Recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to be engaged with meaningful educational discussion, and made inroads towards bettering myself as a teacher (and learner!). Part of this discussion has led me to reading about other teachers’ paths towards their current positions/careers, which in part starts at their own education. This has led me to think more deeply about my own education, and what this means in terms of delivering my main subject:
Let’s start at the beginning.
My primary school musical experiences, from what I can remember, were fairly limited. Class music lessons were basically listening to the “Surprise Symphony”, and discussing why it held any surprises. (Spoiler – it gets a bit louder.) We did learn a bit of recorder, but again this was limited, and I don’t feel I took much from it.
My first real foray into music came when we took the (now apparently discredited – citation needed) Bentley Test. This test plays random things for you to listen to, and asks you to compare it to somthing you’ve heard before. Apparently, I did well on this test, and so was asked to go for a “trial” with the brass peripatetic teacher. I had a bit of help; my sister already played the baritone and showed me how to produce a sound. Long story short, I smashed the audition and was chosen to play the cornet.
(Even longer story short, I became a really bloody good trumpet player. I’ve been so, so lucky to travel Europe and North America playing with brass bands and wind bands. I’ve even played on BBC Live Lounge. But that’s a story for another blog.)
So I learnt to play the trumpet, then went to secondary school. We found out that if I was able to pass the entrance exam well enough, then I might get an assisted place at the local private school, and a year earlier moving straight from year 5 to First Year (year 7). I managed to get in, and with support from the government, and obviously my hard working parents, was afforded a private education.
My school, The Birkenhead School, was a great one to go to (and it still is – look it up). Boys were given so many opportunities, and they were taken. Music was seen as an important subject, and was treated in an academic manner. We learnt theory, composed accompaniments without instruments and learnt to play the keyboard in a “Keyboard Lab”. And it was great.
Or, was it?
Yes, academia was at the fore. But so was snobbishness; elitism. having made it to GCSE time, one of my most remembered lessons was the head of music putting some Chinese music on “because he had to” and listening to “just some pots and pans being banged.” We studied what we had to, and passed the exams based on theory, nothing more.
The same could be said for A-Level.
Yes, I learnt a lot of theory, and composed some nice music. I (obviously) smashed the performance aspect of it. But did I really learn much about music itself?
In fact, I didn’t really learn much more at university! I had composition sessions which one week loved anything the sounded like The Lord of The Rings, the next hated TLoTR and loved aleatoric music performed using darts and a half eaten plate of chips. You couldn’t bloody win. I then had to write songs, and encountered popular music terms WHICH I’D NEVER EVEN HEARD OF! And did anyone explain what they meant? NOPE! We had 3 hour music history lectures which were tailoured to some of the joint English students because they were studying Faust. I found it boring, and hated the fact that very specific students were being catered for.
It was really hard. We weren’t given any guidance about how to research, or how to reference. The library had literally ONE of each book, so if you were too slow you were pretty much screwed. It. Was. Hard. So hard, I thought, that it couldn’t get any worse. But it did.
After finishing my degree, I started teaching…
(Using a phrase I’ve already used) To cut a very long story short, I suddenly realised that the world of music was massive. Like, incomprehensibly so. I thought I’d experienced a lot; international performances, university education. But my first job required me to teach about Indonesian Gamelan. In my first 21 years of life, NEVER HAD I COME ACROSS INDONESIAN FUCKING GAMELAN!! But you know what? I managed it. I read, I listened, I practiced, and I taught it.
And since then, this is how I’ve approached, not just music, but any arts based teaching. I’ve read, I’ve listened/looked/watched, I’ve practised and I’ve taught. The world of the Expressive Arts is so vast, and so varied, and so wonderful and beautiful and engaging and enthralling, that you can’t possibly know all there is to know about it.
But you can appreciate it, and you can find your niche. Even if it’s not “up your street,” you can still see value in it; why it was created, why it was composed, what situation there was round it for “it” to come into existence. And you can help others find their niches, too.
And that’s what I love about being a music teacher. I don’t know half the shit I’d like to about the world of music, but I get it. I don’t discount someone’s musical preferences; I embrace them.
So yeah – you can’t teach everything. But you can teach to appreciate everything.
And I’m still learning. Always learning.