Like many, I had instrumental lessons as a child. First of all, I had piano lessons which I started age six, then flute lessons, then later on, singing lessons. As is often the case, post-school, and once I was teaching, these began to drop off. I had flute lessons on and off for a while, and also singing lessons, but nothing with any kind of regularity.
Whilst, as teachers, continuing our own development as musicians is important, it’s not always easy. In the past, strange as it may seem, I have found it hard to find teachers prepared to teach someone who was already teaching. Also, there aren’t always teachers available locally teaching at a high enough level. Time and monetary constraints also play their part.
About three years ago, the opportunity arose to start having flute lessons again. These were to be Skype lessons, of which I was sceptical, but a few years on, I can’t tell you how much pleasure they’ve given me. Not only have they brought so much enjoyment back to me as a flautist, they have also enhanced my own teaching, not just of flute, but of singing and piano too.
In this blog post, I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learnt along the way. I don’t think these necessarily relate specifically to teachers having lessons, but rather, they can also apply to adult learners more generally.
1. There is no ‘right’ way to play
Like many of us, as a child, I was taught in a fairly rigid way. I grew up believing that what I’d been taught was the ‘right’ way to do it. Conversely, I’ve never taught like this, but I’ve always felt the pangs of imposter syndrome because maybe I’m not teaching in the ‘right’ way.
Having lessons again has made me realise that there are so many ways of achieving the same thing. Rarely, if ever, is there a mythical ‘right’ way of doing it. Each individual player has to find the approach which works for them. In some ways, a teacher provides me with a toolkit on which I can draw, but as a learner and a player, I have to select the tool which works best for me.
2. You’re allowed to make the piece your own
In some ways, this is closely linked to the above. Having experienced that fairly rigid form of teaching growing up, where you were expected to play things in a particular way, it’s been a real revelation to find that actually, I can put my own stamp on the music. There is such freedom to be found in taking a score, and in appreciation of the composer’s intentions, make it your own.
This new-found freedom can be scary. Even now, there’s a feeling of “am I doing this right?”, but perhaps above all, I’ve learnt that I have to be confident in my own approach and interpretation. That’s not to say I’m going off to play Bach in the style of Cage, but rather, the notes and directions on the score are yet more tools from that toolkit I mentioned earlier.
3. Some days, nothing works
As a teacher, I hear almost daily, “I can play it alright at home”, and you know what, I believe them. There are some days where, no matter what you do, nothing works. The tone is poor, the fingers won’t move fast enough, the breathing’s shambolic and you feel like you’ve been playing the instrument for 10 minutes, not 26 years.
Some days, you have to take a step back. You have to just put the instrument down, and go and do something else. I think we all need to give ourselves a bit of grace when it comes to this. Be kind to yourself on the journey.
4. It takes stamina, and stamina takes time to build up
I cannot emphasise this enough. I think we totally underestimate the stamina required, both the physical stamina and the brainwork. Quite often, as teachers, we play, but we play to teach. A demonstration here or there perhaps, or the odd duet. Physical stamina is essential and impacts upon so many parts of our playing and singing. It takes time to build up though, and it’s something we have to work on regularly. I’ve also learnt over the past few years that once you’ve built it up, if you don’t continue to make those muscles work, it can regress quite fast. There’s a constant ebb and flow of building this up.
5. You don’t have to learn all the pieces you feel you ought to
I was brought up to believe that there were certain pieces everyone should play. These were part of the supposed ‘core repertoire’. As I’ve got older, I’ve come to realise that this ‘core repertoire’ is a bit of a myth. Ask 10 teachers which pieces would be in their core repertoire, and whilst there’ll be some overlap, they will all argue their own corner for which should be included. My PhD research has only reinforced this. That’s not to say there are many, many pieces which would be good for us to learn, but there has to be more to it than just we ‘should’ learn them. Many of the pieces and composers I don’t enjoy now were the ones where it was metaphorically beaten into me when I was younger that I ‘should’ like them.
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