What led us to teach in the first place?

‘Those that can’t, teach!’ How many times have you heard this said over the course of your career? To be honest, it is a saying that really annoys me. The reasons that I teach are many and varied, but at their centre lies a love of music making, string playing in particular, and a major desire to pass on this love to others; and my skill as a string player is central to it all.

A wise woman once wrote on the subject of choosing a music teacher, ‘Avoid the one who has never been seen to play the instrument, and treat with extreme caution the teacher who moves from examination to examination with no opportunities for exploring the lovely music available at every stage.’ – Sheila Nelson, ‘Beginners Please’ p32 Thames Television ISBN 0904 416690. Such an important sentence in many respects; but at the heart of it I read the essence to find an instrumental teacher that plays their instrument well, enjoys the creativity that teaching music allows them to have, and still enjoys the whole process of making music themselves.

We all love playing our instruments, don’t we? Actually, I suspect there are a number of jaded and disillusioned teachers out there in the real world, but they are definitely not going to spend their time reading blogs about their working lives. By definition, we as readers are the enthusiastic ones that still have a passion for what we do, a real ‘fire in our belly!’ I have literally just got off the phone to one teacher who really epitomises the impassioned music educator. This particular cello teacher has taught a 12 hour day, is now wading through a pile of administrative tasks, will finally get to  eat her evening meal at gone 9.30pm and then needs to spend a little more time preparing some new ensemble arrangements for a couple of groups later in the week. She teaches six days a week, and juggles this with keeping up her playing skills on a regional basis through local orchestras and the inevitable ‘function quartet’. The only ball missing from her particular set to be kept in the air is that of children, but I am sure if that ever occurred she would slot them effortlessly into the general kaleidoscope of her life without so much as a bat of an eyelid.

But why?

But why? I hear you ask. Why spend a lifetime verging on exhaustion when you could have a better paid and more secure career with guaranteed holidays, no stress from the very occasional irate and overly pushy parent (the term ‘helicopter parent’ springs to mind), a healthier lifestyle and a much better sleep pattern? Why, because we simply love what we do! We love passing on our passion to others, really it is as simple as that.

Keeping the passion alive!  

But how easy is it for us to let that passion die, the fire burn out and the love disappear? Sadly, all too easy. Often the last thing we want to do when we get some spare time is get out our own instrument and practice.

Many years ago I was interviewed for an article in ‘The Strad’ magazine – School’s Out – Sarah Mnaztaganian – The Strad – August, 2000

‘For many professional string players August provides a much-needed break. But for others, such as students or amateurs, the prospect may be less inviting: how can you stay motivated without the stimulus of lessons or the regular meeting of chamber or orchestral groups? Some may also feel torn between the desire to take a break and the need to develop their solo career or refresh themselves musically. So how can you make the most of the summer weeks?

Having an attractive and realistic long-term goal for the summer is the secret of success for many. If your aim is to learn new repertoire it is important to choose music that you will really enjoy practising. It can be tempting to choose pieces which are simply too demanding; be honest with yourself and give yourself a challenge you know you can meet. Matthew Lee, a violist who teaches over 200 pupils in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, fills his summer mornings with solo practice.

“The summer is the one time each year when I have time to be a “real musician”, he says. “I always set myself a specific goal for the holiday, which is usually to learn four or five pieces I feel a strong affinity with and know are within my grasp.”’

I also, possibly sadly, go on to talk about practising Ševčík, and remember the comments I got from colleagues at my music service on my return to work that Autumn to this day, it has to be said with a wry smile. Some of them ‘got it’ and some of them just really didn’t at all! Strangely enough, there was a direct correlation between those that ‘got it’ and those that played in those inevitable ‘function quartets’ (and who can blame them, that is where the real money is to be made, after all) and the local and regional orchestras (many of those for free and the sheer need to make high quality music with other likeminded people), all for the love of their craft.

Still practising

Yes, eighteen years on and I still try to practise every day, if possible (including a little Sevcik, obviously)! But why? Well, mainly because I love playing my viola. There is a wealth of music out there to explore and I only have one lifetime in which to do it, so I had best get on with it. I know many teaching musicians who feel exactly the same way. And it is that feeling, down at the very core of our being that also drives us to need to teach.

Keeping up our skill levels

How can we possibly pass on that love if we are not able to communicate it as best we can through our own playing? I am not saying that as teachers we need to be brilliant players, but we need to be able to demonstrate effectively, and it also helps if students can see you performing publically locally (or nationally if you are a teacher of a certain level of student), and maybe even find themselves playing alongside you as they reach a more advanced stage of playing themselves.

That is why I, and many others like myself, still squeeze in scales, Ševčík (yes, there will always be a place for Ševčík in my life) and fresh repertoire, not to mention tricky orchestral parts (Sibelius 3 springs to mind as a violist!) into my already way to busy life schedule.

And finally

A former colleague of mine, and great friend, was recently telling me of her first real ‘professional’ musical experience as a fourteen year old. It involved playing in a performance of the Faure Requiem along with her teacher, staying at her teacher’s home that night, and a breakfast the following morning at which ‘Baroque Music’ was playing on the radiogram. This particular colleague is retired now, and a stream of capable string players have passed through her hands. This early experience has stuck with her throughout, and all because her own teacher was an active performer and was farsighted enough to see that the pathway to inspiration for that particular young player would come through some ‘real active music making’ with a small financial remuneration at the end. Had that teacher not been actively making music herself, then my own colleague would not have experienced her first ‘Faure Requiem’ and gone on to be an inspiration herself to an entirely new generation of string players. I think that sums up nicely why we, as teachers, should all keep up our own music nourishment.  

How can I find inspiration?

I realise that sometimes the inspiration and enthusiasm to practise can be hard to muster. Personally, I still have the occasional lesson with a long suffering wonderful violist whose playing I admire enormously. I am lucky, in that I can afford to do this. But if you can’t, ESTA UK offer through the ‘The Nannie Jamieson Nutshell Fund’ bursaries for the ‘Play Better, Teach Better’ programme. Why not visit the webpage and apply for one, you have nothing to lose! www.estastrings.org.uk/bursaries

Why not visit www.estastrings.org.uk and www.estaeducation.co.uk to see how the European String Teachers Association can help you develop into the best teacher you can possibly be?