July 30, 2011



As you will gather from all that I have said, my lot is not the privileged one of teaching Music college entrants exclusively. A fair number of my pupils have nevertheless gone to read music at university, and several more have gone into professional musical careers. My name appears on the LP label of a disc issued by a former pupil, and another pupil opened his own recording studio and sent me a hit single that he recorded with a soloist so famous that her name has exploded completely from my mind. One of the first pupils I introduced to the world of electronic music and digital recording now has his own studio, runs a backing track company and makes more money from music than I do, even though he does so part-time!

Not that I don’t have fun teaching the less able – my view is that the deciding factor is what the pupil is getting out if it. I have in the past had people who were about as musical as a London bus, but derived so much pleasure from it that I regarded it as my obligation to continue as long as they wanted to keep coming. Conversely, I have had pupils who were musically very intelligent, but preferred lawn-mowing …

Musical intelligence is something I’ve realised seems to manifest itself irrespective of background, and even inclination. It is present when the notes seem to make sense to the pupil – some pupils, bless ’em, stare at the same tadpole for hours and at times can’t find it on the keyboard, let alone work out what it is actually doing there. It is also quite independent of musical background knowledge and listening. Sadly, no assumptions whatsoever can be made about the general access to recorded music (I do not refer to the ubiquitous bindweed of mainly undistinguished and indistinguishable pop/house/garage/garden-shed/snakepit/ music). A survey was carried out some 8 years ago which found that fewer than half the households in the UK had ANY books in them at all. I shudder to think what the statistic would be for what I call art music. Yes, I like some pop, and a lot of modern jazz, but it’s entertainment, for pity’s sake, not brain food …

I am often asked about ages for starting lessons.  At the lower end of the antiquity spectrum, it is a matter of the ability to concentrate, coupled with a genuine interest in the instrument. A piano is good in this respect – left open and accessible, it can be tinkled on-the-fly, when walking past. A move beyond the look-how-much-noise-I-can-make-with-my-fists to the playing of single notes is also a Good Sign. As far as lessons are concerned, I require of pupils of all ages the ability to concentrate on the unending flow of wisdom, and the tact to stay awake for the duration of the lesson (normally 30 minutes). For the “mature” student, the concentration is assumed – what is often a problem is the time for practice. Busy lives lead to priority conflicts – ultimately, a decision has to be taken on the relative importance of work at their instrument. From time to time the realisation dawns that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is rather more partial to vegging out in front of the box, or simply leaning against the nearest wall staring into space …

Age, Dear Reader, has Very Little To Do With It. True, the older you get, the slower the assimilation process, but a combination of realism and B-mindedness will get you a long way. Basically, if you have always wanted to learn, find a good teacher, and go for it. My oldest beginner was 70 when she started. She was hampered by possessing the musical sensibility of a charging rhinoceros, but her age was not the problem!

Finding a good teacher. Qualifications are good, but far from the whole story. Track record is the perfect indicator. A teacher who merely teaches isn’t usually the best – someone who performs regularly* and preferably has lessons themselves from time to time is a much better bet.** The rigour of subjecting yourself to examination is the sign of an open and mature mind, besides ensuring that you stay in touch with what it means to be a pupil*** , and thus be on the receiving end. In the UK, membership of a professional body such as the ISM is very desirable, and gives an element of accountability to what can be an independent and totally unregulated operation.

So – in a nutshell of Brobdingnagian proportions a few thoughts on this music teachering game. If you ask nicely and make the appropriate sacrifice to the H G††, maybe she’ll let you ask questions – if someone could also remind me what else I promised to write on, that would help.†††

Always assuming that you found this palatable enough …

           … if not, don’t tell me – enough realism, already.  

Oisin, with many thanks to all my pupils over the last 185 years, especially those who have become good friends.

* * * 

* Yes.  He does.  He’s chief organist at the big Catholic church in Mauncester.  I mean big.  I’ve seen smaller castles.  He also plays regularly at St Radegunde—my home tower—although I’m not sure what his title is.   And he’s forever being frelling late to my music lesson/cup of tea on Friday afternoons because he has some frelling wedding rehearsal to attend, at which he will discover that they’ve changed their minds about the playlist and rather than Mendelssohn’s Wedding March they’ve decided they want Mahler’s Ninth as transcribed for solo organ.  The wedding is tomorrow.  

** Yes.  He does this too.  But he won’t say so himself.  He takes lessons from a scary overachieving world-touring organist demigod based in London.  It is testament to Oisin’s ability/attitude/B-mindedness that he comes back from these sessions feeling energized and inspired.  I think I’d just cry.  Although after several years of Oisin—especially since he got his home computer organ monster—I’ve gone from thinking that organ music is all very well in its place, which is to say in a very large church where I am not present, to thinking that if I were thirteen and talented I’d be all over organ lessons.  As it is I think there is an enchanted-pipe-organ story beginning to stir and, er, boom, in the back of my mind.^

^ One does what one can. 

*** Pain!  Paaaaaaain!

†Yes.  A positive paragon, our Oisin.  Pity about the whips and hot pincers.

†† Chocolate is always good.  Totally preferred over chicken entrails, etc. 

†††  More guest posts.  THINK OF QUESTIONS.  PLEASE.

‡ Hey, this is my blog.  We don’t do reality here. 

‡‡ And first rate enemies.  En garde, balourd!^

^ Snork.



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