A life in music

The following is an excerpt chapter (unedited) from my work in progress “The Musicularium – where music takes centre stage in your lesson”.

Although this is predominantly a music-in-the-classroom book, I feel as though this is an important chapter to include. Believe it or not, a long time ago I never really wanted to be a musician; this chapter explains why I am, by looking at who I am, where I’m from, and hopefully establishes an expertise gained from a life in music.

1992. Primary school.

I was 8 years old and sitting in my classroom. It was that time of year again where the peripatetic brass teacher, Miss Gabrielle Horne (I kid thee not, nominative determinism at its finest) had come in to our class to begin the selection process of choosing the next wave of potential brass stars. The first stage was the Bentley Test – a fairly straightforward listening test where you had to note down if the pitch of a heard tone was higher or lower than before. Sort of a musical ‘Play Your Cards Right’ only not nearly as exciting. I aced that (I seem to remember, although I probably barely scraped through like everything else, but it’s nice to be positive) and so was asked to have a go at blowing on some instruments to make a sound and choose an appropriate instrument to get started with. I had a go at a few, but settled on the cornet (having previously been shown how to play by my sister who already played the euphonium, but I didn’t let on at the time…)

And that’s where it started. That instrument, and eventually the trumpet, literally took over everything. Lessons every week, turning into Saturday morning music centres, turning into Monday night AND Saturday rehearsals, turning into concerts and no turning back. There were competitions and contests, more rehearsals after rehearsals, and don’t get me started on Christmas! But I really enjoyed it, I think, because I was naturally quite adept at playing the trumpet. I was that annoying pupil that could do zero practise during the week and then walk into a lesson and just sort of blag it. I know a lot has been said about hard work versus natural talent, but I did have something that could have turned out great. It wasn’t the hard work though. 

I did make some sacrifices in the name of music early on. I loved playing football growing up, but training always clashed with music and music took priority. Between the ages of 14 and 16 I trained weekly in Muay Thai Boxing and enjoyed that, but had to take a step back because the fear of getting a fat lip from sparring and not being able to play became a real thing. During the winter months I suffered awful chapped lips, to the point of cracking and bleeding, due to the combination of almost daily long sessions of playing and cold weather post concert. However, I was regularly one of the lead trumpet players in the ensembles I played with and enjoyed the plaudits that (sometimes) came with it.

During my secondary education at The Birkenhead School, I played in brass ensembles under the baton of Miss Julie Baker. Along with quite regular success at competition level, we also put together a very competent chamber brass group which accompanied the school chapel choir on concert tours of Italy, experiences I will never forget and will always be grateful for! I played The Last Post for many years in the chapel, on the field, dressed in naval uniform as part of the CCF and was known as a musician throughout the school.

So where did it start changing direction? 

I had enjoyed being a playing musician for years, and made many friends along the way (one or two of whom are lifelong friends as well) but had never really seen it as a career. It was my hobby. I didn’t plough hundreds of hours into it with practice like the absolute top players do to become an incredible player and in actual fact, I wanted to work as either an archaeologist or a writer. Music didn’t even actually come into the equation for many years. However, due to the nature of the school I went to, when it came to careers information whilst I was there, unless you wanted to be a doctor, solicitor, vet or otherwise, then they didn’t really have anything to give you. (I am happy to say though that times have changed greatly and the school offers considerably wider opportunity and advice for a plethora of career directions, which is amazing to see.) But, for me I didn’t feel like I could be told where to go and how to get there and I wasn’t doing subjects, nor would I ever get the grades (remember what I said about hard work?), to go on to a high-paid career in business banking. So what next? The school didn’t offer a language course with creative writing so I ditched that, and found I really only had music as my strongest subject. I didn’t want to be a performing musician so chose to go to university and do an all-round degree qualification rather than audition for music colleges, but I had developed a keen interest in composition and decided to try to follow that route as best as possible. 

I studied for a BA in Music at the university of Liverpool between 2002 & 2005 and I could write a whole book about my university escapades, but this isn’t the place for that! I enjoyed composing and orchestration, especially for film, and felt as though that was something I could possibly make a go of as a career. But again (and I will blame myself here as well) I didn’t really have any guidance or direction in terms of how to go about getting into the industry after university, but I didn’t look too hard either, which I kick myself for to this day! When university finished, I had graduated with a 2:2 (missing out on a 2:1 by 0.4% which I’m not bitter about at all…) and genuinely didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Well, I did, but getting into film or video game composition seemed beyond me, not in terms of ability or qualification, but in terms of finance and supporting myself. Equipment is expensive, so too is time, but I needed to work and needed to pay my bills. I couldn’t just “move home” to hone my skills and spend time approaching people, and I needed to eat. What next then?

Whilst at university I had picked up some private teaching as a brass tutor. I found I enjoyed it, and used this experience to prompt applying for a PGCE at Liverpool Hope University to train as a secondary music teacher. I got on to the course and opted to be the guinea pig for a system where I spent four days a week working in school with another day working with the local music service as a peripatetic teacher. Training was hard, but the prospects for a music teacher were actually pretty good at the time as funding for arts subjects hadn’t quite been cut into oblivion. Yet. I decided to move to London as job opportunities were wider, moving in with my sister who had qualified as a journalist. I picked up a job in a comprehensive just outside of London where I completed my NQT year, but the travelling was crippling in terms of both money and energy, so I decided to do a bit of supply teaching and get myself known closer to where I lived. 

