My musical history – Part 3: Formal Music Education

Having already explored my musical history at home, and the things I less often remember when talking about my music education, I thought it was about time I looked at the more formal learning experiences and opportunities I’ve had – these are the initial reference points I go to (or previously did at least) when asked about my musical background.

Here is a run-down of my Western ‘formal’ instrumental music education:

The recorder.

Most of us have this t-shirt.  I think I could put this as the first really conscious enthusiasm I had for learning music – beyond playing with music.  In my primary school, there was a recorder club one lunchtime a week, and you had to be in Primary 4-7 to join.  I was sneaky – my sister is 3 years older, and when she decided to give recorder club a try, I insisted that she teach me everything she was learning.  I invested in a recorder from Woolworths, that I’m pretty sure cost 10p with a sound as rich, and that was that.  6 years later, I was one of 4 people in my class still in the recorder club, and took it upon myself to arrange ABBA’s Super Trouper for the school’s annual concert.  2-part transcription and arrangement for a recorder quartet, fully notated.  It took me 10 years to realise my achievement, and it was only when I started arranging pop songs for flute ensembles that I remembered I’d done this before.

The trombone.

Bet you didn’t see that one coming!  Yes, for 6 months when I was 10, I played the trombone.  I’ll never forget the day we had trials for this – the visiting brass teacher brought some mouthpieces for everyone to try.  I can’t quite remember if I tried the trumpet mouthpiece, but I distinctly remember being told that I might find trombone easier, an assessment based on looking at my face/lips.  Unfortunately, he didn’t think to measure my arms.  A week later, I had a shiny trombone to try, that very quickly accumulated bumps and scratches from my lack of ability to stop the slide from falling off… safe to say I gave up when the teacher retired after 6 months, and it’s no surprise I opted for something more compact after that.

My only regret is that I wasn’t allowed to join the school choir at all that year (exclusively for Primary 7s) because I was already missing half an hour of class each week for my trombone lessons, not that I was falling behind.  Me? Holding grudges? Nah…

The flute years.

During my first week at Secondary school, I remember going along to the music department one lunchtime (I must have paid attention to the morning announcements once upon a time).  Having already done some time as a brass player – and with the perception that I would only be able to play instruments with a similar mouthpiece to trombone – I decided woodwind was where it was at, and flute was an instant choice.

In numbers:

  • 13 hours/year of flute lessons for 6 years at school – free of cost, apart from instrument purchase etc.
  • 6 years of weekly school concert band rehearsals.
  • 9 months of playing in a flute orchestra around age 15.
  • 14 hours/year of flute lessons for 4 years at university – thanks for paying my tuition fees, ScotGov: train tickets, textbooks and sheet music are all expensive enough.

The classroom stuff.

My general music education  was quite broad, including classroom music for 5 out of 6 years at secondary school (SQA changes meant I skipped Higher Music in 5th year as it clashed with Higher French and it was easier to “crash” Advanced Higher Music in 6th year than try to keep my French up without classes).  Again at uni, I covered the basics in theory, technology, business, history, and of course the practice-based side of things.

I did a quantifiable amount of playing during these years, but in hindsight I’ve noticed a few patterns and gaps in my learning.

Recreative music making

To date, most of my flute playing has involved playing other peoples’ music.  Any creative musical output of my own has largely been away from the flute, and in school, most of it happened using software on the computer.  I’m still not convinced I’ve found my creative voice, but I’ve gotten past the stage where I cried over improvisation – onwards and upwards!  My instrumental learning in school pretty much consisted of playing by reading – I used to learn things by ear in my own time if I couldn’t get sheet music – but there was no room for learning by ear or improvising, or making my own music on my instrument.

Just doing things

When I was nearing the end of my undergraduate studies, I started looking into flute playing traditions as the basis of my dissertation research.  In particular I was interested in looking at how musical skills were taught and learned in less explicit ways.  The focus became memorisation – something that is mistakenly perceived as ‘just happening’ over time or by repetition, a ‘natural ability’ that some people have and others don’t, yet it is something that can make or break a persons musical confidence, and is never explicitly taught.

Getting it right

If there’s one consistency in my formal music education experiences, it’s the notion that everything has to be “right” – the right notes, the right sound, the right speed, the right dynamic, the right performance etiquette.  While I understand and acknowledge that all of these “rights” involve traditions and long-established practices, I’ve come away from these experiences wondering why my own interpretation wasn’t considered “right” unless it fitted into narrow parameters that only strayed so far from the absolutely “right”.

I was so concerned with being “right” that it took me years to get comfortable with improvisation, and I was in my 20s before I found myself in a truly safe space to be creative without the fear of being judged as “wrong”.

My Musical Future

So what’s next?  The one thing I wish I’d had access to at school was string instruments – in another version of my life I’d have played the violin, or the viola, or the cello.  Maybe not the double bass – I like being able to carry my instrument around – but any of the others.  They say it’s never too late, so I hope that in the next few years I find some time and finally live that dream…

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