Choir Festival

It’s been a very very very long time since I’ve written a blog post. Not because of a lack of inspiration, which is normally the reason, but because things have been a bit crazy round here in the world of music teaching, and I have been too busy to even think. Last night, however, was an event worth writing about, so I’m taking time out to do it, even though the to-do list is a mile long, and getting longer by the minute.

There is an annual Choir Festival here in Gaborone, organised by a local primary school. Five schools are invited to perform three numbers each, and then there are two combined songs that all five choirs perform together. It’s always a stressful yet rewarding event as a music teacher, and I have always enjoyed being part of it, not least because I know my choir is good. Last night was the first time, however, that I haven’t been present as a primary school music teacher.

The PPC National Youth Choir were invited to be the guest choir at last night’s Festival! We have only been going since October, and on an hour a week of choir practice, I think they did brilliantly.  They looked smart and neat, and they (in general) behaved themselves in a decent manner, and we got a ton of compliments afterwards. And what’s even better is that now there are kids at those primary schools asking how they can join! So it seems as though our next audition session will by more fully attended than previously, and maybe my ideal number of 70 in the Choir isn’t that far away!

I am hoping that some kind and fond parent has taken photos or video of last night for me to post, but in the meantime, have this one. I am a VERY proud music director



Derek – The Piano Man

Derek – YouTube.

This man is incredible.  Watch it.  Not only is he incredible, but so is his teacher.  This illustrates precisely how a passion for something can transcend even the most difficult of barriers, and how music is a language that can communicate so much more than words.

I want to teach like this teacher.  I want to remain patient and passionate through all the frustrations my students and I may feel, and I want, one day, to be able to say of an incredible musician, “I taught that child.”

The Madness of Clarinetists

The construction of a clarinet. Edited from th...

Tomorrow I will be doing my Grade 8 Clarinet exam.  But this is not a post about nervousness or preparation or any of those good exam-like things.  It is a post about the madness of musicians, and of music teachers in particular.

You see, exams are things that we traditionally associate with school.  As things that you have to do while you are at school, while you are of school-going age.  We also make the assumption that no one chooses to do exams, that normal people would avoid them like the plague.  Enter the first sign of a music teacher’s madness.  I chose to do this exam.  I chose to put my mouth, my fingers and my ears through this, so I have no one to blame but myself.  Except for my teacher.

We have known each other now for 20 years.  She was my primary school teacher when I was in Standard 4, then she became my clarinet teacher, then my teaching mentor, then my colleague and now my partner in crime.  We coach orchestras and choirs together.  We transformed a music department together.  And now she wants me to do this exam.  Don’t get me wrong – of all the people that have influenced my life, she is one of the greatest.  She is an incredible musician, an incredible teacher and an even more incredible friend.  But she is even madder than I am, which is saying something, considering that we are both music teachers.  And clarinetists.

My reasons for doing the exam are all very admirable, I think.  Firstly, Grade 8 is the highest one, and I went off to university and things before I could finish it off.  I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.  I did my Grade 8 Ballet when I was 23, far too old to be dancing like that, in that clothing that makes curvy women look like elephants, even when they’re not fat (wish I still looked like that though!).  I did my Grade 7 Clarinet when I was 26.  So it’s taken me two years to work up to finishing it off.  I also think that somehow, it sets a good example to all my students, that you are never too old to learn, and that you should never stop learning and developing as a musician, or as anything else.  I also know myself quite well, and I wasn’t going to get any better as a musician just by picking something to play and working at it. I needed a tangible goal, preferably one that was a little scary, to make me do it.  However, now that my fingers are falling off and I can’t sleep because I have the Mozart Clarinet Concerto (I’m playing the 3rd movement tomorrow) in my head, I’m wondering about the wisdom of it all.  Already the butterflies have begun to flutter, and I still have a day of teaching to get through.  At least I am doing mine tomorrow, and all my students are doing theirs on Friday.  I might have a peaceful night and be prepared to make all kinds of mistakes in the accompaniment for my children.  Oh well.  Such is the life of a music teacher.

The madness continues.  My teacher and I are already planning the next exam.  Maybe finish off the piano, or another violin exam?  Or maybe I should now focus on preparing the children I teach for their exams.  One thing I do know, though.  They will all end up as mad as I am.

Top Tips for Teaching One-on-One

Teaching and coaching one-on-one can be extremely rewarding, both for the teacher and the student. It allows the teacher to be completely focused on the needs of one learner, rather than having to accommodate the different learning needs of a group. Here are some tips for successful one-on-one teaching.

Enthusiasm – Always be enthusiastic and full of energy when you are spending time with a student. Whether your student is an adult or a child, they will respond to your energy and the lesson will go accordingly. Your enthusiasm will allow the student to make mistakes with confidence, so that they can be corrected.

Understanding – Understand the needs of the student you are with. Knowing whether your student is primarily visual, kinesthetic or auditory will allow you to adapt your teaching method and materials to the specific needs of the student. When you are teaching to the primary learning style of your student, they will grasp the material more easily, and you are less likely to have to re-teach the concept the following week.

Creativity – Be creative in the teaching strategies you use. If the student comes to you daily or weekly, creative teaching methods will help to maintain their interest in the subject and your enthusiasm for the class. Your creativity will encourage the student to put forward their own ideas and be creative too.

Organisation – Be organised and prepared for the lesson. At the beginning of the lesson, discuss specific goals and objectives for the lesson, so that both you and your student experience a sense of achievement at the end. Tasks set for the following lesson should reinforce the concepts covered, or pre-assess knowledge of the next topic. When you are organised and clear about your objectives, take home tasks are easier to plan.

