To music, or not to music…

Aside

Over the last few weeks I’ve heard “I think my child is too young to enjoy music”, “I don’t sing”, “none of my friends sing”, “I can’t believe how much my child loves making music” and “not enough people in our school are involved in music” a number of times, all in various contexts. These comments were bookended with an article I was dipping in and out of about a bandstand opening at the end of the 1800s with 25,000 people present. Although on the surface of it these remarks seem contradictory and incongruous they are curiously linked.

images It is almost beyond our imaginations I think, that 25,000 people would attend the opening of a small outdoor concert area in 2014, though what a dramatic shift in the enjoyment of and participation in music this is. Yet we also, for the most part, consume music in a contrasting manner, no longer in the family or with-drawing room with family and visitors or at public dances but privately, most frequently through headsets or in cars. This change of consumption and involvement is at the heart of what makes a growing number of people uncomfortable at the idea of being the music-makers and the decrease in understanding of how music develops as children grow. With headsets we absorb a polished performance of which we are no part, out at the bandstand or in our homes we receive and soak up the information in an undisguised form.

Music is an integral part of human nature which we are never too young to begin and never to old to complete, it has the capacity to make us both joyful and melancholy whilst professional musicians train for longer than either astronauts or medical doctors. It is quintessentially natural; though to become professional requires elongated and persistent hours of rigorous practise. Whilst we cannot make mini-Frank Sinatra’s or Mozart’s we can provide enough support that everyone is able to enjoy music.

It’s true that the youngest baby will not sing to us in tune or move with accurate rhythm but they can and do react to music, making cooing sounds and moving to it in a way which they, at that age, are able to. They don’t perform on cue, any more than they will repeat back “dada” when Daddy does come into sight. MT baby with eggs We want and need to stimulate that feedback loop and sing back to them the sounds that they make and keep doing that whilst they are growing and finding their voice. In a similar vein when kids start moving and dancing we should show them that we can move that way too, not to mimic them but to reassure them that we recognise their movement. This nurturing is musical sustenance, and constructs a scaffolding they can build on throughout their early childhood to develop into knowing when they are singing in tune and moving with rhythm. It’s not a necessity that a musical instrument (and I include vocal here) is chosen once basic music competence is achieved in order to continue supporting musical development and enjoyment. We do, nevertheless, need to embrace the naturalness of making music, seek opportunities for maintaining musical alacrity and as a natural pathway from that, embolden those who are seeing a diminishing number of their peers who actively make music.

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Many parents of young children know the multitude of benefits of supporting their child’s musical development at the earliest of ages. Others know it though economics dictate that they are not able to participate and still others do not see it as a necessity. The demographics speak for themselves in terms of economics deciding who has the opportunity to develop this basic life-skill, it should not be so. Even thirty years ago every kindergarten classroom had a piano and a teacher who played it. The presence of a piano would have been the support those children needed at the developmental stage they are at in kindergarten. We may want a wide breadth of music for our kids and realise this supports their musical whole in a way in which only Baa Black Sheep and Wheels on the Bus cannot; the open opportunity to sing, together as a class is not to be ignored as a powerful way to support the natural musical aptitude we are all born with. Though far too many elementary schools are cash-strapped we have evolved to a time when many do not have music as a core part of the curriculum. Without supporting children’s musical development throughout elementary school we are letting these children down and it is they who move on to be the non-singers / won’t singers / believe they can’t singers. If we miss the opportunity to grow and support this natural life skill we leave a gap in the world of far too many children and one which has an impact on the rest of their lives. It is they, now the majority, who wouldn’t contemplate attending the opening of a bandstand. Without the ability to enjoy music they won’t be at the next big-opening of an outdoor (or indoor) concert hall. Unable to enliven their spirits through or with music they won’t be joining others to do the same. We need music though, to build community, to celebrate, to acknowledge lives and events, to inspire and to include. The language of music crosses boundaries, not only the spoken word or different dialects but cultural horizons too. Even in our flat and instant world we need this connectedness.

To practice, repeat; to play, repeat; to music

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No surprises to declare that I’m unequivocally committed to providing as many children as possible the opportunity to make music and to ensuring that this is as joyful as possible an undertaking for all involved. Although acquiring music skills is definitely hard work the younger the kids the more like play it is. At some point, once basic music competence is reached and that foundation is secured, if further music becomes part of that person’s life then work and study is involved. Passion can only take one so far in any activity.

For the luckiest, the music-making charm is dominating and irresistible; and that sense of achievement, founded through hard work carries, them through and supports them as they strive to overcome any obstacles they stumble across along their way. This is the journey towards playing music in the way it was intended and, or in the manner in which that musician has chosen to interpret it. At some point long hours and much practice are a necessity for any musician, yet, we still want the musical diligence to be joyful; that strong early foundation can clearly be an unyielding hammock of support for this.

I came across as delightful, gregarious, committed and hard-working group of young musicians as you can imagine this summer. And, they were all teenagers! Their love of music was unrelenting and the desire to make it beautiful was equally fervent. They came from all corners of the world, bonding through new friendships, a shared adoration of music in all its forms and genres and a shared experience. I had hoped that this could still be the case, now that we consume music so personally and inwardly most of the time, though to actually see it and hear it was an opportunity to see how far music can bring people together. These people were the epitome of what it means “to music”.

English was the common spoken language though this was not what enabled them to interconnect. It was the realization that to want to play and make music as often as possible, to experiment, to watch, to observe and absorb from others, to support them and push them further was something which they all craved. Undoubtedly not to feel slightly out of place with compatriots was a relief and a reassurance, and released some of the strings which might otherwise have held them back under different circumstances. (It’s a shame that society has moved to expecting either perfection or no music to such an extent that many are put off even trying to make music outside of singing in the bath, but that’s for an alternative discussion.)

