An Education in Music

Wonderful Illustrations by DestinyBlue
Did I give up on music too easily? Where was my ‘growth-mindset’?

Yesterday was open morning at my lovely school. As much as I like my new job, there’s never going to be much appeal to going to work for three Saturdays a year, even when we’re bribed with top-notch French patisserie at 9.30 AM. I was in the drama department for the morning, and was prepared for lots of repetitive conversations with prospective parents about drama provision, school plays, how we support kids with less confidence, and all that jazz. I still feel a bit of a fraud giving the spiel, considering I’m so new at the school, I’m comparatively inexperienced at teaching drama, and none of the department’s achievements thus far have anything to do with me. Still, I gave the spiel. That wasn’t the memorable part of the morning, though. The unexpected joy was watching upper-sixth students rehearse for the school musical.

I’m not a performer, I have no desire to be a performer, and even when I did play an instrument and sing in the choir at school, I was never any good. I do love music, though, and especially musical theatre. The kids were preparing a particularly intricate and brilliant Stephen Sondheim number – and three weeks away from performance, they’re already brilliant. I teach the two leads, and because they’re clearly such good friends, their rapport on stage was perfect. They got the dark humour and the energy of the piece, seemingly effortlessly, though of course they’ve already been rehearsing for months. I felt weirdly jealous, not really of their talent, but of the fun they were having with it.

I went to a school where there were no school plays, just lots of (quite boring) concerts. Annoyingly, when I was in sixth form and it was too late for me to properly feel involved in it, the school got ‘arts college status’ and suddenly started doing loads of drama and musical theatre. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I were a few years younger, and I’d got the benefit of that. Would I have studied A Level Theatre Studies? Been brave enough to audition for school plays? There’s no way of knowing. It’s kind of weird that I accidentally became a drama teacher anyway. I suppose it would just be nice to have that experience as background to what I do now. It’s assumed that if you have background in English, there’s a natural link with Drama… but the subjects are so wildly different. In some ways, a background in Music is more beneficial. Sometimes, the physicality of Drama makes it more like teaching PE. I love teaching Drama, but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I know enough, or feel that ease and confidence that I feel about teaching writing and literature. I watched the rehearsal yesterday with wonder and enjoyment, not quite understanding how it all works, and how on earth you get kids to bring the intricacies of a Stephen Sondheim score to life like that. It’s a wonderful mystery to me.

The interest in drama and music was always there. I watched old MGM movies with my sister religiously. As bored kids on a rainy day in the summer holiday, we’d happily watch three films in a row. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, On The Town, Summer Stock, Singin’ in the Rain, as well as British ones like Oliver! and Half a Sixpence. Dad recorded us loads of films on video off the telly, sometimes three on one tape – sometimes with the first five minutes missing because he’s just caught them being broadcast and snapped the VCR into action. There’d be a weird mix of not just MGM stuff, but Elvis films, animated stuff, and our favourite – the Beatles film Help! I have the Blu-Ray now, but somehow it seems wrong that the end credits don’t cut to the opening of Home Alone.

So it’s fair to say that my education in musicals was pretty informal. I’ve never had a singing lesson, and I’ve never even been in the chorus of a musical… but I could give you a fairly accurate timeline of MGM thorough the 40s and 50s, of the impact of the war, of the tragedy of Judy Garland’s career.

The first cassette albums I owned were the soundtracks to The Wizard of Oz and Beauty and the Beast.  I have a vivid memory of my Mum taking me to WH Smith in Telford, and helping me spend some money I’d had for birthday and Christmas. I was six, or maybe seven. I don’t ever remember not having something in my room to play tapes on. When I was about ten, I’d inherited a huge 80’s style music centre from my grandparents – no CD player – but a double tape deck so I could make my own tapes. I suppose I’ve pretty much always felt out of kilter with contemporary music, but there’s a brief period, say ’97 to ’02, when I listened to the top 40… a period of which which I still hold weirdly encyclopaedic knowledge. It was a golden age: the tale-end of Britpop, the Spice Girls, so many boybands and then the more grown-up indie I listened to in sixth form. Go on, ask me about All Saints album tracks, or that time I saw B*Witched in Stafford town centre. Oh, and Billie Piper. Remember when she was a pop star?