Focus – It is vital to remain focused on the task at hand throughout the lesson. If you allow yourself to become distracted, the student will become distracted too. However, don’t be afraid to leave the student time to think or plan during the lesson. Your one-on-one time allows a flexible goal schedule, so use it to encourage self-directed learning and assessment.

Feedback – Always provide feedback at the end of the lesson, even if the task is not complete. It always helps if feedback is presented in a positive manner, particularly with children, as it will encourage them to look forward to their next session with you. If they are looking forward to the next session, they will find it easier to get any take home tasks done.

All of the above factors help to create a positive and personal relationship between teacher and student. For those, like me, who make the jump from classroom coaching to one-on-one teaching, this is the best reward of all.

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The ‘Little Voice’ Phenomenon

I had a wonderful lesson with one of my students yesterday.  I left feeling like we had really connected and that we had spent his half hour in a positive discussion.

Let me put you in the picture a little.  John (not his real name) has been struggling with his saxophone since we filled in his entry form for an exam in November.  He was playing perfectly well before that, but the thought of doing an exam has filled him with such fear that he completely tenses up and can’t get a note out.  For those of you who have no experience with the saxophone, in order to reach the low notes, your bottom lip needs to be quite loose against the reed to allow the maximum amount of vibration.  Normally the problem is trying to get the lip to be tight enough to play the high notes, but John has done things the other way round.

A couple of thoughts occurred to me at this point.  The first was that this amount of tension is extremely unhealthy in anyone, let alone a 10-year old child.  And the second was that I understand what he’s talking about.  He has a bad case of what Blair Singer calls the “Little Voice’, the one inside your head forecasting doom and gloom with no prompting from reality whatsoever.

As soon as we filled in his entry, John’s head was filled with thoughts about failure, about squeaking, about playing the wrong thing, about losing his music, and any other situation that might possibly go wrong and affect his result.  I should point out at this point that music comes naturally to him and in general he finds it a breeze to play something new.  He has never lost his music or turned up to a lesson unprepared.  This is not a child with a valid reason to fear doing the exam at all.

So because he couldn’t get a note out, we spent his half hour talking about strategies for relaxation.  We talked about deep breathing, about some yoga exercises to loosen the muscles, and about visualizing places and activities that he finds relaxing.  But then he mentioned that he has this “Little Voice” in all situations, not just with his saxophone.  My strategy?  To do the thing I love best.  I gave him an affirmation to write out and put above his bed so that he would see it often and repeat it to himself.

We wrote down, ‘I am so happy and grateful now that I have passed my Grade 2 Saxophone exam with distinction’, and we dated it November 2011.  I will keep you posted on the results!

I Love My Life Professionally…

I love my life professionally because what I do on a daily basis brings excitement, fulfillment, opportunities, and wealth.

I love having a flexible timetable, which means that generally I get enough sleep!  It seems as though I’ve spent most of my adult life running on less than the optimum, and I still am grateful each morning to have the energy to get through the day, feeling like I can give 100% to each task.  This one aspect makes me look back at my professional life and realise how ineffective and bad-tempered I must have been for most of it!

Each day is different and brings different challenges, so my current work life is teaching me to be more spontaneous and not so attached to routine.  Having been a teacher for 5 years, and a student for many more years before that, my life has been governed by a timetable someone else has made for me, inhibiting my ability to take responsibility for the structure of my life, right down to when I can have a cup of tea.  I know now that if I don’t plan it, it doesn’t get done, but I also know that not everything has to be accomplished in half-hour blocks.  Welcome to sanity!

With each new task I do, I meet different people and get the opportunity to connect with a much wider group than before.  I know that I have the time and the flexibility now to build meaningful relationships with each client or customer that comes into my life, and this means that I can offer a personal service tailored to their needs.  The client comes first in what I do, and because my time is not constrained like before, I can provide a level of service and involvement that many larger enterprises can’t.

Finally, one of the most important reasons that I love my life professionally is that I get to work with my partner and my family.  We already like each other, and knowing that we have an existing foundation of trust makes business communication easier.  We bounce ideas off each other better than we would if we were working with people we didn’t know very well.  Best of all, we get to spend our working life with the people we choose to spend time with, not the people who have been chosen for us.

Do you love your life professionally?  How could you make it better?  My hope is that everyone wakes up in the morning looking forward to the day the way I do.  That, for me, is a hallmark of success – to love your life professionally.

A new beginning….

What is it about the beginning of the year that makes us feel so renewed?  The feeling of being given an opportunity to begin again, to put the past in the past and move forward, is extremely seductive.  We are drawn in time and time again to making resolutions and setting goals and making decisions for the new year ahead.  And these are all valuable processes.  But what makes us, three days in, behave exactly as we had been at the end of the previous year, and mentally abandon all those great ideas we’ve just had?  And most importantly, what can help us keep the motivation going?

There is a term that describes the perfect process.  It is used very little in our modern age of quick fixes and always passing the buck, but there really is no replacement for it.  It is called….SELF-DISCIPLINE. This is a concept that is drummed into us at school, and yet, as adults, for many of us it’s the thing we lack the most.  All the personal development books say it though.  No amount of goal setting or visualisation or putting together vision boards can help you unless you are disciplined about following the process.  Like playing the piano – progress is never made by looking at the instrument sitting in the corner and wishing you could play that piece of music you heard on the radio.  Positive progress is only made by sitting there on a regular basis, and learning by baby steps first.  So if you really want to be successful in 2011, you have to do more than set a goal and stick a picture on a boad.  You have to consciously and regularly review your lists, and keep track of the progress you make. 

So best of luck for 2011 – and remember that discipline is your friend!