The first call I got was to cover PPA in a primary school. I had done some primary teaching as part of my PGCE with the Liverpool music service, so decided to give it a go. Three days a week was enough to show me that I enjoyed working as a primary school teacher (I say enjoyed instead of preferred as for me I don’t think you can compare working in primary or secondary in that way) and I decided to continue down that path into the future. 

And I barely taught music. 

Music stopped being my job and had become my hobby again. And I found that I loved it even more. When I moved to London I had been put in touch with Stefan Maingot, the brother of someone I did my first degree with. He was in a band called 3rd Day Syndrome, and needed a trumpet player for a couple of songs. We got on really well, and over the course of five years we made TV and radio appearances, including several recording sessions at BBC Maida Vale studios as part of their Live Lounge series which was an amazing experience, as well as going on a couple of mini tours and supporting various acts at some great venues in the south east. 

I met my wife-to-be in London, as it was her class that I covered for PPA in my first experience in primary school. Rachel and I got married in August 2011 and decided to move back to her home village of Cwmafan in Port Talbot, South Wales. Within a few months of moving I had been picked up by Briton Ferry Brass Band, moving to Mid Rhondda and eventually Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen band where I still play today. All of these bands gave me the opportunity to practise and develop my composing and arranging skills for brass bands, and I continue to do so with quite high output. In fact, it is with GCG that I officially landed my first film credit; I arranged a short piece which was recorded and used for a scene in “Six Seconds to Midnight” (2020) starring Eddie Izzard, Judy Dench and Jim Broadbent.

My first teaching job in Wales was actually back in secondary music once more, this time as a head of department. It was a massively rewarding job, but the additional work involved with marking and assessing GCSE, BTec and A-Level work on my own became over bearing as I was missing out on time with my then newborn child, so I decided to take a step back for a couple of years to focus on my family. This was absolutely the right decision to make, as after a short while I eventually found work back in primary schools where I have been happily working ever since. My current school, Pontlliw Primary, gives me the perfect balance of the broad primary education system alongside being able to bring out the music every now and then, instead of being completely overloaded with it. I have also been incredibly fortunate to be given many opportunities to develop leadership skills alongside my role as a class teacher.

Now, upon reading this chapter back, it sounds as though I always wanted to be a musician. But I have actually tried in the past to do something different, to take a different direction; move away from teaching and music altogether. But something happens and I always just seem to end up back! In 2012 I decided to revisit my love for writing and started a second degree with The Open University focussing on creative writing and children’s literature. I loved the challenge of distance learning, and completed my degree, but still seem to have drifted back to music. There is something about music, and the arts in general, that seems to just take a grip of you and won’t let go. I have embraced this, and although I haven’t yet realised the dream of my 20 year old self of being a film composer (I know, I’ve a credit for additional arranged music – it’s a start!), having a career in teaching has set me up with a secure job and the ability to support myself and my family, including being able to get hold of that expensive equipment I mentioned before! And you know what? If I spend my entire career as a teacher then it absolutely will not be a life wasted, because anyone reading this will likely know that teaching is one of the best jobs in the world. 

To round off this chapter, I wanted to make a list of all the skills being involved in music has brought me. And I don’t think this list is specific to music, either; the arts have massive and profound impacts on people, not just creatively but on a much deeper and personal growth level. So, here it is – my Life in Music:

  • Learning an instrument has taught me many things. Hard work and patience really does pay off, and cutting corners never does. It taught me humility (and sometimes humiliation) and to appreciate the work and efforts of others, and to be happy and proud not just of myself, but of the achievements of others.
  • Playing in an ensemble taught me so many things. Teamwork, friendship, loyalty to name but a few. That it doesn’t matter how good you or the next person is, it’s about working together to achieve something brilliant. It taught me to have conversations with people; how to help others improve, and how to take advice myself. 
  • Composition has taught me patience and attention to detail. The smallest of changes can make the biggest of differences to a piece of music, and those can be the differences between an OK work and an incredible achievement. Editing and improving lengthy compositions is incredibly time consuming, but also massively rewarding. 
  • Composition has also taught me to listen to others. Listen to what other people around the world are doing and celebrate it. The world of commercial music is vastly different to the day to day releases of everyday musicians, and I can’t recommend enough digging deep into Spotify or SoundCloud to find “unknown” artists.
  • Listening to music (and teaching it) has really made me appreciate my own favourite genres, and also helped me to understand that everyone is entitled to like and enjoy whatever they want to, irrespective of the popular opinion. Go and listen to those sea shanties or video game cover albums, find the pirate metal bands and trumpet concertos and just enjoy what you enjoy!

The rest of this work is mainly focussed on looking for entry points in a range of subjects through music. However, I hope that as you read on your thoughts will start sparking and your neurons firing when thinking about how other aspects of the Expressive Arts could be used in similar ways! I hope you enjoy “The Musicularium – Where music takes centre stage in your lesson” as much as I (will) have writing it.


Post Script – I would very much appreciate feedback on my writing as I move forwards – if you have any comments then please leave them below, or find me over on twitter @andykeegan. Thank you for taking the time to read to here, it is appreciated.

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