Thursday, 23 April 2015

Of Van Radios And The Rewards Of Teaching

I am shedding a little tear. A couple of years ago I treated myself to a radio CD player for my van. It has been a rather brilliant piece of kit and I have enjoyed using it. Yesterday I watched as it progressively stopped working throughout the day.  First it wouldn't read the contents of my phone.  Then it couldn't read a compact disc.  Then it stopped charging the phone and by evening it wouldn't even switch on. 

Today I called back in to Halfords from where I bought it to seek advice. I'd rather hoped that something made by Kenwood would last longer than 27 months. The lady on the till called for assistance and a young man approached greeting me by name. I couldn't place him and had to confess so after a while. He said I'd taught him djembe drumming in Year 3 (that must have been at least ten years ago) and he credited me for his interest and engagement with music, which had become very important in his life. It was a lovely acknowledgement, however exaggerated it sounded, and I was a little overwhelmed.  His memory of what we did together was pretty sound, including a performance that I had completely put out of my mind. He now plays in several bands and ensembles and his standard of playing on trombone and guitar has earned him offers on degree courses at the RCM and at Music Tech in London.  He is weighing his options and deciding whether he can afford to further his education in this way. My delight in his joy is tempered by an anger that affordability has to be a consideration at all.  It's a pity he doesn't live in Scotland or Finland or any other country where education  is considered important enough to make it available to all people who want and deserve it.  I was fortunate enough to receive a statutory higher education grant when I was starting out.  I found surviving on that with a young family was tough enough and came close to dropping out when at times we were struggling to find enough money for the week's groceries.  The thought of entering a career with a huge financial debt weighing heavily on the shoulders must truly be daunting.  One of my own children took his higher education in the USA and left university and dental school with astronomical debts well into six figures.   It looks like that is where we are heading in most of the UK.  Whatever Chris decides to do I wish him luck.  

This got me thinking. Much as teaching is a bread and butter option and hard grind (which is one of the reasons I keep it to a minimum these days, preferring to spend my energy indulging my own creative needs) there are still times that I leave a workshop on a high.  Sometimes it is simply the expression on a child's face when they finally "get it".  Sometimes it is the sense of achievement that comes from a truly uplifting ensemble experience.  Sometimes it comes from a child wishing to share a personal moment of musical enlightenment.  Sometimes it is being able to give a child some space to deal with a shattering emotional response to music.  I feel a solemn weight of the privilege in sharing those experiences.

Now I'm thinking about past pupils; the reception child with Asperger's Syndrome who spent the first few years crawling under tables and screaming who, by the time she got to Y6, was so keen and dedicated to achieving in music that her face lit up when I came into the classroom for a music workshop - the joy of her participation in music shone in her singing; or the boy in another school, again with AS, who hated the noise in my workshops when he arrived in Y4. In Y6 he took a lead role in a class composition and at one point was trading 4s in the midst of thirty classmates playing the groove, mostly with djembes, congas and noisy bits of metal.  I think also of some of the adults and teachers I've worked with over the years and whom I've seen grow in musical confidence and skill.  I honestly find it difficult to relate their progress to anything I may have done though.  To me, their achievements have come from their own efforts to acquire knowledge, understanding and skills. If I've done anything at all it would be simply to have opened a gate to a path they have subsequently followed.

Yesterday, a Y4 girl came up to me with the news that she has started work on an "album".
She wanted to show me several sheets of A4 she'd stapled together, each containing the lyrics and illustrations for songs she'd been composing. She showed me four completed songs and has got as far as the title for song number five. There were some intriguing ideas among them, not to mention some beautifully balanced lines in the lyrics. As we sat down in our class circle to set to work I asked her if she would sing one of her songs before we started. She was too shy to sing in front of the class, so I asked her if she would feel braver if I sang a new song I've working on in return.  I had to carry out a quick memory scan to check that the lyrics of the verse and chorus that I could actually remember were appropriate enough not to initiate a crocodile of pitchfork waving parents carrying flaming torches to escort me off the premises!  She agreed to this and sang the first song in her album. Her class mates responded with enthusiastic applause and cheering. Those moments are precious. After her success I was hoping she would forget our agreement, but she turned to me and said, "Now you have to keep your side of the bargain." Priceless!

My children tell me that sometimes they meet their contemporaries and occasionally someone will remember something I did with them twenty or thirty years ago.  Sometimes I am remembered simply because I wore rainbow braces or shoelaces.  I had a teacher in my junior school who changed my life.  His name was Mr Perry.  He encouraged my engagement with music and I shall always be grateful to him.  He offered me options that would otherwise have been unimaginable in our working class family.  Even if I didn't continue with playing the clarinet beyond the Grade 3 through which he took me I ended up returning to the recorder and taking it to diploma level.  A few years ago I tried to find him to thank him face to face and to let him know what he had unleashed.  Sadly I was too late.  He had apparently died a few years previously.  I don't think he would have been more than fifteen years older than me.

Why did Chris' comments affect me so?  For a start I don't think anyone has said anything like that to me before. Maybe my years of going into schools and leading workshops haven't been wasted completely. Not just that, though, he fixed the radio with a new fuse.

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