A week ago I was in Los Angeles with a small group of my students and one of my colleagues. We lived together, travelled together, worked together, performed, taught, improvised, and laughed. It is a final-year credit bearing class at the University of Chichester that started as a student initiative four years ago. The first group’s story became a book (you can download it for free via the link) and they named the initiative Musiquality, bringing quality and connection through music and education. Each year since the students have created an educational outreach project that touches the lives of children and adults, and inevitably changes their own lives as well.
This year the students involved in the trip raised over £1000 performing at gigs and busking and I raised money too, giving a benefit concert and through leading my community orchestra. Together we raised just under $2000 and bought 60 ukuleles to use in workshops and then donate to the establishments we visited. Read more
This is Black History Month and I want to do something. I’m not Black and so I don’t share the first-hand experience of Black people. I think it hit me why everyone (certainly in America) needs to celebrate this month and to learn. It’s because this isn’t about ancient history, this is about something that people carry and deal with every day.
I didn’t know I grew up in a white world. I didn’t know I grew up in a man’s world. Heck, three years ago when someone pointed out that I asked permission to speak in a meeting with men (and that was only permission to introduce myself), I couldn’t believe I did that. We often cannot see the air we breathe. Sometimes we feel the wind, but only when it pushes against our faces.
Text books don’t teach you what it’s like to live in a world that challenges some but not others. I first learned how much I didn’t know from a great preacher, the late Rev. Hycel B. Taylor, in Evanston, Illinois. I was drawn there by the music and the preaching. There was freedom in that music and such rejoicing and a sense of purpose and hope. Those years taught me just how much I didn’t know, and that I couldn’t know in the same way as living someone else’s life. For me I go back to analogies – I know what it’s like to be a foreigner in a new country, and I can tell you, but you can’t really know unless you live it.
It is hard to see when you’re in it. Let me give a couple of examples.
1. I don’t watch a lot of TV, and am quite out of touch with it really. A year ago my family were all on a long-haul flight and we decided to watch films on the plane… It was December and I put on Home Alone, remembering it was supposed to be funny. I was absolutely shocked at how white, nam-centric, derogatory, dysfunctional, stereotypical… the list could go on. My son kept asking why is the dad talking like that? Why is the brother so mean? Why does that girl whine like that? Thank God it was very foreign to him. How was this normal and thought of as a good film? Somehow I remember the film coming out and being popular and great – the bias, the prejudice, the definition of roles and people – it is all around us and we don’t know it.
2. It isn’t always like that. My son came home one day talking about his friend and I said which one is he? The one with curly hair was how he identified this boy. It took several days and finally being pointed out for me to figure out which of the 30 in his class he meant. This boy did have curly hair, but also had dark skin. My son could see his skin, that was obvious, just like my son is super pale, but it wasn’t the defining feature of their friendship.
Let me give another example that doesn’t have to do with skin colour –
3. As a person I am many things, friend, mother, lover, teacher, and a part of me is American. I grew up there. The day after the Brexit vote happened, someone said to me – why don’t you go home! My reply was, but I’m British. On that day, they couldn’t see beyond the one part of me that was foriegn. It is when people define others by only one aspect, and decide that they are THAT, whatever that is, that’s when it all goes wrong.
Racism does exist. We can learn from the wonderful children who play and see each other with all the components parts. They are allowed to be who they are. Black History isn’t ancient history, and the day when people can cherish and celebrate each part of their identity is yet to come. There has to be a willingness to see the air we breather and to want to change, because a lot of it is polluted. You can see examples of resistance to changing what is obvious in all aspects of life from mass-produced goods that exploit workers across the globe to the impact of our convenience lives on the climate.
Someone recently shared this advert and later suggested that if people wanted to do something for Black History Month, maybe they should go learn something, especially if it is not their history. The 3 min video made me think, well a lot, but particularly brought to mind the times I have realised that I didn’t see what was around me. I want my children and their friends to grow up in a world where they see. Yes that means change.
