play for fun". It’s become almost an expected phrase - shorthand for “I’m not your stuffy old music teacher who insists you do exams”. But what’s with the ‘just’? It suggests that ‘fun’ is inferior to ‘taking exams’. That playing for enjoyment isn’t as important as getting qualifications. Funnily enough, the government has underlined that this week too, by allowing instrumental teachers to return to face-to-face teaching next week, but ONLY for children and young people who are “working towards recognised qualifications”. I understand why - they’re trying to limit the levels of in-person contact whilst starting to attempt to make up for the disruption to kids’ education - but it’s no safer teaching someone who’s meant to be doing Grade 5 next term than someone who never takes exams. Music has no less value for my retired students who’ve had their vaccinations than my 16 year-old pupil who’s doing GCSE Music. If anything, everyone needs the benefits of ‘just’ playing music now more than ever, and more than they need the pressure of trying to pass an exam.
I have digressed, though, and while I could write many paragraphs about why I don’t think anyone needs to ‘catch up’ from the last year, let’s go back to that ‘just’. How did we get to the point where fun is ‘just fun’. The fun - and/ or enjoyment/ satisfaction/ expressing emotions/ communicating something/ ignoring the bad stuff in the world/ exploring or escaping from thoughts in your own head - is absolutely the most important bit. There's no 'just' about happiness. There’s no ‘just’ about the role music has played in many people’s lives over the last year. My students have used it as therapy, as a way to switch off from the news, from the tedium of lockdown, from the stress of trying to work online for hours a day. They’ve played to their families at home and over Zoom, they’ve made their neighbours smile by giving mini-concerts in the garden. They’ve decided to have a go at different musical genres because they’ve had a bit more time to explore them. They’ve learned and recorded their grandad’s favourite Frank Sinatra song and sent it to him via YouTube because they couldn’t see him on his birthday. There’s no ‘just’ about any of that.
A few years ago, one of my teenage students bought a book of Star Wars tunes for the flute. I was delighted, because his usual response to "what would you like to play?" was "I don't know". Now, if I’d asked him to play a piece with four flats at that point, I’d have been faced with a definite and rather grumpy “no, it’s too hard”. However, he loved the Star Wars films, and before long he’d not only learned all the pieces complete with their ‘difficult’ key signatures, he’d memorised the lot. His playing leapt forward in ways that would never have happened if we’d plodded through classical music that he didn’t enjoy. It meant he could then tackle all sorts of things that he would have dismissed as “too hard” before. It opened up new worlds, perhaps even galaxies far, far away (sorry). It was a good reminder that just because something is classified as ‘film music’ or ‘pop music’ or even 'TV theme music', just because it's popular, doesn't make it easy, quite often the opposite in fact. But the progress he made wasn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is that he absolutely loved playing this music.
So, let’s give up this ridiculous idea that you’re only ‘allowed’ to play certain music on certain instruments, or that as teachers we might ‘let’ students do a bit of pop alongside their ‘proper’ pieces. Let’s remember that what we now know as classical music was the pop music of its day. Let’s remember what music is for - it enriches our lives, it’s entwined with them, it makes us happy, it helps us let off steam, it gets us through the day. If working towards music exams is a positive experience for you, then that’s a bonus on top of learning how to press keys, blow through/ across tubes or pull a bow across strings in a way that brings joy and yes, fun, to your life.