For these 100 or so adolescents this was the experience of a lifetime. Some of them will return to the camp next year and the year after, a very few will go on to be names which we all come to recognise and hear about. Each of them knows for certain that music is not only about practicing but also about creating that sound with others, hearing a new piece of music and analyzing how it makes one feel, experimenting with different interpretations, spending time with others who are equally committed to music, taking a walk with them, talking with them, practicing with them, supporting them when they make mistakes and, without ambiguity, enjoying just being and music-making with them.

Music for farmers?

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Last week I spent the best part of an afternoon making music in a local library with about 15 kids from the surrounding area. It’s principally a farming community, full of families and locals who know each and who have grown-up knowing each other, their habits and rhythms, movements and appearances.

When I received the confirmation email the day before the event the librarian, who was full of enthusiasm when I had volunteered to go in, had mentioned that there were crafts to be partaken after the music-making.

The whole event started with a pot-luck lunch – I saw families streaming in with bowls and dishes whilst I was gathering my paraphernalia in the parking lot. I received an encouragingly warm welcome from one of the librarians and was escorted through the labyrinth and down the stairs to the gathering space. I felt like an interloper, as though I might be invading their space a little. Still, the librarian I had originally had contact with showed me the space I was to use and urged me to join in their lunch. These kids don’t read a lot and they certainly don’t sing she told me, it’s hard for us to find ways to bring them in here she said. As I set-up a couple of people came and chatted; this was the first pot-luck lunch they had had in 8 years and they were curious to see what I was doing there. One lady exclaimed “we’re going to sing?!” The lunch went well beyond it’s allotted time and I wondered how I would get things going without being an unwelcome intrusion, particularly with the laden-down sweets and treats table enticing multiple visits from anyone and everyone!!

Eventually, with quite the unexpected rigour, tables and chairs were moved and open-space blossomed. The children looked a little nervous, the adults a little wary and no one came too close. Several possible outcomes came through in my upstairs head chatter and I wondered if I needed to throw out my plan before I’d even started. It’s always hard to abandon a purposeful structure that one has agonized over, practiced and altered until it feels balanced and whole. I started as intended and slowly introduced the idea that the kids too could come up with suggestions of what we might sing about, where the road in the picture might lead to, where we might go, how fast, how slow, was it bumpy, what noise did the elephant make and what about the goose. Gradually they started singing with me, I doubt they were conscious of any hesitation, they were happy to experiment and unearth new animal sounds, they were discovering their own story-telling abilities and innate enchantment of making-music. I looked down and there was a little hand resting on my knee; the other kids were noticeably closer in to our circle. The parents and adults who had been talking amongst themselves at the start were observing this change too.

As we moved through the session the relaxation that crept in was palpable and it was the children who got their adults to join in, offering them an instrument or a hand when we were dancing.

The craft-lady was hovering in an adjacent doorway, she was ready and expecting them. As we started to sing goodbye the kids came in closer and closer until there was no breathing space in our circle, the craft-lady called to them, folders ready; they turned, a minute hesitation and then followed. Two kids came back with a simple request “please come back”. And of course I will, I spent 3 times as long as I expected to at the library, and with it came some unforeseen joy into the lives of these kids, a little less shyness with each other, a little more curiosity about what’s in a book and just maybe some singing while they work the farm.

 

 

A pile of paper, a pile of creativity

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Two weekends ago we had two extra people staying in our house, which involved (finally) clearing up a room which we had aptly renamed the dumping ground and making it not only livable but also inviting. The room, which had experienced a lengthy hiatus in receiving any attention, other than to hurriedly place something in there which had no other allotted space, before equally hastily closing the door (lest we should be reminded that this is, in fact a usable room) housed boxes, papers, winter shoes, summer caps, bedding of various sizes and schoolwork from years gone by.

After the first trawl garbage and recycling day beckoned and many an extra box and bag were dragged curbside. The neighbours looked and imagined. I sighed with relief when the refuse trucks actually picked up.

Returning to the room, and the approaching weekend guests, I opened the box which I had previously moved from one corner of the room to another, to the middle, by the door and back to the middle. It had come originally from the basement, which previously was my work area. I had believed that nonintervention for full boxes might be my best cause but having jettisoned all but the best schoolwork from my kids I knew this could not be the case. The room would look part welcoming and part junk if the boxes weren’t emptied.

I ooh-ed and aaah-ed over pictures of my kids when they were younger, felt embarrassment at photos of me when I was younger and finally opened the box. A myriad of colour files. Must be trite notes from a million years ago I thought, or jottings from research before one of our overseas moves. No, no, no, it was my notes from preparation for lessons and workshops, presentations and classes. All that energy and creativity, processing, enjoyment, rhythm, movement, discovery and fun. In a pile of paper. I found lesson plans, comments on how those lessons went, discarded ideas, initial ideas for how to present a song in class and the continuation of those ideas through the session and beyond.

What  struck me most was how many of those ideas I had built on when teaching but also my journey as a teacher. Part of the joy of teaching for me is the creativity, the crafting of the idea, rejecting ideas and trying out ideas before presenting the idea. It is in essence the conveying of the idea. Explaining it and allowing others to find their own delight and enchantment in it. Sharing both the idea and that nugget of insight into music, music-making and musical development.

Finding all that instinct and experimentation was improbable when the “great clear out began” but it represents for me the initial dissemination of thoughts, the innovation which brings such joy in the classes.

And, the room was cleared and cleaned in good time for our two guests who were also an unexpected joy and delight.DSC_0534DSC_0534