(warning: there is strong language in it. DO watch it, it is only a few swear words)
Watching this made me think of my own wake up calls. Bear with me for one more analogy (I’m a very visual person). When I watched this I saw the image of a big tapestry being woven, so big it was automated by a giant machine- I couldn’t see the machine but I could hear it, and I was aware that I, myself, was holding onto a thread – like a rope – and could just catch a glimpse fo the giant needle as it dove in and out of the threads. Weaving with great speed. Holding on. I don’t want to be a part of that tapestry.
If you haven’t already, it’s time to let go and stop perpetuating the machine’s weave. I would really prefer to author my own life’s tapestry, and you yours. We may have to pick up some thread from the floor, and I’ll sit here and untangle a bit while you weave…
It may be a convoluted image, but it’s my effort to step out of the fishbowl.
Thank you to Sherri Spelic for her kind and constructive advice on this post.
There is something romantic about playing a musical instrument, but practice? The emotion, getting caught up in the moment, it looks so graceful and can touch people’s lives – but that’s the finished product, what happens at the moment of performance. What about getting there? Is it all that rosey? Do people wake up and pull back the curtains to the sun streaming in and think – Oh yes! I get to practise for 4-6 hours today! La la la! and then twirl their fluffy skirts as they dance to the music room, humming and skipping with the music already singing in their minds. (featured image CC BY-NC-SA by Rachel Patterson)
Well… there are moments of bliss in any discipline when the learning moves from being an unfamiliar skill to being a known competence. The thing is that even when this happens, it isn’t over. In music it is not like creating a typed script that you can print out and look at. Live performance involves our bodies, which are changing, growing, and decaying every day and without upkeep and use, even after achieving something, it fades.
Practising is one of those ‘how’ questions that is sometimes not so explicitly taught. It involves so many different aspects of the self: musical mind, analytical mind, physical coordination (and that’s very specific to each instrument), and the motivation – to listen, to persevere, to assess, to pursue goals. It can be exhausting. With experience and the different hurdles life has thrown at me, I have learned to practice differently and hopefully better.
I used to while away the days at university just practising all day and that was wonderful. There were certain factors in that environment that made it work there, that are not necessarily present outside the uni environment. I was a part of a wonderful cello studio and had THE most inspiring and motivating teacher that ever walked (still walks, well actually he runs- no time for walking) the planet. We also supported one another. There was competition, but each person was allowed and encouraged to become whatever they were going to be.
One of the things time taught me is that when the factors (in life, in music, in you) change, so does practising. Learning music is not something that can be distilled onto a recipe card. After university, for example, when living in a new place where I practised alone for the entire day, the motivation, recognition of progress, and general stamina that was easy to maintain in a community became tricky to maintain on my own.
Commitments and other constraints on my time taught me to organise, learning to focus, in order to accomplish in one hour what I might have done in three. Listening, analysis, careful repetition as opposed to less focused playing or even indulging in …just going on to that nice bit one more time.
- I now set the clock when I practise and do bursts of concentrated practise for 25 minutes at a time with dedicated goals and then
I GET UP AND MOVE AROUND. BREATHE FRESH AIR. DRINK WATER.
It is important to remember we are more than machines. Our minds, muscles, and whole selves need recharging from time to time.
Without remembering how delicate we are, practising certainly can be a bear hunt. …Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, gotta go through it…. (Image CC BY-NC by Phil Rogers) Perseverance is important. -Musicians should not play through pain or for hours on end for the sake of it. That is unhealthy. There are however some aspects of physical learning that do take time to learn in the muscles and the brain. Yes, there might well be moments of discomfort while you get your thumb callous into shape (I’ve had a blister or two over the years), but nothing should ever ‘hurt’ from normal playing. The nightmare of the bear is quickly dissolved when planned small goals are integrated into a healthy schedule.
If you have a teacher to motivate you – that is great! If you don’t, that is more of a challenge. Being accountable is a useful tool.
- You can be accountable to yourself, or to someone else who is not a musician, but is a friend.
