Nothing & Everything

Nothing & Everything, that is what we are currently preparing for. This blog all started with something I said to my students last week:

“Students, at the moment we aren’t preparing for a concert as we have nothing to prepare for. And yet we are actually preparing for every concert we will ever perform. We are preparing for Nothing & Everything all at once”

And hopefully this is something that will ring true for you. At the moment I have no live, public performances in my diary. But yet I know that in the future I will have, so I am getting my students ready for the future.

The Future

In many ways this is exactly what education is all about, preparing young people for the world. And yet sometimes we can get so caught up in the here and now that we can forget the long term. Whilst I have nothing specific to rehearse for, I can start to think about the future and where I want the students to be at when we come out the other side of Covid-19.

And I find the thought of the future quite encouraging and exciting. I want to ensure that every time I meet with a group of students I am focussing on them and their musicianship. We can all get caught up in the event and not the long term goal of creating well-rounded musicians. The restrictions that we have in 2020 are pushing us to look at smaller groups and therefore focus on the individual. This is something I am finding quite rewarding. In the past it has been about the music being ready for the event, and there is nothing wrong with this. But now it is about the student, and not about them being ready, but them being happy.

Lessons from September 2020

I have learnt a lot in September 2020 that will stay with me for life. I have learnt how to use zoom, teach using teams and get the most from an online supermarket shop. Here are some of the things I have learnt so far about my role as a teacher and music educator.

Preparing for Nothing is Preparing for Everything

In rehearsals this term I have ditched the stands, not used sheet music – Covid guidelines – and generally just focussed on having a fun rehearsal. It doesn’t matter what it sounds like or what we play, it just matters that we are together. In rehearsals I have been jamming over a blues pattern, playing around with chord patterns and encouraging improvisation at all levels. We have started with one note and worked from there, moving on to scales and chords. We have created a quick Ostinato and then worked out what we can add. By preparing for nothing we are working on everything that makes for a good musician and ensemble player. It is also a great top up to the in class theory and composition work.

It is quite a breath of fresh air to just play music, with no real agenda other than having a good time. We all want concerts to be back on the schedule, but there is nothing wrong with just playing music – we are preparing for nothing, but yet we will be ready for every concert in the future because we are playing!

Rehearsals are vital for community

I have been reminded that rehearsals in schools are all about the community that it creates. A band, choir or orchestra gives students something that they can belong to. It is somewhere they can go before, during or after school to meet friends and be themselves. Music in schools is vital for this and it is something we must hold on to.

And in many ways size doesn’t matter when it comes to Extra-Curricular Music. A small group of guitarists, a handful of singers – it doesn’t matter, they are there so make music with them. Restrictions are tighter in different places for so many reasons, so just do what you can. If you can get a small group together then go for it. It might not sound the same, but they are together and that is a good thing.

Curriculum Music is vital

I have thought about this a lot during the Pandemic this year, mainly because I haven’t been able to do as much extra stuff. It is clear that Curriculum Music is vital to the long term sustainability of music in schools. If we can get students to engage with lessons then we can get them hooked for the long term. Key Stage 3 music lessons are crucial for the development of students and they need to be engaging, well planned and rich in music. I have spent more time thinking about Key Stage 3 music than ever before and I believe I am already seeing the benefits.

Curriculum Music is where students start to see the potential for their instrumental lessons, and it is where they start to discover their own skills and potential. It isn’t just an extra on the timetable, it is a gateway to GCSE and a reason to keep them practising at home. Whilst we have restrictions on what we can do in lessons due to Covid, we can still engage students. The more we value what happens in our classrooms the more we will see going on outside of them. Deliberately Listening to key pieces & songs is vital for the students, and they always enjoy it.

You can teach & learn without instruments

Having now taught for over a month I believe you can teach without instruments, and students are still learning. Listening is a vital tool for us and we need to be encouraging more of it. Watching other musicians online or reading up on great composers has real benefits for students. I am seeing them stimulated and inspired by hearing, reading and studying. Of course the practical work is vital and we want to return to more normal days. But in the mean time we can offer an excellent education that is all based around music.

I am finding that I am playing more music than ever and I am seeking out examples to play. I am loving discovering new composers, bands and artists. Teaching Rock ’n’ Roll to Year 9 has got me listening to more and more of the great bands such as The Rolling Stones. Watching the wonderful Bernard Haitink documentary has got me more into Bruckner. I just love finding music to show to students. And we have so many ways to find great music now – it was so different when I first started teaching!

And if you are looking for a great lesson hook then why not start with the newly composed Netflix Music – taking a small rhythmic idea and making it into something more substantial.

I really enjoy being in a classroom

Oh how I missed being in a classroom during lockdown. It was so tough not being in that environment. There is just something so special about my classroom and I love it. But the reality is that sometimes we are in situations where we aren’t in our own room and that is tough. So I have had to really think about what makes a music classroom. Is it the posters on the wall, the piano at the front or the random piece of drum-kit in the corner?

I think it is the atmosphere more than anything. It is the atmosphere when students are struck by the piece of music you are playing, or the atmosphere as they share how that music feels. We can turn any classroom into a music room by filling it with music. Essentially all we need is some kind of speaker and lots of examples on our phone, iPad, Laptop etc. I remember the days when playing examples to students meant getting CDs or Tapes ready to play. Now we have music ready to go, on tap, online al the time.

Keep Going

It is so easy to say “Keep Going” but it is something we do need to do. Covid or not, this is something that music teachers often need to do. When we face that point in the road where we are not sure what to do next, we have to keep moving forward. Rehearsals, lessons and school in general is not easy in 2020. If we stop and think too much we end up feeling rather overwhelmed.

To keep going means believing in what you are doing and sticking to a plan. Don’t worry what others are doing, you know your school and students best. So work out what direction you want to take things and stick to that. Sometimes we can look at what others are up to and feel that we aren’t doing the right thing, but that is often not helpful. Social media isn’t useful at times because we read what others are achieving and feel like we haven’t done enough. Trust me, I feel like that all the time, but I try and just keep going, not worrying what others are up to.

But sometimes to keep going we need inspiration from others, and that is where social media can be really helpful. Just work out what is right for you and where you go for inspiration and ideas.

Everything & Nothing

And finally it is clear that what we are doing means Everything to the students. Sometimes though we feel like we are doing Nothing, or at least we feel that what we are doing isn’t good enough. Please, take it from me, we are all doing our best.

Every time we teach, rehearse or organise something we are giving the students opportunities to learn and develop. It won’t always be perfect and it will feel like we aren’t doing a enough. But as long as you are trying your best in these difficult times the students will see that and appreciate it.

This week try and remember that you can do something, however big or small. Everything you do matters and will make a difference. When you feel like Nothing is working and that you aren’t making a difference, just stop and remember that you are. Some battles can’t be fought at the moment, and the situation in 2020 is pretty tough. So be kind to yourself and focus on what you can do for your students.

Who knows what the future holds for us and where things will go. But in the mean time lets prepare for everything that will come in the future and not worry that we have nothing in the diary to prepare for. Music Education is more than concerts and events, it is about young people finding themselves through the music they play, learn and hear. We are doing a vital job, the best job in the world.

I hope that you continue to have a great term. Keep going and be kind to yourself – we are all in this together. You might feel like you are doing Nothing, but you are probably doing Everything for the students you teach.

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