A constant from about the age of six has been the music of Elvis, Abba… and the Beatles. My sister collected all the Beatles albums on CD. We both listened obsessively  – not due to our parents, because even they were too young to remember 60s music firsthand – but perhaps because we felt we were discovering something important. There were no downloads yet, no Spotify, and the only way to access the mammoth double album The White Album was to buy it in HMV for £29.99. When I saw the recent film, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, the cinema was packed with grey-haired baby boomers. Still, I felt like this was a nostalgia trip for me, too, and it made me cry.

It seems my own music education and been an informal hotpotch, a self education… mostly. Yesterday I found myself thinking back to being 14, and what it felt like to consider doing GCSE Music, and where that might have led. As I said, I was not talented – but I was a good student, and I could have worked at it, if I’d wanted to. At my school, they had a policy that every child was given the opportunity of one-to-one tuition in an instrument. You just didn’t necessarily get to pick which instrument. I’d fancied a flute or clarinet. Something elegant. Instead, a got a bassoon that came in a huge suitcase that eleven-year-old me struggled to carry, and felt ashamed to take on the school bus. Because I was tall for my age, and I had naturally long fingers, my musical education took a weird turn. I ended up hating that cumbersome instrument. It was so heavy, and didn’t sound nice on its own. If you’ve never heard one played solo – and let’s face it, why would you – it’s supposed to sound like an oboe in bass clef, but also, when played badly, resembles a fog horn. We were forced to do solos in Y8 – in front of the whole year group, and our parents. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I remember my sweaty fingers sliding on the keys. The imperfect sound, because a good sound on a double reed instrument needs you to be relaxed. I hated it, hated it.

Playing in orchestra and concert band was better, and because I played an unusual instrument, I was guaranteed a place. The downfall of this was I had to do it before I was properly good enough, and the music was really hard. Not good for your self esteem. I carried on playing until Y11, though more out of a sense of duty than actual enjoyment. I didn’t practice much at home. I did a couple of grade exams – again, two of the most frightening experiences of my life. So I suppose it’s no surprise that I didn’t do GCSE Music.

I did Art GCSE instead. I was good at painting, and it came easily to me. I did painting and drawing lots in my spare time – practically every day – and of course I became better and better at it. I remained mediocre at music and eventually gave up playing bassoon because it was assumed that all sixth formers did solos at the annual school concert, and there was no way I was putting myself through that shame. If I’d had a different personality type – a so-called ‘growth mindset’, as it’s called in teacher-speak – maybe I would have kept Art as a hobby, and picked Music as a challenge instead. Maybe I would have matured more quickly, and gained confidence from it. Or maybe I’d just have miserable from the failure that can be so obvious when you’re performing music.

Then there’s another question. What if I’d attended a fee-paying school like the one I work in now? What if I’d had free pick of instruments, and played something less embarrassing – a guitar, or the piano. I’ve never been much of a singer, but a fee-paying school would offer one-to-one lessons in singing. I could have got better. What if I’d had the chance to be in a school play or musical every year? What then?

Well, there’s no way of knowing, of course. I’d still have been shy about performing. I’d still have the same mediocre ability. Maybe I’d still have drifted towards what came easily – taken Art GCSE, and given up the instrument. Still, I feel a bit sad about it. When I read a book or go to an art gallery, I feel inspired, knowing I can give it a go myself. When I go to the theatre or watch someone singing, it’s an entirely different experience, because I know I can’t do it – I can only watch. And I do love music.

[Image (C) Destiny Blue.]

“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

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