- Sometimes telling someone what your aims are, or making a chart can help.
- Recording practise allows you to look back and see the progress – step-by-step is good.
- Bite-sized is manageable, whereas demanding all at once is just not realistic.
I’m off to practice, as my concert is Sunday! I’ve been recording myself to listen and learn, and the other day, while rehearsing with my accompanist, I caught an oops. I forgot the thing that keeps my cello spike from slipping, and well… you can hear my surprise at what happened for yourself. 🙂
It’s not all daisies, but practising does pay off. Keep at it. (I’m talking to you as well as to me!)
On Sunday, February 4th I’m giving a concert at the University of Chichester. It will be an afternoon of cello, and I am very fortunate to be accompanied by Music Alumni, Simon Arthurs on the 1876 Steinway Fancy D piano, and we will be joined by Natalia Corolscaia, on violin, for the final two pieces. The programme includes Bach, Boccherini, Chopin, Elgar, and Piazzolla. There is no entry charge – and for those of you who might be far away, we will be streaming the concert (link below).
For the past few years I have run an International Experience module where students take their learning to across the world, literally. This year we are going to Los Angeles to teach music to various groups. A small group of students will come with me and they have planned their teaching- they have a great goal that involves raising some money: When we teach in LA, leading ukulele and singing workshops, we want to give each of the groups we work with a set of ukuleles for their class to keep.
In the spirit of good fundraising, I’m helping out too with this concert. If you can make it in person FAB! It really is free (with a retiring collection to fund those instruments and support the trip!). If you can’t make it, join me remotely! I’ll be live-streaming it using the uni’s lecture recording software via this link:
You can support us with any sized donation via this link. And you can read a bit about the students coming with me.
In LA we’ll be teaching at a suburban primary school outside of Hollywood, a school in the heart of Los Angeles, and we’ll be teaching UCLA students who spend their summers working at UniCamp. UCLA UniCamp is a non-profit camp that has serviced the Greater LA area for the past 85 years. They take campers from under-served populations and take them to a residential summer camp experience and provide them with a camp experience they wouldn’t otherwise be able to have while teaching them the importance of higher education and tools needed to combat current social issues. All of the camp counsellors are UCLA student volunteers that train over 100 hours in preparation for their session of camp.
It would be amazing to be able to donate instruments to these schools and to UniCamp after we work with them. Hope you can donate £1 (or more!) to the cause and hope to see you at the concert!
So let me get this right. We get PhDs, some of us become academics.
We (usually) get no training in how to teach but it’s 30% of our job
We (usually) know how to do research but have no training in how to write it well
We (usually) have no administrative training but do service
— ℳąhą Bąℓi مها بالي 🌷 (@Bali_Maha) January 22, 2018
So often education is outcome focused. Students are taught to take tests. They are taught to the test.
Rats. What’s the assessment?
In. What do I have to do?
A. Can you show me an example?
Maze. Do you actually have one that you’ve made?
It’s difficult to see a way out; it’s difficult to see a why and even more challenging to figure out how.
Sometimes it isn’t about the actual tangible outcome- the essay, the script, the thing you make, the most important part is relational, understanding the process. The immediate goal does not encapsulate the longer term benefits of the task. Try explaining this to a student who says – but I need to get a certain grade or I can’t do the next class/task… Just tell me what you want me to do. It’s not just the students who are task oriented. Learning gain is a buzzword, and just after the definition, the section on the .gov website labelled ‘Why does it matter?’ begins with ‘Capturing how students benefit‘. Those two words in close proximity make my neck hairs hackle: capture and benefit. Certainly the concept of learning gain is not at all bad, it is very important, but the wording ‘capture’ makes me think.
Maha’s tweet rings true of how many academics do find themselves learning on the job, but also it is true of teaching in so many other contexts, including for those on the other side of the teacher’s desk. Good performers aren’t necessarily good teachers. Students aren’t born as great learners. Neither ‘teaching’ nor ‘learning’ come from the tap on the head of the fairy’s magic want that suddenly ‘learns you’ something. The learning- acquiring the se skills and understanding the processes- takes place somewhere beyond the textbook. The answers on the exams are not The Answers, they are tools- rungs on a ladder, paving stones in a path you are building, maybe even the trowel used to build.
Why do people miss the how? (especially in formal learning settings)
- How takes time.
- How is sticky.
- How is where the perseverance kicks in.
- How involves failure.
- How needs help.
How also takes working with the ‘what’: knowledge, experiences, and a desire and willingness to engage with deeper learning. Even when there are teachers who do understand the how, the students can be hung up on not seeing an immediate why. Sometimes, the development of the how doesn’t produce visible ‘results’ until later, maybe well after that class, publication, event. Those seeds take time to grow, which makes it difficult to quantify in terms of standard metrics.
But I’m not a brick in the wall. I’m a person.
It is a dilemma to be in it for the long haul, the ongoing goal of learning, and to live in a real world where people are driven by demonstrating things, achieving, quantifying, and monetising. Perhaps as educators and co-learners, we can value the learning space and build some of that elasticity into existing classes, jobs, experiences so that those we learn, teach, and interact with can grow with us – for the sake of developing a repository of skills. Then if and when they build a path with their skills to a certain career, they will be prepared.
Over the years I have gotten far more brave with my own learning and with sharing aspects of the journey. There is no destination in sight, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t arrival points. This post notices one.
Sometimes progress in learning is difficult to see – looking for the wood through the trees is a phrase that comes to mind, and there’s an excellent passage in the book The Forest People by Colin Turnbul where one of the forest dwellers is shown a clearing for the first time. He climbs a mountain and upon coming out of the forest into a clearing this was the scene:
On the plains animals were grazing everywhere; a small herd of elephant to the left, about twenty antelopes stared curiously at us from straight ahead, and way down to the right was a gigantic herd of about a hundred and fifty buffalo. But Kenge did not seem to see them.
Sometimes we cannot simply understand what is before us, even if we are in it. The same holds true for learning. As we progress day by day, today is likely to resemble yesterday, with small changes. It is only when we step back and look at progress over weeks or months that we can see changes clearly. Read more
I am struck by how ideas form. This morning was like waking up under a bucket of cold water with various inputs – all enlightening, some glimmering sparks like stars, while others made me aware of darkness. Over the past few days thoughts have been bubbling about learning, as I read writings of others.
‘Learning is this’, ‘learning is that’. It makes me itch when theorists or educators so firmly define learning as a something. Imagine the teacher standing over the desk, asking the student, ‘What are you doing? Why aren’t you learning?’ really? Who could be expected to answer that? I certainly didn’t know how to answer the substitute teacher, so just turned my face back to the book, in grade school.
Sometimes learning is as etherial, something delicate and almost passive that is woven into our essential everything. I cannot just ‘learn’ just like I can’t just dream, but I can become more receptive to having ideas, and if you know me, I am indeed likely to blurt out with an ‘OH!’, mid conversation, because something popped into my head. Is that step one? It’s probably step 47, but recognising it is a good thing and certainly fits along the path somewhere. It is far less often the thing that happens when someone shoves a book under my nose and says: learn this.
What is learning? -Can anyone put their thumb on it?
Learning happens through experience and is the result of experience, but is not an experience. Thinking existentially: I am learning. Read more
At this time of year, there are countless reviews – looking back, the year in brief, the best moments… It is important to look back, to review and reflect, but also to move forward. Yes you can are three very powerful words. I wonder if we hear these enough? Do we say them to our families? Do we say them to our friends? Do we say them to ourselves?
Saying them is the first step. Living them comes with time.
There is an art to progress, and perhaps it is a delicate blend of the details and the doing. That doesn’t make sense by itself, but imagine the scene:
The tree growing its leaves: each leaf has incredible detail, but the leaf doesn’t make a tree, but it would be impossible to have the tree without the leaves, and the quality of the details makes the whole so much more rich. Read more